If you ask other moms about breastfeeding, you’ll receive a million different responses—some helpful, some unnerving, yet all completely true. For them.
And that’s because nursing is one of the greatest contradictory experiences you can have, which makes it so hard to prepare for.
In June’s own breastfeeding survey, moms described it as ‘one of the most satisfying experiences of my life,’ ‘tiring and draining,’ and even ‘harder than birth’.
A huge 54% of new moms actually experienced negative emotions connected to breastfeeding, so if you’re having a hard time, know you’re not alone!
One common conversation of new moms is how much harder they found the reality of breastfeeding to their expectations.
This is perhaps because the main focus of pregnancy is the safe delivery of the baby, rather than the practicalities of what comes next.
To help turn nursing into a more positive experience for you, June is opening the lid on some little-talked about breastfeeding secrets:
Your first ‘milk’ won’t be milk
The first substance your breasts produce is colostrum (you may even leak some during pregnancy).
This thick yellow form of early milk is high in nutrients and antibodies to protect your baby from harmful viruses and bacteria—and help them poop!
You’ll only produce a few drops at first as your baby’s digestive system is really tiny, but full breast milk will soon follow.
Don’t be surprised if midwives help you extract colostrum using a syringe for that 1-2ml of ‘liquid gold’.
All hands to the pump
Your breasts will quickly become public property—but oh, boy, will you appreciate this!
More than likely, you'll forget any prudishness as midwives, doctors and lactation consultants watch you feed, palpate you for lumps, show you how to latch and even help you hand-express milk.
TIP: A breastfeeding pump is a great purchase, even if you’re not aiming to use a bottle, as pumping after each feed will help you get every last drop of milk out and boost your supply.
Latching takes work
Breastfeeding is hailed as instinctive, but few tell you that you need to teach your baby how to latch on correctly. If they’re not properly attached, your nipples will get sore and your baby won’t feed well.
The position you’re after has the baby’s mouth directly facing your nipple and most of your areola in their mouth.
If it hurts, unlatch the baby and try again. If you’re struggling, it’s best to ask your hospital, a midwife or lactation consultant for advice.
TIP: If you have time, you may find a breastfeeding class before you give birth is worthwhile.
Your milk has two parts
Your body produces milk in two stages: foremilk and hindmilk.
Foremilk is the waterier stuff that’s released at the start of a feed and is lower in fat content, whereas hindmilk is the fattier, creamier milk stored at the back of the breast.
Your baby needs both types, especially the hindmilk, so it’s important to let your baby suckle until they’re full so they get all the good stuff.
You’ll worry constantly
For such a natural phenomenon, breastfeeding sure can come with a lot of anxiety.
You will worry constantly that your baby isn’t getting enough milk or that they’re getting too much; that they’re hungry or that you don’t know when they’re full.
To top it off, your emotions (hormones) are in a state of constant flux. Learn to roll with all of it and know that your body will instinctively respond to your baby’s cues.
Your milk will ebb and flow
Part of this constant anxiety is linked to your milk supply, which will ebb and flow all the time.
During a growth spurt, you’ll suddenly have an abundance of milk; whereas if you’ve been sick or not eaten properly, you may produce less.
If you’re worried about a low point, encourage your baby to feed as much as possible or add a galactagogue to your diet (a food that increases lactation) such as fenugreek, fennel or red raspberry leaf.
TIP: Many moms swear by lactation cookies—although heavy in sugar, the brewer’s yeast and oatmeal are the magic ingredients.
Your boobs are clever
You’ll find that your milk will change from week to week, day to day and even feed to feed as your boobs instinctively know what your baby needs.
Scientists think that a baby’s saliva gets slurped back into your breast during nursing, where receptors in your mammary glands analyze it.
If your child is sick, your immune system will develop extra antibodies to pass back to your baby in your milk. Clever eh?
Breastfeeding can be painful
We’re not going to sugar-coat it: Breastfeeding is often painful. Very painful.
