Recently I’ve had several conversations with moms of newborns that made me think how little any of us realize what it’s actually like to breastfeed a newborn. I think this is true whether you’ve had a baby before or not. Forgetting what it’s like to nurse a newborn is kind of like forgetting what it feels like to give birth–it’s nature’s way of making sure you have more babies, because if you actually remembered it you would never do it again.
But these conversations I’ve had recently have made me remember. Which is not necessarily a good thing, but since it’s too late to change my mind about having another baby (it is, right?) my only option now is to mentally prepare. Hence this blog post.
Why is it so difficult to nurse a newborn? It’s not necessarily that physically taxing–although it can be, especially if you have latch issues or nipple issues or any one of a long list of possible physical issues that can make it harder–but even apart from that, it’s still hard. And I think the mental challenge is the hardest part. It’s hard because our culture has taught us that we need to be productive in order to be valuable. We need to do things to have meaning. In fact, we women usually feel like we need to do everything, and if we have to step back from doing everything, even for a little while, then we feel like we lose value. We might even feel like we lose our whole personhood–like who we are is the same as all the things we do, and stopping those things means losing who we are.
And nursing a newborn means giving up all those things. Whatever you’re doing right now, you will have to stop doing it. Not forever. Just for a little while. Only a few weeks, really. But it feels like forever, especially because you have no idea how long it will be. When you’re in it, it feels like the longest weeks of your life. And you start to think that this is your new reality, and you will never do anything else ever again. You feel like you will never again wash the dishes, or cook dinner, or work, or write a blog post, or even take a shower. This isn’t true. But that’s how it feels.
Now, I’ve said this a lot about my parenting experience, but I was lucky with this. I really was. When I got pregnant with my daughter, I had recently started a new job that I didn’t like, in a career path I wasn’t that excited about, and it was easy to give it up. Being pregnant just gave me an excuse. And since I had no idea what I wanted to do next or where I wanted my career to go long-term, it was easy to not plan anything for after my daughter was born. And I really mean nothing. I made my life a blank slate from February 2008 on. So when all I could do was sit on the couch and nurse her all day long, I honestly didn’t care. I did feel a little bad when my husband got home and saw me sitting exactly where he’d left me that morning, with a pile of wet diapers on the floor next to me. But only a little bad. Because I knew I wasn’t being lazy. I was working harder than I’d ever worked in my life. I just didn’t have anything to show for it. And that was okay.
This time, it’s going to be harder. Because I do have things I want to do now. I have stuff I want to accomplish. I’ve finally figured out the direction I want to go with my career, and I’m working toward launching it, and it’s going to be hard to let that sit untouched for a while. But at least this time I know it’s temporary. Hopefully this baby will be a little less high-needs, and the do-nothing-but-take-care-of-baby stage will be a little more temporary. But no matter how short it lasts, I know that stage will still feel like forever. It’s part of the seismic, life-changing shift of becoming a parent to this child. And that’s something I’ll have to accept.
So. What is it really like to breastfeed a newborn? And how can you survive it? Based on my vague memories of my last experience, here’s my plan.
1. Get naked. At least from the waist up. (Contrary to the sexualized perception of breastfeeding in our culture, this is actually the opposite of sex, when you get naked from at least the waist down.) Get your baby naked too. Skin-to-skin contact does more than anything else to stimulate breast milk production and supply. And the warmth of your body will help regulate your baby’s temperature.
2. Resist the temptation to look at your belly. I know you really want to, since you haven’t seen it in ten months, but seriously, this will only depress you. Do not examine the stretch marks on the lower side of your belly now that you can finally see them; do not mourn how thick and pasty your thighs look right now. Your body has not recovered from pregnancy yet. Give it time. You have the rest of your life to exercise.
Do feel free, however, to look at your toes. Hello, toes. Nice to see you again. It’s been a while. You could really use a pedicure.
3. Get someone else to set up a nursing station for you. Sit down at the station and hold the baby while they do this. Requirements for a nursing station are 1) the most comfortable seat in the house, 2) a table with supplies, and 3) entertainment. I sit on the couch. On the table, gather food and drinks. Lots of them. Like enough to last you for the entire day. Also books or magazines, a computer if you can (I love my laptop), and the remote to the tv if you have one.
