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Breastfeeding - what to expect & how to prepare your body & your mind

Updated: Feb 28

Whether you are a first time mum or you've done this before, it's helpful to know what to expect when it comes to breastfeeding so that you are prepared, refreshed and know where to find support or further guidance if you need or want it. There are of course many ways to feed your baby including breast, bottle and combi feeding, and the only right way is the way that is right for you and your baby. This blog is focusing on breastfeeding basics, tips and support, (there are lots of support options also available for all types of feeding choices, please ask your midwife or peer supporter for reliable resources).

First, a little introduction to breastmilk. Your breastmilk is tailored to your own baby’s needs and gives them everything they need for the first 6 months of their lives. You, your baby and your boobs are amazing. Breastmilk changes throughout the day, containing more sleep-inducing properties at night to help your baby sleep. The suckling of your baby on your breast creates oxytocin which is the love drug that in turn is responsible for the let-down, or release of your milk (among other incredible things!), so it’s a perfect circle whereby the more your baby suckles, the more milk is made: something you may hear referred to as ‘supply and demand’ or ‘on-demand’ feeding. It’s biologically ‘normal’ and as women have been breastfeeding since the dawn of time, it should be second nature right? Well yes, it is and no, it isn’t. It is natural, but it doesn't always come naturally and this is really important to know from the beginning.

Here are some realistic expectations when it comes to breastfeeding:

* Expect bigger breasts – engorged, massive milky orbs even; leaking milk – usually over your favourite top and usually when you are out and about and have forgotten to wear breast pads. Pack a poncho or large scarf and you can always wrap this around yourself if you feel self-conscious or start to leak. Have some reusable breast pads in your changing bag or handbag so you can pop them in your bra after a feed.

*Expect a lot of advice thrown at you from strangers, and ‘well-meaning’ family members, most of it unprompted, contradictory and confusing – take all of it with a pinch of salt and trust your own instincts (and step away from internet search engines late at night – they don’t know your baby!)

*Expect to get your boobs out a LOT, but to stop caring who sees them after a while – the postman, your uncle, the cat, they will all get an eyeful at some point, but it doesn’t matter as they aren’t boobs anymore, they are mighty milk-making machines. If you do feel self-conscious though, you can use a large muslin or a poncho around you and baby until you feel comfortable, just make sure you don't cover up for other people's comfort, just for your own, as it is much trickier to feed a baby when you are also worrying about keeping a cover over both of you. You can also simply ask other people to turn away and respect your privacy if you wish and remember you have a right to breastfeed your baby in public, even in a swimming pool if thats when they get hungry (and if anyone questions that, there are much worse things that leak out in swimming pools than breastmilk!)

*Expect to feel frustrated and perhaps even trapped at times, as you sit pinned to the sofa with a hungry babe seemingly perma-guzzling from your breast or/and a whirring plastic breast pump attached to the other boob – cluster feeding will become a familiar term and you will learn how to take multi-tasking to a whole new level, and you deserve so much credit for however you feed your baby. There are ways you can ease this feeling of frustration though as you learn about your baby and their rhythm and get set up for long feeding sessions in advance with snacks and supplies!

*Expect to love and loathe the feel of a hot shower hitting your boobs at the same time – great for helping ease those aching bosoms but not so good when the water spray hits a sore, tender nipple (ouch).

*Expect to only choose items of clothing and bras for the first few weeks or months, based on how easy it is to whip your boobs out at the first sign of your baby licking their lips, and how well the milky dribble or spit up will wash off after a feeding session (satin, velvet and silk are big no-no’s for a while). There are some amazing nursing tops and dresses around these days though so you can still feel good about what you are wearing. A top budget tip is simply to wear a vest under any top so you can pull the outer layer up and the vest layer down to keep your tummy clothed and warm when feeding your baby.

*Expect an emotional roller coaster – you will feel high on oxytocin and more in love with your baby than ever and like the greatest mother in the world when feeding is going well, followed shortly by feeling like a massive mum failure for not being able to read your baby’s hunger cues before they start crying/or for your baby doing a taboo green poo (which at some point early on they will probably do no matter what you do – it can be for many reasons, not always that they aren’t getting enough breastmilk, so always seek advice and don’t blame yourself or self diagnose.) Emotions will fluctuate however you feed your baby, but as you gain confidence and knowledge around your own feeding journey and get to know your baby and their cues, this will ease. You may even begin to really enjoy it, look forward to it and be able to soak up the beautiful bonding time between you and your baby. This is what I hope for you, however you feed your baby.

The truth is, breastfeeding can be really hard and it may hurt both physically and emotionally in the first few weeks, and that is really important to know before you start. If it doesn’t ‘click’ into place at first, that’s normal. It takes several weeks to get into a groove and to establish your supply, which is why feeding on demand when your baby wants it, and not trying to stick to a schedule or set timings between feeds, is so important.

