The fairy tale is this: there’s a pregnant mother daydreaming of her round-faced baby suckling on her enlarged breast and then drifting off to a deep, restful sleep. She knows that breast is best; she of course, will do what’s best. Months later, the new mother sits with that round-faced baby in her arms. But, instead of suckling and drifting off to sleep, there are tears and frustration. They find themselves in a cold, dark forest. OK, maybe it’s not a real forest, but that’s how it can feel for the woman struggling to feed her infant.
That cold, dark forest is where moms can find themselves when breastfeeding doesn’t go as planned. It’s scary when a baby isn’t nursing and thriving. When the natural process of breastfeeding isn’t working, parents and especially moms, can become consumed with wondering what’s gone wrong.
Nursing is how mammals feed their young and babies, like all mammals, have an inner map of how the process works. That is all true; nursing is an amazing thing when it works. But most new parents are not adequately prepared for the unexpected. Believing that breastfeeding is the one right way to feed a baby can backfire; new parents may believe that all a mom needs to do is try harder or do more and the process will work. It’s helpful for new parents to know a few ways to care for themselves in the face of early feeding challenges.
No one wants spend the precious weeks postpartum wrestling with the self-judgment that often comes along with feeding issues. Why is this happening? What should I do? What’s wrong with me? These low points are about as far away as possible from the fairy-tale picture once imagined. What can new parents do to embrace the light and love in difficult times?
One way is to best-feed your baby. Yes, you read that right: best-feed. There are two parts of best-feeding. The first is to understand that no one is a perfect parent. Best-feeding is doing what is best in real time for your family, as opposed to what you may have thought was best before becoming a parent.
The second part of best-feeding is to look at all of the ways that breastfeeding is beneficial, and mimic the ones that can be replicated with whatever current feeding methods are being utilized. The possibilities of what to feed an infant include one’s own breast milk, donated breast milk and purchased formula. Feeding systems offer even more possibilities: a bottle, syringe, nipple shield or tube system with a finger or mother’s nipple. For mothers dealing with repeat breast infections or low milk supply, feedings may include manual compression of the breast and additional time spent pumping after a regular feeding.
Anyone feeding a baby can best-feed; changing a chore of basic calorie transfer into an opportunity to connect. Before a feeding, simply ask yourself, “How can I improve this moment?” Answering this question will provoke action. Maybe mom will use the bathroom before a feeding to be more comfortable. Maybe dad will get skin-to-skin contact with baby. Both parents might power down their phones and listen. The answer will continually change, making each feeding a doorway to new possibilities.
It’s important for families to know that feeding issues don’t discriminate; it doesn’t matter if a woman read books, or took a breastfeeding class, or really, really wants to breastfeed. Being informed is an important way to promote a healthy feeding relationship, but being informed alone cannot protect a family from trouble. It’s possible for a woman to do everything “right” and still have problems that even the best lactation consultants can’t remedy.
Best-feeding isn’t a magic ticket to bliss, but it can help implement changes to the original feeding plan, while holding onto important bonding opportunities that feeding your baby can provide.
Amity Kramer is a doula and Birthing From Within mentor. She lives and teaches classes in the Queen Anne area. When not chasing her three children, she likes to spend time encouraging pregnant women to take childbirth classes, digging in the dirt attempting to grow food and perfecting her monkey-bar skills.
Food for thought: Tips for family and friends
During their postpartum journey, parents will have countless encounters with friends, doctors, midwives, family, lactation consultants, doulas, co-workers and even strangers, all of whom will offer their best advice for the new family. Some of these interactions will be helpful, some will be unhelpful, and some will do harm unintentionally.
For those of you who hope to be in the helpful category, here are two suggestions:
1. Listen. Resist judgment. Communicate that you understand. Striving to understand fosters growth and connection, and will leave new parents feeling nurtured and supported. Too often stories or advice are shared to fill silence. Be aware of the importance of your words and share them thoughtfully.
2. Think about the questions you ask and how they may impact new parents.
Below is a list of supportive alternatives to common questions posed to new parents.
Is your baby a good sleeper?
Are you nursing your baby?
Is that breast milk in the bottle?
How was your birth?
What are you enjoying most about parenthood?
Is there anything I can help you with?
How has the transition to parenthood been for you?
What is one way you have been connecting as a family?
Your curiosities and more will be uncovered by asking thought-provoking questions. It also allows parents to share their story, if and when it feels safe to do so.
Straight talk with best-feeding moms
“I feel [I’m] in this weird category where my baby is drinking mostly breast milk, but entirely from a bottle. I know it's not the norm, but at the same time I wish my situation had been normalized or even presented as an option prior to birth, so that I might not have felt so defeated or out of the ordinary.”
— Green Lake mother of two bottle-fed children
“Get sleep. Eat. Enjoy your new bond with your infant, but also with your partner. Trust yourself, and trust that you want what’s best for your baby, what’s best for your family, and that intention will carry you a long way. If nothing else, if your supply never comes in, at least you’ll know how much your responsibility as a parent means to you.”
— Burien mom of one best-fed child
“I wish someone would have told me that, yes, it is really hard for some women to breastfeed. That if it was getting too hard, and I was crying and the baby was constantly crying, it was OK to supplement and give each other some relief, happiness and sanity.”
— Queen Anne mother of two best-fed children