Recently, the New York Times published an article entitled What It Really Takes to Breastfeed a Baby. When I initially read the article, it made me feel so sad! The article highlights a day in the life of four women who are breastfeeding and their difficulties making it work.
The article focuses on some of these challenges as a response to the new American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) acknowledgment of the benefits of breastfeeding for two years or more.
It’s always devastating to have extra difficulties when you are trying to recover from birth and be a parent. Breastfeeding is often challenging, and it happens at a time when we’re already having other struggles with our bodies, and major adjustments to make in our daily lives. I can relate to breastfeeding difficulties, but fortunately, it was temporary for me, and overall I had a wonderful breastfeeding experience.
I recognize that many people have more challenging situations, and I also think it’s worth mentioning that there is more to the picture. Not everyone struggles much or even at all. Many people experience breastfeeding as a very easy and sweet privilege. Others have some struggles at first and then overcome them to find that it’s more than worth it.
On the other hand, I think it’s important to shed light on the fact that breastfeeding isn’t always easy. It’s important to recognize the struggles many parents go through to ensure their babies get breast milk, and that it can be at a big expense to their time, energy, and mental health. It’s also very important to recognize that help is available.
Hang On Past 6 Months
It is true that a lot of people who start out breastfeeding are no longer doing so at six months. I wish I could tell them to just hang on a little longer. The first few months are the most difficult for almost everyone. At six months, most babies start to need less milk. They are probably starting to eat solid foods and can go for longer stretches between feedings. All of the experts recommend that breastfeeding should continue, but for some people, it can seem impossible to keep it going at that initial level of difficulty. Fortunately, it gets so much easier for most people by that point. Our bodies adjust, our babies need less, and breastfeeding becomes less complicated.
It can also be possible at this point to stop pumping or pump less if that is part of the picture. Pumping can be a big factor in peoples’ decisions to stop providing breast milk. It’s hard! It involves a significant amount of time and effort. The logistics highlighted in the article including workplace and commuting issues, storage, and the extra expense and hassle of keeping track of supplies and hardware make it feel like an even bigger chore. And for some people, pumping just doesn’t produce great results. You may stay attached to the machine for long periods of time with little to show for it. This doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t enough milk. There are a lot of factors that determine how successful pumping will be for you. Getting help with this is SO important.
You Can Pump Less as Baby Gets Older
If you have been breastfeeding in a significant way for six months, or even less, it’s very possible that you can stop pumping while you’re away from your baby if that is why you’re considering weaning early. Very often, the milk supply won’t be negatively affected as long as you feed your baby often while you are together. You may want to just pump enough to have breast milk to leave with your baby’s caregiver, or you might even decide to use formula for daycare instead. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
This quote in the article “Now, she appreciates that the recommendation could empower her to ask for pumping time and space beyond a year if she wants, though she does not have a specific goal in mind” doesn’t make a lot of sense if you consider that most one to two-year-olds are getting a significant amount of nutrition through solid foods and often breastfeed just a few times a day. She very likely won’t need to ask her employer for pumping time much beyond what she was already planning because those needs tend to change so much.
My kids both breastfed until a little beyond two years of age, but mostly just in the morning, at night, and sometimes for an afternoon nap. If you would like to reach the goal of breastfeeding for two years or more, know that it doesn’t necessarily mean pumping will still be part of the picture, or that it will be at all like it was in the first few months. If you work full-time hours, it is possible to breastfeed in the morning before work for 15 minutes (or however long it takes), and then again when you are home together later. Once your milk supply is well-established, your body can adjust to this kind of schedule without eliminating your supply.
“Breastfeeding is a full-time, unpaid job. It’s time-consuming. It’s physically draining. It’s not free, nor can every parent do it — it’s not like turning a tap on,” she said. “I want my body back.”
There is a lot of hurt and frustration in this quote from the article. This was said when her baby was still a newborn, not even four months old yet. So many of us can relate to this feeling. It can be very stifling and limiting. I remember feeling like I had had a limb amputated. I felt like I could hardly get anything done. I had this little person attached to me, needing me, ALL THE TIME.
Breastfeeding can be very hard (especially at first), but having very young babies can be hard even if you’re not breastfeeding. Sleep is tricky, figuring out how to soothe them can be a mystery, and their little bodies do some strange things when they’re newborns! Remember that your body also has a lot of recovering to do and this can make everything feel harder for a while. Feeding can also be a struggle regardless of how you’re doing it. Formula might make things easier for some, but harder for others. It means extra expense, shopping trips, dishes to wash, bottles to prepare and warm, getting all the way up in the middle of the night, and some people find it difficult to find formula that the baby tolerates well. The babies still need to be fed OFTEN (at first), even if you’re using formula.
