What do you wish you’d known about breastfeeding before you started? This week, I want to explore some of the key learnings women have shared with me retrospectively about their breastfeeding experience. Often, with breastfeeding, before you start it is a case of not knowing what you don’t know. Luckily, other women can share their experiences to help first time mothers become more prepared.

 

I hear many mothers say they wished they had known more about breastfeeding beforehand. They wish they had put as much preparation into what comes after the baby is born as they did into the pregnancy and birth. No mother could be blamed for thinking the preparation involved in having a baby is buying their buggy and cot etc… but there’s a fair bit of head space preparation that should be prioritised too.

 

Many mothers in Ireland express a desire to breastfeed before their baby is born. Yet the fall-off rate is huge in the first few weeks after birth. There are some red flags that I have observed time and again which scupper women’s intent to breastfeed.

 

These are the most common things which result in intentions to breastfeed being abandoned:

  • When your baby’s birth doesn’t go as planned and the baby doesn’t latch easily.
  • When a mother feels completely overwhelmed and the people around her don’t hold and support her during her transition to motherhood.
  • When the mother has pain breastfeeding and the focus is solely on “the latch looking good”.
  • When there is little knowledge of how frequently babies need to feed in the early days to build supply.
  • When there is a lack of understanding that supply is built over the first three to four weeks and how important these days are to ensure long-term supply.

 

However, there are some things you can do before your baby is born which will help you be prepared in the event of any of the above arising. One of the best ways to prepare yourself to breastfeed when your baby arrives is to attend a breastfeeding class in advance of the birth. Here you will meet other parents to be in the same situation as yourself and you can all learn together and share the anticipation.

 

There are resources online to help you learn about what to do when your baby doesn’t latch. Here’s a link to an article I wrote on this topic. The more you can prepare yourself, the less overwhelming the experience is likely to be for you. That said, when you are a first-time mother and first time breast feeder, a certain amount of overwhelm is inevitable – and it’s completely normal.

 

I’ve told my own story of my first experience with breastfeeding many times. But for those of you who haven’t heard it, I’ll revisit it here. My oldest son was born 21 years ago. He was born by ventouse delivery after an induced labour. He had a temperature and his breathing sounded like grunting (a sign that a baby is finding it hard to breathe). I tried to latch him on thinking there couldn’t be much to it. I had gone to a breastfeeding group when I started maternity leave, I was a children’s nurse and an NICU nurse. I didn’t foresee any problems, but 3 hours passed, and he still had not fed. I went to the postnatal ward and the pressure started there.

 

He was stable now, his blood sugars were normal, and his temperature had settled, but he wasn’t feeding. After 4 hours, I caved in and gave him a bottle because I didn’t know what else to do and I really didn’t want my baby to have to go to the NICU.

Now I did know that his tummy was tiny, only the size of a ping pong ball probably, so I only let him have a few glugs of the bottle. But I felt so alone and disappointed lying in the hospital bed in middle of the night. His birth had not been easy and now it looked like breastfeeding was not “going to work” either. I was feeling deflated.

 

The next morning after a few hours’ sleep I decided to ring the woman who had hosted the Cuidiu breastfeeding group. Her name was Paula. I laugh now when I think how wonderful she was that morning. It was before 8 am, she was getting her kids ready to go to school and took my call in her kitchen. I told her what was happening, and she explained that when babies are born by vacuum they are sometimes are slow to latch as their heads are sore. It makes sense! She told me that it can be hard for them to open their little mouths and so I should try scooping my breast into his mouth to help him to latch.

She also gave me the following tips:

 

  1. Undress him down to his nappy and place him against my chest. There’s no pressure to latch, just enjoy the closeness.
  2. Hand express some colostrum drops onto his lips once he started to show any signs of hunger which include rooting, licking lips, etc.
  3. Place him in the football position as it might help him to open his mouth a little wider.
  4. Don’t hold or push his head onto my breast.

I felt so much better after that call. Paula told me I could ring her back at any stage and that she looked forward to meeting me and my baby at the next breastfeeding group in a week or two. I knew that she believed I could do it! And that made a big difference. I did – he latched within 30 minutes of that phone call and we never looked back. After our initial hiccup, we happily breastfed for a year. I went back to work in the NICU when he was 5 months old.

 

Guess who became my childminder? Yes… Paula! She got the difficult job of trying to coax him to take a bottle – he didn’t like bottles which is hilarious considering the start he had! She was also the first person I met who had sat the IBCLE board exams. Paula was actually an IBCLC. A seed had been sown, it was 7 years later that I became an IBCLC too.

 

So, looking back now, what do I wish I’d known on that first day?

I wish I’d known how to hand express and that it was an option when my baby wasn’t latching. I wish I’d known that skin to skin contact is the way back to breastfeeding or the way into it when you’re having difficulties.

 

This is what some of the mothers on my Facebook and Instagram breastfeeding pages say about what they wish they’d known about breastfeeding before they started.

 

“That’s it’s actually NOT an inconvenience! So many around me were telling

me how tied down I would be, etc. And it just did not feel like that to me!”  – Jenn

 

“That a baby can’t read the clock. Neither analogue or digital. So just don’t

look at one for the first 6 months -ish. “ – Sonya

 

“At the antenatal breastfeeding class in the hospital, we were told the mechanics

of breastfeeding – but not the reality. I’d like to have known that not everyone

experiences the sensation of let down (because I’ve never felt it – I doubted I

was producing enough for ages & we’re at 18 months & I’ve still never felt it).

It also doesn’t help that a lot of healthcare practitioners are only supportive of

breastfeeding if things are going well. If you hit a bump in the road or even just

need some reassurance because of your own mama-doubt/guilt – they’re not

informed enough! “          – Sorcha

 

“That you’ll miss it terribly when you wean for the last time.”          Emma

I hope that this post gives expectant mothers an insight of what they might be able to expect when their baby arrives, and they begin breastfeeding. It is important to prepare ourselves for what might happen, but in reality, we don’t know how things will pan out. So, whether you’re expecting a baby and have yet to start breastfeeding, are in the process with a baby or are on the far side of your breastfeeding experience, we must forgive ourselves for the things we don’t or didn’t know.

 

We can all only do our best. Remember that when you’re feeling overwhelmed. I know that 21 years later, I still I’m eternally grateful to Paula for taking my call that morning when I was having trouble. I am also pretty proud of myself for getting through it – and you should be too!

 

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