4. Bring the baby to your breast and latch him on. The key factors to remember here are 1) hold the baby so his tummy is pressed against yours; and 2) wait till the baby opens his mouth really wide to bring him onto the nipple. You can support his head, but you shouldn’t push his head forward. When he’s latched on correctly, his lower lip will cover more of your areola than his upper lip, and you’ll see his jaw moving up and down with a pause to swallow. Jack Newman has lots of great videos on latching.
4. Sit there and keep breastfeeding. Attempt to entertain yourself while you do this. With my daughter, I was sure I was going to get so much done while I sat there on the couch. I was going to finish re-reading Harry Potter, and write lots of blog posts, and read all sorts of interesting and educational things online, and catch up on the tv shows I never had time to watch, and maybe even decide what to do with the rest of my life.
Instead, I sat there and stared at her face. For hours. For weeks, really. That was the only time in my life when I couldn’t even read. Not even Harry Potter could distract me from gazing in amazement at the beauty of my daughter’s face. I counted her fingers and toes, over and over and over. I was lost in wonder and joy.
Until my butt started to hurt from sitting still for so long, and I felt guilty for not doing anything around the house, and I got hungry.
5. After several hours, realize that you’re hungry. There’s food on the table next to you. But you’re using both hands to support baby (hands-free nursing doesn’t usually work so well in those first few weeks, no matter how great of a carrier or support pillow you have). So you carefully start to ease one hand out from under him. This disturbs baby’s latch, and he cries. You quickly put hand back where it was and re-latch him, because you’re still in the stage of parenting where the slightest bit of fussing is extremely disturbing to you and causes an intense hormonal reaction involving letdown, hyperventilation, and possible panic.
6. Decide to use a pillow to support baby for one-handed nursing. Realize that the only other pillow you’re not already using is on the other couch, on the other side of the room. Try to get up and discover that your feet are asleep. Wiggle and shift positions until you are able to stand and then get up, holding baby carefully with both hands so he stays latched. Go to other couch and crouch down so you can grab pillow with your fingers while still holding baby. Success!
7. Cross back to nursing couch, drop pillow on couch, and sit back down. Realize that it’s been three hours since your baby started nursing and decide to switch to other breast. Unlatch baby (causing crying and intense hormonal letdown reaction), and place pillow under other breast. Carefully latch baby on other breast and prop his head on pillow. You now have one hand free! A huge success! Congratulations, mama–you accomplished something today!
8. Eat. If you planned well, then the food on the table next to you is all finger food that you can eat with no utensils and no mess. If you planned poorly and have something like rice or salad there, then you probably forgot to bring a fork. Getting up again is far too much trouble. Eat it with your fingers. You also forgot a napkin, so lick your fingers clean. Or, if you’re really prepared, use one of the clean prefolds stacked on the couch next to you as a napkin.
9. The prefolds remind you that it’s time to change the baby’s diaper. Carefully stand up, with baby still latched, and carry him to changing table. Unlatch him and set him on table. He screams. Quickly change diaper, which of course is poopy, as your letdown reflux causes your naked breasts to leak milk onto your baby’s kicking legs. Wash hands with sanitizer that you have sitting on changing table. Lift baby off table and immediately re-latch him. Then carry him back to couch.
If you’re practicing EC, of course, you can skip this step. Instead, keep baby naked but put a prefold under him to catch messes. Keep a stack of clean prefolds on the couch next to you. Every time he pees, toss the wet prefold on the floor and take a fresh one from the pile. You can do this without ever unlatching him. And without standing up. There will, however, be a pile of wet peed-on prefolds on your floor. Don’t let this bother you; it’s temporary. But don’t attempt it if you have a dog or a toddler.
10. Decide to do something entertaining, since you can’t do anything useful. Turn on tv. Start to watch Baby Story. Get distracted by thinking about your own birth story. Three hours later, realize that you have no idea what happened on that show (or any of the other shows you just watched), but you’re back to staring in amazement at your baby’s face as he sleeps. Discover to your delighted surprise that he still has exactly ten toes.
11. Repeat above steps indefinitely until your partner gets home. Then hand baby to partner and realize you’re too tired to even take a shower. But you really need to pee.
12. While you’re in the bathroom, trim your toenails. Hi again, toes. You are not as cute as my baby’s toes. But it’s nice to see you.
13. Hurry back because baby is crying again. Re-latch. Repeat.
14. Worry that tomorrow will be just as unproductive as today was. I’ll tell you a secret: it will be. But that’s okay. Really. This is how it’s supposed to be. It really is temporary. So relax. In a few weeks, you might even find time to paint your toenails.