Ah breastfeeding, one of nature’s greatest miracles. Yet for many of us breastfeeding can be difficult at first. Naively before giving birth, I thought that breastfeeding would be as simple as popping the baby on my boob and viola. *Insert hollow laughter here*
Due to a combination of a very sleepy jaundiced baby, latch issues and low milk supply (thanks PCOS!) I found breastfeeding tremendously tough. Nibs, my baby, dropped 13% of his body weight so we were advised to supplement with expressed breast milk and formula as I desperately fed and pumped every couple of hours to up my supply. Thankfully it all paid off and he began to put on weight. But during the first couple of months he still struggled to latch if he was tired or frustrated. To calm him down we had to give him a small amount of milk from a bottle enough to ease his frustration so he would latch but not too much or he would too satiated to breastfeed. In the first month I had cracked and bleeding nipples, milk blisters twice and, just when things were started to improve, thrush.
Breastfeeding was anything but easy at first.
I’ve been breastfeeding for six months now and I love it. I love that I can feed on the go. I love that there is no preparation and sterilising bottles involved. I love that it’s free. I love that my boobs work to provide food, to pacify and to aid sleep. I love that it is something only I can do for my baby (except maybe at 3am).
I constantly marvel that my milk supply is responsive to growth spurts, hot days, and illness. I can never get over how magical it is that every day my body produces enough milk to sustain my baby.
As a pregnant woman, you are repeatedly told, rightly, that breast is best for mother and baby. Yet the UK has one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in Europe. Recently Jamie Oliver announced that his next campaign was going to be breastfeeding because ‘[breastfeeding is] easy, it’s more convenient, it’s more nutritious, it’s better, it’s free.’ Although Oliver is right that breastfeeding is more convenient, offers massive nutritional and health benefits and is free – for a huge percentage of woman it isn’t always easy at first.
I am really hesitant to publish this post as I don’t want it to seem like I am judging anybody for their choices. I am immeasurably glad that we live in a world where formula exists as without it my baby may have been very sick indeed. If your baby is fed and looked after you are doing an amazing job mama – whether it’s from a boob or a bottle or a combination of the two.
I also don’t want to put off any prospective mothers from breastfeeding by talking about the challenges. Many, many mum’s find that they and their baby take to breastfeeding very easily. Yet the more I talk to fellow mothers the more I realise that although we are often told about the benefits of breastfeeding, information about how to breastfeed is more scarce. This post is aimed at pregnant women who’d like to breastfeed and new mum’s who are trying to breastfeed and finding it difficult. Here’s what I wish I’d know about breastfeeding before I started.
Your breastfeeding journey starts before giving birth. If we lived in a different culture, we would have see other women breastfeeding their babies every day. We would have witnessed their struggles in those first days, seen how they latched their babies, and over time we would have seen how breastfeeding became second nature. Prior to giving birth I’d only really seen a few people breastfeed when their babies were older. So I had the mistaken assumption that breastfeeding was simple as popping a nipple in your babies mouth. Don’t get me wrong for many women it is that simple. But for many of us at the beginning – breastfeeding is a skill and skills need to be learnt.
I read a gazillion books on birth. It was only a couple of days before the birth that I realised I should maybe read about breastfeeding. In my NCT class we spent four sessions on birth, and one on breastfeeding. Considering I spent 22 hours giving birth and (to date) I’ve probably spent hundreds of hours breastfeeding – this seems a bit of a misallocation of time!
In those sleep deprived newborn days as I struggled to get Nibs to latch I realised I knew almost nothing about breastfeeding. I found myself panickedly reading every book, articles and watching every video about breastfeeding I could find.
‘The Ultimate Breastfeeding Book of Answers: The Most Comprehensive Problem-Solving Guide to Breastfeeding’ answered almost every question about breastfeeding I had. Ignore most of the popular parenting books as they often contain inaccurate and misleading information about breastfeeding like feeding to a schedule instead of on demand. Instead websites like Kelly Mom and Bellybelly are full of really useful articles and tips about breastfeeding. I would also recommend going to a breastfeeding drop in group prior to giving birth. Nothing beats seeing how other women feed their babies.
