It has always been really important to me to make sure I successfully breastfeed my babies, even before I was ever pregnant. Everyone knows benefits of breastfeeding for mum and baby are endless. So while I was pregnant, I was busy reading and researching to make sure there was nothing I didn’t know about breastfeeding. I wanted to make sure I had the perfect breastfeeding experience from the start.
I already knew all the medical advice we give mothers regularly, all the ‘correct’ positions and the ‘good’ latches vs the ‘bad’ latches. I knew how to watch out for mastitis, blocked ducts, etc etc etc.
I was as ready as someone who hasn’t breastfed before could possibly be….
And yet, these things still came as a huge surprise to me:
1. It Hurts (At least to begin with) and that’s Normal
We’ll all have read a million times that “breastfeeding shouldn’t hurt” if done right. But that’s plain not true: It can still hurt plenty, especially in the beginning, and that doesn’t necessarily indicate something is wrong. They say breastfeeding for babies is like sucking mash potato through a straw. That’s how hard they’re working, i.e. that’s how hard they’re sucking. And the first few sucks when they initially latch-on, to stimulate milk flow and let-down, are the strongest, and hurt the most.
If you’re new to breastfeeding, your milk ducts and nipples will just not be used to that kind of milk flow and suction. The good news is that the pain does get less and less with time, and after a while breastfeeding really does become painless like the books describe. But this can take weeks or even months. I really think if more mothers knew this, and expected this, fewer would give up breastfeeding early on.
So bottom line: You can have the perfect latch, and it can still hurt.
2. The Let-Down can be Uncomfortable
This is a separate point to the above, because it’s not the same kind of discomfort. The latch/suction pain is one thing, and then when the let-down happens moments after, is a completely different feeling. You can literally feel your breasts fill up with milk. It’s hard to describe why this feels uncomfortable, my best attempt is this: your breasts feel like expanding sponges soaking up liquid beyond the boob’s capacity. Make sense? No? Ok, lets move on.
Chances are if you have good milk supply, at this point your baby will start gulping furiously to cope with the let-down. In the beginning, before your milk supply regulates, you’re also likely to be engorged from time to time. If you’re already dealing with engorgement, each let-down (at each feed) is extra uncomfortable.
Luckily our milk supply starts to regulate at around 6 weeks, and hopefully also by this point you no longer get engorgement. Beyond this time the let-down should no longer feel uncomfortable, but most women still feel a funny sensation when it happens throughout the breastfeeding journey.
3. You REALLY need Breast Pads (aka. Nursing Pads)
In my third trimester I made a hospital bag packing list, and checked this with my friend (veteran mother of three) who pointed out I should add breast pads. At the time I thought that was a ‘nice to have’ not a ‘must have’ item. Boy was I wrong.
In the beginning, while you’re feeding off one breast, your other breast will be hosing milk like it’s trying to put out a bedroom fire. High-pressure milk jets will come flying out at all angles: they will blind your neighbours dog and water your shelf cactuses simultaneously.
Not only that, but you’ll be leaking between feeds, and particularly at night. At any time if you have an accidental let-down while you’re out, you better hope you’ve got breast pads in otherwise you’ll be walking around like you’ve just been in a wet T-shirt contest.
Bottom line: You need breastpads.
There are many kinds of nursing pads to choose from. Simple cotton washable pads are popular, but tend to trap moisture. Disposable ones are less environmentally friendly (and also more expensive over time) but they hold much more liquid, while the good ones also draw moisture away from the surface.
I’ve tried so many brands of breast pads, at least 5 or 6, and I have to say my favourite by far are these. They stay in place the best, and absorb significantly more liquid than all other brands I tried.
4. Milk Collecting Shells are a Thing
And they’re not just a thing, they’re amazing. I discovered these about a month into breastfeeding, and I wish I had them from the start. These are made of silicone and sit inside your bra to collect leakage, much like nursing pads, except they’re arguably better than nursing pads because:
A) It’s passive milk collecting and it really really adds up. It saves you some pumping if you need to store milk. These can be sterilised like everything else so that the milk you collect in it is safe to go into breastmilk storage bags for later. I found that the milk I passively collected from the shells every day was easily enough for 1 full evening bottle feed if I needed. If you use these overnight, I found they collect significantly more milk than during the day.
B) You save on nursing pads! At peak use I was going through 8-10 pads a day, which means a box was barely lasting me a week (and they’re not that cheap). I alternated these with nursing pads depending on the scenario and it was perfect. Save landfill, save money.
C) If you get sore or cracked nipples from breastfeeding, these protect your nipples from rubbing against your bra and give them a chance to ‘breathe’. With breast pads your boobs can be in contact with moisture for too long making them prone to cracking or mastitis. With the shells, nipples are protected inside the plastic dome and free to heal and airate, all the while collecting any milk leakage.
Bottom line: You need these in your life. I had 2 sets on rotation.
5. Babies have their own feeding style
By the time your baby is due, you’ll have seen a million pictures of the ‘correct’ latch in antenatal classes or breastfeeding workshops. You’ll have learned that the correct way to latch a baby is with their mouth wide open, boob at nose level, nipple pointed to the roof of their mouth, baby’s chin pointing into the boob, etc.
We got off breastfeeding fine from the start, but try as I might, I couldn’t get Zoey to open her mouth wide for the proper latch. She has a posterior tongue-tie, so her preferred latching method was to find the nipple and then strongly suck it all into her mouth, all the while barely opening her mouth. I tried for weeks to get her to latch the ‘proper’ way and it was starting to frustrate me, before I eventually realised that this was totally ok. It didn’t matter so much how she decided to latch, if the end result was the same and she was feeding effectively.
After speaking to many other mums and breastfeeding consultants I realised it’s surprisingly common for babies to have weird feeding styles and that was fine, as long as they end up with a good mouthful of boob in their mouth (and not just the nipple).
NB: Keep an eye out for nipple latch, as that will only cause you pain and result in effective feeding. If it looks like your nipple has been squashed or flattened after the baby comes off, that’s no good.
6. Silver Nipple Cups Keep the Doctor Away
By this I mean, these magical silver nipple cups soothe your boobs between feeds, and help stave off all sorts of breastfeeding ailments. These cups are made of pure silver, and sit between your boob and your bra. Silver has natural anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, and anti-bacterial properties. Plus, they feel nice and cool when you first pop them in after a feed.
They’re intended to be a preventative measure, but can also aid in healing if you’ve already developed a problem. These aren’t cheap (as they’re made of pure silver) but they will pretty much last forever if you take good care of them.
NB: A good trick that I picked up from a fellow mum, for not loosing these when taking them out to breastfeed, is to slot the spare cup behind the cup on the other boob.
So there it is, those are the things I ‘learned on the job’ that I didn’t know before I started breastfeeding, no matter how much reading up and preparation I did.
Let me know what you think!