“You did the best that you knew how. Now that you know better, you’ll do better.” – Maya Angelou
This beautiful and compassionate statement is wisdom for life, but I think especially resonates for new mothers. In each new situation we encounter as moms we learn something new about the particulars of a life stage, developmental milestone, or transition. We can then also assess and factor in the specifics of our own child and our selves. It is always when we look back in the rear view mirror that we see more clearly how we could have better navigated the situation and have the perspective we need to realize what we could have done better. Sometimes that looking back can lead to regret and can be very painful for a mother. Every mother experiences this, more than once, while navigating the difficult task of raising children.
This is especially true about learning to breastfeed. First time moms know so little about breastfeeding because they don't live surrounded by other women breastfeeding and they don't live with other women to support them through the steep learning curve. Breastfeeding is hard work in every place and situation but in many cultures there's more support and more understanding of the process before it has begun. In our society, women are basically thrown into the deep end of the pool and have to sink or swim. After going through the hard work of labor and delivery, they are unprepared for the hard work of launching breastfeeding that takes the first 30 to 40 days.
If only we could get across to moms how incredibly time consuming the early days of breastfeeding are and that it is that investment of time that ensures breastfeeding success. Early frequent emptying of the breast, whether by baby or pump, is what ensures a good strong milk supply. That window of opportunity is time limited and some women miss that window and don't realize it until it is too late. There are no absolutes about this but generally the first two to four weeks are critical. Frequent feeding, surrendering to clustering, not limiting time at breast if babies are sucking actively, and using pumps when necessary to compensate for poor feeding or low supply are of paramount importance in developing supply. Moms want things to be predictable but early breastfeeding is completely unpredictable; it is frequent, time consuming, erratic in pattern and even surprising. This pattern, in addition to building supply, ensures that mom and baby can learn to breastfeed by practicing frequently and that they get to know one another. Responsive breastfeeding is the first way in which we respond to our babies' needs and thereby promote their ability to attach.
Some women have more reserve than others and can push the envelope more than others but most have to play by the predictable, frequent, good emptying of the breast in order to reach that plateau of milk supply at 30 to 40 days. It is then that they move into the second, less difficult, but still time consuming phase of breastfeeding. If we could take a step back or look back in the rear view mirror, we'd be able to tell ourselves to hang in there and get to the other side. Once to the other side, that investment of time, nipple pain, breast discomfort, and awkward learning all comes together into a good breastfeeding relationship. But until you've walked that path there's no way to truly know in your core that is true. When a lactation consultant walks in your door and meets you for the first time and makes recommendations, it's a total leap of faith for you to follow them. We LC's recognize that we are balancing our desire to provide you with evidence based information so that you can succeed with our desire to support you and not judge you. because it is hard work and we never judge you for doing your best.
Sometimes, it goes easily the first time, and then it's less challenging to get to through the early adjustment period. Sometimes, our birth experience or our new dance partner brings challenges that make breastfeeding much more difficult. Each breastfeeding launch is different and some are easier than others. Sometimes there are circumstances beyond our control and sometimes we get in our own way. No matter what the circumstance, we are learning; about mothering, about ourselves as mothers, and about our new babies. When we cannot hang in there, we need to forgive ourselves, and remember that, as Maya Angelou so eloquently wrote, once we know better we can do better.