Try expressing colostrum whilst pregnant but after 38 weeks as nipple stimulation can induce labour. Colostrum is like liquid gold, packed full of amazing nutrients to support your baby during those vital first couple of days. Your midwife can show you how to pre-express colostrum into syringes that can then be frozen. It’s really important to have some colostrum on hand if you or your baby end up needing some extra care after the birth.
2. Get comfortable
Before starting a feed you want to make sure you are comfortable as it’s hard to know whether your baby will want a snack or a four course meal.
Make sure your back is supported, elevate your feet if possible and use a breastfeeding cushion to help take the pressure off your shoulders. If your large breasted, like I am, you may want to have a muslin or hand towel which you can roll up and place under your breast to support its weight.
When you are trying to establish breastfeeding, having skin to skin contact with your baby will help the release of oxycotin and your milk production. Initially and during growth spurts your baby will often cluster feed, which is like placing an advanced order for more milk, so you may find yourself sofa bound for a while. So get comfy mama.
I often think breastfeeding is like preparing for a loooooong car journey. Pee before you start and make sure you have plenty of water, snacks, and entertainment handy. I have a breastfeeding station by my bed and by the chair in the living room where I feed. This includes:
Nipple cream – apply generously after each feed and leave your nipples exposed. Hey postie! Do make sure your baby has actually finished feeding before applying, otherwise they’ll slide off if you have to relatch.
Muslins – for burping after feeds. It is a rule of motherhood that however muslins you think you’ll need add five more.
A large bottle of water – a breastfeeding woman could drain the great lakes in a second.
Lip balm – yes you may not have showered for a week and have luggage sized bags under your eyes but your lips will look fabulous.
Something to eat – this is point where I should tell you to eat nuts and dried fruit. And yes if you scroll down to point 5 there is a whole section on feeding your supply. But if it’s an entire red velvet cake I won’t judge.
Some entertainment- aka phone/book/remote. There’s nothing worse than just getting your baby latched and realising Jeremy Kyle is on the TV and the remote is juust out of reach.
3.Position, position, position
Finding a breastfeeding position that works is essential in the early days. Now I can feed sitting up, lying down and even walking around (with the aid of a sling). But in the beginning as I have huge boobs the rugby hold was best. It is worth experimenting with different positions because if your nipples get bruised changing position can ease the pressure. Whatever position you prefer remember to make sure you are comfortable and bring the baby to the breast. In the early days latching was such a mission that I would end up contorted in the most ridiculous positions because I did not want to break the latch.
A lot of breastfeeding gurus recommend laid back breastfeeding. But as I always had to support my breasts it only became effective as my baby got older. If you can, try and master breastfeeding lying down as soon as you’re able. It revolutionised night feeds when I realised I didn’t have to sit up to feed. As you get more experienced experiment with feeding in a sling. Mama just got mobile.
4. Master the perfect latch
Ah the latch. Figuring out how to painlessly latch your baby can make or break your breastfeeding journey. A bad latch affects your milk supply but even worse also massacres your nipples.
Due to having a very sleepy newborn and huge boobs it could often take my husband and me half an hour to get the baby latched on. Nibs, our baby, would then feed for five minutes even with breast compressions, fall asleep and the process would start all over again. Fun times especially at 3am! On the plus side I quickly got very practised at latching and now I can practically do it in my sleep and often do.
How to latch your baby.
The C hold
The C hold helps support the weight of your breast and position the breast enabling your baby to latch. Using your thumb and finger make a C-shape on the breast tissue around the nipple with your thumb positioned just above the nipple. You want to gently compress the tissue around the nipple so it flattens into a letterbox or sandwich shape matching the orientation of your babies mouth. Imagine your boob is a large sandwich you are feeding to your baby. You wouldn’t just shove it in their mouth, you’d compress it first.
Finally, using your thumb exert pressure at the top of the breast so the nipple pulls upward.
