I had my first baby when I was 23. Like many new moms today, I had almost no exposure to breastfeeding until I had my own baby and was trying to do it myself. Since breastfeeding is natural, I figured it would come easily for me. I realized very quickly that it was not that simple, and quality support and education are incredibly important for a new mom with breastfeeding goals (which is why I’m now a certified lactation counselor).
Here are all the things I didn’t know about breastfeeding
I didn’t know that pumping early on could lead to an oversupply
When we came home from the hospital, my milk had transitioned (“come in”) full force. I knew my baby was nursing well and getting enough milk, but I was still uncomfortably full. Using the pump that I’d received as a baby shower gift to get relief a few times between nursing sessions, I thought I could just use it a few times, and stop pumping when I felt like it—but, that isn’t how it works! Although I was able to donate extra breastmilk, I was blindsided by an overproduction caused by pumping early on.
In the first weeks postpartum, our breastmilk supply is controlled by our endocrine system, meaning it is largely hormonal. For this reason, many new mothers start out with an oversupply of breastmilk until their body regulates to what is demanded by the baby, and milk supply is controlled by the autocrine system, which is supply-and-demand.
If a mom’s goal is to exclusively nurse without needing to pump and avoid an oversupply, hand expressing to comfort rather than pumping can bring relief without causing an oversupply. (However, for mothers that decide to exclusively pump, or are separated from baby and need to pump until they can nurse, pumping right away is important and working with a lactation professional with her pumping goals can be helpful.)
I didn’t know that engorgement early on isn’t supposed to last
A lot of new mothers, myself included, realize after a few weeks that our breasts suddenly feel softer, we leak less, and we wonder if our milk supply is dwindling. The fact is, the overly-full feelings and engorgement we experience early on (remember the endocrine/autocrine systems I just mentioned?) aren’t supposed to last.
Swelling we experience from birth, especially if we receive fluids or had a C-section, can also cause swelling in the breasts. When that dissipates, along with our milk supply regulation, our breasts often go from feeling full all the time, to feeling much softer. This is not a problem, and as long as a nursing baby feeds on cue, day and night, and continues to gain well, mom can rest assured that her baby is getting enough milk.
I didn’t know that most babies cluster-feed and will want to nurse more than “every 2-3 hours”
Imagine my surprise and confusion when my newborn would want to nurse just minutes after dozing off at the breast—over, and over, and over? I had heard that babies should breastfeed “every 2-3 hours,” and I was ready to make sure my baby would be awake for feeding at those intervals.
I remember nursing my baby multiple times in an hour, then finally having my husband feed him a bottle of my pumped milk (which he slurped down eagerly). I didn’t understand. His diaper output was great and he was gaining weight well, so I knew he was getting enough milk… so why was he acting so hungry?
Further into our breastfeeding journey, I learned that babies nurse for more than just nourishment. It is how they adapt going abruptly from womb to world. Breastfeeding provides everything baby needs at all once—feeling safe and close to mom, warmth, food and drink. Cluster-feeding is also how a baby boosts mom’s milk supply naturally.
Cluster feeding is a normal behavior in well-nourished newborns (and happens periodically in the first year).
I didn’t know skin-to-skin was a thing, or how beneficial it is for the whole family
My husband and I took turns holding and cuddling the baby often. It was obvious he slept best on our chests and close to us, but I never knew that being “skin to skin” was so good for baby and the parents. I figured our baby just loved being held, but learning the science behind it was amazing.
When I had my next baby, who was in the NICU for several weeks, I wasn’t just handed a swaddled baby—I was strongly encouraged to hold her skin-to-skin as often as I could when we were learning to nurse. Skin-to-skin time helps calm baby and regulate baby’s breathing, heartrate, and body temperature. It can continue to provide these benefits into toddlerhood.
I didn’t realize that cute, tiny baby clothes did not mean cute, tiny loads of laundry
I really had myself convinced all I’d be adding to my laundry was a bunch of cute little onesies and blankets. Make no mistake: babies result in a lot of extra laundry. All of mine were “happy spitters,” which are babies that are growing well and in no discomfort, despite profuse amounts of spit-up. If you have a baby, who is gaining well, that smiles at you while giving back copious amounts of your milk after nursing, you probably have a “happy spitter” (and a ton of extra laundry) too.
I didn’t know breastfeeding would be so much more than just feeding my baby
When I had my oldest, I was determined to provide breastmilk. However, I didn’t realize that breastfeeding itself was about so much more than just nutrition for a baby. It’s about connection, bonding, and provides all of baby’s basic needs in one act: warmth, comfort, and nourishment/hydration.
Once we got the hang of it, breastfeeding became the ultimate mothering tool I had, whether my baby was hungry, thirsty, scared, overtired, injured, overstimulated, or any other ailment caused discomfort, breastfeeding could fix the problem almost every single time.