There’s a lot of info out there about optimizing breastfeeding for your baby.
How to hold her for the best latch. What mama should eat (and shouldn’t eat … there’s a lot about the shouldn’t) to make sure the supply is ample, nutritious and well digested. When — if ever — to introduce bottles or pacifiers to ensure baby keeps boobies as preference numero uno. Whether to nurse on demand or on a set schedule.
All this and more is just a keyword search away, and hallelujah for that! The internet saved my sanity countless times when I was first getting a grip on the nuanced, snuggly dance we call nursing.
But it took me three and a half years and two offspring to begin thinking about optimizing breastfeeding for myself as well. That is, to make it comfortable, enjoyable and safe for me, the mama.
Here you’ll find four mom-forward tips based on my own two tours of mammary land, tempered with wisdom from a true expert, Marina Langesfeld (IBCLC, CBE, LMT). She supported me through a number of nursing challenges I experienced with my firstborn and has dedicated 10 years to helping mothers and babies all over the Miami area.
Note: These suggestions will make the most sense if breastfeeding fundamentals are going well. If they’re not, I would encourage any mom to ignore the below and seek out professional support.
Tip 1: Flash Some Strangers
When I first began my breastfeeding journey, I was pretty self-conscious about baring my breasts in public. For background, I once went swimming in a raincoat when everyone else was skinny-dipping. True story.
And beyond my self-doubt, I feared I’d make onlookers – strangers and even some of my own family members – feel uneasy by presenting them with (gasp!) a little bit of humanity.
So I bought what was basically a full-body nursing cover that made it difficult to tell that I had a torso, let alone that there was a bare boob sticking out of it. It definitely kept things undercover while I was still getting used to feeding someone with my body period, much less in front of a crowd.
But after a while I got really annoyed by the act of hiding my poor kid’s head in a dark pop-up-tent.
And my attitude shifted. When I started getting anxious about what so-and-so might feel or think in reaction to our nursing session, I quelled the anxiety with this rhetorical question: Why would I ever put his feelings ahead of my baby’s – or my own?
So I stopped bothering with a cover and started just slipping out a nip when my babe was thirsty. I still like wearing nursing shirts that let me lift a little flap here or there so baby can dig in without my totally stripping down, but I’ve come a long way from the burka-like cover-up. Not to be cliché, but I feel liberated. And quite a bit more badass.
“It’s a process. A mom shouldn’t be thinking about any of this when she first gives birth,” says Marina. “But once she’s comfortable nursing at home, I suggest first nursing in front of family and friends to get some practice.”
That kind of practice may have shortened my journey to peacemaking with public breastfeeding; to this day I’m more apt to feel twinges of anxiety when nursing around people I know as opposed to strangers.
As far as the covers go, Marina is an advocate. “Some mommies have a lot of insecurity. Even when they go to the pediatrician, who would not think twice about seeing a breast, a lot of moms feel the need to pump and bring a bottle rather than nurse in public.” The covers can help ease moms’ fears of judgment so they can skip the extra step of pumping, she reasons.
As another way to help mothers gain confidence, she recommends joining a breastfeeding support group like La Leche League. “Seeing other women feeding their babies can make new moms feel empowered.”
She adds this last vote of confidence for moms struggling with fears of judgment or retaliation from onlookers: “There is a law in all 50 states making it legal to breastfeed in public. You’re protected by the law.”
Tip 2: Wear a Bra That Doesn’t Fit
That is to say, wear a bra that’s a size too big.
I learned this lesson the hard way, and by that I mean the rock-hard way. Wearing tight bras brought me numerous plugged ducts, which manifest as stiff, lumpy, hot masses inside the breast. In my case, these could only to be remedied by hours of massage, hot packs, hot showers and pumping or nursing sessions. I’ve luckily been able to repeatedly dodge mastitis, which is the next stage if your “breast plumbing” efforts prove unsuccessful.
Marina concurred. “No tight bras whatsoever. No push-ups, definitely no wires – they compress the mammary glands, which can also leave you with clogged milk ducts.” Bras should provide some support (especially for women with large breasts) but not compress, she says.
For those who experience a lot of leaking (which I never have), Marina recommends sleeping with a loose cotton sports bra that can hold breast pads to avoid not soaking the bed at night.
She steers women toward bras made of natural fibers for good airflow, rather than thick nylon ones that encase the breast in humidity and make it difficult to keep the nipples dry. “If you can go braless, even better.”
“Free-lobbing” (urban dictionary tells me this is the female equivalent of “free-balling”) is typically how I roll at home, but I’m not bold enough to go much further than my driveway with the loosey-goosey look going on. So when I venture out, I make sure my bra cuts me some slack.
Tip 3: Don’t Look at the Baby
Breastfeeding is touted as one of the best ways to bond with your baby. So what heretic would tell a mom not to meet her sweet little suckling sugarplum’s gaze while he’s feeding?
For me, this advice came from not one but two different massage therapists (and I’ve only had three massages since my daughter was born, so that’s a pretty high percentage). Both noted the incredible tension I held in my neck and shoulders, likely attributable to craning over to watch my little one at work — and generally keeping poor posture during the thousands of hours I’ve spent nursing.
During my most recent massage, as the therapist popped my trapezius like it was made of bubble wrap, she advised me to avoid staring down at my son while he feeds. Not to stop looking at him altogether (that would be a bit cold, right?), but to use my nursing sessions as a dedicated time to gently roll my head and slowly turn my neck side to side in between looks at his contented, cherubic little face.
That session restored range of motion on my left side where it had previously been pitifully limited. I’ve followed her advice since, remembering to vary my head position while nursing, and the salubrious effects have lasted more than a month now.
When I asked Marina about this, she said she had never advised a mother to look away from her baby per se, but that the general idea of maintaining good posture is one of the first things she advises newbie nursing moms to do.
“Most mothers instinctively scrunch their shoulders trying to lift the baby up, which is how you end up with “rock shoulders,” shoulders that are hard as stone and riddled with tension.” Instead, Marina advises, prop up the elbows with arm rests or pillows so your upper body isn’t constantly straining.
Tip 4: Get One Thing Straight
Spoiler alert: It’s your spine.
Marina advises against rounding the back and slumping down to meet the baby’s mouth, another common and potentially injurious posture among breastfeeding moms.
I’m guilty of this one. On the two-and-a-half years’ worth of nights I’ve spent stumbling back and forth to a wailing baby’s crib, I’ve often scooped up my sweetie and assumed this sloppy pose while perched on the edge of the futon. Why? Because that’s where I landed first. No back support, no pillows.
“You always want to bring the baby to your body, not your body down to the baby,” Marina summarizes.
Again, she emphasizes the importance of letting pillows do all the heavy lifting so you can chill out and maintain a healthy back. “When you’re aware of the position that you’re using, you don’t have to suffer. When you and baby are supported, you can really relax.”
I’ve finally created a cozy nook in my son’s room with a boyfriend pillow placed against the wall. It took all of two minutes to construct, and I can attest that Marina’s right: with the support in place, I’m not straining. Baby and I are a peaceful, care-free little mound of cuddliness.
I only wish I’d taken better care of myself from the beginning.
Marina Langesfeld offers one-on-one consultations and also teaches breastfeeding classes for pregnant women in the Miami area. For info on booking a session, email Marina@MpowerMom.com.
By Camille Lamb Guzman
How do you — or did you — make breastfeeding as wonderful as possible for yourself? Please share your experience in the comments. And pass this post along to moms who need a reminder that their well-being matters!