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Corrie Pikul Headshot

10 Things Nobody Told Me About Breastfeeding

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I was one of the last of my friends to have a baby, so I felt like I'd heard everything there was to hear about new motherhood, and specifically, breastfeeding. I'd been warned about mastitis, thrush, forceful letdowns that cause infants to startle and sputter, and the frustrating inability to produce enough milk. On top of that, in my third trimester, my husband and I took an actual breastfeeding class and I perused whole books about nursing. Still, despite everything I thought I knew about this "womanly art," I felt woefully unprepared when my son was born. What I didn't realize -- what no one made clear -- is that even when breastfeeding goes well, many aspects of it feel wrong. The uncensored truth wouldn't have dissuaded me from breastfeeding my baby (the benefits are just too compelling), but it would have helped me cope with the seemingly endless barrage of challenges.

Here's what I wish I'd known.

1. It's relentless.
Newborns need to eat around 10 to 12 times a day, which meant I was nursing around the clock. And now, even if my baby sleeps for four hours, my engorged or leaking breasts (or my obsessive fear of a decreasing milk supply) will wake me up after two or three. On the nights when my baby takes a long time to soothe back to sleep after eating, I feel like I barely have time for a catnap.

2. It's messy.
It took me a little while to figure out that the mysterious Jackson Pollock splotches that were suddenly all over our wooden floors were coming from me. I was also slow to realize that my leaking breasts, not my son's leaking diapers, were responsible for wet patches I found on his onesie after each feeding. Fortunately, I'd purchased a box of absorbent bra pads to wear when I went back to work, so I broke open the box a few months early. Which brings me to my next point...

3. It's expensive.
True, the milk doesn't cost anything, but everything else adds up: those sessions with a lactation consultant, the new nursing wardrobe of peep-teat bras and drop-front dresses, the pump (that alone can cost $400) -- not to mention the medicine cabinets full of I'll-try-anything comfort measures like lanolin emollient, gel pads, nipple shields, breast shells, protective pads and ibuprofen. I already had a hand-me-down breast pump (sharing is not recommended by professionals, by the way), and I still spent over $500 on nursing-related gear and services that first month.

4. It's not instinctive!
Tigers, pigs and cats don't need lactation consultants. But while hapless human babies come out of the womb knowing how to suck, they don't necessarily how to suck efficiently enough to gain weight, or in a way that doesn't cause their poor mothers to curse and curl their toes in pain. While I was pretty proactive in seeking information before giving birth, I still believed that breastfeeding would come somewhat naturally to my baby and me. When things didn't work out, I waited longer than I should have before seeking professional help.

5. Nor is it guaranteed to burn off the baby weight.
I'd gotten it into my head that breastfeeding is as effective at helping the pounds melt off as, say, Weight Watchers (thank you, Sex and the City). But while experts say nursing helps burn 300 to 500 extra calories a day, I've found that it also makes me desperately hungry. I can't resist snacking almost every time my baby does, and as a result, I've actually gained some of the weight I lost after coming home from the hospital.

6. It can turn you into a couch potato.
This is literally true when babies hit their growth spurts. Mine went through one after about three weeks, and another at six weeks, and for a few days each time, he wanted to eat just about every hour. I felt like I barely had time to walk to the bathroom, never mind to take him for an invigorating walk. During these periods, I recommend downloading a couple of e-books, queuing up a season of Friday Night Lights and setting up a command center among the couch cushions.

7. Or an exhibitionist.
I'm the kind of person who likes to wear a bathrobe to walk the thirty or so steps from my shower to my bedroom closet -- or I used to be. But when even the light touch of cotton irritated my shredded nipples and I found myself preparing for another feeding before I'd even had a chance to get dressed after the last one, it seemed easier just to walk around topless. All modesty went completely out the window after I was advised to heal my open wounds by holding shot glasses full of salt water on my nipples (breastfeeding burlesque!).

8. You will be surprised to find...
...your milk is a mild laxative. I started noticing this on day one of breastfeeding. Yes, tiny babies who are breast-fed usually poop immediately after -- or while -- they're eating. The description on a package of Lanisoh wipes confirmed this for me, as did several other websites. While this laxative effect makes constipation a non-issue, it also means it's best to wait until after mealtime to change the diaper.

9. It will probably make you cry.
This is how my friends described breastfeeding before I gave birth: "It can hurt." After I joined their ranks: "It hurts like a mother&*^%#@!" "It feels like drawers slamming repeatedly on your nipples." "When I pumped, the milk would be too bloody for me to even think of giving it to him." "Thinking about breastfeeding her would cause me to shake in terror." Not everyone suffers like this, but I've never met a new mom who didn't experience major discomfort while mastering the all-important latch and dealing with her stretching nipples. When all the lactation literature says that pain means you're doing something wrong, it'd be reassuring to hear that everybody hurts -- to various degrees -- in the beginning.

10. It will definitely make you weep -- in the best possible way.
"Mommy, you're feeding her from the heart." This is what a friend's toddler said after watching his mom breastfeed his baby sister. The little dude was wise beyond his years. During more than one feeding, I've been moved to tears by the sight of my sweet baby nursing blissfully away. Maybe it's my post-partum hormones. Maybe it's the fact that it's 3 a.m. and I am very, very tired. But, I maintain that this exquisite intimacy must be one of the reasons why new mothers ignore, overcome and forget about the pain, inconvenience, embarrassment, expense... And focus on the wonder of it, instead.