Preparing for Breastfeeding: What to expect and what to do when things don’t go to plan

We're celebrating World Breastfeeding Week, a global event that aims to promote the benefits of breastfeeding for both mothers and babies. While breastfeeding can be a natural and rewarding experience, it isn’t always easy or simple. We caught up with the midwives at My Expert Midwife, who’ve given their advice on how best to prepare for your breastfeeding journey and where to turn to for support if things don’t go to plan.

Many people think that breastfeeding will either come naturally to us after we give birth or that we will try our best to breastfeed and if it doesn’t work then that is ok, there is always formula milk as a back-up. Whilst this can be true, breastfeeding can be much more complex and will benefit from preparation done during pregnancy.

Firstly, in today’s western societies we are not socialised into breastfeeding very well. We don’t see mothers openly breastfeeding around us all our lives and therefore these moments for learning are lost. This leaves many women to start their breastfeeding journey from scratch, with few learning experiences throughout their lives to draw from.

Secondly, if someone has made the decision to breastfeed during pregnancy, tries to breastfeed after the birth and encounters difficulties for which she doesn’t receive the right support for she may decide to stop breastfeeding due to this. We know from research that when women stop breastfeeding sooner than they planned to they feel let down and disappointed by their experience.

Preparing for your breastfeeding journey is key in helping to provide you with the learning you need and to know where and when to seek help during this time. Remember that breastfeeding is a learnt skill which may take some people longer than others to master, depending on the individual challenges faced during this time. You wouldn’t expect someone to jump on a bicycle for the first time and ride it perfectly, without ever practising beforehand. Well, it’s the same for breastfeeding.

So, reading about breastfeeding, taking a class during pregnancy run by experienced professionals which focuses on breastfeeding and getting to know how to hand express or harvest colostrum can all be good ways to prepare. Colostrum harvesting is a skill you can practice from 37 weeks in pregnancy- you can ask your midwife or take an online webinar which explores in more depth about this subject

For many women breastfeeding can be an intensely rewarding experience. It can generate hormones which helps mother and baby to bond, as well as providing the perfect mix of nutrients and antibodies that your baby needs. Colostrum is the first breastmilk you produce and is high calorie, full of antibodies and packed with stem cells. Breastmilk is also incredibly reactive, changing to meet your baby’s needs, such as becoming more watery to hydrate your baby during hot weather or increasing in volume to meet your baby’s growth spurts. Research has also discovered that it can be protective against diseases for the mother too, such as reducing the likelihood of ovarian and breast cancers in later life.

What to expect in the first days and weeks

Immediately after the birth can be the optimal time to initiate breastfeeding. This is known as the ‘golden hour’ when both you and your baby are usually quite wide awake and responsive, getting to know each other for the first time. So, if possible, let your midwife know you would like uninterrupted time together for an hour after the birth or until baby has had their first feed. However, all babies are individuals, with their own behaviours so don’t worry if they do not latch on immediately during this time, just being skin-to-skin is generating the hormones needed for breastmilk to be produced as well as encouraging those feel-good bonding hormones.

It is common to encounter problems during the early days and weeks of breastfeeding and with some preparation these can be mitigated. Seeking help and support is essential during these times as most difficulties can be overcome relatively quickly and easily, enabling breastfeeding to become a smoother and much less stressful experience.

 

What help is available?

Most problems encountered during the early days are due to latch, attachment and positioning during breastfeeding. A common symptom of this can be cracked and sore nipples, so make sure you have a nipple balm which is suitable to protect and that you don’t need to remove prior to feeding. It is likely that you will be both tired and sore from the birth and this is normal, so it is just finding the best ways to feed which are right for both you and your baby’s needs. If you feel as though you are struggling or that, for example, you just want more advice on latch and attachment, then access help. You can ask your midwife in the hospital or community for this and either they, a midwifery support worker or a volunteer experienced in breastfeeding support will help you. There are also excellent support networks online, which extend into local communities such as La Leche League. You could also consider hiring a postnatal doula or a lactation consultant during this time.

During the early days and weeks, you may want to consider only inviting people round who are going to provide you with the practical and emotional support you need as a family. People who are close family and friends, who can bring a cooked dish for your tea, hang a load of washing out or take other children out for a couple of hours. This may seem selfish, but it really isn’t! This time is so important to spend with your baby establishing breastfeeding and most people actually love to help new parents out in this way.

 

Key points to take away:

  • Inform yourself during pregnancy about breastfeeding by taking a breastfeeding class run by experienced professionals in this area.
  • Consider learning how to harvest colostrum from 37 weeks of pregnancy. Not only will it help you become familiar with how your breasts work, it can be a handy skill to have in the early days and if you collect your colostrum it can be frozen for use after the birth.
  • Don’t expect to breastfeed perfectly from the outset- like anything it takes time to learn and you may need extra support to overcome problems.
  • Find out during pregnancy where to go for extra support with breastfeeding if you do need it. Join breastfeeding groups on social media such as La Leche League.

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