So, you're going to have a baby and you're thinking about breastfeeding. Congrats! I can tell you from my own experience that nursing a baby (or a toddler) can be a wonderful, rewarding thing to do. Of course other people can tell you it's hell on earth, and they're not lying either. Whether or not breastfeeding is for you is extremely personal and only you can make that call. And yet I can also tell you from experience that there are ways I set myself up for success when breastfeeding that may well have made the difference between a personally satisfying experience and a hellish one.
I knew, even before I got pregnant, that if I were ever fortunate enough to have children I would at least try to breastfeed them. I'd read the studies about all the benefits of breastfeeding, but my desire to give it a go went beyond that. (Besides: I'd also read the studies that said formula feeding is just as healthy.) There was just something about nursing that appealed to me outside of any health concern. I'm sure part of that is just the way breastfeeding is romanticized, but my own experience has confirmed that, yes, it's an experience that I personally found great satisfaction in, so much so that, all told, I breastfed for more than three years.
When it came time to breastfeed my second baby, I was an old hand at it. I didn't need to make any particular preparations because I'd already done it. It was like riding a bicycle. But the first time around I did some things that definitely helped me make it through, because it certainly wasn't always easy.
I Had The Foresight To Be Born With Lucky Genes
How clever and insightful of me, right? From my carefully laid plan to being born white* (white women are more likely to be encouraged to breastfeed, socially and via community and material resources) to all the hard work** I put into having hormone levels and physical features compatible with successful breastfeeding, I was just really thinking ahead in so many ways***.
*I had zero control over this, obviously
**literally no work, just good fortune
***Seriously though, guys: luck played a huge role in my breastfeeding success.
Living In A Fortunate Zip Code
When it comes to promoting and fostering breastfeeding, not all zip codes are created equal. I gave birth in New York, a state considered among the most breastfeeding friendly, policy-wise, and specifically New York City, which goes even farther to encourage breastfeeding moms. So my environment set me up for success in ways I had no control over but was tremendously grateful for.
Winning The Bosses Lottery
I worked at a major university when I gave birth and started breastfeeding. As far as the rest of the country goes it was a liberal paradise of family-friendly/breastfeeding-friendly policies. On top of that, all of my bosses (my direct boss, his boss, and her boss) were super-down to help me however I needed. Sufficient breaks to pump? Check. Work from home one day a week? Check. Encouraging about maintaining a work/life balance? Check.
Again: I had no power over this, but it seriously helped.
Also Winning The Friends & Family Lottery
OK, so are you all understanding just how much of this is luck? Like, yeah, there are things that I did to set myself up for success, but I cannot talk about the things that enabled me to reach my goals without first and foremost highlighting all the factors beyond my control that nevertheless played a huge role in my ability to breastfeed (and, moreover, breastfeed for as long as I did). My family was encouraging and not weird about the fact that I nursed my infants until they were both toddlers. Not everyone is so lucky.
I Researched The Subject
I knew enough about breastfeeding to know there was a lot I didn't know. While I also knew I wouldn't be able to really get it until I started trying it for myself, I still tried to read books and articles about successful breastfeeding — what to do, what not to do, what to expect, etc. I also talked to my doctor and to other women who had breastfed, either successfully or not, in order to glean some insight on the subject from a primary source.
I Got Equipment To Make It Easier
So this also has a lot to do with luck/privilege, but in my research I looked into different products that helped other moms meet their breastfeeding goals. While I don't think any of these products were the key to successful breastfeeding, I think all of them helped me at the very least get through so rough moments. A nursing pillow, a good electric pump, breast pads, a couple high quality nursing bras, and a healthy dollop of nipple cream (oh my poor, aching nipples in those first few weeks...) all helped to ease me into breastfeeding by making it a little less uncomfortable.
I Spoke To Nurses & Lactation Consultants
The lactation consultant was part of my incredibly clever zip code luck (the hospital where I gave birth ensured that every mother would have two meetings before she was discharged) but I did make a point to come prepared to each of our two meetings with questions. I also asked the nurses for their tips and tricks whenever I had a chance to chat with them in my hospital room. As they say on Sesame Street, "Asking questions is a good way of finding things out." Don't be shy: ask away!
I Got Comfortable Breastfeeding Wherever & Whenever
Here's the thing with newborns: they eat a lot. So this leaves a nursing parent with three options: never leave your house for more than an hour or two at a time or get used to the idea of breastfeeding in public. And let me tell you, never leaving your house, when you have a newborn, is probably not going to be so great for your mental health which, in turn, can undermine your breastfeeding efforts. Being well-balanced (including not feeling completely house-bound) is vital to everyone, including new moms. Not only does this make them healthier, well-rounded individuals it also helps you in achieving your goals.
I Knew My Rights
Before I began breastfeeding, I spent an afternoon learning the laws in my state and all the states I could potentially find myself in. Knowing that the law was on my side when it came to breastfeeding (I had the right to breastfeed anywhere I had the legal right to be) was huge for me. It empowered me to claim my time and space and not tolerate anyone who would try to tell me I "couldn't do that here" or "had to cover up."
Fortunately, no one ever gave me crap about it (miraculously) but knowing that, if they did, I could legally ignore them boosted my confidence.
I Embraced The Mantra Of "Fed Is Best"
Despite the fact that I really wanted to make breastfeeding work, I was very open to the idea of it not working. So when the free samples of formula arrived in the mail, I didn't scoff and flush them down the toilet. I saved them. And I snagged as many free samples from the hospital as I could. And you know what? I used them. And I'm pretty certain that using them (as supplements) is what enabled me to power through the hardest phase of breastfeeding and then to continue until my son was 17 months.
My formula for breastfeeding success (no pun intended) isn't going to be an elixir for everyone (though, as stated, the gobs of privilege I lucked into could certainly help anyone), but all of these things helped position me to reach my goal.