The Learned Art of Breastfeeding

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When I was pregnant with my first baby, I decided that I would breastfeed for the first year. I just decided and that was that. I didn’t do any reading or research. I didn’t talk to any breastfeeding mothers or lactation consultants. I thought that breastfeeding was a natural thing and that mothers had been breastfeeding their children since the beginning of mankind. Women all over the world nurse their babies everyday. I thought you put the baby to your breast and they nurse, end of story. So I tried. And I failed.

What I failed to realize was that women all over the world since the beginning of mankind have watched their mothers, aunts, sisters, and friends breastfeed their babies. They have sat with them through countless feedings as part of normal every day life. They have learned the art of breastfeeding through watching, listening to, and learning from other women. Breastfeeding does not exactly come naturally. It is indeed a learned art. Unfortunately for me, like many women in modern Western culture, I had never even seen another woman breastfeed a baby. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

By expecting breastfeeding to come instinctively, I set myself up for failure. When my son was born, breastfeeding did not happen as I envisioned it. What was supposed to be a bonding experience turned into a source of disconnect and disappointment. I grew increasingly frustrated because I lacked knowledge that I did not know I lacked. I thought that I was unable to perform a basic human task that every other woman could perform. I thought I was failing as a mother.

I did not know how to properly latch a baby to my breast so we could not get a proper latch and never did learn to nurse without a nipple shield.

I did not know that newborn breastfed babies cluster feed and I tried to feed my baby according to a schedule.

I did not know that breastfeeding is a supply and demand process so I supplemented with formula when my baby hit growth spurts.

I did not know that dieting too soon would inhibit milk production so I cut calories to lose weight.

I did not know that I needed much more water as a breastfeeding mother so I drank too little.

By one month of age, I was using formula to supplement. By three months of age, I was feeding exclusively with formula, not by choice but because my milk production decreased until I completely dried up. My dream of breastfeeding through the first year was shattered. Breastfeeding is a bonding experience with your baby and to have it go so wrong was heartbreaking for me. If I knew then what I know now, I could have succeeded at breastfeeding through the first year. But I didn’t know.

I felt very alone in this disappointment and it wasn’t until my second pregnancy years later that I discovered how many women struggle with breastfeeding. So many women give up on breastfeeding or are forced out by low milk production because they just don’t know how to overcome the challenges. I read book after book, blog after blog, article after article, trying to prepare once again to breastfeed for the long haul with my second baby. I learned so much and realized that I was not a failure as mom for not succeeding at breastfeeding the first time around. I was not a woman lacking in some basic skill. I realized that breastfeeding is not instinctual but a learned skill. So I kept learning and preparing. And you know what? This second time around I am still going strong after 17 months 🙂

Breastfeeding is challenging. It is hard at first. It’s frustrating. But it’s rewarding. It will take many women and many conversations and a lot of time to bring the learned art of breastfeeding back into common knowledge but I hope we as women can make that happen.

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