Think Breastfeeding Will Come Naturally? Maybe Not.
Jennifer, a new mom who delivered this spring in Seattle, didn't expect breastfeeding her daughter Elena to go off without a hitch.
"I'd heard that it wasn't always a breeze, but I was committed to breastfeeding 100 percent. I thought we'd figure out any bumps along the way," Jennifer says.
But she and her husband, Eduardo, also didn't expect the bumps of delivering a baby two weeks early, of running a fever during her 41-hour labor, and soon after birth having her baby whisked away to receive IV antibiotics.
Like the other parents of newborns interviewed for this story, Jennifer preferred to use her first name only for privacy reasons.
"She was taken too soon, in my opinion," says Jennifer. "She was small, and I believe weak from the antibiotics, so the first time we tried nursing she was pretty sleepy."
The shape of her mother's nipple made it difficult for Elena to latch and suckle, increasing her risk for jaundice and weight loss.
"I basically expressed what I had in those early days and tried to get her to latch, with no success," recalls Jennifer. "Soon we were using a nipple shield and supplementing through tubing to get her started. It was frustrating, to say the least.
"You just want to feed your baby, you know? I never dreamed it would be so complicated and that we both would have a learning curve to get over," she says.
Jennifer isn't the first mom to say, "This isn't what I expected," when it comes to nursing an infant, and she won't be the last. While breastfeeding is often a joyous experience for mothers, enhancing the mother-baby bond and helping to protect the infant from illness, for many women the first few weeks are difficult and painful as both sides learn the ropes.
"It pretty much felt like someone sticking needles into my nipple after the first few times he latched on," says Rachel, a Bellevue resident and mother of 3-month-old Zachary. "I had heard that breastfeeding doesn't hurt, so I was a little shocked."
In Rachel's case, Zachary had what's called a tongue-tie – an unusually short, thick frenulum (the normally thin strip of skin) under his tongue that would not allow him to latch. He would clamp onto Rachel's nipple instead of latching properly. After seeing a lactation consultant, Rachel made an appointment to have the skin clipped to loosen his tongue.
"From the moment the procedure was done, he's been a champion nurser and the pain went away really quickly," says Rachel.
While some general soreness should be expected at the start of nursing, nursing should be a largely pain-free experience, even in the first day of life, says Seattle lactation consultant Renee Beebe, M.Ed., IBCLC. Beebe owns the Second 9 Months lactation/postpartum support service.
"Breastfeeding should be pleasant for mother and baby. If either is having a hard time, something is not right. (It) is not supposed to hurt – ever," says Beebe.
If it does, it may be time to find support in the form of a Le Leche League leader, hospital breastfeeding group, drop-in breastfeeding class or support group, or a certified lactation consultant.
At a Le Leche League meeting, a new mom will find information and advice from experienced moms. A drop-in breastfeeding class is usually taught by a certified lactation consultant, and while it does not offer the one-on-one interaction that might be necessary for more difficult issues, it's a great place to learn about the common pitfalls of breastfeeding and their remedies.
For more difficult or uncommon problems, a private session with a certified lactation consultant may be in order. Be sure to search out a consultant with the credentials IBCLC. That means they are certified by the International Board Certified Lactation Consultant Examiners and have logged hundreds of hours helping moms succeed at nursing.
Jennifer made an appointment with a lactation consultant and attended a weekly lactation support group, along with using the shield, pumping and supplementing what she produced. It was frustrating and a blow to her self-esteem.
"It is an extremely stressful time, when a mom is having a problem feeding her baby," says Tracy Corey, RN, IBCLC, owner of the breastfeeding support company Nurturing Expressions. "All a mom wants is to provide for her infant, and when she goes to the doctor and finds out that her baby is not gaining weight, she becomes extremely anxious and stressed."
Her advice to struggling new moms? "I tell them this will pass, and to remember that neither she nor her baby have ever done this before. I also tell her the first two weeks are usually the most difficult and after that things start getting better."
Several weeks in, Jennifer's mother-in-law suggested she ditch the shield, and Elena latched right on. Now almost 2 months old, Elena is completely off the breast shield and is eating well.
"Maybe relaxing a bit about the whole thing did it, who knows?" says Jennifer. "I just think the babies know what to do and eventually most of them get there. It definitely takes patience, though. Now we are much happier and I'm so glad I stuck with it."