Tummy to mummy
Using your other arm, you want to position your baby for breastfeeding so they feel secure and supported. Lay the baby along your forearm with your hand supporting their neck, shoulders and back. Avoid exerting pressure on the back of the head as all babies have an inbuilt gag reflex. Your hold should be firm enough that you can manoeuvre your baby using just your forearm. Bring the baby towards the breast making sure that you are still in a comfortable position. You want your babies body to be facing you completely from their neck to their toes. Think tummy to mummy…
Nose to nipple and flipple
Aim your nipple at the babies nose, brushing it gently. This should trigger the latch response and your babies mouth should open wide. When their mouth is open wide, use your thumb to flip the top of the nipple aiming towards the top of your babies palate. This triggers the latch response and the baby should begin to suck. Here are a couple of videos on the flipple or deep latch technique. It can take a couple of goes to get this right especially if your baby is a premature latcher like ours was (hur hur hur).
Your babies head should be tilted back, with their mouth open in a K shape with more of the nipple visible at the top of the breast than underneath.
Good latch vs a bad latch
Midwives and lactation consultants love looking at your boobs and pronouncing whether it is a good or bad latch. But it doesn’t matter what they think – the most important method for distinguishing a good latch from a bad latch is how it feels to you. In the early weeks, latching can be intense, even painful as the baby starts to suckle but it shouldn’t continue to hurt after that. When your baby first latches, count to ten and if it hurts after that unlatch and start again.
To unlatch put your little finger between the nipple and into your babies mouth to break the suction. Do not ever, ever, ever just pull your baby off your nipple. Learn from my mistakes people. Don’t give yourself niplash!
For more tips, watch these videos on latching a baby
5. Feed your supply
If you want to establish your milk supply you need to eat well and drink water frequently. Frankly your body may not give you a choice as I found I was hobbit levels of hungry in the days after giving birth. Breastfeeding burns between 300-500 calories a day. So now is not the time to go on a diet but the cake only food plan can be fun but isn’t exactly nutritious. Moderation is key. You want to eat a balanced diet with plenty of protein, fats, fruit and vegetables and some carbs. As I was breastfeeding, my partner HWSNBN would do the bulk of the cooking or provide frequent snacks or refills of my bottle of water throughout the night. If you are struggling with your milk supply some foods or supplements can help increase your supply. Try:
You could also try foods like:
- And supplements like fenugreek
- Brewers yeast, or
- Blessed Thistle
Although not all at once (bleurgh). Out of all the recipes I tried these lactation cookies were actually a) yummy and b) increased my milk production, result.
6. Get support
Timely support and small adjustments to your breastfeeding technique can make a big difference in the beginning. Ask for help early and often. As somebody whose relatively modest at first I felt slightly apprehensive about complete strangers manhandling my boobs in the hopes on improving my babies latch. By week 2 I didn’t care.
If you are really experiencing difficulties you need to talk to breastfeeding experts like a lactation consultant. My health visitor suggested I attend the trouble-shooting breastfeeding group at the Hove Polyclinic. They were amazing they took time to listen to me, watched me feed and offered loads of practical suggestions. But most importantly they boosted my confidence and encouraged me to persevere when I was finding things difficult.
Speaking to fellow mums who are struggling can be so helpful – but pick your tribe wisely. My NCT group and mum friends have been so helpful. I also am a member of a number of online breastfeeding support groups and love the Can I Breastfeed in it? Off Topic Discussion group.
As well as professional support, make sure you have a good network of supportive family and friends around you. He Who Shall Not Be Named (HWSNBN) did most of the early nappy changes, cooking and rocking the baby to sleep because I was feeding. He’d watch as they made adjustments to my latch and then remind me later when I was too sleep deprived to remember what to do. And when the 4pm daily dread of the evenings set in he’d remind me why we were doing this.
7. Troubleshoot any problems
There is support and information out there to help you with any problems whether it’s: cracked and sore nipples or latch issues. Or over supply or under supply of milk.
The only one I can personally speak about at length is increasing a low supply. Many women think they aren’t producing enough milk because their baby cluster feeds or they can only pump a very small amount. But cluster feeding is normal and how much you pump is no indication of how much your baby is getting. Breastfeeding means you have to take a lot on faith. If your baby is gaining weight and producing enough wet and dry nappies its unlikely you have a low supply.
