When I started breastfeeding, I had read enough to know it wasn’t going to be all cuddles and dreamy afternoons bonding with my baby.
I knew I was probably going to be in for a tough ride, at least initially. But I had done my research and thought I was fully prepared. It turns out I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
One year later it all seems perfectly easy and natural, but I would have appreciated having my eyes opened a little more before starting the weird and wonderful process of breastfeeding. So I have compiled a list of things that I learned along the way, hoping that this might help other mums who are lucky enough to embark on their own breastfeeding journey.
1. Breastfeeding will take over your life (at least in the short term)
A newborn baby breastfeeds for an average of 40 minutes per session, and can feed as frequently as every two hours. This means that in a 24-hour period you will spend approximately eight hours breastfeeding. Of all the things you do in those early weeks, this is the most time consuming of the lot. Newborns are feeding machines. Some babies feed for longer than forty minutes and some feed more frequently than two-hourly (gotta love those cluster feeds). Of course, everyone’s experience is different but in those early days there is no escaping the fact that your life revolves around a very hungry little baby.
2. You will most likely drip warm sticky milk for the first month.
Milk production does not necessarily stop when your baby stops sucking. Be prepared for milk to drip all over your bathroom floor when you get out of the shower (warm water promotes milk flow) and all over your house for the first few weeks. You may also unexpectedly feel the let-down happening when your baby isn’t interested in feeding, or when you happen to be looking at photos of your baby. This is handy if you want to ramp up the milk production for expressing but not so handy when showing those photos to friends at a café.
3. Breastfeeding can hurt even if your baby is latched properly
You may not feel any pain at all from breastfeeding. I have friends (OK, only one) who found breastfeeding a painless experience from day one. But for the rest of us there is at least one week of white knuckles and gritted teeth. For most of us it’s more like one month, maybe two, three, four … it can hurt for a really, really long time. I cannot count the number of times I was told that breastfeeding pain means the baby is not latching onto the breast correctly. I listened to the midwives, read all the instruction pamphlets and followed YouTube tutorials on how to get a good latch. I was sure we were doing it correctly but it still really, really hurt. Perhaps that is an understatement. Finally, I saw a lactation consultant who informed me that the latch was fine but some women just feel pain until the breast “toughens up”.
4. There are many weird and wacky breast feeding positions, and they really do stop the pain
The same lactation consultant quickly eased my pain by telling me to feed around the clock (position the baby in every possible angle on the breast) to share the pain around, and to swap positions every 10 minutes. It changed my world. The positions you should become familiar with are cradle hold (the traditional position), football hold (the baby’s body is tucked under your arm like a rugby ball) and top-to-toe while lying on a bed. I am fairly confident your little one won’t mind what shape you are contorted into as long as the breastmilk is flowing.
5. Breastfeeding clothes are awful
Nursing tops are, for the most part, pretty ugly. Those on the cheaper end of the scale are variations on the same theme of a cross-over top sometimes with a band of material underneath that pokes out the top, and they confusingly allow for a full-term baby bump. Not my idea of attractive. The other option is to pay a high price for tops and dresses that you are only going to use for the duration of breastfeeding and will probably be out of fashion by the time your next baby comes along. When you are pregnant, figure out what your style is and try and replicate it with tops and dresses that button (or zip) down, or have straps that can be easily pulled down. Stretchy jumpers or tops with a low neckline are also good. Don’t assume you’re going to want to pull your top up to breastfeed. Post-baby tummies make even the most confident women a little self-conscious. And you’ll be sitting down, so your tummy is going to look like the Michelin man’s even if you are relatively in shape.
6. Lumpy is the new normal
Breastfeeding makes your breasts very lumpy. They can distort into odd shapes when filled with milk, and those lumps can really ache if your baby isn’t hungry but your breasts are saying otherwise. It can also be quite unnerving to feel lumps in your breasts and know that it is okay when you are preconditioned to think the worst. You will get used to massaging the lumps for fear of blocked milk ducts or mastitis, and in some cases to increase milk flow. Whatever the case, lumps are unavoidable and become so much a part of your daily life that it actually feels strange to have lifeless, lumpless breasts after weaning your baby.
7. Weaning might depress you more than you think
Wean your baby carefully! Sudden weaning causes a sharp change in hormone levels, and this unsurprisingly can affect how you feel. Some women report a sense of loss, while others sadly get full-blown depression from a sharp drop in the feel-good hormones released during breastfeeding. I had naively planned on going cold-turkey with breastfeeding (my baby was letting me know loud and clear that she didn’t want the breast anymore) but after reading up on the possible risks I changed my plans very quickly. I read heartfelt blog posts by women caught completely off guard with depression after weaning their babies, and went to the usual medical websites to find out how to prevent this happening. Armed with this knowledge I took the weaning process slowly and thankfully avoided the fluctuating hormones.
Have I scared you off completely now?? I hope not. Breastfeeding is an incredible and worthwhile experience. But if anyone tells you it is easy and just comes naturally, they most certainly aren’t telling the truth.