I’m not saying there are not women out there that have a easy go of it, but the truth is: breast feeding is hard work. There. I said it.
It seems like a lot of people don’t want to admit it. Like it’s going to scare people out of it. But in reality, by not letting expecting and new mothers know that there can be challenges ahead we are setting them up to feel frustrated, inadequate, and defeated in their breast feeding journey.
A lot of people sugarcoated it for me when I was expecting. Or maybe I really did just know women who had a very fortunate experience of have a good latcher, a good supply, and no issue. But looking back on it now, I highly doubt it.
Our breast-feeding journey didn’t start out very well. My son was in the NICU immediately following his Cesarean Birth, and so it wasn’t until six hours later that I officially met my son. At the time, he was on a breathing machine and the doctors and nurses insisted that he wasn’t able to regulate his breathing enough in order to breast-feed. It wasn’t until the next day that we sat down together in the NICU and tried. And tried. And tried. The nurses tried to help, but they just made me feel silly and stupid for not being able to get my son to eat. For days we struggled. Every two hours (and many times more often than that!) I would sit and try to latch, over and over. It was hard work!
On day four, a Lactation Consultant named Dorothy came to see us. She was heaven sent, I swear! She was so very patient, and so kind. She helped us to find the nursing positions that worked for us, showed me how to open his mouth wider, showed me how to make sure he was swallowing, and let me know the truth. Breast-feeding is hard work.
From there we also battled a gnarly case of thrush that lasted eight weeks, oversupply, fast let down, and then undersupply. And through it all, Dorothy was there to help when needed as well as a community of nursing mothers that I found through a local support group. I wouldn’t have made it past the first six weeks without those women. And then one day, around eight weeks or so, I realized that we were doing it! Really doing it, all by our selves. And I knew that we could make it.
My persistence in breast-feeding was motivated by two different things. Breast milk is the best nutritional source for babies, hands down. Also, it is free. That’s not to say that there weren’t a couple of times that we needed to supplement with formula, but for the first six to eight months of my sons life I was able to sustain him all by myself. Which I think is awesome!
So, my advice to expecting and new moms:
- Take a deep breath. If at first you don’t succeed, try try again. It can be incredibly frustrating at times when you and the baby are learning to breast-feed. Both of you have to learn together what’s going to work for you.
- The first six to eight weeks are the hardest, but I PROMISE you that it is worth it to stick it out and make it work. It does get better, truly it does.
- Find a good support system of other mothers who nurse. Women who are or have also breastfed are an amazing resource when you’re having issues and you need ideas on what to do. Le Leche League is a great option and there are meetings all over the country.
- See a lactation consultant as often as you can in the first few weeks if you’re having any problems at all. Not all insurance covers this, but many do. WIC also has some lactation consultants. LLL sometimes has lactation consultants. And if you are truly having problems, and your insurance doesn’t cover it, but you are sincere in your desire to continue breast-feeding then I assure you that it will be money well spent to see a good lactation consultant.
- Give yourself permission to do what you can, and let go of the rest. The first few weeks of nursing you will literally be nursing your child almost all day. If they aren’t sleeping (most likely in your arms) or pooping, they will probably be hungry. So your laundry might pile up, your dishes might not get cleaned right away, the vacuuming will wait. I PROMISE that anyone who cares about you doesn’t care what the house looks like right now, and if they do care tell them to either help clean up or get the hell out.
- Do what’s best for you. There is a lot of judgment out there regarding breast-feeding. Whether to nurse in public or not is your decision, not anyone else’s. If you’re comfortable with it, then go for it! If not, then find a quiet place for you and baby. It’s as simple as that. Also, if you are at your wits end with breast-feeding and you have exhausted not only your resources but also your sanity, give yourself permission to supplement a little. And don’t let others guilt you about it! Everyone has a limit, and being honest about our limits can be just as freeing as pushing past them as well.
- Once you’ve got it down, pay it forward. Once you have that light bulb moment where it all comes together and you realize, “hey, we’re really doing this!” Go back and help the mom behind you in the journey. Passing our knowledge on to other mothers is a gift that is just too good to keep.
So there you have it. The nitty gritty! What other advice would you give to a new mom for their breastfeeding journey?
Beginning on 1 August each year, the breastfeeding community comes together to celebrate the beautiful and natural act of feeding our children the way our bodies were designed to do. As a military member, and a mother, this can be more challenging compared to mothers who stay at home with their children and also to mothers who have more traditional jobs in the civilian sector. According to the World Health Organization, breastfeeding not only provides the best nutritional support for your child but it also enhances maternal bonding, stimulates psycho-social development, improves physical growth, reduces susceptibility to common childhood illness, improves immune system function, and also has long term benefits including increased performance and productivity and reduced risk of some non-communicable diseases.
