Learn how to breast-feed before you give birth: That’s the advice I gave to a friend of mine who is about to have her first child. With a 10-month-old on my hip, I’m no expert on all things parental, but I did feel confident offering her the “learn now” nugget of wisdom.
It may seem counterintuitive (like putting a condom on before you go out on a date), but I credit that approach with my seamless transition into nursing, which for many women is the first real struggle of motherhood.
See, what no one ever tells you and what your mother may have forgotten, is that breast-feeding is a learned skill, and it’s good to have some preparation for the first docking moment. When you bring that baby to your breast in the labor and delivery room, there is no string quartet playing Bach as a gauzy film washes over you and your tiny baby opens her mouth to gratefully receive the free-flowing milk from your breasts.
No. The baby is screaming, you’re exhausted, the nurse is unhelpfully pushing the baby’s head onto your heretofore dry nipple. No milk is coming out, everyone is watching you, you’re getting nervous, and the baby begins screaming more. At least that was how it was for me, and I bet I’m not alone.
A rocky start may not seem like a big deal, but the problems of breast-feeding compound quickly. Even if a baby is getting some milk out, a host of painful problems can crop up—from cracked and sore nipples to a breast infection—if he doesn’t learn how to latch on properly.
And that’s when many women stop breast-feeding. Tara Parker-Pope of The New York Times Well blog recently wrote about some of the reasons women switch to formula feeding, and discomfort was a big one. (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost three quarters of mothers make a go of nursing, but only 12% are exclusively breast-feeding their babies at 6 months, which is what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends.)
I didn’t learn it at home
In a traditional, extended-family culture, I would have grown up watching my mothers, sisters, and cousins feed their children, and I would have stored that knowledge for the day when I needed it. But few of us are introduced to the intimate and technical aspects of feeding a child with our body, and that’s where lactation consultants come in.
One of the best teachers is Australia’s Rebecca Glover, an International Board–certified lactation consultant whose video, “Follow Me Mum,” is the reigning favorite among breast-feeding instructors. Yes, it has cheesy music and women with out-of-date haircuts, but Glover’s simple technique, repeatedly demonstrated in the video, involves a specific way to hold your child, bring her to you, and pop your nipple into her mouth for a successful latch. In the hospital it worked as soon as I had some privacy to give it a go. And, within a week, my nipples had gotten over the initial soreness of being used in a new way, and my daughter and I were off on an easy, enjoyable journey together.
Other problems can and do arise during breast-feeding (I won’t go into my clogged nipple pore), but learning what you can—before you are thrown into the deep end and told to swim—will help a lot. You can order Glover’s video online, but it’s not cheap. A less expensive option is to find a breast-feeding class that uses the video as part of its instruction (many do), or ask your local library to order a copy. If you have a little money to spend and cannot find a class near you, set up an appointment with a lactation consultant before you give birth. To find one, visit ILCA.org.