Breastfeeding. It’s what breasts are for. Just knowing that basic fact doesn’t guarantee you will know what to do when it comes time to feed your baby, though. You need familiarity, experience (not necessarily your own but also experience that others share with you), and support.
You Need Familiarity
Before you will even choose to breastfeed, you need a general awareness of what that means. If you haven’t been around breastfeeding before, you might not even know what you want and need to know. It’s difficult to articulate specific questions until you have a basic familiarity with breastfeeding.
For me, seeing an older cousin breastfeed her babies just fixed that image of motherhood for me as a teenager. I understood how breastfeeding worked before I even knew what questions to ask.
Once I anticipated having children, I had questions like, “How am I going to do this without flashing my breasts at the world?” Seeing mothers in my circle of friends easily lift their shirts and continue their conversations while feeding babies helped me understand that breastfeeding doesn’t have to be the focus of all attention.
Once I was pregnant, I had plenty of questions along the lines of “Now what do I do?” Taking a class through my healthcare provider and practicing with a teddy bear helped me understand how to encourage a baby to suck and how to make sure the baby latches on widely enough. The one point I remember really clearly from that class was to rub or tap a just-born baby on the chin to show them what to do. I used that when my daughter was minutes old. I remember this because I found myself saying, “How do I make her suck?” but I remembered that one little point from my class, and it worked. Simple.
When I was pregnant with my second child, seeing a photo of a tandem nursing mother was a revelation to me—answering questions I didn’t realize I had. Stack them up! I learned to hold my toddler on my lap while I held my newborn on my toddler’s lap.
In each of these situations, I didn’t really know what my questions were or even that I had questions, but being in situations where breastfeeding was around me gave me enough awareness that became conscious of my own questions. Ideally, just being around breastfeeding creates this kind of familiarity because you learn so much from non-verbal communication and your own observation. If you don’t have that option, there are still many ways to gain that familiarity. Many women have learned that basics of breastfeeding from The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, the La Leche League’s breastfeeding guide.
You Need Experience
There are right and wrong ways to breastfeed, and there is plenty of variation in both. You adjust as you go. You gain experience. You learn the beautiful relief of a cold cabbage leaf in your bra—and if you have never needed or felt this relief, you can’t imagine how great it feels. But, who first knew to put a cabbage leaf in her bra? That’s experience.
You need experience, but it doesn’t have to be your own experience. If you have experienced breastfeeding mothers around you, you can draw on their knowledge. If you don’t have friends and family who can share experience, you can talk to a La Leche League Leader, your midwife or doula, or a breastfeeding consultant. You can pick up a book and accumulate knowledge others have shared over time. Often I turned to Dr. Sear’s Baby Book for quick advice.
You Need Support
Beyond just someone to give you advice, you need a supportive environment. To start, you need to avoid being around people who question breastfeeding in general or you in particular. Sure, you could just stay quiet and feed your baby in private. That’s not ideal, though.
Just the absence of criticism isn’t enough. You need to be around a husband or partner who will say, “Let me get you a glass of water while you are nursing” or “If you pump some milk, I will watch the baby while you take a nap.” I cannot overstate the benefit of having a partner who looks out for you and understands what you need physically in order to breastfeed successfully but also what you need as a person to be whole. Breastfeeding mothers can certainly go it alone, but life is much richer surrounded by people who value and support the breastfeeding relationship.
If you are preparing to breastfeed for the first time or anticipating breastfeeding in the future, set yourself up for success by making breastfeeding part of the fabric of your life, by seeking out those who are willing to share their experience, and by surrounding yourself with those who will support you and your baby during this time.