Before I gave birth, I knew a lot about breastfeeding. I've spent the better part of four years writing about it for HuffPost Parents, and not just the science supporting it, but what it feels like for mothers on an emotional level. I've interviewed women who exclusively pump; women who've nursed after breast cancer; women who formula feed. I'm versed in the potential challenges, so I prepared. I read books. I hired a doula who specializes in breastfeeding support.
But in the first 48 hours after delivering my son last winter, I was completely leveled by the experience, physically and emotionally. After he latched on early and well, we spent our first night together fumbling in the dark, while I hit the nurse call button again and again, desperate to get him on my left breast. By the next morning, my right nipple was overused and blistered. By the time we drove home two days later, both of my nipples were bleeding and raw. I had just delivered a 9-pound baby without drugs, but this pain was something else altogether. It was sharp. Stabbing. Relentless.
Of course, not every woman's early breastfeeding experience is like mine. Some women and their babies take to it instantly. My sister and her daughter were like this. So was my best friend and hers. But what binds their experiences and mine is their sense of intensity -- the feeling that everything is wild and new, and something potentially important is at stake. So we asked our HuffPost Parents Facebook community to tell us what those first 48 hours were like for them, and here's what 15 experienced moms said:
I am a labor and postpartum nurse and a lactation consultant, and that still didn't fully prepare me for breastfeeding. I had severe preeclampsia and was given IV drugs. I was pretty out of it for a good 24 hours after my daughter was born, and she was so sleepy, too, but I knew we would be okay if I just kept her skin-to-skin. I didn't nurse her until she was five hours old; I just held her against me.
But then she developed jaundice, and they told me I needed to supplement with formula after every feeding. I was devastated. I started pumping and I also called my sister-in-law who had just had a baby and she gave me some of her milk. I was very grateful to have all the information I have and to know what my options were -- I can't imagine what other women do. But I also think my downfall was not asking for help. I was really sore, but I kept telling myself, "You're a lactation consultant. You should know how to do this. This really hurts, but the latch is right." It wasn't until 4 months later that she was diagnosed with a lip and tongue tie. -- Jillian, California
Before I was even pregnant, I was completely and totally against breastfeeding. I always focused on the cons -- the pain, feeling trapped by the demands of it and the idea of being like a cow. But when I was 7 months pregnant, I began to leak, and in that moment that I vowed to learn all about breastfeeding. I figured my body knew what to do, and there was no fighting nature. When our son came into the world, I immediately asked the doctor to put him on my chest and he camped out for the next hour, nursing like it was his job. He latched perfectly. Everyone talks about the exhaustion of those first few hours, but I honestly didn't feel any of that. I just felt happy. -- Marissa, Illinois
My daughter is 10 months old, but looking back on those first 48 hours I have tears in my eyes, because it was so damn hard. Everything about it was hard. I didn't know how she should latch, if she should be eating so much -- the nurses tried to help, but they can't do it for you. And the engorgement and the cracked nipples were so freaking painful. I cried a lot. I stuck with it, and it got better, but it's still so easy for me to transport myself back to that time. -- Kimberly, New York
I was so determined to breastfeed and I went to a class where they made it seem so easy, like, "Just make sure the baby's mouth is wide, and he will latch fine. It won't hurt!" Yeah, right. I had cracking and bleeding right away. I never realized I had flat nipples until I tried breastfeeding. The lactation consultant got called to my room a couple times, but she wouldn't stay for long -- she seemed really busy. I just remember her squeezing my nipples so hard.The hospital nurses gave me nipple shields first when they noticed my son had a hard time latching. I'm not sure if they were too small or what, but I remember they would gather blood at the tip when my nipples were bleeding. I would have to stop, rinse them out. It was so gross. My son had jaundice and I had to supplement with formula, though I really didn't want to and had multiple breakdowns about it. The nurses taped a tiny tube to my breast and filled the tube with a syringe full of formula to try to get him to nurse that way. It felt so unnatural! It was so frustrating, like why couldn't I just do it normally!? Thinking back, I know I tried hard, I just let it all get the best of me. -- Kara, Connecticut
I spent the first 18 hours of my baby's life in ICU. After a completely normal birth, I had a very sudden and completely unexpected surgery that ended in the loss of my uterus -- and nearly my life. While I recovered, the hospital allowed my sister (who had her baby 3 months before me) to pump so my child didn't have formula. She knew how important this was to me and really came through.
