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There's the steep learning curve you and your baby have to navigate during the already tumultuous postpartum period. The pressure of worrying about your supply. The sleep deprivation that comes with being the sole provider of nourishment to a creature that needs to eat every two to three hours (and often much more frequently). And that's just the first week or two.
"Breastfeeding moms can start to feel like all of their time, energy and focus is on feeding their baby," says Chrisie Rosenthal, IBCLC, a Los Angeles-based lactation consultant and consultant relations manager for The Lactation Network.
This can feel overwhelming, but taking care of yourself can help you feel happier and healthier, not to mention set the stage for reaching your long-term feeding goals.
And there are plenty of ways to make it happen. In honor of National Breastfeeding Month, here are the expert-recommended strategies for prioritizing self-care during this ultra-demanding period.
1. Create a Support Plan Before Giving Birth, if Possible
It can be tough to fully anticipate your needs before giving birth or breastfeeding for the first time. But you can establish a general support system so you know where to turn when you need help.
Start by picking a point person (not you!) who can communicate with friends and family when you have errands or tasks they can take on, recommends Rosenthal. Your partner or another close family or friend is usually the best pick.
Line up some pros while you're at it too. Have a lactation consultant handy if you run into trouble with latching or your supply (it's super common, so no shame!) so you're not scrambling to research names after the baby arrives. Search the USLCA.org directory, ask your pediatrician or ob-gyn for a referral or tap your local La Leche League or breastfeeding support group for a recommendation.
"If money is tight, you might consider looking for a new doula who is offering a reduced rate because they're completing their training," Rosenthal says.
2. Split Up the Work With Your Partner
You and your partner may have expected to go into parenting 50/50. But things can start to feel lopsided fast when you're the one who's on call for every single feeding.
Not only will it give you a break, it'll help you build more equity in your parenting partnership long-term.
3. Set Up a Breastfeeding Nook
You and your baby will be spending a lot of time in one spot, especially early on while you're getting the hang of nursing and recovering from birth. So make your space (or spaces, if you like to nurse in different spots) comfortable.
"A chair with comfy armrests usually works well for getting a good position. Have books, a water bottle and some snacks within arm's reach too," says Southern California-based lactation consultant Krystyn Parks, RD, IBCLC.
4. Nourish Yourself and Hydrate
Speaking of food and water, you'll need plenty of both. Your baby's milk is mostly H2O, and your body expends tons of calories producing it.
"Focus on feeding yourself with healthy, wholesome foods that will give you the energy and nutrients you need and that taste delicious," Dr. Casares says. (Now definitely isn't the time to worry about losing weight.)
To stay hydrated, get in the habit of sipping a full glass of water each time you nurse.
5. Get Your Posture Right
There's no one-size-fits-all breastfeeding position, and what works best will change as your baby grows. But no matter your setup, it should feel comfortable for you during feedings and afterwards.
"The important thing is to bring the baby to you, not the other way around," Parks says.
Hunching or sitting at an awkward angle is a recipe for feeling sore and uncomfortable, especially when you're doing it 10, 12 or more times a day.
If you need help with positioning, schedule a visit with a lactation consultant.
6. Make Time for Yourself
Easier said than done, of course. But even a few minutes alone can help restore your energy and improve your mood.
"Carving out small spaces for yourself will help you keep perspective and come back to caring for your baby with more stamina," Dr. Casares says.
Have your partner or a family member or friend take the baby right after a feeding so you can go for a short walk without worrying that your little one will need to eat again. (Just being outside in nature can give you a boost.)
Also: Block out 15 minutes each day when you know someone else will be home so you can take a hot shower.
7. Put Your Baby Down if You Have To
Sure, your little one might prefer to be snuggled 24/7. But it's human to need a break, and you won't harm your baby by taking one when you're feeling overwhelmed — even if they're crying.
"If you're feeling overly emotional, you're not going to be able to help co-regulate your baby," Parks says. "It's OK to put them down in a safe spot, walk away, take a few deep breaths and come back."
8. Lean Into What Brings You Joy
Whatever the little things are that bring a smile to your face, bring more of them into your day. Some ideas:
- Watch a funny movie in spurts throughout the day while you nurse.
- Pop your baby in the carrier or stroller and let her nap in the park while you sit and enjoy the sunshine.
- Put on your favorite music when you have to bounce with your baby on an exercise ball at 2:00 in the morning because she won't stop crying.
"Pairing more difficult activities with more pleasurable ones is an evidence-based way to get through physical and mental challenges," Dr. Casares says.
9. Connect With Other Breastfeeding Parents (and Find Someone to Text at Night)
Even the most supportive partner won't fully understand what you're going through. But other breastfeeding parents will, 100 percent, Rosenthal says.
Go to a meetup group for new parents or a breastfeeding support group or join a group online. You'll feel seen, pick up some tips and advice and probably make a bunch of new friends that you can text during those lonely middle-of-the-night feedings.
10. Consider Sleep Training When It's Age-Appropriate
Sleep training isn't an option for newborns. But once your baby reaches the four- to six-month mark and you've gotten the green light from your pediatrician, it can help you get more of the rest you need to be on your game with the baby during the day.
"Some parents need the sleep. Others feel super guilty for training their baby. Do whatever you think will make you feel your best," Parks says.
11. Know That It's OK to Stop
There's no award for breastfeeding for three months, six months, a year or even longer. If you've decided that nursing isn't the right fit for you, you're not a bad parent.
"Taking care of yourself sometimes means making challenging decisions for the sake of your own mental health — or even the physical health — of you and your baby," Dr. Casares says. "In some cases, that means transitioning to formula completely or using supplementation."
When to Seek Help for Breastfeeding Challenges
Even though the physical act of breastfeeding might be solely on you, that doesn't mean you have to navigate challenges alone. Depending on what you're dealing with, a board-certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) or a mental health professional can help you navigate the tough stuff and feel better.
Parks says you should consider calling an IBCLC if:
- You're experiencing pain or discomfort while feeding
- Your baby is having a hard time latching
- Your pediatrician determines your baby isn't growing well
Seek immediate medical attention if your baby is showing signs of dehydration, like too few wet diapers, no tears when crying or a sunken soft spot.
An IBCLC can help you with breastfeeding transitions too, like figuring out how to use your pump, shifting to formula or weaning.
Seek out a mental health expert or talk with your doctor or your child's pediatrician if your struggles are more emotion-related. Feeling extreme sadness, worry or overwhelm around breastfeeding are all red flags, Dr. Casares says, so don't hesitate to speak up.