Motherhood comes with a great many fears. It’s par for the course, as they say. You worry you won’t be able to give your baby everything she needs … or you fret about being a “good” parent. As natural and instinctive as it ought to be, breastfeeding is often another source of trepidation for mothers-to-be. We see women nursing their babes all the time, making it look serene and effortless, no more complicated than slipping on a pair of flip-flops. And yet we wind ourselves up, nervous that our bodies could be incapable of doing it—and that we’re destined to fail.
If you find yourself in that boat, whether it’s months before your newbie’s debut or in the days and weeks after, there’s something you need to know: According to the World Health Organiza- tion (WHO), “Virtually all mothers can breastfeed,” provided they have access to support from the health- care community and their families.
Yet, according to a study conducted by the University of California, Davis, and the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, 93 percent of new mothers polled reported experiencing problems with breastfeeding in the first three days of their little ones’ lives, issues that led many of them to supplement with formula or give up breastfeeding altogether. Even more interesting, these women were allowed to express their concerns in their own words, and almost all said virtually the same things: They felt like their babies weren’t nursing properly, and they feared they weren’t producing enough breast milk to nourish them.
This begs the obvious question: If nearly every woman on the planet is capable of breast- feeding, why do so many of us worry we can’t? “I think the No. 1 hurdle to breastfeeding is having confidence in your body,” says Karyn Markley, MD, an OB/GYN in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and mother of four. “Women need to give themselves some credit. Our bodies are designed to provide breast milk for our babies. We need to have some faith in the way the body works.”
Another reason? The newness of it all. “Many new mothers have never even held a newborn baby, ever, in their life,” says Norah Nutter, WHNP-BC, IBCLC, a nurse practitioner also in the Myrtle Beach area. “Now they are expected to hold, position and properly attach a newborn baby [to their breast].” It’s an overwhelming experience to say the least, especially for a first-time mom who has just been through the rigors of birth and is trying to adjust to the fact that the little person who has been occupying her body for the past nine months is now staring up at her.
The perfect elixir
Many women struggle with breastfeeding at first. If it isn’t something you pick up easily, why bother? There are shelves filled with formula in every grocery store in the country. Is it even worth the effort to breastfeed? The short answer is yes. It is incredibly worth it.
The American Academy of Pediatrics states, “Breast milk is far superior to any formula designed for babies.” Its benefits for baby—even for mom—are so abundant that I can’t squeeze them all into this article. Babies who are breastfed have fewer ear infections, fewer speech problems, less risk for several types of cancers, less risk for type I and type II diabetes, are less likely to be obese and have stronger immunities than formula-fed babies.
“Each species makes the perfect food for their offspring,” says Nutter. “Human milk is specifically made for human babies. It has abundant long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, essential fatty acids and their long-chain derivatives, all of which are responsible for brain growth.” Breast milk has essential amino acids necessary for brain development. It possesses attributes that promote the development of intestinal flora, transports iron to the cells and kills the bacteria present in E. coli, staph, salmonella and listeria.
What about mama? Women who breastfeed recover from birth more quickly, have less postpartum bleeding, return to their prepregnancy weight faster, have a decreased risk of ovarian and breast cancers, and experience fewer issues with post- partum depression. Plus, breastfeeding delays the reappearance of your menstrual cycle. (That said: Breastfeeding is not considered an adequate means of birth control.)
The WHO endorses breast milk so much that it actually recommends feeding your baby donated human breast milk before trying formula. Simply put, breast milk is the “perfect recipe,” says Nutter. Or, as Markley calls it, “[It’s] nature’s perfect soup for babies.”
Magical bonding time
If the nutritional benefits of breast milk weren’t enough, you get to experience the ultimate snuggle time with your little one when you breastfeed. The closeness that you have with your baby during nursing is precious; it’s magical, and it’s something only you get to do for your newborn.
I clearly remember taking my new daughter for her first walk in her stroller when she was just 3 days old. It was late September and warm. The sun was going down, and a breeze had picked up. She started whimpering and fussing, and I sat down on a bench outside a closed salon on a quiet end of town and nursed her under the cover of one of her receiving blankets. The sweet joy of it pierced my heart. I hope I never forget it. I felt like I was experiencing the pinnacle of happiness, the very best life has to offer, as I held her and gave her the nourishment and comfort she needed.
