Breastfeeding is tough. Really tough.
Before giving birth, I never imagined it wouldn’t come totally naturally. Surely it was just something that ‘happened’?
How wrong I was. For me, breastfeeding was a marathon: not just emotionally exhausting, but physically draining, too. After three months I had to stop. (I don’t say ‘give up’—that implies shame when there wasn’t even a whiff of it.) I stopped for my mental health. My daughter deserved me to be in a good headspace, so I could bestow on her my full and undivided attention. That was my priority. Even more important than breastfeeding her.
This morning I was thinking back on those days. Even while surrounded by a vibrant support network, on occasion I still felt a little clueless. There are things I wish I’d known—so today I thought I’d compile 5 of the most important. If you’ve landed on this blog, chances are you’re in the same position I was. So I hope these help—and whether you decide to continue breastfeeding, do what’s right for you. Be strong for your baby. That’s what they need.
1) Witness the wonder of the breast crawl
Let’s start with a vital piece of advice for mums who haven’t yet given birth. And if you don’t know about this one, well—you’ve just booked yourself a front row seat for one of human evolution’s most magnificent manifestations.
As soon as you can after birth, place your baby on your chest. This could be between your breasts, although you could put them slightly farther down. Incredibly, over the course of half an hour newborns make their way to the nipple—and then latch on, unassisted and without need of encouragement. This sheer display of human instinct is the breast crawl.
Make sure you’ve got a few pillows beneath you. Lying in this semi-reclined state, known as the biological nurturing position, you maximise support for your baby, who can then focus all their attention on suckling. Use your hands and arms to ensure they don’t roll away. Lying in a prone position (face down) triggers the breast crawl response in newborns for the first month of life.
Women who have had a Caesarean section can enact a modified version of the breast crawl. Simply place your baby’s head slightly over your shoulder, then ask your partner, nurse, or birthing partner to support them as they slowly make their instinctive way south. This may take longer than the breast crawl that follows a vaginal birth, so do consult your doctor if you’re concerned about the slight delay to your baby’s first breastfeed.
An additional note about that precious first breastfeed: try as hard as you can to give your baby your colostrum, the milk you produce in the hours after birth. It’s even richer in nutrients than normal breast milk, so sustain your very first breastfeed as long as you can. Your baby will know when they’re full! Even if you’ve had a C section, which can block your ability to produce milk, still endeavour to pass on your colostrum. I couldn’t be a stauncher advocate for the empowerment of C sections, but I still made sure to breastfeed my daughter in those special first hours postpartum. I did everything I could to impart the goodness of my colostrum to her in those most vital of moments.
2) Ensure as much skin-on-skin contact as possible
Neonatologists call it the Sacred Hour. The euphoric, maximally tactile time after birth, as your baby rests on your chest, suckles, and feels the calming rhythm of their mother’s heartbeat. Don’t interrupt the Sacred Hour unless you have to: the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends you sustain skin-on-skin contact for the postpartum period, including the days following. This promotes bonding and stimulates milk production.
3) Pump when you’re not breastfeeding to increase supply
Practice cyclical pumping to ensure an ample supply of milk, available at a moment’s notice. Look at pictures of your baby as you do—or even better, hold them as you pump. I recommend a wearable pump either by Medela or Elvie. And if pumping doesn’t work for you, consider investing in a suction pump. I recommend one by Haakaa.
A few quick tips for cyclical pumping:
- Stay hydrated. Lactation is a dehydrative process, so you need to drink a lot more water than you would normally. Keep a bottle beside the pump to remind yourself.
- Finding the pump that’s right for you makes a huge impact on milk production, so make sure your flanges fit properly. Coconut oil can work wonders for comfort, although if you’re having to resort to lubricant then your flanges may not be fitting as they should. Air any concerns surrounding this to a lactation consultant—more on this below.
- Ensure all pump parts are clean and dry. Leftover water in the tubing can impede suction, as well as exacerbate the risk of bacteria.
- Get a hands-free bra. Trust me on this one.
4) Take supplements
There are lots of things you can add to your diet to enhance the nutrition of your breast milk. Try fenugreek, a herb you may have come across before without realising: its ground seeds are commonly used in curries. And it’s these small golden seeds we’re interested in. A 2018 meta-analysis showed that fenugreek seed consumption significantly increases milk production. The reason is unconfirmed, but some scientists believe it’s because fenugreek contains phytoestrogens, plant chemicals similar in structure to oestrogen.
Another must-try supplement is Domperidone, although this isn’t available in all countries. Domperidone is a medication that was actually developed to treat nausea, vomiting, indigestion, and gastric reflux, but was later found to be highly effective at stimulating milk production. Speaking of medications, though, avoid those containing dopamine agonists (which unfortunately is quite a few, including antihistamines), as these suppress milk production.
Breastfeeding is the most intimate moment you can have with your baby. So at this time of cosy togetherness during which they’re getting all the nutrition they need for healthy development, you might consider enjoying a breast milk–enhancing drink. Try nursing tea, mild, refreshing, and packed with organically cultivated herbs. Nursing tea helps balance your fluid intake, thus supporting natural milk production.
5) Hire a lactation consultant
Breastfeeding doesn’t come naturally to all women—and during this time a lactation consultant can be an absolute godsend, a trove of information, including:
- how to hold your baby during breastfeeding
- how long to breastfeed
- what clues your baby might be giving you
- how to work out a routine that works best for you.
Your lactation consultant will also advise on the less glamorous aspects of breastfeeding:
- infection from engorgement and clogged ducts
- issues with latching or milk production
- slow weight gain
- breastfeeding a premature infant or multiples
They help you ensure this intimate act of bonding isn’t hindered by practical issues, and may provide natural remedies to alleviate discomfort. As we saw in the previous point, many medications may be unavailable to you, so these alternatives couldn’t be more timely. Remember: it’s never too late to seek a lactation consultant’s wisdom. If I had my time again, I’d have them right there beside me after I gave birth. Too few nurses know how to promote proper breastfeeding in those first crucial hours.
And most important of all: relax
Breastfeeding is so much about mindset—so help yourself by creating a tranquil environment where you know you and your baby won’t be disturbed. Try the biological nurturing position we discussed earlier, and have everything you need right there to hand. The last thing you need once your baby’s latched on is to have to get up again! Have water ready, treat yourself to some snacks if you fancy, and grab a book or watch TV with the volume down. Or, of course, simply be at one with your beautiful newborn, soaking in the moment right then and there. Because take it from me: these are the precious, fleeting times you’ll look back on as the most halcyon of all.