But I did. I have PCOS which meant that my milk took a long time to come in and my supply was very low. I had to very quickly learn how to encourage my body to produce more milk. Here are my top tips for increasing a low milk supply.
If you want to increase your milk supply, forgot schedules and feed on demand. Breastfeeding works on a supply and demand basis, so the more milk that is removed = the more milk that is produced. Ignore the parenting books that recommend feeding every couple of hours and feed your baby as frequently as they want and regularly offer them the breast.
Before feeding or pumping encourage letdown by massaging the breasts or putting a warm cloth on them.
Ideally strip you and your baby down to increase the release of oxycotin.
If you have a very sleepy baby tactics like stripping them, tickling them and nappy or burp breaks can help encourage your baby to take longer feeds.
Breast compressions by gently squeezing the breast can encourage a baby to take more milk towards the end of a feed. You should notice your baby beginning to suck again as the milk pools in their mouth.
If you notice your supply dipping try a breastfeeding holiday (despite the name there are lot less all inclusive cocktails than on a normal holiday sadly). Retreat to bed with your baby and plenty of food and water and just feed and nap, feed and nap.
If you need to pump remember that although breastpumps are amazing inventions, no pump is as efficient at extracting milk as a baby. Don’t get worried if you don’t get much milk at first it takes time. Remember when your baby is feeding on one side, the other breast will also be letting down. I found I expressed more milk when I fed on one side while pumping on the other using a hands free bra.
If you have to pump when you’re away from your baby, looking at photos and videos can help the milk flow more freely.
Prioritise pumping in the morning when you are well rested and milk supplies are at their highest.
Try a powerpump where you pump for ten minutes, rest for ten, pump for ten and then rest for ten. This mimics cluster feeding and causes an increase in milk in a day or two. For other pumping tips check out Kelly Mom.
8.Master feeding on the go
I still clearly remember the first time I breastfed in public. I was so nervous as I tentatively took my boob out under my breastfeeding cover and gingerly positioned my baby. At the time Nibs would often refuse to latch so I worried I’d be sat there trying to force a nipple into my screaming babies mouth as his flailing limbs whipped away the cover exposing me to the world.
Thankfully things have got a lot simpler since then. Now breastfeeding when I’m out and about is so ridiculously easy I barely think about it. I have never got any comments or looks although this may be because I live in ridiculously tolerant Brighton. As you’d expect I have views about feeding in public, namely my babies need to eat surpasses a strangers discomfort about seeing a nipple. But I get that some women aren’t so gung ho.
If you are worried about exposing yourself, try feeding in front of a mirror at home. If you have smaller boobs, you may be surprised how much your babies head covers.
The first time you feed in public try taking a friend or partner along for moral support. I found it so much easier at first when HWSNBN was there to provide moral support.
If you feel self conscious you can use a breastfeeding cover, a scarf or a muslin tucked into your top or lain over your exposed boob.
I put my brake on my buggy and rest my feet on the wheels and use my nappy bag laid over my lap to support Nib’s body while I feed. This breastfeeding cushion/bag looks amazing.
Replacing your wardrobe with breastfeeding friendly clothes is a) expensive and b) a faff as there aren’t that many good options out there. There is another way. Join Can I breastfeed in it? which is full of women posting pictures of breastfeeding friendly clothes they’ve found on the high street. Top tips include dresses in stretchy fabric or with wrap necklines. When wearing seperates I wear a loose top over a nursing vest so when feeding I pull the top up and the vest down, allowing both my boobs and stomach to stay covered.
9. Get equipped.
Breastfeeding is the lazy girl’s friend – all you really need is boobs. But at the start these products can help support you as you get breastfeeding established.
- Breast pump. Expressing milk can help you catch up on your sleep and give Daddy/Grandma a turn preferably at 3am. I used to go the bed early and HWSNBN would give the 12am feed which would give me a couple of hours of uninterrupted sleep. Bliss! Buy the best pump you can afford and ideally get a double pump. I have this Medela Freestyle Double Electric Breastpump with Calma and it’s brilliant. The pump mimics the letdown response and you can increase or decrease the intensity. It also has a battery and is ridiculously light-weight so you can pump while on the move.