If it hurts and you can’t seem to get it right on your own, that’s ok. There are gels {lanolin cream (lanolin-free gels are also widely available now too) or paraffin gauges will be your ‘breast’ friends}, cold cabbage leaves (just remember to take them out afterwards or they will start to pong!) and other tricks like dabbing a bit of your own breast milk on your sore nipple after a feed, that can help to ease the physical aspects.

And if you feel like giving up in those first few days, or even later on, because it’s all too much, reach out for help and read reliable resources. If you can make it past the first 6 weeks, you are more likely to continue breastfeeding up to and even beyond 6 months, which is so beneficial for your baby. Ask for all the help and emotional support you can get from midwives, health visitors, local breastfeeding support groups such as BIBS in Brecon or Abergavenny Breastfeeding Support, the National Breastfeeding Helpline, lactation consultants, friends, family, your partner and of course your Sunflower community of mums.

There are so many wonderful books and resources available now to help you to find your rhythm and keep you, the mother, calm and relaxed, which will in turn encourage your baby to be calm and relaxed as you are your baby's mirror. This is key to breastfeeding comfort and positivity, especially in the early days as you are both getting established and things may seem relentless. It does get easier as you both find your way, it just takes time, compassion and patience.

Prepare your body for breastfeeding

Comfortable and happy breastfeeding is mainly down to two things: your baby’s latch, and your comfort. Concentrate on getting the latch right and finding a comfortable position for both of you to sustain for long periods of time through the day and night and you will be winning.

There are many different feeding positions, try them out and see what feels right for you and your baby. Cradle hold is the most familiar, but it isnt always the easiest to do. Biological feeding, laidback feeding or side lying feeding positions are often easier, more comfortable, encourage a good latch and can help a baby to digest the milk more easily. You can ask for help to find the right position from midwives, trained peer supporters, IBCLCs and books (this one is a good visual guide for inspiration: Breastfeeding Positions - Illustrated Guide, and this is a brilliant all round feeding resource by one of the leading advocates for informed and inclusive infant feeding: The Positive Breastfeeding Book by Amy Brown) and reliable online resources (this is a good starting place for information: Association of Breastfeeding Mothers.)

Cushions are your friends; those half-moon pregnancy sleeping pillows can be re-purposed into a handy nursing pillow and holding your baby in your arms for extended periods of time, when you are probably also sleep-deprived, can be exhausting, so don’t forget pillows to support your arms too.

Whatever helps you to be comfortable in turn helps you produce more milk for your baby and it is so important to stay hydrated as dehydration can diminish your milk supply, so always keep water to hand. Using a straw can really help you to still be able to drink when your arms are otherwise engaged holding your baby.

Keep your energy up with frequent snacks (and yes, that means cake and biscuits, as well as fruit and nuts of course for balance!). Eat balanced, nutritionally dense foods and meals that give you energy, and are rich in vitamins and minerals. Lots of fresh fruit, veg, protein, carbs to keep you going, and healthy fats are ideal. Breastfeeding burns around 500-700 extra calories per day on average, so you need to make sure you are nourished. Try and eat 3 meals a day along with a balance of snacks in between - food fuels your milk production and what you eat helps both you and your baby to grow strong and healthy so its really important. Its not always easy to sit down and eat a meal with one hand whilst you are feeding and holding your baby, so don't be afraid to ask for help in cutting up your food, finding easier options that you can eat with one hand, or getting someone to look after your baby whilst you get time to eat.

Having a little feeding box, one upstairs and one downstairs in the rooms you most frequently feed your baby in is a great idea. Fill them with snacks for you such as packets of nuts and raisins, oat and cereal bars, chocolate, fruit and a water bottle (fill this with fresh water every morning), plus books, magazines, a notepad and pen, the remote, your phone and charger, perhaps an essential oil roll-on etc...anything to look after your wellbeing and keep you fed, hydrated and entertained if baby needs a long feed.

Remember you are still allowed to pee and need to go to the loo regularly to look after your body and pelvic floor health. You will hopefully get to the point where you can comfortably walk and feed your baby at the same time, until then, you could try feeding in a sling or carrier if that works for you (yes, you can do this on the loo if you need to!) or make sure you get time and help to fulfil your basic needs often.

