Against the odds, I’ve now nursed my son Samson for nearly 700 days now, something I’ve blogged about here and here. But before I took on the challenge of nursing my gestational son, my partner, Anna, birthed and nursed my first son, Sean. Even though nursing was something I’ve never found to be a favorite part of parenting (my personal mantra: “I don’t have to like it; I just have to do it.”), I found nursing myself easier in many ways than being the partner of a nursing person, especially since I knew so little about it.
Since there’s been someone or multiple someones nursing in my home for the past three years, I’ve learned quite a bit. The most valuable bits of what I think I’ve learned were in the first few months of my partner nursing Sean. There is a lot of support out there for nursing folks, but much less for those supporting nursing folks. Here are some key takeaways.
I did. My mom breastfed six kids like it was no big deal, and I honestly grew up thinking formula was for adopted children and folks who for medical reasons could not nurse their babies. I was the oldest and the only babies I really knew were my siblings, who were breastfed. When my partner announced to me that she was going to be breastfeeding our first kid, it was almost like she was telling me he would need air to breathe. I had kept myself relatively sheltered from information about pregnancy, birth, and anything newborn related.
Turns out the rates at which American birthing parents nurse their children is rather low, and that most folks don’t meet the 6 months exclusive nursing and then 12 months and possibly beyond (recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the nation’s largest professional organization of pediatricians) and 2 years and possibly beyond (recommended by the World Health Organization.) All of this to say: for many reasons, it is not easy in our country and culture to breastfeed.
According to the CDC, “Both the use of medications during labor and cesarean birth have been shown to have a negative effect on breastfeeding; however, providing continuous support during labor and maintaining skin-to-skin contact between mother and baby after birth have been demonstrated to have a positive effect on breastfeeding.” What does this mean? Be there to support, especially immediately after the birth. And try to support your partner in having as few interventions as is comfortable, talked about, and warranted by the course of labor and birth.
Obviously tons of folks who have every single intervention in the book, up to and including a cesarean section, nurse babies. But helping to support your partner in making educated choices about whether to seek care with an obstetrician or midwife, where to birth, whether to hire a doula, and what kinds of interventions to seek and avoid, could be crucial to early nursing. I really liked Penny Simkin’s The Birth Partner, because it’s not crunchy or touchy feely, gives practical information and advice, and quickly educates those of us who, like me, had no clue at all.
First, go to a breastfeeding class. I birthed at the Birth Center in Bryn Mawr, which has one. There are others hosted by hospitals or lactation consultants, including this one which is for partners only. If your partner goes, YOU SHOULD TOO.
As for after the birth, your partner may in the early days question whether anything about the breastfeeding relationship with your new baby is normal. Why? A dastardly combination of postpartum hormones, exhaustion and nipple pain, other’s opinions (“Wow, your baby eats really often, are you sure that’s normal?” “Wow, your baby sure is hungry!” “Dinner time again?” “So when do babies get on, like, a schedule?”), and just how all-consuming nursing a newborn can be make new nursing parent think that something must be going “wrong.” Knowing what’s in the range of normal can help. I like this no-nonsense series of articles from the [invaluable] breastfeeding website Kellymom.
The biggest key points from these articles for me have been: babies are gassy. Babies cluster feed in the evenings. Babies nurse more than we think they will. Babies don’t like to sleep. Babies like skin-to-skin contact. Nursing doesn’t suddenly stop being nutritious because your baby has a birthday. I also really like all the videos on Jack Newman’s website showing babies feeding at the breast, something you’re going to see a lot of over the first few months of your kid’s life. He’s an IBCLC and avid blogger and a great person to follow on social media for some down-to-earth info and even a few laughs.
Some small things: keep visitors limited in the very early days. Keep snacks and water abundant. If you don’t have Netflix, get it. And if your partner seems to be on the verge of a meltdown, first, take the baby so partner can have solo uninterrupted bath time. Learning to babywear might be a good idea right about now. Then, pour partner a glass of wine or a good beer. After all, everything we used to “know” about nursing and drinking isn’t actually true.
