Breastfeeding has been one of the loveliest and most challenging parts of motherhood for me. I went into it a bit gung ho, merely attending an NHS breastfeeding antenatal class and thinking, “If it works out it works out, if it doesn’t, we tried”. But, from the moment M was popped on my chest in the hospital and fed for the first time, it has been a journey of bonding and empowerment for us.
I’ll be upfront here, this is warts and all. There were times when it was tough (the first few weeks especially), but I have found it to be so worth it. From how it has shaped motherhood, to the realisation that you are the sole life supply for this baby, and – seriously! – the pure ease of being able to leave the house quickly with nothing but some nappies, wet wipes and a muslin. Amazing!
Getting started and the early days
The first few weeks were tough, as they are for many mothers. M latched and fed ok, but our first few latches had been a bit poor (although a natural “thing”, both mother and baby have to perfect this new skill), and poor latch = (very) sore nips. I remember calling on the help of our NHS breastfeeding counsellor on day three and bursting into tears of relief when she appeared on my doorstep with my midwife (probably a combo of hormones, sleep deprivation and pure relief at having some expert help).
Over a hot cuppa, she helped me and my husband (yes, this is totally about blokes too, they can do so much to encourage and support; in fact we wrote an article on this to help dads of breastfed babies) to see how to get the right latch; the difference was amazing. It took a few more weeks, but the soreness went (by week six, I think) and that was that. My tips for this would be to be gentle with your nips (pat dry after a shower, for e.g.), squeeze out a little milk after a feed and rub into your nipples, and also invest in a good nipple cream like Lansinoh or Earth Mama Angel Baby Nipple Cream (the one I used as I’m allergic to lanolin, a key ingredient in most creams).
There is also a crazy amount of feeding in those first few weeks as your baby builds up your milk supply – the only way this can happen is for them to feed and feed to stimulate supply (this is called ‘cluster feeding’ and is perfectly normal; it’ll happen a few times during the first few months as your baby hits growth spurts). This cluster feeding often happens at night when your milk is at its richest. I have memories of sitting in bed next to a sleeping husband, with a baby attached to my boob and trying desperately to stay awake as every piece of advice you’re told by the NHS is to NOT co-sleep or fall asleep feeding baby (I have since learned that bed-sharing with your baby is OK, following guidance on how to do it safely; see our guest post on co-sleeping).
Anyway, cue serious sleep deprivation and tears as I longingly looked at my peaceful sleeping husband with envy (and maybe a bit of resentment), then back to my beautiful baby, and then back to my husband, and then to my phone on which I had downloaded Candy Crush in an attempt to stay awake. It was hard going, but that period of time is so short and getting through it is – how shall I put it? – character-building! We have written an article on how to look after yourself while sleep-deprived. However you feed your baby, during those first few weeks you will prove yourself an amazing human being capable of achieving anything!
Feeding in public – how and what to wear
One of the biggest next steps and hurdles in feeding during those first few weeks is the first time you feed in public. I was never worried about it (once I’d been through childbirth with everyone seeing everything, the prospect of whipping a boob out just didn’t seem a huge deal), but I know some mums find it scary and I completely understand the hesitation, both from a privacy point of view and also concerns about what others might think / say. I generally remain discreet, keeping myself covered with a pashmina and / or a baggy top, but this is my personal choice! Some mothers are happy to have their boobs out and on display and I wholeheartedly support that too! Whatever you are personally comfortable with.
The first public feed I remember well; M was a week old and we were in Byron Burger. My husband jumped up to hold a pashmina around me while I clumsily grappled with my top, a bra and a new delicate baby to practice our latching. It all felt rather haphazard and messy, but it gets easier. After a few weeks, M had learned to latch herself and I had mastered stretchy vest tops, nursing bras and baggy tops instead of pashminas; it all got a whole lot easier, and you learn quickly to eat and drink with one hand – something you’ll be doing a lot. Also check out the “one up one down” method, which is where you wear a stretchy vest top under your clothes and you pull the vest top down below your boob when you want to feed, and lift the top you are wearing over it up – this keeps your tummy covered and is super easy and comfortable! Wrap dresses and tops are also perfect for easy access – I could write a whole post on what to wear while breastfeeding, but check out this ace community on Facebook (Can I Breastfeed in it?) for all the advice and info you could need, including people’s latest finds in the shops. Also, get measured for a bra at regular intervals while breastfeeding as your boobs change in size and need proper support – this is really important; the amount of relaxin in your body during pregnancy means things are stretchier and keeping your boobs supported in the right way will help them retain their shape. Check out the size difference from my pre-pregnancy and postpartum bras here, the right size bra matters!
All was fine and dandy…and then, came the distraction. I think this hit at about 4-6 months. M wanted to look at EVERYTHING. Mid-feed she’d unlatch, leaving milk dripping down my boob and clothes and seeing me scrambling to drop my top to cover myself! Feeds in public and/or around people caused a lot of distraction to my little girl who was growing a greater awareness of the world around her and feeds were a few seconds on then off then back on. This was a tricky phase – I even went to our local breastfeeding cafe to ask for advice – but we got through it (going somewhere more quiet and with fewer distractions can sometimes help) and after a few weeks she got bored of the sights and back focused on the white stuff.
Feed timings and durations
M has always fed for a decent length of time and quite frequently, more so than most of the others in our tribe. When others’ feed times started decreasing in duration and frequency, M’s feeds remained around 30-45 minutes in length and were (and still are) periods of total calm for us both. Up until a few weeks ago, I was studying for my last year of an English Literature degree and – armed with the Kindle my thoughtful husband bought me (amazing for nap and bedtime feeds, highly recommend!) – I use this time to read my set books (or, catch up on box sets!); it works well for us.
