As a nutritionist who has counseled clients on the benefits of breastfeeding, I had always looked forward to the experience. Food and love are deeply linked for me, so naturally I imagined nursing would be the ultimate gratification: my very own body providing the absolute healthiest food for my baby.
I never suspected I would hate it. During the first weeks at home with my baby, I thought hourly about quitting and just aimed to get through each day. I felt utterly trapped and frustrated. There was nothing warm and fuzzy about it.
However, here I am 10 months later still nursing, and I can even say I like it. The experience has been quite an eye-opener. The truth is that nursing can be -- and, according to other moms, most often is -- a struggle at first, physically and emotionally. But the good news is that eventually breastfeeding does get easier, and then becomes a true pleasure.
It all started out just fine. My daughter Isabella latched on beautifully and seemed to have a knack for sucking. But after a while that became the very problem -- she nursed constantly. When I was pregnant, my friend and lactation consultant, Minna Kapp, warned me that breastfeeding a newborn takes up 18 hours a day: "It's the most demanding job a woman can have" she said. I shrugged this off at the time. But reality hit hard as I became one with the sofa, sitting there hour after hour, day and night, stuck with a baby on my breast.
Each of Isabella's feedings lasted about 40 minutes and she demanded to be fed every hour and a half. If you do the math, that gave me less than an hour at a stretch to take care of anything else. I could barely meet my own basic needs -- sleeping, going to the bathroom, showering, getting dressed, or preparing a simple meal. As a nutritionist I was used to eating well, and I could barely get up to scramble myself an egg.
My poor husband, Thom, had to be at my beck and call: "Refill my water glass, empty the dishwasher, burp cloth please, go get these groceries." It was all I could do not to bark orders at him.
I tried to gain a bit of free time by pumping so Thom could give Isabella a bottle, but that went horribly. You should have seen me -- in tears and exhausted, hooked up to a breast pump in the sliver of time between nursings, eking out a sole ounce of milk, if I was lucky.
Breastfeeding was also scary in the beginning because I was literally afraid I was starving my child. I couldn't quantify how much Isabella was getting -- and I worried that it wasn't enough. She never seemed satisfied, even when she had just finished eating. I felt inadequate and nervous that I didn't have enough milk for her. However, there is some solace in the diaper pail. Kapp told me as long as a baby is dirtying enough diapers -- two to five poopy ones (that's a technical term) and five to six wet ones each day after the fourth day of life -- she is getting enough food. Your baby is also doing fine if she's gaining four to seven ounces a week. But you only visit the pediatrician for weigh-ins every two to four weeks, which leaves plenty of time for anxiety to set in.
After about a month, my uncertainty and frustration led me to a breastfeeding support group. The room was overflowing with women and their babies, each with a different breastfeeding issue to work through -- from problems with latching on to questions about diet. I got to air my feelings about being chained to the sofa, and gathered tips on how to make Isabella a more efficient eater.
I learned that I should let her drain the first breast completely before switching so she would receive more of the calorie-rich "hind" milk produced at the end of a feeding. And if I made Isabella open her mouth wider when she latched on, she could get more of my breast and pump the milk out more effectively. I also got to weigh her on a professional scale, exhaling with relief when I saw she had gained a few precious ounces.
In addition to my getting advice from the support group, Thom began to give Isabella one bottle of formula at night, at Kapp's suggestion. Ideally, we would have used pumped breast milk; still, this arrangement enabled me to get a luxurious three hours of sleep, and let Thom be involved with feeding Isabella.
Most lactation consultants frown on supplementing with formula and suggest it as a last resort. They warn that your milk supply will suffer. Also, the official recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Dietetic Association is to breastfeed exclusively for six months. But Kapp has seen her share of overwhelmed mothers: "One four-ounce bottle in a 24-hour period will not hurt your milk supply. In fact, the extra rest could help increase it and prevent you from giving up breastfeeding." It did just that for me.
Another thing that pushed me to continue nursing was good old-fashioned guilt. As a nutritionist I know well all the benefits of breastfeeding. Breastfed babies have a reduced risk of asthma, allergies, SIDS, obesity, colds, and infections. There are pluses for moms, too, including quicker weight loss and protection against cancer and osteoporosis.
Women hear so much about these benefits that they can become plagued with guilt and feelings of inadequacy if nursing doesn't work for them. But I've decided a little guilt isn't necessarily a bad thing. It can motivate you to take the rougher road because it's the right thing to do. Since it's my official responsibility as a dietitian to support breastfeeding, I would have felt horrible if I hadn't given it my all. And I'm glad I did, because the big payoff was just ahead.
After six weeks, my feelings of entrapment and anxiety eased. I had gotten Isabella to eat more efficiently -- it now took her only 30 minutes a feeding. A visit to the doctor confirmed that she was thriving. It also dawned on me that time on the sofa belly-to-belly with my baby wasn't so bad after all. Perhaps it was something I should savor.
By the time Isabella was 3 months old, I felt confident and comfortable nursing. She could go two hours between feedings and would nurse to satisfaction in about 15 minutes. I also started pumping again -- this time successfully -- so I could get a haircut or do some work while Thom or the nanny gave her a bottle.
But the best part is the cocoon-like closeness I feel when Isabella is on my breast. Since she is now eating solid food, I only nurse her a few times a day, but I look forward to each time when the rest of the world blurs and it's only us two.
It seems like there's a conspiracy to keep the struggles of breastfeeding a secret. Health professionals don't want to talk about it because they fear it will deter you from trying. But I think it's better to arm yourself with the truth. While more women are starting out breastfeeding (about 70 percent), fewer than a third are nursing at the six-month mark.
So, ladies, let me tell you how it really is: It is hard for most people in the beginning. But once you get past the initial challenges, breastfeeding is one of the most rewarding experiences you'll ever have. In a way, the struggle makes the reward even richer. Because when you emerge from the trenches with someone, you are forever deeply bonded to him or her. In this case that someone is your baby.
Ellie Krieger, RD, is a nutritional consultant and a writer in New York City.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.