Not everyone needs it, and not everyone wants it, but many do. Research local IBCLCs (International Board Certified Lactation Consultants) who do house calls and phone and email follow-ups in case you need help in the early days (research before the birth!). Don’t assume that because a hospital or birth center has a nursing-friendly attitude that you will get all the help you will need.
The local IBCLC who helped me tremendously in the early days has compiled a list of local resources for breastfeeding parents. Encourage your partner to go to a meeting and help partner and baby get to where the help is, as soon as possible. I took Sam to a meeting at 5 days. We went every two weeks for a year. It helps.
Take as much leave as you can. Change diapers. Change clothes. Do the baby’s wash. Cook meals. Take out the trash. Clean the pump and bottle stuff. Rock the baby to sleep at night if baby ate and thinks 2am is suddenly playtime. In the very early weeks, your partner has one job: to feed the baby. The long hours in the early days will pay off later, when breastfeeding usually gets a whole lot easier. Assure your partner that everything will be ok and that as time goes on in a child’s life, everyone, including the child’s parents, care less and less about how a baby was fed.
Support your partner in not giving any pacifiers or bottles until four weeks, if at all possible (you’ll feel plenty bonded if you do all of the non-nursing things like we talked about). Baby will like and need you more as he/she grows. Early on, they’re pretty boob-focused. When it’s time for the bottle, know about bottlefeeding the breastfed baby. Start with this link, which will give you some very basic information.
Next, watch this video. When you feed your baby expressed breastmilk, it’s really important to recognize that pumping isn’t fun and it’s hard work, so you don’t want to overfeed baby or waste milk. Be aware of milk handling and storage guidelines. Use a super slow-flow nipple. Don’t. Waste. Milk.
Encourage your partner to leave the house – not the room – when you try to give the bottle. My friends and I joke that a solo trip to Target is the perfect activity for this time, but anything – manicure, meal alone, coffee with a friend – is great, as long as the baby isn’t there. And for the love of God, don’t call or text your partner just to say the baby is crying a lot. Try lots of things! Figure it out!
The boobs may be off limits for a while. That’s not for sure, but please ask first. They leak, they’re sore, they’re basically a human refrigerator. Just ask.
You can’t really prepare yourself for how tired having a baby will make you. Even if you swear up and down that your baby will never be in your bed, if baby is up to nurse every hour and you both have to work the next day, you might fall asleep with the baby. It’s better to be prepared for the possibility of bedsharing by doing your research on its safety for exclusively nursing parents. I really like this comprehensive resource from the University of Notre Dame about bedsharing as it relates to exclusively nursing parents, as well as this brief summary guide from La Leche League International. Many bedsharing parents end up getting more sleep, and being more able to meet their nursing goals. And as for the notion that formula feeding might improve sleep; unfortunately, we’re all sleep deprived.
In our nation, not that many people get through a year of nursing. For those of us who do, we know that nothing suddenly changes on a child’s 365th day of life. Nursing still provides comfort and nutrition; plus, finding another way to soothe a kid who just fell and conked his head on the concrete is really difficult.
Nursing is also a complicated relationship between parent and child and when to stop is something that can, and perhaps should, be considered separately from our considerations of society’s constraints on nursing.
After all, both the folks in the photo below were, at the time, still nursing. And eating bagels. Just don’t start your time as a parent of a breastfed kid with an end date on the whole thing, ok?
Finally, email me. I’m not an IBCLC or medical practitioner, but I’m a seasoned peer talk-off-the-ledge-er and I am truly honestly happy to meet over a beer to talk this all out. Feel free to email me at email@example.com or to contact me through my blog.
About Philly Baby Bump Guest Contributor Krys Belc
Bio: Krys Belc is a blogger who writes about gender and parenting, parenting both a gestational and non-gestational child, and adventures with toddlers in Philadelphia.
Krys is a proud Philadelphia public school teacher, parent of two (with a third one on the way!), avid baker, and local playground aficionado. You can see the Belc toddlers invade parks all over the city at the new Instagram project where philly plays
Krys’s Blog: babybelc
Follow Krys: Instagram@wherephillyplays