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I recently saw an article on the basics of breastfeeding. It was titled "Breastfeeding Bliss." I nearly laughed out loud. Bliss isn't what comes to mind when I think about my own early efforts to nurse.
When I was pregnant, I studied for motherhood as if I was preparing for the bar exam. I read everything I could find on nursing, talked with other moms and even took a breastfeeding class. I was ready. But when my baby arrived, nourishing him was not what I'd expected.
I was unprepared for the physical and emotional rigors of first-time breastfeeding, even though I was completely committed to it. Since then, I have spoken with many mothers whose breastfeeding woes early on ranged from painful breast infections and sore nipples to feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. Many parenting magazines and books do not reflect these challenges and instead paint a rosy picture that sets many women up for failure. In fact, more than 60 percent of American women are breastfeeding exclusively seven days after giving birth, but only 14 percent of those women are still doing so six months later, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The most common problem associated with breastfeeding is an improper latch, which can lead to cracked nipples and engorgement, says pediatrician William Sears, M.D., author of The Breastfeeding Book (Little Brown & Co., 2000). To achieve a proper latch, hold your baby close to you, tummy to tummy, and high enough that his mouth is lined up with your nipple. Tickle his lips with your nipple until his mouth opens wide. Then pull him close to you, directing your nipple into the center of his mouth; don't lean over toward him or stretch your breast out to him. Make sure he takes the entire nipple and at least 1 1/2 inches of your areola in his mouth.
But physical challenges are just one side of the coin. In fact, emotional ones often prove more powerful in a woman's decision to give up breastfeeding. "Many new moms don't have a realistic idea of how intense breastfeeding is during the first few weeks," says Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., I.B.C.L.C., a health psychologist, lactation consultant and research associate professor at the Family Research Lab at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.
I was surprised to find that for the first eight weeks, my son wanted to stay attached to me 24 hours a day, leaving me fatigued and worried about my milk supply. Conversely, some moms find that their babies show no interest in feeding, and they suffer from a sense of failure or inadequacy.
Breastfeeding problems can seem even more formidable when you're alone. "Years ago, girls saw their mothers, sisters, aunts, friends and neighbors breastfeeding, but today it is not unusual for new moms never to have seen a woman breastfeed a baby," says Deborah Dowe, R.N., C.C.E., I.B.C.L.C., a lactation consultant and childbirth educator at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford, Conn.
Kendall-Tackett adds that many mothers are on their own within days of giving birth, with no assistance at all. Sometimes, this causes them to give up even when the breastfeeding challenge they are facing could easily be solved if they had the proper support.