The first few days of breastfeeding can be overwhelming and confusing, no matter how prepared or well things are going for you. Lots of mothers feel totally blindsided by this fact. “I thought breastfeeding was supposed to be natural,” they say.
I get it: We are given this image of breastfeeding as the most natural thing we can do with our babies and our bodies, but it doesn’t always feel that way. I remember holding my newborn son against my breast, thinking he was just going to know what to do. When he didn’t, and I needed help to figure out why and what to do to fix it, I was totally devastated. I felt broken and useless, and I hadn’t even been a mom for 24 hours.
I think that’s part of why I became a lactation consultant: to help moms who are feeling that way—to reassure them that it’s OK, that there are solutions to most breastfeeding problems, and that it can be normal to feel like you don’t know what you're doing.
Here are some of the most common baffling, bewildering things I see moms encounter during those first few days of learning how to breastfeed. Most of them are normal, and have easy solutions. And mostly, just knowing what to expect—and what to do if you encounter anything outside of the norm—can be freeing, empowering and, most of all, make you feel less alone.
1. Newborns eat all the freaking time.
Breastfed babies eat frequently, usually every 2-3 hours. But to be honest, that’s a feeding schedule that sometimes doesn’t happen for a few weeks or months. Very new babies tend to want to breastfeed much more than that. Hourly feeds are totally normal in the early days and prime your body for a full milk supply. Is it draining? Totally. But there are things you can do to make it easier for yourself. Room in with your baby in the hospital, line up help once you get home and lower your expectations of what you can get done for a few weeks.
2. The latch isn't always going to be perfect at first.
Your baby has never breastfed before, and you have never breastfed this particular baby before. Some babies have perfect latches right away, but for many, latching can be rough at the beginning. That’s OK, especially if you have someone around to help you adjust (all moms should have a good breastfeeding helper at their disposal!). Give yourself time to try different positions and holds until things feel right. How do you know when things are in good shape in terms of latching? A gentle tugging is fine, but any sort of pain should be addressed right away, because that tends to only get worse. Again, a breastfeeding professional can help you out with that.
3. Newborns sometimes shake their heads, push your boobs away, and act like they hate breastfeeding.
Newborns are born with all kind of weird reflexes. Many of them are actually feeding reflexes, but are often misinterpreted by moms as rejections of breastfeeding. For example, when a baby comes to your breast, and shakes their head back and forth, they are actually searching for the breast, but lots of moms take that as a sign of disinterest. Babies also use their hands to breastfeed, and so pawing at your breasts—sometimes with a passion—is normal, and shouldn’t be taken as a sign of pushing away your breast. Often, what you need to do is move your baby closer to the breast so they can take a more active role in feeding. Again, get some help if you are having trouble sorting this out.
Even with all the knowledge and patience in the world, breastfeeding can still be really, really difficult.
4. You don't have a ton of milk at first.
Lots of moms don’t realize that they won’t be bursting with milk at first. At birth, your body will be producing colostrum, which is full of awesome nutrition and immunities, and is all your baby needs for the first 3-4 days until your milk comes in. It’s tempting to feel like your baby isn’t getting enough then, but as long as they are pooping and peeing, and not losing too much weight (see no. 5), you are good to go. Actually, a newborn’s stomachs are about the size of a chickpea, so small amounts of colostrum are all they need then (their stomach actually grows to the size of an egg once your milk comes in.)
5. Your baby will probably lose 5 to 7 percent of their birth weight.
It’s a weird fact, but it’s totally normal for a newborn to lose 5 to 7 percent of their birth weight (if it’s more than that, your pediatrician or lactation consultant can help come up with a plan to remedy it, including possible supplementation). The reason for the weight loss is that babies lose fluids and pass their first poops (meconium) after birth. Weight gain should start to pick up once your milk comes in.
6. Your baby might be super sleepy or super fussy.
Some babies are totally zonked after birth. After all, getting born is exhausting, who can blame them? Other babies show their personalities right after they’re born, and have a lot of complaining to do. It’s easy to think that either of these two scenarios are an indicator that breastfeeding isn’t going well, but unless your baby won’t feed properly because of sleepiness or fussiness, there is no issue here. It’s just a baby being a baby.
7. Moms and babies are just learning how to do this thing, and don't always get it right the first time.
Here’s maybe the most important point to keep in mind. You don’t have to get breastfeeding right on your first (or your 10th, or 20th or 100th) try! It’s a learning process, and you need to give yourself and your baby time to get it right. You guys are a team now, and need to figure out breastfeeding in your own way, and in your own time.
Even with all the knowledge and patience in the world, breastfeeding can still be really, really difficult. That is part of the reason why it’s so important to surround yourself will people who will shower you with love and help, and give you and your baby the space and time to learn together.
Also? Babies are just weird, and breastfeeding doesn’t always come naturally for moms or babies. You are not alone if this is your experience, but it also doesn’t mean that breastfeeding will not work out for you, or that you are failing at it. Take comfort in the fact that all of this is normal, and many of us have lived through it, and gotten to the other side.