Some moms experience a stabbing sensation during suckling; for others, it’s a gentler pins and needles; for some it’s more of a tugging.
Latch problems are the most common cause of pain but it could also be because your baby has tongue-tie (the frenulum under the tongue is too short or tight) or you have a blocked duct. Both of these are treatable.
TIP: Seek advice from a midwife or consultant if you’re experiencing pain beyond the first few minutes.
You feel your uterus shrinking
When you’re nursing, your body produces the hormone oxytocin and prostaglandin lipids to help your uterus contract. What’s strange is that you can actually feel this happening!
As your baby suckles you may experience a strange pulling sensation or light cramps in your lower abdomen as your uterus shrinks back to its former size.
Nipple cream will be your new best friend
Your nipples are going to face a lot of abuse over the coming months, which could leave them bruised, cracked or even bleeding.
Make nipple creams your new best friend, applying before and after each feed.
Note that your baby shouldn’t ingest normal creams or lotions so an ointment that is 100% pure lanolin is both safe and soothing.
Your boobs will amuse everyone
You’ll suddenly be the owner of two alien creatures that behave in strange and unfamiliar—even comedic—ways.
Your breasts can engorge to ridiculous proportions and at different times; they can frequently leak (or even squirt) when they become too full; another baby’s cries may also make them ache.
But even if you feel like crying at points, you will look back and be able to laugh. We promise.
Stock up on cabbages and pads
When your breasts start giving you grief, have relief ready to go.
Some women rave about cabbage leaf therapy to ease engorgement: simply stick a few leaves in the freezer and then apply them to your swollen mammaries.
The science: the leaves absorb some of the fluid from your glands and reduce fullness in the tissue.
TIP: Also stock up on comfy nursing bras, nursing pads (which you stick inside your bra to absorb any inconvenient milk leaks) and nursing shields (which protect your nipples).
Keep entertainment handy
Nursing can be boring. It’s also a great time to catch up on life! So never sit down for a feeding session without everything you need on hand.
Settle in and get comfy with tools to relieve any boredom: phone, book, remote control, snack, water… Once you’re down, it could be a few hours before you move again!
You’ll be hungry and thirsty
Lactating sucks up a lot of energy and water from your body—quite literally.
In general, you’ll need around 500 calories more per day to support this extra being (try and increase protein intake by 20 grams a day) as well as up to a liter of extra fluid.
Yes, you can have a drink
As in pregnancy, regulatory authorities currently take a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach to alcohol and recommend abstinence for nursing moms.
However, studies are scarce and no literature convincingly shows an adverse effect of drinking mothers on nursing infants, according to a review of evidence in Basic & Clinical Pharmacology and Toxicology.
“Lactating women should simply follow standard recommendations on alcohol consumption”, it concludes.
TIP: If you’re worried, you can invest in test strips that measure the amount of alcohol in your breast milk!
You may not get your period, but…
Many breastfeeding moms experience lactation amenorrhea which means they get few or no periods.
But this doesn’t mean you’re not ovulating or fertile and some women have been known to get pregnant during this time, mistakenly thinking they’re safe.
What is Mastitis?
- Mastitis is a bacterial infection caused by blocked ducts in your breast. It’s excruciatingly painful but most moms will get it at least once.
- Symptoms include: breast tenderness and inflammation, pain while feeding, skin redness and fever.
- Avoid mastitis by ensuring you don’t go long periods without feeding, and getting your baby to drain each breast.
See a doctor as soon as you spot the signs, for advice or breastfeeding-friendly antibiotics.
June’s main takeaway is that there are no universal truths; everyone’s breastfeeding journey is unique, complicated and ever-changing.
At no point should you feel guilty for any emotion you’re experiencing—or for keeping a breast pump and tub of formula on hand.
Talking about breastfeeding keeps the education going, so please leave a comment, email your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org or tag us on social with #breastfeedingsecrets.