“How can something that is so good for baby and mom be so dang hard?”
I spent hours watching breastfeeding videos on YouTube, pouring through books, reading website articles, scrolling through comments and forums, trying to figure out what I was doing wrong.
My son latched to my breast beautifully right after he launched himself into the world, but the day I left the facility to head home, I listened to someone else’s advice…advice I knew I shouldn’t have taken, but against my intuition, did anyways (we’ll talk more about who you should listen to and who you should ignore in a little bit).
And then the pain started: The sore, chapped, cracked nipples, the bleeding, the blood-tinged spit-up, and no matter what I did, I couldn’t seem to get my son back to that perfect latch he had at the very beginning of our nursing relationship.
I was at a loss.
But as I scoured the Internet in search of answers, one thing became abundantly clear:
I wasn’t alone.
I couldn’t be — There wouldn’t be such a plethora of information, if breastfeeding was the most straightforward and simple part of motherhood.
So it begs the question, “How can something that is so good for baby and mama be so dang hard?”
And as I talked with more and more mothers, it seemed so many of them had the same question…and very similar stories. But these were many of the same women who I spoke with before I gave birth and before the nursing issues started. Why hadn’t they mentioned any of this to me then?
I formed a hypothesis about it: Breastfeeding troubles are the dirty little secret of motherhood.
But why is that?
- In paintings, movies, TV shows, YouTube videos, we typically only see happy mothers, happy babies, and typically only the cradle or cross-cradle nursing position.
- We’ve all heard the phrase, “It takes a village to raise a baby,” but I’d posit “It takes a village to support a mother.” We’re meant to have a strong network wherein our entire reproductive system is better understood and better supported – from our first menstruation through menopause. This includes the art of breastfeeding.
- Until recently, breastfeeding wasn’t publicly supported. It still isn’t entirely, with people chastising the “weirdos” who nurse their infants into childhood (think: the incredible backlash over Time magazine’s cover several years ago of a mother nursing her six-year old boy. I think of all the times strangers have told me, “Ugh, you’re still nursing him/her even though (s)he has teeth??”)
I bet Mary and Jesus had the best breastfeeding relationship.
Madonna Litta by Leonardo da Vinci
So while the evidence that supports how absolutely downright fabulous breastfeeding is for both mama and baby is astounding, but the troubles are real, and experienced mothers give cautious warnings, not wanting to scare the new mother out of her decision to nurse and not wanting to admit, until you’ve admitted as well, the issues they’ve had –
poor latching, painful let-down, overactive let-down, cracked bleeding nipples, inverted nipples, low milk supply, etc. etc. etc.
I’m not going to wait to warn you, and I won’t be shy about telling you that breastfeeding is hard. It is so hard. For many months, you, mama, are the sole source of nourishment and comfort. It is your warmth, your heartbeat, your smell, your touch that baby will want, hour after hour, day after day (night after night), week after week.
Breastfeeding is not something you “just try out.” You commit to it. You do it, you find a way to do it. Even through the troubles. Because it is so worth it. The sleep smiles that creep onto baby’s face after he’s got a tummy full of warm made-to-order milk, the feeling of her fingers, light as angel wings, resting on your breast as she happily nurses away, the rushing love that courses through you as you look down at your baby and know that he is happy, the pride and wonder you feel knowing that it is you – you, human, mother, woman – who can single-handedly support life, simply by bringing your baby to your breast. Whatever troubles you’ve experienced won’t seem so troubling after all, and later, you may have a hard time even really remembering what those troubles actually felt like.
But even better, let me tell you some things that no one told me early on – and I wish they had, so that maybe those troubles won’t come knocking on your door at all.
1. There Isn’t One Right Way to Nurse a Baby
The videos I watched showed experienced mothers with much older babies – six months and older – who guided themselves to their mothers’ nipples and suckled peacefully in the cradle position. It was so picturesque. As a first-time mother with a newborn, those early nursing sessions didn’t look nearly so neat and orderly, looking more like a than a professionally choreographed dance between mama and baby.
