Breastfeeding for Beginners

Overcoming nursing challenges in the early weeks.


Recently I saw a magazine article illustrating the basics of breastfeeding. It was titled "Breastfeeding Bliss." I laughed out loud. As the first-time mother of an active 12-week-old boy, bliss wasn't the first word that came to mind when I thought about my own early efforts to breastfeed.

When I was pregnant, I studied for motherhood as if preparing for the Bar. I read everything I could find on breastfeeding, talked with other moms and even took a class. I was ready. But when my baby arrived, nourishing him was not what I had expected. I was unprepared for the physical and emotional rigors of first-time breastfeeding, even though I was committed to it. Since then, I have spoken with many mothers whose breastfeeding woes early in the postpartum period ranged from painful breast infections and sore nipples to feeling exhausted and overwhelmed.

Most parenting magazines and books do not reflect this experience and instead paint a rosy picture that sets up many women unnecessarily for failure. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, more than one-half of American women leave the hospital with the intention of breastfeeding, but only 21 percent are still doing it six months later.

The Difficulties

The most common problem associated with breastfeeding is improper latch-on, says pediatrician William Sears, M.D., author of The Breastfeeding Book (Little Brown & Co., 2000) and a father of eight. To achieve proper latch-on, 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. Make sure he takes in the entire nipple and about 1 inch of your areola.

But physical challenges are just one side of the coin. 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., a health psychologist, La Leche League leader and research associate 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. In other cases, the baby shows no interest in feeding, and mom suffers 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 breastfeeding a baby," says Deborah Dowe, R.N., a lactation consultant and childbirth educator at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, Conn.

Kendall-Tackett adds that many mothers are on their own within days of giving birth with no help or support at all, causing them to throw in the towel in the face of even the smallest breastfeeding challenge.

The Solutions

It's normal to feel overwhelmed by breastfeeding problems, especially when you're recovering from childbirth, adjusting to first-time parenthood and getting to know your baby. Here are some tips to make it easier.

If you're in pain: The best solution is to seek advice from a lactation consultant, says Kendall-Tackett. "Pain from breastfeeding is not normal and is an indication that something — usually quite fixable — is wrong," she says. "At this point, you may need some professional help." A lactation consultant might help by demonstrating how a simple adjustment to the baby's position can help prevent or relieve sore nipples, explaining how chilled cabbage leaves can relieve engorgement or giving tips on how to help speed recovery from a breast infection.

If you're exhausted: "When moms are tired, it makes them more prone to breastfeeding difficulties," says Kendall-Tackett. So in addition to following the tried-and-true advice to sleep whenever the baby sleeps, learn how to breastfeed while lying down so you can get the rest so critical for establishing your milk supply. Also consider sleeping within easy reach of the baby; many moms say that getting up to fetch him and then returning him to his crib adds to their fatigue. Finally, line up someone to help with meals, errands and household chores for the first few weeks, if possible. Grandma and dad are great in this role, but you may also want to hire a doula.

If you're feeling overwhelmed: For women accustomed to a schedule, baby's inconsistent nursing patterns require a major readjustment of expectations. But the payoff is well worth the effort, according to Sears. "Breastfed babies do not schedule easily, and they wake more often at night, but remember that the more you put in, the more you get out," he says. "Breastfeeding is a lifestyle choice."

Today, I'm happy to report that all of my breastfeeding bugs have been worked out, and I thoroughly enjoy the tranquil, special moments I spend with my son. I wouldn't trade my decision to breastfeed for anything in the world, and I'm happy that I stuck to it.

As you and your baby learn how to breastfeed, know that it will get easier. As your baby grows, so will your experience and confidence, and in just a few short weeks, you'll be a seasoned pro.