After the birth of my first daughter, breastfeeding became such an important part of my postpartum experience and my relationship with her. I was surprised by how special it felt to be able to feed my babies from my own body, providing them with important nutrients to help them grow and antibodies to help prevent illness.
While I love breastfeeding and the special relationship it creates with my babies, it is also incredibly challenging, both physically and emotionally. From achieving a proper latch to pumping while at work, there are so many issues that breastfeeding moms can encounter.
After recently having my second baby, I felt like I was learning all over again how to navigate the breastfeeding experience. While some aspects this time around felt familiar, others posed new challenges that I hadn’t faced before. It is because of these many challenges that breastfeeding is not for everyone. It’s important to be in tune with what is best for yourself and your baby, whether that is breastfeeding, formula feeding, or a combination of both. I’d like to tackle a few common questions to offer a little insight for anyone considering breastfeeding or already on this path.
1. What are the benefits of breastfeeding?
There are so many benefits of breastfeeding, both for mom and baby. Breast milk stimulates the optimal growth, development and function of the infant’s gastrointestinal system and helps to protect it from infection. In comparison with formula, breast milk has been shown to decrease the risk of acute illnesses such as diarrheal illness, respiratory disease, ear infections, urinary tract infections, and even sepsis. Evidence has shown that antibodies against Covid from maternal vaccination and infection are present in breast milk, which can help confer immunity in a baby too young to be vaccinated themselves. Breastfeeding has also been shown to decrease the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
Additionally, there are long-term health benefits to being breastfed. These include reduction in the incidence of certain chronic conditions such as diabetes, obesity, adult heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and celiac disease.
Breastfeeding has significant benefits for the mother, as well. Immediately after birth, breastfeeding can help with mother-infant bonding, reduction of postpartum blood loss, and postpartum weight loss. Women who breastfeed longer have lower rates of developing type 2 diabetes and hypertension in their lifetime, and even have lower rates of breast and ovarian cancers.
2. What are the common breastfeeding challenges?
While breastfeeding can be rewarding and special, it can be very uncomfortable at first and painful at times, as mother and baby learn how to properly position themselves and latch. For some, this pain is too significant on top of the other challenges of being a new mom and may lead some to discontinue or choose not to breastfeed. However, there are remedies for most breastfeeding issues.
Breast engorgement is the physiologic fullness of both breasts that typically occurs between three and five days postpartum. When engorgement occurs, it’s usually indicative that a mature milk supply is being secreted. This feeling of engorgement, however, can be very uncomfortable and even painful. It may also lead to difficulties with latching. Various remedies to help relieve this discomfort include application of ice and hot packs and hand expression to soften the engorgement.
While breastfeeding normally should not be painful, other causes of persistent breast pain include a poor latch, nipple abrasions, skin disorders, clogged ducts, or oversupply. Meeting with a lactation consultant can be very helpful to troubleshoot underlying issues that may be causing pain.
3. What are some tips and tricks for increasing your milk supply?
Maintaining one’s milk supply is one of the biggest stressors that breastfeeding moms deal with. The simplest way to maintain or increase your milk supply is to simply continue to stimulate your breasts to make milk. In the first days and weeks after birth, it is crucial to stimulate your breasts by breastfeeding or pumping every 2-3 hours to maintain your supply. If you decrease the number of times you feed throughout the day, your body will learn that it does not need to produce as much milk because the demand is simply not present.
Breastfeeding also demands a significant amount of energy from your body. You need an additional 500 calories per day over what you were eating prior to breastfeeding. It is important, however, to ensure these additional calories are in the way of healthy, nutrient-dense foods such as nuts, oats, beans, chia seeds, leafy greens, avocados, sweet potatoes, and complex carbohydrates.
4. Pumping can be overwhelming. Do you have any advice?
As a working mom with a busy schedule, I know how difficult and tedious pumping can be.
Fitting pump breaks into one’s daily work schedule can be daunting, let alone buying and cleaning all the pump parts that are required every day.
One tip I find helpful is to make the time you spend pumping special, just as you would if you were feeding your baby. Consider FaceTiming with your little one or looking through photos of them. Treat yourself to a cup of tea or coffee and a healthy snack. Trying to relax and creating a stress-free environment during pumping can help make the experience more positive and can help with milk let-down, as well.
5. What are some resources for breastfeeding?
In addition to seeing a lactation consultant, there are several wonderful online resources for information regarding breastfeeding. One great website is Kellymom.com, which I refer to regularly to help both myself and my patients.
Other great resources are womenshealth.gov/its-only-natural and La Leche League International (llli.org). There is also a wonderful social media community that can provide a significant amount of support, including @legendairymilk on Instagram and local breastfeeding Facebook groups.
Breastfeeding is a personal commitment that comes with many challenges and rewards. If you are trying it, I wish you luck and support.
About Dr. Maggie Sager
Dr. Maggie Sager is an OB/GYN at Virginia Physicians for Women. She sees patients at VPFW’s St. Francis and Prince George offices and delivers babies at St. Francis Medical Center.