No one can give you advice about mothering like a mother can, and there were few subjects I was more grateful for advice on than breastfeeding. Even though I had a relatively easy time of it, I could not begin to measure the stress or tears that were the direct result of my choice to nurse. Fortunately, there were good times, too, and eventually the entire experience was a good time. That was, in large part, thanks to the breastfeeding advice from other moms that made me feel powerful, capable, and determined to reach my goals... even when the tears and the stress reared their ugly heads.
When I first started breastfeeding with my first child, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. And I'm not embarrassed about the fact that I had no idea what I was doing, either. I mean, how could I have known? It would be sort of weird if you were a breastfeeding pro straight out of the gate, right? It'd be like knowing how to play Chopin the first time you ever touched a piano. Almost weirder, even, because in this metaphor the piano is the baby and when it comes to breastfeeding a baby has to cooperate with you as well.
There's a lot to learn as a new mom, and sometimes that can be discouraging and overwhelming. But if you're lucky, there are other moms out there who can empower you, encourage you, and help you along the way. So with that in mind, here's what a few of them taught me about breastfeeding.
"Hold Your Boob Like A Hamburger"
OK, this sounds silly but it was the first great piece of advice I received about breastfeeding. A nurse (who was also a mom, I later learned) told me to hold my boob like a burger when I was in the hospital, right after I had my first child and was fumbling with getting him latched properly. I could mostly manage it, except when I couldn't, and that was just pissing us both off and making it even harder to succeed.
My nurse was really sweet and had a great French accent. "Ze best way is to 'old your breast like an 'amburger," she said, and then demonstrated by holding my breast like a hamburger (four fingers under the areola, thumb above) and guiding my baby's mouth onto it. It worked like a charm.
Yeah, she should have asked permission before such an intimate touch but, honestly, I was so desperate for direction at the time that I didn't mind strangers grabbing my boobies so long as they were also a medical professional tasked with my care.
"It's OK To Supplement If You Want/Need To"
This was from another nurse/mom and, honestly, I think this is the piece of advice that ultimately kept me going and ensured my breastfeeding success. I, like many new moms, was so reluctant to give my baby even a drop of formula. I was convinced that I would not only "ruin" him by giving him anything other than breast milk (despite knowing that formula is perfectly formulated food for a baby), but that I would sabotage any and all breastfeeding efforts moving forward. The specter of "nipple confusion" sent me into a panic, but I was exhausted and my baby was hungry because my milk was late coming in.
But my nurse dispelled me of the all-too-common, black and white view of breastfeeding/formula feeding. She assured me there were steps we could take to avoid nipple confusion and, moreover, that supplementing could allow me time to rest and de-stress and both were important for milk production and successful breastfeeding.
And within weeks I didn't have to supplement anymore.
"Your Feelings Matter"
Breastfeeding is, or should be, a choice made freely, and how you feel about nursing absolutely counts. Breastfeeding isn't just about nourishing a baby. It's a great option, yes, but there are other ways to feed a baby that don't involve breasts. There are a million and five reasons to say, "You know what? Not for me!" and each one of those reasons is perfectly valid.
A breastfeeding relationship is like every other relationship there is: if it's not working out for one person then it's not working period.
"Always Have Water On Hand"
This particular set of advice reminded me that making milk wasn't something that just sort of happened. It's something my body was doing with the raw materials I gave it. Food and water for fuel, rest to allow the engines to run at full power, and a baby to get the motors running were all important parts of my breastfeeding experience. Reminding me that there were things I needed to do consciously to allow my body to do what it needed to do made me feel like a damn alchemist.
"You Don't Need To Cover Up"
Initially I was very careful about covering up whenever I nursed, not so much for my own modesty (I have basically none) but to shield the delicate sensibilities of other people from the horror of seeing a baby human attached to a human breast. (Like we don't see breasts all the time in media, both advertising and entertainment.)
Then, one seemingly innocuous day, I asked myself why. I mean, if I don't care and I'm not doing anything unseemly, why bother? And that was that.
"The Law Is On Your Side"
OK, so it wasn't just the reassurance that other people could deal with seeing a human baby eating from a human breast, it was also the words of wisdom from an unfortunately now defunct website written by a mom who had taken the time to gather breastfeeding laws by state that reassured me that I was protected, legally, in my right to nurse however I wanted anywhere I had the legal right to be.
"Be Patient With Yourself"
In the first few weeks, when things got hard, I reached out to other breastfeeding moms (either currently or formerly) for advice and support and the greatest thing I got from them was the reassurance that this was, in fact, hard. No, I wasn't imagining the difficulty and I wasn't doing anything "wrong." Knowing that I was on the right track and that all I needed was time made me feel empowered and powerful, even as I also felt sort of helpless and hapless.
"Spend The Money On Good Nursing Bras"
Obviously not everyone is in a position to drop $50+ on a high-end nursing bra but, friends: I've done the $12 bras at [Big Box Store] and I've done the high-end ones you get fitted for and there's just no contest. (Also it's a wise investment, since those things lasted me almost four years and two babies.)
"Don't Stress About How Much They're Getting"
One difficult aspect of breastfeeding, especially when you're not really sure if you're doing it right, is not knowing exactly how much they're eating. It's hard to just sort of trust your body to "do the right thing" and make enough milk for them to grow and be satisfied. (And, certainly, the fact that they're non-verbally begging you to eat what feels like every 15 minutes doesn't help your insecurity.)
But my sister-in-law, who had just gone through her own breastfeeding challenges with her baby, assured me that if your baby is gaining weight at their pediatrician appointments (and, sometimes, as long as they're not losing weight) then you can relax a bit.
"You Never Have Anything To Apologize For"
Breastfeeding, not breastfeeding, supplementing, not supplementing, covering up, not covering up: there's no "right way" to feed a baby, so you just move through this however it feels best for you.
"It's OK To Not Breastfeed"
Some people take this advice/assertion from other mom's as undermining, but I didn't. It reminded me that I was lucky: I always had a choice, and that choice made me feel empowered in everything I was doing. The realization that I was making a series of choices because they were what I wanted to do made me feel powerful.
"The Baby Doesn't Know What They're Doing, Either"
Yet another nurse/mom from my first delivery (those women were damn angels, I tell you) informed me of this fact. A fact that I feel should be really obvious but of course is something we never talk about.
Breastfeeding isn't all on the breast-haver, you guys: the baby has a job to do, too. And, just like the mom, the baby has never done this sort of thing before and there's a moderate to steep learning curve. This realization made me feel better about the fact that it felt like I was so often doing everything wrong, and it encouraged me with the knowledge that we would be learning together. There's real strength in that.
Hearing Other People's Breastfeeding Stories
I really feel there is nothing more empowering than listening to a variety of different experiences. Because in a world that breastfeeding isn't really discussed all that much (and when it is it's either entirely gloom and doom or "it's natural so that must mean it's easy!"), the more we realize that there's an infinite variety of experiences the more we can be empowered in our own and really feel confident owning them.