No one denies that breastfeeding is the best way to feed a baby – but not everyone will tell you that although it is the most natural way of feeding your baby, it can actually be very difficult to begin with. Establishing successful breastfeeding is not exactly a walk in the park: it takes time, effort, and yes, pain.
You and the baby both need to learn the right technique, the right latch, the different feeding positions and what works best for you. It takes about 12 weeks for the milk supply to stabilise – 12 weeks until your body knows exactly how much milk to make, and until baby knows exactly how much time to spend on the breast to make sure enough milk is being made. And those weeks can feel like an incredibly long time.
I was discussing the best ways to establish successful breastfeeding with student lactation consultant Rita Kovács-Tóth. She said that as well as the practical aspects being key – such as the correct latch, feeding on demand, skin-to-skin contact, plenty of rest – one major contributor to successful breastfeeding (and parenting in general) is not often talked about. This contributor is self-confidence.
“The most important thing is to boost the confidence of the mother.”
According to Rita, the first weeks of breastfeeding are instinctive: “Babies instinctively know what they need to do to get the correct response from mums; but mums often doubt their own instincts, especially when they hear conflicting advice from various other sources. If mum is surrounded by people who make her constantly doubt herself, for example eight different people giving eight different pieces of advice, then she will easily get confused about who to believe and which advice to follow.”
This is when you can end up continually asking yourself “Am I doing this right? Is this the correct way?” Very often this stress is what breastfeeding problems stem from; and not only will stress affect your milk supply, but the baby will pick up on it as well.
As Rita says, “the most important thing is to boost the confidence of the mother. Whatever mum feels is right, or correct, or necessary, she’s right. She has to trust herself and believe in herself; and not let anyone make her doubt herself or lose her confidence.”
Ideally mums should be educated about breastfeeding while still pregnant; but this is rarely the case. Not everyone has access to antenatal education programs, and those who do still receive very little information about breastfeeding. Typically midwives, nurses, and paediatricians are not fully trained in breastfeeding, and the advice they give can sometimes do more harm than good. The best is to seek the help of a certified lactation consultant who will be able to support you properly.
The biggest international organisation is La Leche League; they’re present in most countries and you can find consultants in every major city. Familiarise yourself with their website and find your local breastfeeding consultant while still pregnant, if you can. In Rita’s experience most mums seek help when the baby has already arrived and there are problems with breastfeeding. This can be a very stressful and scary situation because mum is trying her best to breastfeed but the baby is not feeding, or not gaining weight, or there isn’t enough milk; and things can escalate quickly. If mums had all the information before the baby arrived then a lot of unnecessary stress could be avoided, and mums would feel a lot more confident and less likely to doubt themselves.
It’s very easy to undermine people’s confidence, especially if that person is a first-time mum. She might think if the other person is older, or more experienced, or a professional, surely they must know better – but this is not always the case. If you speak with someone from an older generation who used to breastfeed every three hours, because that was the advice at the time, she will be surprised that you’re feeding on demand. “Why is the baby always on the breast? Maybe he’s starving. Maybe you don’t have enough milk. Perhaps you should give him some formula.” I have heard comments like these by well-meaning family members so often that I lost count.
Rita highlights that during consultations the priority is building the mother’s confidence: “When giving professional breastfeeding advice, it’s very important not to make mums feel like they’re bad mothers, even if they have been doing it wrong. We provide information and advice, but it’s up to them if they want to follow it. We still have to treat them with the utmost respect and strengthen their belief that they can do it right. It is crucial not to make them doubt themselves even more. Every mum wants the best for their baby; they might not have all the information, but that doesn’t mean they love their babies any less. Every family is different and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. What works for one might not work for another.”
So next time you catch yourself wondering whether you’re doing it right, remember: if what you’re doing feels right to you, and it works for you as a family, then it is the right thing to do.
Photo by Dave Clubb on Unsplash