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What to Expect When You Are Breastfeeding!
Getting emotionally prepared

by Gaye E. Johnson

For many women having babies these days, breastfeeding is a bit of a mystery. Breastfeeding rates are low enough that it is not unusual for a woman to have never seen a baby being nursed. Women often have no idea what to expect or have unrealistic expectations that can mar their early breastfeeding experiences.

Feeding Frequency, Day and Night

Even though scheduled feeds have not been recommended by breastfeeding experts for MANY years now, there is still the myth that babies tend to nurse every three to four hours! The reality often comes as quite a shock to the new mother (to put it mildly!). Whilst the rare baby might only "demand" to be fed this rarely and go on to thrive, most women will find that their babies do not follow this routine naturally (and that if they try to get them onto this schedule, their baby and/or supply will suffer). Mothers need to know that it is NORMAL and HEALTHY for newborns and older babies too to want to nurse very frequently! Breast milk, being the perfect nutrition for infants, is so easily and quickly digested that babies CAN genuinely be hungry even half an hour after the last feed. It also pays to remember that a newborn's stomach isn't much larger than a table-tennis ball! They NEED to "snack" as they simply can't take in enough at one feed to keep them going for hours on end. Many mothers also find that their breasts need very frequent stimulation in order to produce the right amount of milk for their babies. It is VERY rare for a woman who nurses truly on cue to have insufficient supply, but when feeds are spaced out according to the clock, supply troubles are not at all uncommon.

Whilst most people these days will recognise that newborns do need to nurse during the night, many sources are still leading parents to expect that night waking will cease far earlier than it naturally does in most children. Some books even quote figures of six weeks for dropping nighttime feeds. When parents find that their seven-month-old is still waking several times during the night wanting the breast, you can almost be sure that they will be told their child doesn't NEED to be doing so, that it is a bad habit, and that they must do something (such as some sort of sleep training) to get their baby "on track". Again, the reality is that it is perfectly NORMAL and HEALTHY (if a little inconvenient at times!) for babies and children to still be waking and nursing during the night until the age of two years or even older.

Often the worry that parents feel is not due to what is actually happening with their child but rather with their PERCEPTION of it - whether they see it as expected and normal or whether it is worrying because their baby "shouldn't" be doing whatever he or she is doing. I believe that if breastfeeding parents know from the start that their baby is likely to want to nurse MANY times in a 24-hour period, seemingly 24 hours a day during the newborn period and growth spurts, they will accept this behaviour for what it is and devote their energies to adapting to meeting these needs rather than trying to fight it (or worrying about it). In cultures where breastfeeding is the norm, it is simply expected that babies will be nursing a lot, both day and night, and the parents' lifestyles adapt to suit (eg. wearing baby in a sling, co-sleeping so that nighttime nursing is much easier).

Pain and Other Challenges

Many women begin their breastfeeding "career" after having heard various horror stories of women who were in constant pain, those who never had enough milk, those whose babies simply wouldn't latch on and so on. Other women enter this phase of their life believing that all will be perfect and end up getting the shock of their lives if something does go wrong. Probably a balance between the two expectations is best! It is reasonable to expect that (with VERY few exceptions) a woman who wishes to breastfeed her baby will be able to do so. It is also reasonable, however, to expect that there might be a few challenges along the way, and to be prepared for them by having some basic knowledge and some support lined up in advance.

It helps a new breastfeeding mother to know that pain is NOT normal! If she is expecting it to hurt and thinks this is normal, then she is unlikely to get the help she needs with attaching her baby to the breast or perhaps treating a thrush or mastitis problem. If, on the other hand, she is expecting everything to go swimmingly and does get some pain, she might worry that this is a sign that she is one of the many women who simply isn't "cut out for" breastfeeding and again not get the help she needs.

It is pretty normal for new breastfeeding mothers to experience some challenges along the way. Certainly there are women who breeze through the early weeks and months, but it is probably wise to expect that some help will be needed at some stage during this period. Breastfeeding is a perfectly natural and wonderful thing to do but it takes some practice and some knowledge. Some babies are a little bit tricky to get attached to the breast for example. With a fair amount of persistence and some expert help and support, however, these difficulties can be worked through!

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Weaning

Many parents expect that their baby will wean easily from the breast to a bottle or cup sometime in the first year and are quite worried and/or shocked when this proves harder than expected. Research has been done into finding a so-called "natural age of weaning" and many people will be surprised to note that the figure found was somewhere between 2 1/2 and 7 years of age! Therefore, it is not at all unusual or abnormal for a toddler to still be very attached (both literally and figuratively speaking!) to their "bees", "num-nums" or whatever they are affectionately known. Remember that to a nursing infant or child, breastfeeding is about so much more than nutrition!

This is not to say that once you start breastfeeding, you are locked into doing so for years on end. Babies CAN be gently and lovingly weaned if that is desired, and ANY amount of breastfeeding is better than none at all. Every little bit is worthwhile! However, it is reasonable to expect that children will naturally be very fond of breastfeeding and that, if given the chance to wean naturally, this will occur in most cases after a number of years rather than weeks or months. Even though extended nursing is not common in Western societies, there are many benefits to it, and being aware that this is actually very normal can help parents to be prepared.

If parents can enter into breastfeeding with realistic expectations, they are bound to enjoy the experience so much more and worry so much less!

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