The WHO also recommends exclusive breastfeeding for at least six months, followed by continued breastfeeding while offering complementary foods for up to two years or beyond. These goals may seem very doable for civilian women, but the military, especially the Army, makes it very challenging. In order to exclusively breastfeed for six months the WHO and UNICEF recommend several things:
- Initiation of breastfeeding within the first hour of life;
- Exclusive breastfeeding – that is, the infant only receives breastmilk without any additional food or drink, not even water;
- Breastfeeding on demand – that is, as often as the child wants, day and night;
- No use of bottles, teats or pacifiers.
Three of these recommendations present significant challenges for military mothers.
Exclusive breastfeeding – no formula – is the first. Many military mothers, after returning to work from the extremely limited maternity leave find themselves in a rather awkward position of having to explain to their (usually single male) supervisor why it is important that she be permitted to use her breast pump every 2-3 hours for 20 minutes. The Air Force, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard do have regulations in place to ensure that mothers are given these opportunities. However, the Army does not. So many mothers in the Army, when faced with resistance or are flat out told that they will not be permitted due to “mission requirements” either give up pumping at work completely, or they pump as often as they can. Usually once after PT in the morning, once at lunch, and then if they manage to get a break at some other time they do it then as well. The result of these spontaneous pumping sessions is inevitably a reduction in milk supply, resulting in the use of formula to supplement. The second challenge, nursing on demand, is closely tied to the first challenge. In that, we aren’t with our child throughout the day and therefore cannot do so. If unable to pump at the same times that the child is eating, a decrease in supply occurs resulting in supplementation with formula. Third, of course, is no use of bottles or pacifiers. This is just not possible to do as a military mom. The child has to use one or they wouldn’t be able to eat after the end of the maternity leave.
I was very fortunate in my breastfeeding journey with my son. When I returned from my maternity leave, I also happened to be the Commander. I had my own office to provide privacy for pumping sessions, which I simply closed my door and ignored the knocks for 15 minutes. When the new commander arrived, and I became the XO again, we shared an office and it was a bit more challenging. I decided to commandeer the break room twice a day by putting a sign on the door to not be disturbed. I also pumped in my car quite often. Over my year of pumping I also pumped in an LMTV, a HUMMWV, a TMP van as well as the corner of an EST 2000 room. All not ideal places, but I kept myself covered and discrete as possible.
One of the biggest reasons I think I was able to make it to a year was that I simply did not care what anyone else said. I know that I was doing the right thing for my family, and I would stick up to anyone who would say otherwise. And as there is no regulation to guide commanders in the Army, my thought was that if they did not have a policy in place that did not allow for my pumping then by exclusion they must approve it. Because what command is going to put down in writing that they wouldn’t allow a mother to pump when it presents medical risks to not do so? I might not have been able to pump every single time that I needed to, as I remember several times having an aching chest as it had been hours and hours since I had pumped but due to what we were doing I just wasn’t able to get away, but I always did when I could. When my son was 10 months old we PCS-ed to a schoolhouse environment for me to attend a competitive course with my peers. It became even more difficult as I didn’t want to be seen as having preferential treatment for pumping (also a common fear among breast feeding mothers in the military) so I would only pump after PT and at lunch. Which, of course, lead to us weaning at a year. But a year of breastfeeding in the military is a huge milestone! I’m proud of what we accomplished, even if it isn’t the two years that the WHO recommends. If we could have gone longer, maybe we would have.
So this week, as you see military mothers passing by with newborns, infants, and even toddlers give them a little word of encouragement in their journey. Because this is a tough road that we are on, and positive words mean a lot. Encouraging breastfeeding is simply the right thing to do
I would also like to thank the Lactation Consultants who helped us on our journey. During the first eight weeks of my sons life, we had a really hard time with breastfeeding. We were battling with thrush, latch issues, oversupply, reflux, and fast letdown. Without the help of Dorothy, my lactation consultant “angel”, we probably wouldn’t have made it even past my six weeks of leave.
And another shout out to Robyn and her amazing book Breastfeeding in Combat Boots who gave tons of information on how to make it all happen while serving! I was able to meet Robyn last year when she came to speak at Madigan Army Medical Center, and she was very encouraging and positive. She gave a wonderful presentation to the medical providers on why it is so important to encourage breastfeeding and how low the numbers are in the military compared to the civilian world.