Choosing to breastfeed means committing to the physiological process of lactation. Committing to lactate means stimulating your breasts by pumping or directly nursing at an interval of about every three hours around the clock for an equivalent of at least eight (or more) stimulations per 24 hours. These eight stimulations (or more) most often coincide with when the baby needs to eat. Around here, we call this a feeding cycle.
The stimulation itself most often takes an average of about 20 minutes of sucking time on each breast either from the baby or the pump. Each feeding cycle ideally lasts no longer than 45 minutes or so, but often in the early weeks, the process takes 60-90 minutes when you add in setup, burping and settling.
The lactating parent must be awake and present for every feeding around the clock for the first two weeks, often the first six weeks. Even once the baby is sleeping longer stretches at night, the lactating parent needs to adjust to the needs of their breasts, often disrupting sleep.
By design, breastfeeding inevitably puts an imbalance of work on the lactating parent.
There is really no way around this in the early weeks of breastfeeding without risking impacting milk supply. Pumping for an occasional bottle is a critical strategy that can help lactating parents gain a protected chunk of sleep at night. Breasts that are not stimulated after 4-5 hours will often trigger a negative feedback response in the brain, leading to a decrease in milk supply in the subsequent days.
The intense and demanding nature of breastfeeding doesn’t mean it isn’t an incredibly valuable experience. In fact, most of the worthwhile things we do in life are often the hardest.
But, this work of breastfeeding, disproportionately placed on the lactating parent, can be balanced with specific, intentional, helpful breastfeeding help.
I highly recommend every lactating parent has a designated breastfeeding support person with them around the clock for the first two weeks. Oftentimes, the lactating parent doesn’t necessarily need the support person right with them as they nurse, but perhaps a shout or a text away.
The breastfeeding support person is often the baby’s other parent, but it can’t always be. Certainly, the lactating parent’s partner also needs self care, sleep, and nourishment.
Rules for the Breastfeeding Support Person
- Take really good care of this milk maker. It is very common for the lactating parent to remember to care for themselves. Don’t let her forget. She will forget to care for herself because she is caring so intensely for this new little human.
- In order to encourage her to eat and drink, you’ll need to prepare her food and drinks without being prompted. Her water cup should stay full and at her side at all times.
- Care for the baby so she can shower and pee. Give her frequent opportunities to lay down and rest, even if she says she “won’t be able to fall asleep.”
- Speak kindly and gently. This time is very sensitive and highly emotional. Now is not the time to tease or instigate, initiate small talk, or talk about anything upsetting that isn’t critical to this early stage of parenting.
- Clean whatever needs to be cleaned. Get her to write it down if she seems reluctant to allow you to do the cleaning work because she likes it done “a certain way.”
- Get confident (or fake it) fast. The quicker you can settle a fussy baby, change a diaper and burp, the sooner you can assure the breastfeeder can care for herself without worrying about you or the baby.
- Be careful saying the words “I think the baby is still hungry.” If you are seeing feeding cues from the baby, describe the behaviors to the lactating parent rather than sharing a conclusion you’ve drawn. You may share, “I am noticing the baby is still rooting” and, respectfully ask, “What would you like me to do?” While that may be true, Mom will hear this as a very harsh criticism. Try using phrases that describe what you are seeing without leaping to judgment. “The baby is having trouble settling down,” or “the baby is sucking the pacifier hard.” These may or may not be a sign of hunger.
- Take good care of yourself : Eat well, drink plenty, rest when you can.
- Establish who is in your own personal support network and reach others when you need support.
- If you find yourself struggling with sleep deprivation, stress, overwhelm, frustration, or loneliness, you absolutely deserve someone to connect with and talk to. Ideally, however, this person isn’t the lactating parent, but a wise friend or family member who has recently lived through this stage and can offer text or phone support when you’re having a tough time.