Along with growing new humans, breastfeeding is seriously one of the wildest, most amazing things women can do. But magical though it may be, it can also be kind of crazy-making. Let's put a little pause on all the wonders and benefits of breastfeeding for a sec, and instead talk about some of the ways breastfeeding can increase a new mom's anxiety.
I know when I first started nursing I was a nervous wreck. I was exhausted. I was sore. I could never get the weird Boppy inner tube positioned correctly under my son's head. Cut to six months later, and I could have nursed my kid while simultaneously making a salad and filing my taxes. Yet, even though the physical act of it became much easier, there were still some breastfeeding stressors that never quite went away. (Isn't that just parenthood in general though?) I reached out to Jada Shapiro, a maternal health expert and founder of boober, a service that connects expectant and new parents with in-person expert pregnancy, birth, and postpartum care providers. Shapiro and I discussed some of the main nursing-fueled anxieties, and she offered some expert tips on how to combat these worries. (I promise you, you can combat them.)
1. The Nutrition Worry
Shapiro says this is the number one issue that moms fret over: whether or not baby is getting enough to eat. "It is common to be worried over whether your baby is getting enough milk. Counting pees and poops, bringing your baby to the pediatrician regularly to check their weight, and watching your baby’s sleep patterns can help you know if the baby is getting enough. Signs that the baby is not getting enough: they become lethargic, they sleep five-plus hours at a stretch and are hard to awaken, they don’t pee and poop as much your pediatrician wanted to see, and they don’t gain enough weight." Should any of these things happen, Shapiro suggests hiring a lactation consultant to increase milk supply and ensure your baby is getting enough.
The breastfeeding website Kellymom also noted that you can feel if your own breasts are "softer" after a feeding to determine if baby had enough milk. It's difficult when you don't have an empty bottle to show after a feeding, but chances are, your baby is chowing down just fine.
2. Nipple Concerns
The first nipple hurdle one has to conquer is mastering ye olde latch. And that frustration in itself is enough to make a new mother want to smash an Avent bottle over her own head. But once you get that part down, there are other boob worries to deal with. First, there's pain. Cracked bleeding nipples can be excruciating, and I think the makers of Lansinoh should regularly be thrown a parade.
Then there's the fear of mastitis. I've seen mothers go white when recalling this dreaded inflammation of the breast. But never fear, Shapiro says there are several ways to ward this off. "Be sure to breastfeed frequently and don’t allow your breasts to become uncomfortably or painfully full. If you are separated from your baby, or your baby is unable to sufficiently drain your milk, be sure to express your breast milk frequently with hand expression or a breast pump," she says. "If your milk isn't being effectively removed, that can lead to plugged ducts, which can lead to mastitis. Respond quickly if you discover a plugged duct. Cracked and bleeding nipples are a conduit for infection. Be sure to hire a lactation consultant to help you adjust the latch so your nipples can heal and are no longer getting damaged."
3. Plans Are Pretty Much Pointless
Living your days as a walking fast food restaurant — minus the fries and soda fountain — is a wild experience, and one that can make keeping a schedule feel futile, nay laughable. A nursing mom is constantly thinking about that next feeding session, and what time she needs to get back before her bosom explodes.
Shapiro's suggestion: accept that baby has the wheel. "The best advice I can give for the early days with a newborn is to follow the baby’s schedule. In the early days, following baby’s cues as to when they are hungry and when they want to sleep allows you to really learn your baby’s communication style. When we respond to a baby’s cues early, there is often a lot less crying. Hiring a postpartum doula can also make a huge difference as you learn to navigate your days with a newborn."
4. Mimosa Panic
The idea of "enjoying" an alcoholic bev when breastfeeding can feel like a bit of an oxymoron. It can be hard to "enjoy" a cold, frosty pint without looking into the glass and seeing your little angel's innocent face outlined in the beer foam. While the CDC says one drink for nursing moms is considered safe, it can still be hard not to worry, especially as there is a lot of conflicting advice on the subject. Sites like Baby Center wrote, "some experts recommend breastfeeding moms avoid drinking alcohol until their baby is 3 months old." And then if you do have a drink or two, there's the anxiety of how long to wait before nursing. (La Leche League suggests two to three hours.)
Shapiro chose not to weigh in on this one, and really, this is kind of a personal choice for every mom. I know for me, imbibing always resulted in a guilty mental dance, where I'd nervously be doing math on hours/drinks on my fingers under the bar. It's a bit of a vicious cycle, really. A glass of wine would be so nice to help you relax, right? Except — just kidding — that chardonnay has now just added to your stress. Think about what you're most comfortable with, and go from there.
For what it's worth, Kelly Mom noted, "In general, if you are sober enough to drive, you are sober enough to breastfeed." Your alcohol doesn't just hang around in your breasts, contaminating milk. It leaves your body just like it does any other time you're drinking, and then you can breastfeed. If you know baby will be hungry when you're still feeling the effects of alcohol, go ahead and pump beforehand. But there's no need to pump and dump your precious supply while enjoying a glass.
5. Breastfeeding In Public
Lastly, there's the where of breastfeeding. No mom loves nursing her baby in a gross public restroom stall, staring at misspelled graffiti about Alex J.'s penis size. But then, there are still so few comfortable options for moms. Some places (like Target) have stepped up to offer clean, private nursing stations. And there are now apps to help moms track down decent nursing spots. But sometimes there's just no place to go, and you have to just whip the nip out and get the job done.
Shapiro's advice for moms who feel jittery about wrangling their mammaries in a public space is to do a little dress rehearsal at home. "If you are worried about nursing in public for the first time, try nursing at your dining room table, sitting in a chair that does not have arms! Pretend you are at a restaurant and practice how you’ll move your shirt and nursing bra and what positions are comfortable for you when you’re not in your comfy chair and don’t have your nursing pillows."
She also reminds moms to not feel intimidated. "Remember, if you’re allowed to be there, it’s almost always legal to nurse there. Your baby has a right to eat whenever they are hungry."
I don't know that anyone would ever really describe breastfeeding as "easy." (Maybe Jerry Hall would. She certainly makes it look that way in this photo. ) But as with all things baby-related, you just have to accept that you're likely going to feel marginally insane for part of the time. And for the rest of the time: knocked out by love. As stressful as breastfeeding can sometimes be, there are no words to describe the swoon one feels at the sight of those teeny fingers cradling your body, as your baby beams at you with that big-eyed, grateful gaze.