Between being taught to "clean your plate" at dinner as a child, and adopting self-ignoring mantras like "sleep is for quitters," as a hard-working, hard-playing young adult, I've spent a lot of time unlearning a skill we're blessed with at birth: the ability to listen to my body. I started to really learn to listen to my body in my most recent pregnancy and later childbirth, but breastfeeding definitely took that knowledge to another level. There are multiple ways breastfeeding teaches you to listen to your body because, well, you can’t rely on reading instructions and looking at measurements to do it successfully.
Breastfeeding doesn't necessarily come as "naturally" as it seems like it should according to the pamphlets and other information we get before our babies arrive. However, the more we learn from observing our babies and our bodies while nursing, the better we can get at doing those "natural" things we should; like eating, drinking, and sleeping as much as we need to, rather than depending on external rules and cues to get that information.
For me, I quickly realized that while I can run myself pretty ragged when I'm not pregnant or nursing, I have way less room for self-neglect when my body is doing so much for my son. That whole "getting so far into the zone that I forget to eat" thing I could occasionally do when I was younger? Totally impossible once I had a baby. Same for forgetting to drink enough water. That kind of stuff catches up with you really quickly when your body is keeping two people alive. If you don't want to feel downright horrible, you start to get sensitive to its signs way earlier, so you can get things in check before things get really bad. Breastfeeding also taught me to listen to my body, because:
You Have To Learn To “Read” Your Baby’s Cues...
Especially in the beginning, when you're both still learning to latch, and learning how to catch your baby before they're too hungry and desperate that they're all disorganized and frantic is crucial. (That makes it way easier to undo their latch and have them start over if they don't get it right the first time.)
...And Rely On Clues Other Than How Much You Can See And Measure At Each Feeding
Life as a new breastfeeding mom would be easier if breasts became clear during feeding times and had little measurement lines on them like bottles do. Alas, they don’t, so you have to find other ways to figure out whether your baby is getting enough to eat. We do that by counting wet diapers, checking out what their poop looks like (lowering our standards for dignity is part of life with a brand new human), and tracking their weight gain. Their bodies have various ways of telling us when we're doing something right.
It Forces You To Read Your Baby’s Body…
When you're breastfeeding — as in, feeding at the breast — being finished isn't a matter of emptying the bottle or hitting a desired number of ounces. Instead, we have to learn to watch for things like seeing their hands relax over the course of a feeding, and waiting for them to unlatch themselves and/or fall asleep at the end of a nursing session in order to know that they're satisfied.
...Which Makes It Easier To Remember To Listen To Your Own
If we can learn to trust our babies and their bodies to tell us what they need, it only makes sense that we should trust our own. Sure, we often have to overcome a lifetime of being taught to ignore our own physical signals — conditioning they haven't (and hopefully won't) yet learned. But fortunately (and unfortunately) for us, breastfeeding often makes our body's signals a lot clearer.
Your Body’s Hunger Signals Get Really Loud And Frequent…
I'm normally a pretty big eater, and was definitely quite hungry during pregnancy. However, breastfeeding hunger was a whole new game, especially when I was exclusively breastfeeding for my baby's first six months. It got pretty easy to listen to my body when it was being so clear about what it needed like, right now or else.
...As Do Your Thirst Signals
I was instantly thirsty almost every time my son latched on in the early days. Breastfeeding requires a lot of water, and your body will make sure you know to keep drinking.
Your Boobs Also Get Loud If You Or Your Baby Forget A Feeding
Bra too snug? Check. Feeling sore AF? Check.
Breastfeeding Requires A Lot Of Energy...
Breastfeeding uses as much as a third of a mother's resting energy, something like 600 calories for the average mom. So if you're nursing and not getting enough sleep, or are really stressed out, your body will start feeling it pretty intensely.
...So You Start To Prioritize Rest And Relaxation
Your body needs extra rest when it's keeping you and another person alive, period. While it was unreasonably hard for me to stop and honor my body's tired signals before pregnancy and breastfeeding, I really started to take that seriously when I fully realized that my own and my baby's life depended on it.
(Pro-tip: I found it really helpful to actually put rest on my to-do list in the earliest days of breastfeeding, to remind myself that it was OK to get the rest my body felt it needed. You're not being lazy; your body is doing double-duty right now.)
If Something Is Wrong, It’s Very Obvious, Because Ouch
The upside — and downside — of breastfeeding involving two of your most sensitive body parts, is that it becomes fairly obvious when something is wrong. If baby's latch isn't deep enough, your nipples will let you know. If you've got a plugged duct or mastitis, you will absolutely feel it.
For the record: contrary to any bad breastfeeding advice you may have heard, pain while nursing is not something you just have to learn to get used to or "toughen up your nipples" to withstand. Pain is your body's way of telling you that something is wrong, so figure out what that is (usually a shallow latch) and fix it. Don't suffer.