Hooray! Breastfeeding can be blissfully convenient. No frantic runs to the store: Breast milk is instantly available -- and delivered warmed! No futzing around at an ungodly hour to whip up a bottle; many moms roll out of bed and nurse in a soporific state. No cleanup. No feeding supplies to shove into that already bursting diaper bag. No worries when you travel. (Stuck in a plane? Your baby will never run out of food.) And once you and your hungry one find a groove, nursing in a carrier can be particularly handy. The only catch (you knew there'd be one, right?): All the responsibility will fall on you.
When I was pregnant with my first daughter, Sasha, I was certain that I'd breastfeed for the first year. Then I gave birth. The rest, as they say, is history, and like any good story, it was rife with drama. Her latch was off. I had cracked nipples, poor milk production, and an infection. There was lots of crying -- by both of us. By the fourth week, it was clear that nursing wasn't a forte for Sasha or me. After much soul-searching and guilt, I gave up.
When I found out I was pregnant with my second, I wasn't sure I was up to the task again, but I gave it a try. Nearly a year later, I'm still breastfeeding Dvora, and it's been wonderful. What changed? I had pinpointed what didn't work the first time, and adjusted accordingly. Learn from my experiences as well as other moms' and you'll know what to do to score nursing success even before the baby makes her appearance.
In the beginning, breastfeeding is a full-time job. You need to center your life around it, and many women aren't ready for that reality. They get overwhelmed and stressed, which compromises milk production and, in turn, stresses the baby, who may not nurse as well. "A woman who doesn't have enough information might assume that something normal, such as temporary engorgement -- when breasts become full of milk, swollen, and painful -- is a sign that something's wrong and that they need to quit," says Jane Crouse, a spokeswoman for La Leche League in Schaumburg, Illinois. Knowing what a normal latch feels like (moderate rhythmic pressure but no real pain) and what a baby sounds like when she's chowing down (swallowing, not smacking) is invaluable.
Smart Steps Talk! I found that simply asking other mothers how they dealt with breastfeeding challenges and hearing lots of different answers broadened my hands-on knowledge far more than any class did. Other moms like to check out instructional videos on YouTube. Some find classes to be helpful; many ob-gyns, midwives, and hospitals run them regularly. It's also a smart idea to line up a lactation consultant, a board-certified health-care provider devoted to guiding nursing moms.
When I had Sasha, aides whisked her away minutes after laying her in my arms. Breastfeeding immediately, which experts say helps form a good nursing foundation, proved impossible for me. I sought breastfeeding help later, but the nurses were either too busy or didn't know enough to be of assistance. The hospital didn't have a lactation consultant, and I left without the resources I needed. Amy Winston, of Wilton, Connecticut, had a similar experience: "The nurses looked at me as though I were asking them to do something well beyond their call of duty."
Smart Steps Before giving birth, scope out services at your hospital. If it's lacking classes or expert guidance, find a lactation consultant and arrange to have her visit you at the hospital. If you deliver vaginally, unless your infant has health issues (a poor Apgar score, low oxygen saturation, or anything that would demand medical monitoring), the nurses should let you breastfeed right away. Ask in advance whether it's hospital practice to remove the baby after delivery, regardless of her health. Moms who have a cesarean may not be able to nurse right after birth due to the logistics of surgery.
To ace breastfeeding, a new mom needs to be free to sit comfortably and nurse. If you're trying to cook, clean, entertain visitors, and write a gazillion thank-you notes (not to mention do all those loads of newborn laundry), there's simply no way you'll be able to breastfeed enough. This too-busy pace can lead to trouble establishing a good milk supply -- and getting in sync with your little one's nursing habits.
Smart Steps Arrange for help before the baby arrives: Call on family and friends who can lend a hand in those first few weeks. (We're talking to you, Superwoman!) No relatives around? Postpartum doulas provide wonderful support. (Find a local one at Dona.org, or get recommendations from your OB or midwife.) Ditto for grocery-delivery services and part-time housekeepers. As you settle into motherhood, don't hesitate to limit visitors to one or two at a time, and to only close friends and family. Ask each one to do something helpful, such as bring a meal, pick up the dry cleaning, or toss a basket of laundry in the washing machine; they'll be psyched to lighten your load.
It's not easy to breastfeed when those closest to you seem clueless. "One Sunday morning, my husband wanted us all to take a walk to the park," says Annie Meyers, of Marblehead, Massachusetts. "I was nursing our 4-week-old and asked if he could wait half an hour. His reply: 'Just pull her off and reattach her at the park.'" Meyers's mother wasn't much more helpful: "She'd look at my exhausted face and say: 'Give it up. You're killing yourself. Nursing isn't really that important.' But it was to me."
Smart Steps Talk to your family now about your plans and the commitment that nursing requires from your inner circle. "Let your husband know that nursing sessions have a biological design -- the baby first gets the foremilk, then the fattier hindmilk -- so he'll really understand why it's not a good idea to interrupt you," says La Leche consultant Crouse. Keep your mother in the loop too; she may be from a generation in which nursing was less common. If she discourages you, say, "I understand your point of view, but I'm committed to nursing."
An estimated 1 in 10 women gets postpartum depression (PPD), and many of them don't even realize they have it. PPD interferes with your ability to eat, drink, and rest when you need it most. And if you can't take care of yourself, making enough milk and tending to a newborn can be Herculean tasks. If you suffer from PPD, you might feel as if you're in a haze; you're so sad and your judgment is so off that you can't begin to keep track of when you last fed the baby. The good news is that breastfeeding (when it's going well) can buoy a mother's mood: Rates of PPD tend to be lower in women who breastfeed. Why? It helps prevent some of the seismic hormonal shifts that may be linked with PPD.
Smart Steps Be aware of signs like constantly feeling hopeless and lost. If you suspect that you're depressed, talk to your OB and make a treatment plan. It could involve postnatal counseling, watchful waiting, or taking an antidepressant that's safe for nursing moms and babies. Make sure to connect with friends and family. Isolation, especially being alone with a tiny baby, can challenge even the strongest psyche. If you stay in touch, pals will notice if things are heading south. With some solid information, resources, and support, you'll be a breastfeeding champ!
Originally published in the October 2012 issue of American Baby magazine.