Update: as we have moved into toddlerhood, feeds are sometimes just a few minutes. Longer feeds are reserved for naps and bedtimes.
Problems – blocked ducts and blebs (and the teething myth)
I went through a period of a few months when I had no end of blocked ducts, normally in the same boob; these are when a milk duct becomes blocked and milk backs up behind it causing a hard lump. It is important to clear the blockage as it is possible the milk can become infected and turn into mastitis – a painful infection that can require antibiotics. I tried everything to resolve the blockages, including frequent feeding, dangle feeding, hot compresses, massaging etc. (see this article on Kellymom for some great advice) but they kept coming back. Eventually, it was taking something called ‘Lecithin’ – a natural substance available from health food shops and recommended by breastfeeding expert Kellymom – and sleeping with a hot water bottle on my boob that resolved the issue once and for all by thinning the milk and clearing the ducts. I know many mums that have tried this and found it to work.
Milk blisters, or ‘blebs’, are very painful and related to blocked ducts. More information is available here on how to identify and treat them. I found bathing the bleb in epsom salts helped to clear them up but, really, time is the best healer! Again, Kellymom has some great advice.
Teeth…so many people who haven’t fed assume the appearance of teeth means the end of feeding. It doesn’t!! Yes, there can be the odd bite, but these generally are few and far between and really are something does not need to end a breastfeeding journey by any means. Your baby’s tongue sits over their bottom teeth when they latch, that’s how nature designed it and it means teething is generally not a problem!
Being away from your baby
My friends are now used to seeing me sat on hen dos with a milk pump whirring away. At 17 months (when I started to write this post), I’d missed two bedtimes since M was born (it’s not many more now), and the emotions that go with it are huge (will she take the milk I’ve expressed, will she sleep OK, will she starve, etc etc, argh!), not to mention the discomfort of getting full boobs. However, both M and my husband survived; she didn’t drink a huge amount of the expressed milk I’d left, but she ate well and drank plenty of water. We also feed to sleep for naptimes and bedtimes; my husband either rocked and cuddled her or took her out for drives at naptime, and at bedtime, she had lots of cuddles and slept well. And M didn’t go off the boob (which a lot of mums are understandably worried about), she happily resumed feeding when I returned (I understand this is overwhelmingly what happens!). You might find it useful to share this article for partners of breastfeeding mamas with your other half if you’re away, as things like “paced feeding” (lots of pauses while bottle feeding to mimic a mother’s natural milk flow) can help maintain the breastfeeding relationship when you’re back.
From my point of view, I just had to express wherever I could. Normally making sure I had time back at our hotel every few hours. It’s important to express roughly as many times as you would normally feed to keep your supply up but, from my experience, being back with your baby and having them feed regularly can return your supply to its normal levels. I was using a Tommy Tippee single electric pump (I tried but couldn’t use the manual pump), and this was good but then I bought an Ameda Lactaline double breast pump which was a game-changer – more powerful and both boobs at once, meaning it was much quicker and also not as fiddly to clean.
Feeding a toddler
The World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding up to two years of age (soon to change to three, we understand). I never expected to be feeding a toddler, originally thinking if we got to three months that was good, and then six months, and then a year and now we’re not really setting any targets. Here we are at 20 months and still going strong – and it’s totally fine! I had a feeling once of being self-conscious that you don’t see many (if any!) mums breastfeeding toddlers in public, but that soon passed and I don’t give it another thought now (maybe, hopefully, I’m helping to normalise it?!). Breastfeeding is part of our relationship and M will stop when she’s ready. It’s still a tool for comfort, connecting with me and there is still nutritional value to the milk she drinks, even at this age (and contrary to what many people and companies would have you believe); even though she’s on solids, she doesn’t always eat huge amounts so milk provides her with a top up.
The old cues for wanting milk have gone and she now simply pops her hand down my top or simple asks for (sometimes demands) milk. Some mums worry about toddlers “undressing” them to get to their boobs; M has tried to pull my top down a couple of times but we set boundaries in places and she knows that asking me will be more effective.
We did go through a wriggly phase for a few months where M would try to feed in a multitude of positions, many of which were blooming uncomfortable for me. So, again, we gently set some boundaries that mean feeding time is generally a time for calm rather than gymnastics (there’s plenty of time for that throughout the day).
If I am away for a few hours or overnight (still rare!) now, I don’t need to express as much and she is able to cope just fine without me, eating plenty of food and drinking lots of fluids. Breastfeeding into toddlerhood is not the tie that many people may believe it is.
Probably one of the biggest challenges I have about breastfeeding a toddler, though, is my own thoughts on what others might be thinking and if they’re judging. But, generally, people either keep their thoughts to themselves or say that we’re doing a good thing. I do get asked when we might stop, but that honestly doesn’t bother me. I just explain that it works fine for us at the moment and we’ll stop when either or both of us are ready.
Carry on boobing!
Lauren, the Mother Side xx
The other half of Tales from the Mother Side, Jo, has written an ace post on her breastfeeding experience which covers other challenges, it’s well worth a read: Breastfeeding: Nipple Shields, Slow Weight Gain and Nursing Whilst Pregnant
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Look at our Useful links page for websites and articles you might find helpful for your breastfeeding journey, from expert support to communities of other breastfeeding mamas, there is so much out there. Organisations like La Leche League, for example, are simply amazing and have leaders that will be able to help you personally and often local or regional Facebook communities where you can get peer support from other mamas.