One of the most challenging aspects of parenting - for me anyway - is how relentless it is. You don't get a break from being a parent. Ever! Whether you are tired or sick or in a bad mood or whatever. The baby is still there and still has needs. And that's especially true about breastfeeding. If you choose to exclusively breastfeed, you're IT! Forever and ever, amen. Well, at least until you wean. If you follow the advice of most lactation specialists to not give any artificial nipples to your baby for at least six weeks (to establish a good milk supply), then you're really, really IT.
Before Avery's birth I felt pretty confident about breastfeeding. I expected it to come naturally and go smoothly. Maybe that's why it seemed so challenging to me in the beginning. Don't get me wrong. Breastfeeding is wonderful. Really, it has been one of the best experiences of my life by far. Knowing that I'm able to nurture and feed my baby is empowering. I have so enjoyed the bonding, the cuddling and the closeness. Plus it's so convenient. You don't have to mess with bottles or powders or how many ounces. You can go anywhere and your baby's food is always ready to go, no extra fuss. In the middle of the night when you're tired, you can just plug the baby in; you don't have to fiddle with measuring and mixing or heating. And it's a powerful parenting tool that I've been glad to have on many occasions. It's a fast way to soothe, calm, or reassure your baby when stressful things happen, to say nothing of its usefulness in inducing sleep!
All told, my experience HAS gone smoothly. I haven't had any major problems (supply issues, health issues like mastitis or thrush, baby problems like tongue tie) - we've been pretty lucky to have an overall great experience. But it does have its ups and downs.
In the beginning, it hurts! I'm sure you will read or be told that if the baby is latched correctly you will feel no pain and I say anyone who says that is a lying liar. Don't believe them! They will only make you second guess yourself and feel like you're doing something wrong! If someone suddenly started sucking on ANY part of you for so long, it would generate some pain in the beginning. You want to smoosh your boob like a sandwich and get the baby to take in a good amount of breast tissue beyond just the nipple, but when they are first born, their mouths are actually really tiny and they have zero head control, so getting them positioned and latched correctly is hard.
For me, the first couple months were a jumble of pain and working on latch technique and struggling to find and keep a comfortable position. It's already becoming kind of blurry, but I think things started to get better (easier and less painful) after about 6 weeks and then by 3 months I felt pretty confident and comfortable. The first time the baby latched on was kind of toe curling. Yikes! After a minute or two of sucking it got better, but I was feeling pretty sore for at least a month. At first the oil-producing glands around your nipples aren't working fast enough so the skin gets pretty dried out. I had dry, cracking skin that stuck to my shirt (adding insult to injury!) and then of course, it's getting sucked on constantly too. I resorted to slathering on Lansinoh and covering it with saran wrap because I couldn't find nipple shields locally (more on those later!), and that helped. Taking a shower was murder, I couldn't stand the water falling on my boobs! I did get engorged, but not horribly or painfully so. If I was feeling full, I just nursed. I never had such severe engorgement that getting latched was a problem. And I found positioning the baby to be difficult. Maybe it's because I have large breasts (34 G ... as in GIANT; I used to be a 34 C!), but I definitely needed my nursing pillow and the right hold to get a comfortable latch. I used that pillow for seven months! I didn't NEED it that long, but it was more comfortable. It took me a long time to be comfortable nursing away from home without my pillow!
Not to mention, like I said, I didn't want to give Avery a pacifier or a bottle for the first six weeks, so nursing seemed endless and sometimes overwhelmingly so in the beginning. If it was 3 am or the baby had just finished nursing for an hour and she wanted to nurse again, it was all on me. I probably spent 8-10 hours a day nursing in the first couple of months! And maybe MORE during those growth-spurt times when she needed to bump up my supply. Of course, I've said before that I have a sensitive baby who liked to nurse a LOT and wanted to be held ALL THE TIME and had a high sucking need. Non-nutritive suckling is important for babies and nature's original pacifier was the boob! I figured my baby had good reasons for her needs (you read about them in Part I and Part II), but knowing that didn't necessarily make it easier to cope with in the beginning. Plus, Avery never did take a pacifier or a bottle, despite our attempts. Looking back, it hasn't been that big of a deal, but during the newborn phase it seemed sometimes like I was DOOMED to life as a milk cow! I worked until the day I went into labor, so I literally went from being a busy career girl, involved in the world, working out, reading, doing what I felt like when I felt like it, to suddenly being subsumed by this tiny, helpless creature. It's a lot to deal with!
Anyway, all of that got better. Way, way better. The baby gets bigger and more coordinated and eventually can just latch herself. The pain goes away for the most part. The engorgement and leaking stop. At some point she stopped needing to nurse for marathon sessions and now she mostly only nurses for 5-10 minutes unless she's trying to go to sleep. In my next post, I will talk about some things I've learned to help cope with your baby's intense needs. I'll leave you with just a short piece of advice, though... set your expectations, or rather, DON'T set your expectations! Be prepared to go with the flow is what I'm trying to say. It's a true re-shaping of character in some ways. If you can give yourself over, you will find peace. Yes, it's very zen. And remember that although you are putting yourself and your desires on hold, it really is such a short season of your life. This too shall pass. I still have to remind myself of that often, but it is certainly true.