- Hands free pumping bra. If you’re going to pump more than a couple of times a week, get a hands free pumping bra. This bra means I can pump when making dinner and even pumped while on the M25 (not driving I hasten to add). But it also means you can pump when feeding your baby on the other side which increases the amount of milk you express and by multitasking cuts your feeding and pumping time in half. Winning!
- Breastfeeding cushion. After back labour my back was ridiculously sore. The My Brestfriend feeding cushion saved me. Unlike some breastfeeding cushions it’s firm keeping the baby in place and straps around the waist meaning it doesn’t need repositioning throughout the feed. It even has a handy pocket for water, snacks or a phone.
- Lanisoh HPA Lanolin cream. Don’t go for the imitators buy this, use it religiously and your nipples will thank you. Yes it’s expensive but it’s worth every penny. And it even works on cradle cap.
- Sleep bras. I lived in sleep bras to stop the girls from aching early on in pregnancy. These help keep breast pads in place, protect sore nipples from rubbing and allowed me to feed using the clip down straps.
- Reusable breast pads. Initially I was using Lanisoh disposable pads. But I found that the pads would get crumpled throughout the day and sometimes stick to my boobs. So I bought these reusable breast pads. They’re ridiculously soft, absorbent and you can wash and reuse them.
- Lip balm. When breastfeeding your lips will get Sahara level dry. My lovely friend Sarah sent me this lip balm which I used religiously.
- Water bottle. I was drinking so much water at first I just kept refilling a 2 litre bottle of Evian water. When my thirst calmed I bought a couple of Eddy bottles and keep one by my bed, one by my feeding chair and one for when I’m out and about.
- Food you can eat one handed. But crucially food that you can safely drop on your babies head. See point 5 above, feed your supply people.
- Feeding app. As a breastfeeding mother you have to take on the faith that your baby is getting enough milk. After having a baby that had lost a lot of weight initially, I found the Feed baby app which allows you to record how long your baby feeds really useful. Yes, it was a tad disheartening to realise I’d been feeding for 8 plus hours in week 3 (aka the week my baby discovered the boob). But it was also mega reassuring to see how long he was feeding for and how over time he became more efficient. This app is brilliant as you record which boob you last fed from, as well as wet and dry nappies, medicine, growth and many other things. Plus my geeky husband loved that you could export all the data as a CSV file.
- Entertainment. Whether it’s your phone for those middle of the night questions to Dr google, or your kindle to catch up on your trash fiction, you need some entertainment. For two weeks following the birth my brain for the first time in my life was too fried to read so instead I reverted to TV. My boxset of choice was Absolutely Fabulous because it was a) hilarious, and b) I’d seen it a bazillion times before so it didn’t matter that my sleep deprived brain could barely follow the back of a shampoo packet.
10.Be kind and give it time
The single most important information about breastfeeding I received was this:
It can take up to six weeks for you and your baby to establish breastfeeding.
In those early days when I was finding breastfeeding very hard, the thought of those six weeks kept me going. As each week passed, I promised myself I’d breastfeed another week. And I did. Through sheer bloody mindedness I pressed on until almost without noticing over time breastfeeding became easier. By six weeks I was thrilled that breastfeeding had become almost second nature.
At time those early weeks seemed endless. But looking back I realise that even though it was hard it was such a short proportion of my and his life.
I have now been breastfeeding for six months and intend to continue for as long as my baby wants to. Considering I used to cry to my husband every evening during those first couple of weeks about how hard breastfeeding was – it’s been quite a journey.
At the beginning lost in a miasma of hormones I was really tough on myself. Breastfeeding seemed like a skill everybody else had mastered so easily. What was wrong with me that I found it so hard? It wasn’t until I sought out support that I realised that lots of other women found it difficult initially. I just needed to be kinder and give me and my baby time to master breastfeeding.
If you are reading this and struggling, please ask for support. Be very kind to yourself and remember you are doing an amazing job. You got this mama
I hope you’ve found these 10 tips helpful. Now I’d love to hear from you – let me know in the comments what advice you’d give to breastfeeding mamas.