The maternity ward nurses and my OB-GYN told me my body may not be able to produce as much milk as my baby needed for a while, due to the blood loss and trauma I had undergone, but when I was finally reunited with her, she miraculously latched right away and has been the best breastfeeder from the very first minutes of trying. After all of the terrible tragedy, it was a huge blessing and relief. -- Kassie, New Jersey
I remember the nurses gave me this complicated chart to track the feedings... how often, how long, which boob, blah, blah, blah. It was freaking me out. Then this angel of a lactation specialist with the most beautiful Irish accent I've ever heard came to see me and said, "watch the baby, not the clock." I kept that phrase in my head for a long time. I scrapped the damn chart and just followed my baby's lead. You hear every story of how excruciating and difficult it can be, so I was prepped to deal with that. When my daughter latched on like an experienced pro on the very first attempt, I was shocked! It seemed like it was too easy. Where was all the pain everyone told me about? (I was equally surprised to go through two bouts of mastitis with my second baby. Awful. Awful! If that had happened with my first, I probably would have given up. Having the easy experience first was a blessing.) -- Amy, Minnesota
I just remember feeling this intense pressure of racing against time, of having my moments of happiness interrupted by this feeling of failure. I felt disappointed, mostly in myself. I also felt embarrassed, like I wasn't woman enough to do this. But with my first child, I had more feelings of guilt and failure than I did with my second. After all, my first son was mostly raised on formula and he is such a beautiful, strong, healthy and smart child. I'm still doing a combination of breast, pumping and formula with my second baby. He's still not latching correctly and I'm seeing an osteopath and a lactation consultant tomorrow. I'm doing everything I can to make it work, but also feeling less pressure. -- Gaby, New York
I just gave birth to my second son two weeks ago. He latched right away and my milk was quick to follow. He has been eating like a champ ever since. Two completely different experiences, and I'm thankful for them both. Having that first experience also allowed me to appreciate how easy it has been this time around. -- Amber, California
My baby girl was born premature at 33 weeks after HELLP Syndrome (a variant of preeclampsia) almost killed me. I can't recall a lot about the first 24 hours, except one nurse in the early hours of the morning coming in and telling me she would help make sure I could still breastfeed my very tiny 3lb, 12 oz daughter. This lady's job was to express milk from me, like you might milk a cow. It was embarrassing, but she talked me through it as she did her job and collected tiny little droplets of milk with a 5ml syringe, one little drop at a time.
The next day, a midwife showed me how to hand express. I had only met my daughter twice at this point. I was stuck in bed, unable to get out, and she was down the hall in a special care incubator. Doctors told me to have a picture of her while I expressed, and think of her tiny little face while I tried my hardest to fill only 2 or 3ml each time. There was so little I could do for my new baby, I couldn't even hold or comfort her, but I could do this one thing. -- Stephanie, UK
I was amazed at how my daughter seemed to be searching for my nipple the second they put her on my chest. But I won’t lie -- I felt awkward. The nurse was holding my breast in one hand and my baby’s head in the other, trying to line them up just right. The desire to breastfeed came naturally, but the mechanics definitely did not. That entire first day and night in the hospital, I was constantly calling the nurse in to help me get her latched on -- and I had no idea that my daughter would literally want to eat every single hour. She actually never slept in the bassinet they bring you; she stayed on my chest the entire 48 hours we were at the hospital, except for when she had the few exams. I slept when she slept, and woke up every hour when she asked to eat. It was the most exhausting, but most wonderful experience. My husband was so tired and so through the night it was just me and Stella, the quiet room, her tiny little body pressed up against mine. -- Liz, Arizona
My son breastfed quickly after being born. I can't tell you precisely how quickly, as the hours that followed his birth felt like minutes, but immediately after birth the nurses placed my son on my bare chest and he started rooting for milk. They tell you that babies have this reflex, to search for mom's breast, but it seems a little far-fetched until you see it happen. And it did. He searched and found what he was looking for. -- Paige, Texas
After a horrible pregnancy, thanks to hyperemisis gravidarum, I thought I was blessed by a son that latched on immediately after birth. As soon as he was placed on my chest, he latched successfully and started sucking. Unfortunately, it all went downhill from there. I began to struggle with the best way to hold him so that my H cup breasts wouldn't suffocate my 6-pound baby boy. All the nurses and the lactation consultant helped me the best they could; my husband even used his iPhone to record me trying various holds since it was difficult for me to see. But our newborn never seemed satisfied. I asked if we could try some formula, since he seemed so hungry, and it was almost as if I said a dirty word, but my gut said he was hungry and he needed food. By the time we went for our first newborn check up, my son had lost 10 percent of his body weight in 18 hours. The pediatrician suggested we start him on formula immediately, and I continued pumping every 20 minutes all day and night. Never got a single drop. Never even saw a drop of colostrum. I felt so incredibly guilty for supplementing with formula, and I'm so thankful for my pediatrician who was the only one to assure me that I wasn't less of a mother for using it. -- Christina, Connecticut
I've never been more overwhelmed than when I was handed my daughter and realized she was my sole responsibility, but I was blessed with an amazing and supportive midwife. After having an emergency C-section, I was so surprised to open my eyes and see my midwife -- who was like an all-knowing boob guru -- holding my beautiful baby. Before I could gather my surroundings she handed me my newborn and proudly declared "let's get this baby to latch." The nurses and my midwife were essential to my success. I remember calling a nurse every time my daughter wanted to eat. Whether she was checking my latch, helping me position my daughter, or just giving moral support, it was comforting to know I wasn't alone. -- Hannah, Canada
My emotions were so high from an absolutely awful unexpected birth at 23 weeks, and before I was even able to see my daughter I was made to pump for the first time. While not as painful as a newborn chomping your nipple, I felt like a cow being milked -- it was not the contact you yearn for with your child. But I set my alarm every three hours and pumped. The second day, my milk came in, which hurt. Your breasts feel like rocks and pumping was the only thing to help the pain. With help of lactation consultants, I tried non-nutritive sucking a few times, but she wasn't interested in latching. It's common for micro preemies to not latch on, partly because they've been intubated for weeks. I pumped until her due date when my supply ended. -- Rachel, Wisconsin
These accounts have been edited and condensed for clarity.
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