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Many of us have heard “breast is best” when it comes to feeding young babies. While this may be so, the truth is learning to breastfeed doesn’t always come easy.
Just ask Lactation Specialists, Maggi Leyburn, RN, BSN, IBCLC for PeaceHealth in Vancouver, Washington and Janai Meyer, RDN, IBCLC, LD, in Ketchikan, Alaska.
During their combined 33 years of helping moms learn to breastfeed, they’ve seen a wide range of experiences and one thing is certain…“everyone is a beginner, at some point.”
Even moms who work in the medical field have a learning curve, said Janai, noting that until she became a lactation specialist, she herself had some of the same struggles she sees with patients in her practice.
And it’s not only the mom’s familiarity with breastfeeding. You also have to remember that every baby is different. A mom who had no trouble feeding her firstborn might be surprised by challenges with a second or third baby. Or vice versa.
If your first was a challenge, you might find your second child is a little easier. Don’t let your first experience discourage you from trying again. “Every experience is different. No matter what you hear, you and your baby have a different story—your own story. Let each one have its own chapter,” Janai said.
Both lactation consultants have seen moms overcome various challenges in the process of developing the skill of breastfeeding.
So what drives moms to keep trying? Maggi and Janai believe it’s the countless benefits of breastfeeding. And scientific research backs those up, showing an impressive list of advantages—both short-term and long-term.
“There are tons of benefits to breastfeeding—not just for the baby, but also for mom,” said Maggi.
One of the most amazing discoveries has been that “skin-to-skin feeding boosts immunity-builders in mom’s milk,” Maggi said. “As mom and baby snuggle, the mom’s body ‘reads’ what her baby needs and then makes and delivers the antibodies through the breastmilk.” She urges moms to continue “skin-to-skin” contact while nursing even as the little ones get bigger—and especially during flu season.
“Breast milk is almost like a medicine,” said Maggi. “It helps stave off infections. That’s why I always say some breastmilk is better than none.”
Janai has also noticed over the years “women intuitively take better care of themselves when they’re pregnant and that definitely carries over when they’re breastfeeding.”
There are, of course, a few drawbacks to breastfeeding.
One of the most common is physical pain—from the pinched feel of a too-full breast to sore nipples. However, “99 percent of the time, breastfeeding should not be painful,” said Janai.
It helps to know what’s normal so that care providers can help moms get or stay on the right track early. “You could feel fine in the hospital when nurses and lactation specialists are nearby, but your milk will usually come in after you’re home and you might think something is wrong,” she said. “You’re not doing anything wrong. It’s just part of your body’s adjustment process.”
She noted there are techniques to deal with engorgement—that “full-balloon-about-to-burst” feeling. Talk with your lactation consultant or nurse about what to expect and how to handle it.
Proper latching is also critical to prevent, reduce or eliminate pain. Tongue-tie in the baby can be a common reason for poor latch, which can cause mom pain. This condition requires a doctor to identify and help correct it.
Mastitis and thrush are also culprits for causing pain. You’ll also want to talk with your doctor about diagnosing and treating those.
Sometimes, babies aren’t healthy enough to nurse. In this case, moms might consider pumping milk to be fed from a bottle. Maggi said that the neonatal intensive care unit at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center uses breastmilk (from the mom and/or from donor moms) to help premature babies.
While not physically painful, low milk supply can be worrisome and emotionally taxing. You can sometimes boost your milk supply with diet. (Try this recipe for a cookie designed to help boost milk production.) But anatomy or the make-up of some women’s breasts can make it difficult to produce an ample supply, said Maggi.
Of course, the biggest drawback is that mom might not always be with the baby at feeding time.
For many moms, going back to fulltime work means pumping or transitioning to formula or a combination of both.
Pumping is a good option “after your milk supply is steady and your babe is familiar with nursing,” said Maggi. It’s usually best to wait about five weeks before you introduce anything new. Bottle nipples can make it too easy for the baby to suck so swapping too soon can cause confusion. That said, every baby is different. “Some babies are easy; others are very sensitive to change,” she said.
As far as breast pumps go, you’ll want to use a closed system to keep milk droplets from being drawn into the motor where they can breed bacteria, according to Janai.
Pump technology is getting better. “Newer pumps come with a higher price tag, but they can be synced to your smart phone to give you more information about how much you pump, how often and so forth,” noted Maggi.
Some health insurance plans cover the cost of breastmilk pumps so be sure to check your plan. Your doctor’s office or community agencies might also be able to put you in touch with other affordable options.
Still, pumping doesn’t work for everyone. “I knew a single mom who went back to work driving a mail truck after six weeks with her newborn. Clearly, pumping was not going to be an option for her,” said Maggi.
“And there’s the biggest takeaway—weighing all the factors in your life—you do what works for you and your family,” said Dr. Morin. “Breastfeeding isn’t the only way to go. Making sure your baby is well fed no matter how he or she is fed is the important thing.”
With all of the pros in favor of breastfeeding and the many resources in the community, You’ll have to decide what works best for you, your little one and your whole family—physically, mentally and emotionally. “Parenting is stressful enough without heaping guilt on yourself or feeling like you’re failing,” said Janai.
No matter what you choose, surround yourself with good support. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” said Dr. Morin. “You’re not alone. The issues you face are something many women struggle with.”