No I didn’t mix up the saying. I wanted to write about the first six weeks of being a mother who is breastfeeding. The storm before the calm. A lot of people had advised me that the first six weeks would be the hardest and this is something that I have found to be very true. “Storm” may appear to be an unnecessarily negative term to use in this instance because this is probably the happiest time of your life. But for me it felt like a storm in many ways. A really beautiful tropical storm. It is a time where every single emotion you have ever felt is whirled together. It is the most overwhelming experience of your entire life. And, did I mention that it is beautiful? And amazing? And awe-inspiring? And at times, actually really really difficult.
The Storm Before The Calm
It’s almost a taboo topic, mentioning the hard bits. You are feeling so blessed to have this beautiful gift in your life. You wished for it and it’s all you’ve ever wanted. You gave birth and he is here now and deep down you feel like you do not have the right to complain about anything in your life ever again. But then it’s 3am, and you’ve been breastfeeding your baby for six solid hours and if you stop he screams and screams. You are deliriously tired. It all feels completely wrong. Something must be wrong! Crying means unhappiness right? You feel like a bad mother because your baby is only two weeks old and is clearly unhappy. You are a failure already. If you are feeling that way right now, or are due to have a baby some time soon, I am here to tell you that NO you are not a failure. That YES this is all normal, and perhaps more importantly, things will profoundly change very very soon. Hang in there momma, you’re doing a great job!
Those first few weeks can really take their toll on your emotions and on your relationships. In the early hours of the morning when you are experiencing sleep deprivation, your mind can go to strange places. You are snappy, sore, scared and feeling completely out of your dept. I mentioned this in a previous post but one of the most surprising things for me was that I didn’t expect to be in pain after giving birth. Being in a lot of pain and trying to hoosh yourself out of bed to get your crying baby is hard enough, but trying to do this and then establish breastfeeding at the same time, was quite the challenge for me. I’ll never forget how frustrated I was, feeling like I couldn’t care for my baby properly. These are the moments where you need all the support you can get, and I was blessed to have a lot of that.
I had never really given the notion of “cluster-feeding” much thought. I assumed that I was of a minority and that something was wrong with my baby because he was crying so much. I mean HOW could he still be hungry? Is there something wrong with my milk? I must be doing something wrong.
Do these thoughts sound familiar?
Turns out that all of those fussy nights are very important for the breastfeeding relationship you are embarking on.Believe it or not, this innocent baby crying in your arms is so intelligent that it actually knows to send all of these signals to your body to encourage it, and indeed instruct it, to produce more milk. Every night that you sit there feeding for hours and hours, consumed by negative thoughts, you are actually participating in one of the most important phases of breastfeeding. You are building your “supply”. I remember reading blogs and articles that referenced this elusive “supply” and I wondered what it was all about. Well, you know how you want to breastfeed your baby? You want to make sure that there is enough milk available to meet his needs. Lucky for you, the baby does all the talking. He feeds and feeds for hours on end, he keeps you awake and cries to be fed despite the fact that he was only very recently fed and “settled”. It’s actually quite amazing, but your baby has a job to do and during this phase you really have to just sit back and follow his lead.
I’m writing this from the “calm”. The “storm” has passed and we are in a really lovely phase right now where Billy is feeding beautifully, my “supply” is well established, and I finally have the hang of this breastfeeding thing. He also now sleeps for longer periods at night so I am less tired in general. Now, when I say ‘storm’ I don’t mean that it was a bad phase. It was incredible, and it continues to be. What I’m referring to is a time of profound change, new experiences and self doubt. At this point I can honestly say that I’ve never been so happy that I decided to breastfeed and I am really enjoying the experience.
There was a very “fussy” period which lasted a couple of weeks and it was probably at it’s worst from week 2-6 of little Billy’s life. During this phase people will ask you arbitrary questions like “and is he sleeping at night?” or my favourite one, “is he good?” as if there is some sort of standard for these identical little babies. I sometimes don’t know how to answer that question. What does it even mean for a newborn baby to be “good”? To be honest with you these are the questions that I’ll never ask a new mother because you can be certain that the only thing they will encourage is for the mother to feel bad about herself and wonder what she is doing wrong.
As a side-note, I actually remember watching a documentary where a paediatrician spoke about the way in which people ask you is your newborn baby “sleeping through the night”. He was quite baffled by the frequency of such a question because from a medical standpoint, sleeping through the night for a period of eight or so hours is in fact abnormal. He spoke about the way in which a baby of such a tiny size would not have the ability to maintain a healthy blood sugar level if he or she went such a long period of time without food. I found this so reassuring.
In those first few weeks I never really distinguished night from day. Hours simply rolled in to eachother and some of those hours were dark and some were bright. I never really got any genuine sleep. I cat-napped when the baby did and when the baby slept for more than an hour or two I would use that time to feed myself, pack the dishwasher, stick on a wash or basically do anything to keep the house afloat.
And then it got better. I started to notice a little change at about six weeks. I was nearly afraid to believe it, but things started to become a lot clearer. I started to recognise the early signs of Billy being hungry, when he was tired, when he needed to be changed, or when he simply wanted to be cuddled. I suddenly had a new sense of confidence in myself as a mother and I just felt that I was really in tune with my baby. People talk about how “mammy knows best ” and it’s actually true. You spend every waking and sleeping hour with your baby and you come to know them better than you know yourself.
I wanted to write this post because I remember during those particularly overwhelming weeks I would sit up reading blogs while I fed Billy. I googled EVERYTHING you could possibly imagine from the colour of baby poo to which “white noise” apps were rated the best. I distinctly remember reading blogs where women would explain that things get a lot easier after the first 6-8 weeks. It is something that really stuck with me.
During this phase I was exhausted and having thoughts about whether or not I should continue breastfeeding. I thought about how easy it would be to go downstairs and make a bottle or formula and to stage feeds at four hour intervals like some of my friends did rather than this feeding on demand business. He would probably sleep better, I wouldn’t have to wear special nursing bras, and I wouldn’t have to be the only person who can feed my baby.
But here I am, eight weeks in, and I can say with sincerety that I am so happy to be breastfeeding. It is the most beautiful experience to know that your body produces the perfect food for your baby, to know that every ounce of weight your baby gains and every milestone he reaches is because your body is feeding him. Your baby is thriving and it’s all down to you. How could that not feel amazing?
At the same time I’ve never been one to suggest that people should breastfeed. Of course it’s the healthier option and of course there are a plethora of benefits for you and for your baby, but it’s not “for” everyone. I was never 100% sure if I was definitely going to breastfeed. I knew I wanted to but I was also aware that it would pose some difficulties and it may not have worked out for me. Turns out that most people go through a rocky stage when they start breastfeeding, and once that phase passes it’s all sunshine and lollipops. Basically, hang in there.
I suppose I’m writing this post because I really want to emphasise that things really do settle down. On all counts, but particularly with the breastfeeding. Your new found confidence will start to appear when you see your baby’s weight gain, his cheeks start to fill out, and yes you will even become excited by dirty nappies because they are an important indication that your baby is getting enough food.
If you are in the midst of a particularly tiring cluster feed right now and you are considering throwing the towel in, please just give it another day. As each day passes it gets easier and before you know it you will be a little pro, only delighted with yourself in the knowledge that your body is keeping your baby alive and well.
How amazing is that?
Happy beastfeeding awareness month everyone. I am loving this journey!