Finally (and much later than I should have), I set up a meeting with a lactation consultant. She suggested I test out multiple positions. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, she said, so long as the baby is nursing and you aren’t hurting.
So I began researching other positions. But the cradle hold – the position I was struggling so badly with – kept coming up time and again as the default position. The other positions listed had caveats: “This might be good if you’ve had a C-section or had twins or had a premature baby…” But I had none of those and so I passed them over,
thinking they weren’t for me.
Here’s a secret – those “This position might be good if” statements are bull. Test them all out. As your baby gets stronger and as you and your bundle of joy become more experienced with nursing, another position might become a favorite.
That’s exactly what happened to me. I avoided the football/clutch hold for weeks. The things I read said that position was best for C-section moms or mothers of preemies, neither of which applied to me. But as my nipples continued to deteriorate no matter what I tried (hey, even my doctor said they were “nasty-fied”…what every woman wants to hear her healthcare provider say…), I finally gave the football hold a shot. And you know what happened? My nipples began to heal because I had given them the chance to heal. Just switching the pressure points in our nursing sessions gave them the break they needed. Then, as my son grew stronger and we became better nursing companions, we switched it up. Cradle, cross-cradle, laid back, cuddle hold, you name it. (And since I’ve gone on to nurse two other babies, I’m a master at all of these and can switch up as needed anyplace, any time , with ease, without sore nipples).
But at the very beginning, when I was holding my 8 pound, 2 ounce nugget with a robust appetite and a fumbling mother, I looked at those videos and I saw the photos in parenting magazines or books, and I wondered why I just couldn’t figure out that traditional cradle nursing position, and why it was causing me so much pain. And I did what many a new mother does – muscle through real, excruciating pain, so long as the baby gets fed.
After taking so much time to set up a nursing session, it can be frustrating for mom and baby to detach and re-latch, but that’s exactly what must happen if you are feeling real pain while nursing. In the beginning, your nipples may feel tender from so much use and the initial let-down of milk may cause some discomfort, but you shouldn’t feel pain
– like you’re releasing shards of broken glass through your nipples during the entire breastfeeding session. Your baby needs a happy, healthy mama. Not one who is suffering through a nursing session. If you’re suffering, something’s not right. Try a new position – try every position – and get (the right) help.
The following are some positions as demonstrated by myself and my oldest child when he was 10 months old.
2. The best piece of nursing gear you can get is a king-sized bed.
The first week after we brought our newborn son home, he cried, spit-up, and looked generally miserable and confused any time I tried to set him down to sleep. Funny thing, though, he slept beautifully, when he was lying next to me or sleeping on my chest. For a while, despite the relief I was feeling and the welcome rest I
was getting, I felt so…guilty. As if not putting him in his bassinet was tantamount to some violent crime. Co-sleeping, bed-sharing, whatever you call it, has been utterly vilified in our culture.
But just as breastfeeding is finally and thankfully coming back into vogue, there are whisperings from parents that, yes, they do co-sleep with their infants and children.
Let’s take a brief trip back in time and discuss this thought: No matter the species, babies are vulnerable. Their cries, their calls, their noises alert predators of vulnerable and easy prey. If the parent is off foraging or hunting or is resting away from the babies, they, to some degree, risk their babies’ lives. That is why they must stay close together.
In the wild, when we humans were hunters and gatherers, the sound of a baby crying alone in the night would be a signal to a predator of an easy target. Knowing this, would a hunter-gatherer mother allow her baby to sleep so far away from her that she would be unable to see or defend her baby?
Flash forward a few millennia: Yes, we live in a world vastly different from our Paleolithic ancestors, but our hard-wiring hasn’t changed much. We are still very similar to the humans we were thousands of years ago. The needs are still there.
