Until I had my daughter I didn't realize breastfeeding would be a difficult process; I assumed babies just knew how to do it. Boy, was I surprised.
Breastfeeding can be difficult, and it's a truth more moms should talk about. The beautiful bonding moments captured by talented photographers don't often portray the reality of breastfeeding.
The rise in breastfeeding support over the past several decades is an important acknowledgement of inherent difficulties found in breastfeeding. Organizations such as La Leche League as well as lactation consultants provide crucial support for moms. While I was determined to breastfeed and my supply was good, my daughter struggled to latch.
When she finally latched, she would only do so with a nipple shield for three months. At four months, she finally got to the picture perfect image of breastfeeding - but it was a long road.
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Up until then, there were plenty of learning curves for me. It didn't start as a sunshine and rainbows experience; it was often frustrating and painful. While I was surrounded by moms who supported breastfeeding, and shared embarrassing stories about leaky boobs in Target or a child demanding a snack in public, no one ever shared difficulties with the process.
Moms should talk about latching issues, or babies who like to feed every two hours. Let's talk about nipple size and sore nipples and cracked nipples.
Let's talk about everything.
1. It Can Take a Village
Many babies arrive not knowing how to breastfeed; they want to, but for many it's a learned skill. Learning to latch and suck can be a process - a process hard won by patience, trial and error, and determination.
What calms one infant, may not calm another. It can be overwhelming at times, and that's where the support of a village can be vital to a new mother's breastfeeding success. It may take a village of lactation consultants, friends who've been there, and breastfeeding advocates to help mamas and babies master breastfeeding.
A village of women is also required to help normalize breastfeeding - feeding a child in a park or in a mall should never be alarming to passersby.
When my daughter was two, we visited the zoo on a near-perfect day. A mother was breastfeeding her baby quietly on a relatively secluded bench by the elephants. A family with teenagers walked by and asked her to cover up. The mother, who was by herself, looked uncomfortable and two other women immediately spoke up to the middle-aged father, one loudly saying, "Just exactly how do you think your mother fed you?"
The man's wife pulled him away, and the two women who were from different generations sat down with the breastfeeding mother, who simply smiled. Sometimes it's just about village solidarity.
2. It Can Be Painful
While the pain of breastfeeding may not compare to a vaginal or cesarean birth, it can be a painful experience, especially initially. Breastfeeding may lead to clogged ducts, cracked nipples, and mastitis. Some babies will only nurse from a single side, leaving mamas lopsided and uncomfortable until a pump can alleviate the pressure.
And for mamas who pump, having the breast and nipple manipulated to release milk can be uncomfortable to say the least. But lactating mamas pump because we know the truth: every ounce is worth its weight in gold. While some mothers share beautiful breastfeeding experiences, getting there, especially in the very beginning, can be painful.
Talking openly about challenges and solutions can better help mothers who encounter difficulty.
3. Your Diet May Need to Change
You know that old adage, "You are what you eat?", well what you eat ends up in your breastmilk…and may irritate your child. After several trips to the pediatrician, our doc finally recommended cutting all dairy from my diet to ease the symptoms of fussiness, bloating, and poor bowel movements my newborn was experiencing.
And she was right. About a week after cutting dairy, my baby was completely different after breastfeeding; it turned out she was dairy intolerant and my consumption of dairy was irritating her intestinal tract. I had no idea this was possible, but now I mention it whenever I find myself in a conversation with a new mom who seems to be experiencing the same issue.
Related: These Stunning Photos are Part of an Inspiring Campaign to Normalize Breastfeeding
4. It Can be Exhausting
Beyond being on-call at 11 p.m. through 6 a.m., making quality milk is a demanding process for the body. After all, that milk is chock full of goodness - including essential fatty acids crucial for brain development. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology & Nutrition, discussed how early exposure to different food tastes can affect an individual's food preferences.
In other words, what mama eats will likely affect how baby will eat later. The pressure! Additionally, breastfeeding mothers need to drink more water than the recommended 8 daily glasses. Remembering to take care of yourself can become lost in the new baby haze. Mothers who've been there know just how exhausting it can be.
One of the best gifts I received after having my daughter came about a month after her birth. A friend showed up with a box brimming with healthy snacks: small dairy-free yogurts, trail mix, homemade granola bars, fruit, cut veggies…She knew; she also cleaned my kitchen before she left. It's all about the village.
Knowledge is power - and new mamas need all the power they can get. While many hospitals now employ lactation consultants, not all do - breastfeeding resources are not adequately distributed throughout the U.S. Unfortunately, neither is social acceptance of breastfeeding. Sometimes we need to be the change in the world. Moms need to talk about breastfeeding and add our knowledge and experience to the collective base until words such as colostrum, ankyloglossia, areloa, thrush, and mastitis become more common.
And the next time you hear someone chastising a woman breastfeeding in public, consider quoting David Allen: "My opinion is that anybody offended by breastfeeding is staring too hard."