There will probably be ups & let-downs, sore nipples, full engorged breasts, leaky boobs, cluster feedings, long nights spent waking and worrying if you have enough milk or if you should wake your sleeping baby for a feed. There will be long feeding sessions where you feel like your baby will never detach from your breast (they will, they are probably just having a long feed to send signals to increase your milk supply because babies and boobs are clever like that), and really short feeds where they may just be thirsty or need the comfort of your nipple in their mouth. Anywhere from 5 mins – 2 hours a boob are all completely ‘normal’ feeding times in the first few weeks as you both establish a routine and build up your milk supply to your baby’s own specific needs.

Getting your baby’s latch right is the first step to breastfeeding well, and this isn’t always as easy as just bringing them to your boob and hoping they will do the rest. You will probably be told about or read up on what to look out for to make sure the latch is right: baby’s nose next to your nipple, wide open mouth, head back and able to move freely, rounded cheeks, swallowing, good sucking rhythm, ‘ka’ sounds meaning that baby is taking in and swallowing milk etc .. but how do you really know if it’s right? Simply speaking, if the latch is right, your baby will be satisfied after a feed, they will have plenty of wet and dirty nappies filled with canary yellow poo (that’s the holy grail, as yellow poo = your baby is getting a good supply of milk), they will be gaining weight well and most importantly be happy and healthy.

The best way to check that all of this is happening is to ask an expert. Get your midwife or health visitor to check your latch regularly, as you can start off well and then a baby can just forget how to breast feed, so never feel like you are wasting their time by getting things checked, that’s what they are there for so use them! GPs aren't always trained in up to date breastfeeding support, so seek support from those who are qualified in this area - if you aren't sure, just ask. You can request a referral to an NHS lactation consultant if one is available or find an independent IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant) in your area here.

It also shouldn’t be too painful if your baby is latching well, of course there can be other factors, such as long feeding sessions that can make your nipples feel rather tender, but if you have consistently sore, cracked or bleeding nipples, or a burning sensation in your breasts, then don’t suffer in silence. All of these are common problems that can often be put right with a simple adjustment to your feeding position, checking that latch, looking after yourself better or ruling out tongue tie which can make it hard for your baby to feed efficiently. There are so many places to turn to for help and advice (other than search engines!) so always ask.

Remember you don't need to buy anything specifically for breastfeeding, other than perhaps some nipple cream, if you don't want to. Any comfy supportive pillows will do the job, and you don't need a nursing cover unless it makes YOU feel more comfortable - don't cover up for the comfort of others. You need to feel relaxed, calm and confident to produce milk and to have a positive feeding experience so nurture and nourish yourself first so you can do the same for your baby.

Prepare your mind for breastfeeding

One of the most important things to keep in mind is that breastfeeding is different for every mum and baby team and what worked well for one duo, might not for you and yours. Trust in your own rhythm and routine and try not to get hung up on what other mums or baby ‘experts’/books say is the ideal breastfeeding pattern.

Be mindful of what you let in, and lean towards the positive input, search for reliable resources and give both you and your baby time, space and compassion to find your rhythm together.

Please remember that you and your baby are learning this together so don’t get too cross or upset if it takes a while to master – its new to you both, so give each other time and reassurance and you’ll get there. Asking your partner, friends and family to give you extra support and encouragement and to bring you drinks and snacks, lend you a box set, buy you magazines or recommend a podcast to keep you entertained, are hugely important motivators.

Try to avoid counting every feed and duration and worrying about the correct intervals between feeds – newsflash: there are no correct intervals, normal amounts of feeding or lengths of feeds! Each baby is different, and so is each feed. Remember that sometimes you only want a gulp of water and a biscuit (well, maybe two), and other times you want the all-you-can-eat buffet, your baby is just the same.

The frequency and amount of time your baby needs to feed are up to your baby, and if you feed on demand and learn to pick up on your baby’s feeding cues (rooting, bringing hands to mouth, lip smacking etc..) and respond to them before they get too hungry and start crying, which can make latching trickier, rather than trying to follow a time pattern, you will be both be better off. Find what works for you and your baby, and remember that breastfeeding is the ultimate in teamwork and an ever-evolving skill.

Believe in your body and your boobs, and find ways to keep calm and relaxed when you feed your baby. Listening to meditations, or relaxing music, or even breastfeeding affirmations may help you to relax, as well as getting comfortable, taking time to breathe deeply, fully and nourishing yourself so that you can nurture your baby.

Reliable resources

This book (You've got it in you: a positive guide to breastfeeding by Emma Pickett) is fantastic as a bed side companion, read it before your baby arrives and keep it to hand to reassure, inform, prepare and guide your own instincts. You can also get free breastfeeding video tutorials, or book onto a Mindful Breastfeeding course with Anna Le Grange, IBCLC here or Rachel Giaccone runs mindful breastfeeding & breastfeeding preparation sessions online in Powys. There are free online antenatal breastfeeding courses as well as comprehensive resources on La Leche League web page too.


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