But, as hard as things might feel in those first few weeks or months, things will get easier in so many ways. It might be hasty to make a decision to stop breastfeeding during this very sensitive and transitional period. It absolutely does feel like a full-time job when they’re newborns. They need us for everything…..around the clock! Their bellies are tiny and they can only take in a small amount of milk at each feeding. That means they have to eat SO OFTEN. They need diaper changes and soothing all the time, and they don’t have any kind of predictable routines.
But that changes, and it stops feeling like a full-time job. You will start to feel like you’re getting your body back….maybe not all at once, but it happens, even for people who continue to breastfeed. It’s so important to remember that.
Putting in the effort in the first few months may actually pay off in the long run. It can definitely pay off in health benefits, but even more than that, it can save you money, time, and energy to breastfeed an older baby. When you stop leaking, when you can stop pumping, when your milk supply is reliable and easy to maintain, and when your baby needs to breastfeed less often, it really can get much easier. If you can manage a few more weeks, things might ease up so much that it becomes the easiest thing to continue! Then it can be a sweet and easy way to provide complete nutrition for your baby.
Ask for Help
I also think it’s important to mention that I didn’t see anywhere in this article where someone reached out for help. When breastfeeding is difficult, there is often a solution. Lactation consultants can help people find more ease and be able to keep going in a way that is not miserable. Don’t wait! Get help as soon as you feel you are struggling. As long as there aren’t any physical barriers, the act of breastfeeding should be painless and easy once you and your baby get the hang of it. And most people don’t know that the services provided by an Internationally Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) are most often covered by insurance. If it is your goal to breastfeed, please get help from an IBCLC before making the decision to stop breastfeeding. It might be the thing that turns it all around.
Here are a few actual quotes from patients who received care from a lactation consultant (IBCLC):
- “[She] was so knowledgeable and made me feel extremely comfortable even though breastfeeding felt awkward and uncomfortable in those first few weeks.”
- “[They] not only helped my son and me latch but gave us the confidence to keep trying and not feel discouraged throughout our [breastfeeding] journey.”
- “You don’t have to have a big problem to use a lactation consultant, I plan on using them for every other birth here on out. There’s no reason to not get extra support. And they take insurance!!”
- “I reached out and my lactation consultant helped me create a plan to increase my supply, strengthen my baby’s tongue and recommended we see a pediatric dentist for tongue tie. It wasn’t easy and took about three weeks to get through it but the hard work paid off. I now breastfeed with ease, much less pain, and my baby regained the weight plus some. I have so much peace of mind. Without [them] I may have given up.”
- “With her knowledge, patience and support, I am now able to breastfeed my daughter with no pain as well as express milk in a comfortable manner when needed. I’m so happy to report I’ve been successfully breastfeeding my little one for a month now with no problems.“
- “Without the Lactation Consultants, I don’t think I would have been able to continue breastfeeding past the first month. I’ve seen a few different LCs and they’re all incredibly knowledgeable and supportive. They’re sensitive to the challenges associated with both the physical and emotional aspects of breastfeeding. I’m lucky that they’re covered by my insurance. If you’re breastfeeding or planning to, [a lactation consultant] is your best resource!”
- “The process is not easy, but they make it easier. Would highly recommend to all nursing moms.”
- “[She] took her time and really worked with me to correct a poor latch. In the last three days, I can tell a huge difference. My soreness and engorgement have gone away and I am very confident my baby is getting enough to fill her tummy. Every woman should be lucky enough to find a supportive LC.”
- “They helped me work through the difficulties of breastfeeding during the first week when I was tired, stressed, and about to give up. They even re-arranged their schedule in order to fit me in when I was really hurting. As a good friend once told me, lactation consultants are angels!”
- “[She] was patient, an excellent listener, and extremely knowledgeable. She found the root issue of the challenges we were having which, it’s worth noting, were dismissed by the pediatrician at previous appointments.”
- “She helped my baby & I on our breastfeeding journey & were successful because of her.”
I do wish that everyone could have perfectly uncomplicated births, an easy time breastfeeding, and six months off work after having a baby. I wish everyone had a large support system to make their first few months more enjoyable and a much easier transition into parenthood. Unfortunately, those things aren’t guaranteed. I encourage everyone to have a healthy pregnancy and get informed about birth, breastfeeding, and recovery to give you the best chance at an uncomplicated birth and an easier early parenting experience. I encourage you to take advantage of all the benefits you do have with your job. You may even consider saving up if you can before taking maternity leave so you can have some extra unpaid time off. More time off work can help you get a great foundation for breastfeeding which can make it much easier when you do go back. Of course, these things aren’t going to be possible for every family. We just do the best we can.
And finally, let your family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers help you in any way they can, and seek help from a lactation consultant. If you can’t find it in your budget and don’t have insurance benefits to cover this, consider getting support from a program such as WIC. The WIC program has breastfeeding support available as well as many other great resources.
You can also schedule an appointment with Breastfeeding Success. Visits are covered by most insurance companies. We also have classes and free groups to help you with birth, recovery, breastfeeding, pumping, and baby care.