Shepardia’s Breastfeeding Basics: Part 2

BF BasicsIn Part 1, we talked about creating a healthy, supportive postpartum environment to maximize your chances of breastfeeding success, and your overall well being as a new mother.

Now, we will discuss educating yourself about breastfeeding prior to birth.

Part 2: Educate Yourself About Breastfeeding Multidimensionally, Not Just Intellectually

I’m an academically oriented person. In the old days (late 90s), when I was coming of age, this was known as a nerd — albeit being a nerd seems to be a positive thing nowadays, since the Internet exploded and nerds rule the world. Being a nerd was definitely NOT a good thing back then, though. Anyhow, with my first baby, I approached breastfeeding (and birth, and parenting, and LIFE basically) like a Master’s thesis. I wanted to breastfeed more than anything, so I was not going to mess around. I was going to ace this thing.

I went nuts researching all aspects of breastfeeding, considering the science and mechanics of it. I read The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding cover to cover.

I went to one La Leche League meeting at our hospital (a Naval hospital that was very big on breastfeeding) but didn’t understand what the moms were talking about as they explained their various issues, and didn’t feel I got much out of it. So instead of going back, I returned to hitting the books, so to speak. I read tons of articles online, on Kelly Mom — an excellent resource, by the way — and elsewhere. I researched nipple creams and bought the best one. I read about how birth choices can impact breastfeeding, and took steps to create a birth plan compatible with my findings.

Nothing was going to get in the way of me breastfeeding. I had done my homework! I was going to get an A+ on this assignment! Gold stars all the way!!! Summa cum laude, baby.

Well, it did not work out that way. Because I made a critical error, one I’ve seen other moms make, too: I approached breastfeeding primarily from an intellectual perspective.

Breastfeeding is not an intellectual endeavor. Actually, it is the opposite, and for me, overthinking totally got in my way.

Breastfeeding is not instinctive or purely biological, either. It’s not “natural” (whatever that means). It doesn’t come naturally right off the bat is what I’m saying, for most women. We are actually some of the few mammals who do not instinctively know how to breastfeed. Who else is like this? Large primates! We and gorilla mamas learn by watching other nursing moms, in a biological process called mirroring. It’s true! Read more about this here.

Nursing Gorilla

Keep calm, and nurse on!

And it’s not purely physical, either. Not exactly.

It’s really best compared to dancing with a partner. Only instead of Dancing With The Stars, it’s Dancing With The Babies. I am not the first to compare it to this, but I have thought about it a lot, and it is really an excellent analogy. Here are some key similarities:

-Your partner and you both have to learn. You can’t just drag them limply along the dance floor like a puppet.

-It takes time to learn. It’s hard at first. You may get injured, but you will likely recover. You may have to modify your moves and take it easy while you heal, though!

-There are many different styles. Some styles are easier or come more naturally than others. Freeform boogie-ing is much easier than the Argentine tango — just like “laid back” nursing is much easier, in my opinion, than a classic cradle hold.

-Just reading about how to do it, or even looking at pictures, is not enough for you to learn how to do it. I mean, can you imagine if I just told you:

“Tango is danced to a repetitive style of music. The count of the music is either 16 or 32 beats. While dancing the tango, the lady is held in the crook of the man’s arm. She holds her head back and rests her right hand on the man’s lower hip. The man must allow the lady to rest in this position while leading her around the floor in a curving pattern. Tango dancers must strive to make a strong connection with the music as well as their audience.” –Dance.About.Com/Tango.

And then showed you some pictures like this:

Tango Image

Photo from Dance.About.Com.

Now go tango! Go on! Don’t forget, it’s not supposed to hurt! Oh yeah, and your partner’s only mode of verbal communication is crying, and he will probably poop his pants.

Is it any wonder so many moms have a hard time, if reading stuff and looking at pictures and diagrams is their main form of breastfeeding education?

Just like those gorilla mamas, we need to learn through immersion and practice. We need to nurse, nurse, nurse (hence the importance of a good postpartum plan so you can make this a priority), and try all different positions, especially ones that are more freeform (like laid back breastfeeding/biological nurturing). We need to watch other moms nursing — in person is awesome but videos are helpful, too. (There are some bad videos, too, though. Like anything else, look at it critically.)

Also, we need to relax. I know it’s annoying when people tell you to relax. As if it were so easy. But it is really important, for several reasons. It supports your letdown reflex and helps the milk flow. It helps you get through any pain you may be experiencing in the early days. It helps the baby relax enough to open her mouth, settle in, get comfortable — they are our partners in this dyad, and they sense and react to our anxiety. (I remember of the few times I ever was able to nurse my first, the best sessions were when he was already half asleep or not feeling well. Other times, he would sense my stress and arch away crying, making getting him on impossible.) Breastfeeding, like birth, is a process where oxytocin, the love hormone, plays a huge role. (This is part of why it’s so amazing for bonding.) As in the birth process, fear, stress, and anxiety increase the release of cortisol (the stress hormone) and inhibit oxytocin. (I’m a lawyer, not a doctor, but this is my basic understanding of the hormonal interplay — and one that I have felt in my own body/brain!)

Relaxing also helps us get to a place where we can tap into one of Nature’s most powerful gifts to mothers: our intuitions. We understand our babies in mysterious ways that nobody else can. This is why whenever moms ask me for advice about anything when it comes to their baby, the first thing I ask them is: What do you think? What does your gut tell you? That little voice your rational mind may try to ignore is wise beyond belief. Listen to it.

In sum, my advice on educating yourself about breastfeeding is actually the opposite of what I would normally say in other areas, and I’m sure plenty of people disagree with me. Normally I believe “book knowledge” is power, and I’m all about research and studies. But when it comes to breastfeeding — especially if you have a tendency to overanalyze things — too much intellectual preparation may not only be insufficient, but also actively get in the way of relaxing enough for everything to work. At least it did for me.

So, what do I believe a mom can do to educate herself in a more multidimensional and effective way?

Go on to Part 3 and find out!

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