She’s 7 months old now, and I still love it every bit as much and plan to keep going until she no longer asks to nurse. That’s not to say that it has never been a trying experience, though. Her second and third weeks of life were the most painful for me as far as breastfeeding goes. My poor nipples were in shock. They aren’t a part of my body that’s used to seeing a whole lot of action—if you know what I mean— and suddenly, they were being worked over by a hungry baby a dozen times a day. For those two weeks, my nipples were so miserably tender I had to bite down on something when my daughter latched on. One of our TV remotes bears testament to this in the form of my teeth marks.
But I persevered. Eventually, my nipples realized I wasn’t giving in to their demands for reprieve, and they toughened up. By the time my daughter was 4 weeks old, I experienced no pain at all. According to the aforementioned study, pain is a deterrent for many new mothers who want to breastfeed. Yet, pain can be avoided at best and managed at worst, and it will eventually stop altogether.
“Usually, painful breastfeeding is caused by poor latch to the nipple,” says Nutter. “The baby must open the mouth wide (like a baby bird), grasp on the mother’s nipple and areola (more is better), create suction to keep the nipple in the mouth and compress the breast to remove milk. A shallow latch will cause sore nipples.” A poor latch can be caused by the baby, by mom or a combination.
After all, it’s not like your baby’s an expert at breastfeeding, either. This is a new learning experience for both of you.
“Correct the problem as soon as possible,” recommends Nutter. The more frequently the baby latches on properly, the sooner your nipples will adjust and the easier nursing will get. While you’re getting the hang of it, massage some of your breast milk onto your nipples and allow them to air dry after feedings. “There’s an oily property to breast milk that protects the skin,” explains Markley. You can also try hydrogel pads made for sore nipples or a light application of lanolin ointment right before nursing (if you aren’t allergic to wool). Tylenol taken 30 minutes to an hour before nursing can also help.
What to expect
The first milk your breasts make is colostrum, a yellowy, sticky milk that is rich in antibodies, carbohydrates and protein. It’s easily digestible for baby and acts as a mild laxative to help him pass his first stools, making it the perfect food for your newborn.
The amount of colostrum your breasts produce can be measured in teaspoons rather than ounces. Because its volume is so low, moms won’t notice any changes in their breasts, which can easily fuel the fear that baby is going hungry. “At first, my experience with breastfeeding was kind of scary,” says Jeanie Hayes, mom of one in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. “Scary in the way that I was scared she wasn’t getting enough to eat.” Hayes was so worried that she nearly gave up on breastfeeding altogether. “It didn’t seem like she wanted to latch on, but trying again and again, I finally got her to. And it was a wonderful experience. I knew not only was I giving her the best thing for her in the beginning stages of her developing life but for her future as well.”
You have a team of medical professionals surrounding you and your precious baby to make sure he’s getting everything he needs. If he genuinely isn’t getting enough nourishment, they will recognize the signs. (Keeping tabs on his weight and diaper changes are good indicators.) And if you ever feel even the slightest doubt, speak up! Trust your instincts, and ask for help and information.
Undernourishment in a newborn is “almost always associated with a medical condition,” says Nutter. “Jaundice and hypoglycemia (low glucose in the blood) are two of the most common medical conditions where supplement is indicated. Symptoms to look for are yellow skin and eyes, scant or no stool, dark or rust color urine, lethargy, jitteriness and irritability, and crying that won’t console.”
“It’s not uncommon for babies to lose a smidge of their birth weight in the first few days,” notes Markley. Your healthcare team will watch and test for signs of hunger and dehydration in your baby, and prescribe the right course to follow if he isn’t getting what he needs. You may ultimately need to augment with formula or donated breast milk, but don’t see this as a sign that you need to give up on nursing. You’ve only just begun!
Mature milk comes in on the third or fourth day of your baby’s life. Continue nursing your baby often, so that your mature milk will be plentiful. Expect fullness in your breasts and the very noticeable sensation of your milk “letting down.” If you’ve never experienced this before, please don’t worry that you won’t recognize it. You most certainly will.
“My milk coming in was a surprise,” says Emily McDormand, mom of two in Winston Salem, North Carolina. “It was accompanied by a stinging sensation in my breasts and then this feeling of the milk gathering down towards my nipples. Then a lot of urgency in the nipple. I leaked milk a lot, too, which wasn’t great clothing-wise but made me happy because I knew I was making enough for my baby.”
I asked Nutter for her advice for women who had tried everything and just couldn’t breastfeed successfully. Her response was, “Define successfully? Exclusive breast- feeding is the goal, but any breast milk you can provide to your baby is like giving liquid gold, rich with antibodies produced from your immune system. If you can breastfeed or provide breast milk for your baby for two weeks, two months or two years, you have been successful.” No words say it better than that.