Mother Breastfeeding her newborn

As a new pregnant mum, I couldn’t have been more clueless about babies and breastfeeding.

I was rushing to complete as many modules of my Masters course as possible before the birth, so beyond reading the minimum monthly chapter in Heidi Murkoff’s What to Expect When You’re Expecting, I did little else to prepare myself for motherhood. How hard could it get?

Boy, was I wrong!

Thankfully, I had given some thought to one thing. A friend had bequeathed me an old edition of La Leche League International’s bestselling guide on breastfeeding, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding during my pregnancy. That book, as well as a compulsory prenatal breastfeeding talk at the government hospital I went to, made me decide that I would exclusively breastfeed my baby.

Informed research and generations of breastfeeding women before the advent of infant formula convinced me that my body was designed to breastfeed, and therefore I could definitely breastfeed. I was also won over by the numerous benefits of breastfeeding compared to formula feeding. I decided I would “just do it” and not buy any formula, not even for emergency purposes. I would also never use bottles or pacifiers in the early months because these would hijack breastfeeding.

By the time I landed in the delivery room, however, these ideals were just about all I had left. Everything else had pretty much collapsed–my baby had passed meconium in the womb and I wasn’t allowed the epidural I’d been counting on. In fact, for 10 excruciating hours, I wasn’t allowed any pain relief except Entonox, which was completely useless as far as I was concerned. In the end, I couldn’t even push. After a forceps delivery, multiple lacerations and lots of blood loss, I felt virtually bashed up.

I was unaware of it at the time, but the awesome feeling I had of having survived a practically drug-free delivery by the grace of God cemented my conviction that the human body was uniquely fashioned for wonderful things, and this knowledge was a tremendous driving force in my early days of breastfeeding.

My baby had been whisked away at birth while doctors tried to stop my bleeding. I didn’t see her until five hours later. I had to be treated with antibiotics and I could barely sit up. When a nurse finally put her in my arms, it was love at first sight. I tried nursing her but she wasn’t interested. As a new mum, I felt a little gutted. I didn’t realise that she too had experienced trauma during the birth, that she needed time to recover and hadn’t had the benefit of an early start to nursing.

Thus began five nights of hospitalisation when the ordeal of labour and delivery was replaced with anxieties. My baby wasn’t latching on properly, so she developed a fever from insufficient fluids and eventually, jaundice, which required three days of phototherapy. I was still feeling sore all over from the birth but my whole world was filled with just one thought–this baby depended on me. How was I going to breastfeed her so she could thrive? The pressure was immense. Those were the longest, most sleep deprived days and nights I have ever known.

By the fourth night, I was so frustrated because my sleepy baby wouldn’t open her mouth wide enough to nurse. I got an electric pump and blasted it on high until my nipple blew open. I had to learn how to express milk by hand from a bleeding nipple and feed her with an infant cup. It took grit, guts and lots of tears.

The good news? I eventually succeeded in breastfeeding my baby without a drop of formula and we developed an incredible bond. She continued to nurse into her preschool years, and I continued to breastfeed throughout my second and third pregnancies. I learned that breastfeeding is natural, but it doesn’t come naturally!

The decision to breastfeed is a personal one. You don’t have to breastfeed to be a good mother, but this isn’t a useful statement to any woman who is struggling to breastfeed. If you want to breastfeed, here are seven essentials to be aware of while you’re still pregnant:

1. Commit to Breastfeeding Exclusively
Had I left this decision up in the air or had a “try and see” attitude before the delivery, I would most certainly have given up in the face of challenges after the birth.

2. Be Informed About Breastfeeding
The biggest mistake I made was thinking I could wing it along the way. Be guided by evidence-based information on breastfeeding, not your volatile emotions or negative pressure from relatives, confinement ladies and breastfeeding-unfriendly medical staff. To save yourself needless anxiety which can hinder nursing, research these areas thoroughly before the birth:

  • How to position and latch a baby correctly onto the breast. This is essential for successful breastfeeding. Do it correctly from Day 1.
  • The pattern of milk supply in the first days after birth. Your milk supply won’t be abundant during the first four days. This is normal! Whatever milk you have (colostrum) is enough and sufficient for your baby.
  • How to tell if your baby is getting enough milk. This will help you deal with any doubts or concerns you may have.
  • The effects of supplementing breast milk with formula, water or sugar water, and using bottles and pacifiers. These cause nipple confusion, breast rejection and decrease your milk production. In some cases, supplementation may be medically indicated upon advice of a physician who is pro-breastfeeding, but these are very rare occurrences.
  • What engorgement, a blocked duct, and sore nipples are, and how to deal with them. Knowing this will help you recognise problems early on and solve them before they get worse.

3. Get Help
A lactation consultant or a nurse committed to your success can make all the difference in the world. Your greatest allies will be a supportive husband who is informed about breastfeeding, and friends who have breastfed successfully.

4. Breastfeed Early
Breastfeed skin to skin within one hour of birth. If this isn’t possible, express (pump) within six hours of delivery. An early start will have a huge impact on future milk production.

5. Breastfeed Often
Don’t restrict or schedule your baby’s feeds. Feed him whenever he roots for the breast. This increases your milk supply and satisfies his suckling needs. Rooming-in 24 hours with your baby helps establish breastfeeding sooner.

6. Relax
The first few weeks will be tough. It takes time for a mom and baby to learn breastfeeding. Get good nutrition, drink extra fluids, rest as much as possible and relax. Stress will inhibit your milk let-down reflex.

7. Keep Your Eyes on the Prize
Breastfeeding can be a difficult skill to perfect, but it is totally worth it.  For me, choosing to persevere was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

Jin Ai traded refugee work for diapers, dishes and homeschooling. She blogs about parenting, home education and life as mom to four kids (one baking) at Mama Hear Me Roar.