Breastfeeding. One of the many parenting skills you only hear and read about before doing it without practice. Suddenly you are attaching a small slippery wiggling newborn to one of the most intimate parts of your body. As you do so, it feels like the weight of the world is laid upon you because with this act you will provide all of the essential nutrients for this little being to grow. Our society is so removed from this life-giving occupation that most people have never seen another person breastfeed except through Youtube videos or maybe renaissance paintings. Unless a person works in the birth community, has a close connection with a sister or a memory of a mother feeding siblings, almost no person observes those first attempts at breastfeeding.
The first days and weeks of breastfeeding require so much from a new parent, and some basic education about breastfeeding and knowledge of one's body helps to support jumping in feet first.
Nature has given us wiggle room for trial and error. A baby is born with body fat to sustain it through the first few days of life and a pregnant body has been creating a store of the first milk, colostrum since about 10-14 weeks pregnant. Yes, the body has been prepping for breastfeeding since before many parents tell the world they are expecting! Babies only need this small amount of early milk, but have a high need to suck after birth, which helps to calm and soothe them. Some babies will want to suck multiple times in an hour and this can be misinterpreted as a need for food.
All this suckling sends a message to the breastfeeding body of exactly how to create the quality and quantity of milk to meet the baby's nutritional needs. Once the body has received this message, milk production increases, usually within the first 3-5 days following birth. A c-section surgery may cause the milk increase to be delayed a bit. This is why baby needs to be close and have skin to skin contact with the parent that is breastfeeding. The co-regulation is a building block for a positive breastfeeding experience. Community support and understanding of this early and ongoing parent and baby connection is also essential.
What other skills are needed for supporting a positive breastfeeding relationship?
Patience for self and baby and the development of skills as the breastfeeding parent and the baby learn about the process and each other. A baby is primed to start sucking very soon after birth but stress in the birthing space can interfere with this phase of breastfeeding. A baby can still get milk even with a poor latch or inability to get a latch. Many parents have difficulty with latching in the first days of breastfeeding. Perseverance, a curious mind, and flexibility will help with managing the frustrations of early breastfeeding struggles. Just because a previous feed did not go well does not mean the next one will be the same. Each breastfeeding session is a new opportunity to try again. One can use what was learned in the last feed without letting fears of a negative experience interfere with the new attempt. Some breastfeeding triage suggestions may only work for a feed or two and then not be necessary and then helpful again a few days later.
Some people may be upset when I say that knowledge of a breast pump is a skill needed in the modern day of breastfeeding. We practice fire drills in case of fire, and knowing how to use a breast pump is helpful in case it is needed at some point. Using a mechanical pump is not the first thing you would use. Knowing the basics of hand expression is important as it can give a breastfeeder knowledge and confidence in the body as well as stimulate milk production in the first days. Practicing hand expression of your own breasts in the weeks before your due date helps you to become familiar with your body and will increase confidence in your body's ability to create milk. Collection of colostrum before birth for early feedings is currently being studied and the initial results are positive. Colostrum can be brought to the hospital and given to a newborn if needed during unexpected situations and to support a positive feeding experience.
Continued clinical and social support for the breastfeeding person throughout the breastfeeding journey is very important. Breastfeeding rates are mostly measured at hospital discharge. The breastfeeding parent goes through so many transitions in the first weeks and months following birth, especially if there are any challenges or the parent has to or chooses to return to work.
how and when the parent sleeps
what they choose to wear
what they choose to eat and drink
how they structure their day
how they choose to carry their child
communication with their partner and other people caring for the child.
And much, much more.
Navigating these transitions through the first year of breastfeeding requires grace and good problem solving. Breastfeeding a newborn is not like breastfeeding an alert 3-month-old, a busy moving 9-month-old, or a demanding 12-month-old.
The breastfeeding support and advice from family, friends and untrained professionals can be mixed and confusing. As a mother of three and trained professional, I still feel that the medical community could be doing more. Given that new parents have so many check-ups before the birth of their child, a more direct support plan afterward would be beneficial. Many hospitals and midwives have phone numbers to call for lactation support. Many WIC offices have lactation support. Lactation consultants (IBCLC) have the most education experience for supporting breastfeeding complications but breastfeeding educators and peer support specialists also have a great deal of knowledge to support common concerns. A lactation consultant can be found through ilca.org or the app HELLO MOM.
Some people hesitate to get support from a new unknown person, especially right after birth. The breastfeeding person can also identify friends and family to be their advocates before birth by clearly communicating their plans and expectations for breastfeeding and directly asking for support. Identifying a breastfeeding support friend before the birth, someone to call at almost anytime for support with the early struggles, can help relieve some of the emotions that happen in the moment. This is a friend to call to provide a listening ear, help with problem-solving, and encourage any pursuit of clinical support. Connections with friends and family throughout the postpartum period and not just after the baby is born is the best way to have better support for the growing family.
Breastfeeding requires knowledge, education, skill development, patience, curiosity, perseverance, time, grace, problem-solving, and most of all, social support for a positive experience. Breastfeeding affects all aspects of a family's life throughout the early parenting journey. I feel that breastfeeding parents and their children deserve more clinical care to navigate this journey and I’m excited to help showcase the many options available for support
My pursuit of a Lactation Educator Counselor certificate is one of my goals to become part of this clinical support team. Learning the best language, strategies, and ways to present information for breastfeeding education provided me a solid base of information and clinical skills. I am able to provide breastfeeding education to new and expecting parents to help them navigate the most common breastfeeding concerns. Combined with my knowledge base from occupational therapy, I can give parents advice and support for problem solving all the areas of life affected by breastfeeding.