Besides, if you tend to your baby’s needs during daylight hours, how could they possibly know – why would they even think – that anything would be different overnight? They do not know they are safe and secure. As parents it is our job to show them they are.
However, that social scientific theory still leaves us with questions. How about the science behind co-sleeping? Is it actually safe? What are the benefits? How do you even go about creating a safe sleeping environment? Let’s dive into those now.
The Benefits of Co-Sleeping
- Parents and babies typically get more sleep, as complete arousal isn’t necessary to soothe/nurse your baby.
- Mom’s milk supply is better regulated when your baby is allowed easy access to overnight nursing.
- It’s easier to nurse and tend to your baby when she’s right next to you.
- Moms report sleeping more deeply when baby is close by.
- Studies have shown a 50% decrease in SIDS for co-sleeping parents/babies. (Source: AAP)
- Babies who co-slept show improved long-term emotional health.
Why It’s Safe
The co-sleeping scare began in the 1980s after mainstream media reported the conclusions of a study which were based on faulty assumptions and misinterpreted results. But it is a practice, both culturally and intuitively, that parents engage in worldwide.
Truth is, the study neglected to state that crib-sleeping was responsible for more than three times as many infant fatalities as co-sleeping. “SIDS,” up until recently, was perhaps more aptly named “crib death.” While sharing a bed with her baby, a mother is more attuned to his sleep, his breathing, his heartbeat, his movements, everything about him. Indeed, research suggests that the mother’s breathing reminds and encourages the baby to breath steadily throughout the night, safeguarding him against SIDS.
That said, there are smart, responsible ways to go about co-sleeping. When followed, both baby, mom, and, yes, dad will sleep easy.
How to Co-Sleep Safely
KellyMom.com has provided an excellent list on co-sleeping guidelines, which I’ve included below:
- Very small premature or low birth-weight babies appear to be at greater risk when bed-sharing, but benefit greatly from co-sleeping nearby but on a separate surface.
- Do not sleep with baby if you are currently a smoker or if you smoked during pregnancy – this greatly increases SIDS risk.
- Do not sleep on the same surface as your baby if you are overly tired or have ingested alcohol/sedatives/drugs (or any substance that makes you less aware).
- Baby appears to be safest when sleeping beside his/her breastfeeding mother.
- Older siblings or other children should not sleep with babies under a year old.
- Do not swaddle your baby when bed-sharing. Baby may overheat (which is a risk factor for SIDS) and a swaddled baby is not able to effectively move covers from the face or use arms and legs to alert an adult who is too close.
- Other potential hazards: very long hair should be tied up so that it does not become wrapped around baby’s neck; a parent who is an exceptionally deep sleeper or an extremely obese parent who has a problem feeling exactly how close baby is should consider having baby sleep nearby, but on a separate sleep surface.
You can see more information on each of the above bullet points in the “Co-Sleeping and Bed-Sharing” article on KellyMom.com, found here: http://kellymom.com/parenting/nighttime/cosleeping/
We’re lucky enough that our master bedroom is quite large and can fit a king-sized bed, which comfortably fits baby, mom, and dad. Even still, just to give us all a little extra space and help as the baby becomes a co-sleeping toddler, I converted a crib into a sidecar sleeper, mitigating any risk that our children will roll off the bed in the middle of the night.
For anyone scared they will never get their bedroom back if they start cosleeping, I can assure you that you will. I’m currently co-sleeping with my third child, who is now 13 months old. The older two who are nearly five years old and three years old, they sleep in their own room and they sleep through the night EVERY NIGHT. I’ll go into how we did transitioned out of co-sleeping in another post.
For now, stay tuned as next week, we’ll go through Points 3, 4, and 5 in “5 Things No One Tells You about Breastfeeding – Part Two.” In the meantime, I’d love to hear in the comments what kind of advice breastfeeding veterans wish they knew or advice they make sure to tell their friends who are starting their own breastfeeding journey.