A question that must raise its head in the minds of many new mothers is often can you have a life and breastfeed? How on earth do you cope with the demands of breastfeeding, while still remaining a grown-up with many other responsibilities and her own wants and needs? This may still look possible while on maternity leave, but to imagine having to make all the concessions beyond that can be overwhelming.
The impact of breastfeeding in your life
Let me start off by saying that the biggest impact on your life is actually caused by the baby, not by breastfeeding. Yes, it is challenging that you are the only one able to breastfeed, but then, on the other hand, you save the time and effort that another mom would put into preparing bottles.
You may have a baby who wants to suck for comfort, but at the same time, you have a tool with which to comfort your baby when she is tired, teething, overstimulated or sick. Breastfeeding does take time and effort, but it also brings a lot of conveniences. There are also all the other advantages, like a healthier baby and the money that you save by not buying formula. No pain, no gain!
This doesn’t make the difficulties disappear though. And society doesn’t have a lot of empathy for mothers struggling with these difficulties. Many may feel that it is your choice to breastfeed, so you are doing this to yourself.
Can you have a life and breastfeed?
Let’s look at a few specific concerns that mothers have over living the breastfeeding life.
Sleep and breastfeeding
I have seen research claiming the opposite, but as a breastfeeding mom and a clinic sister who work with many mothers, I believe that breastfeeding does complicate sleep. This is especially the case when baby grows older.
I also don’t believe that most methods of sleep training are compatible with breastfeeding as they all include reducing night-time feeds, and breastfeeding doesn’t work that way. Remember that the fact that breastfed babies sleep for shorter periods because they need to feed more frequently helps to protect them from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (cot death), so it’s not all in vain. It also keeps your milk supply going, prevent engorgement and mastitis, and help them to make up emotionally for time missed during the day once you are back at work.
Take a look at our blog on getting your baby to sleep. You can also try these tips:
- Master lying down and breastfeeding, as you can then sleep or rest while feeding baby.
- Consider co-sleeping as this work better for most breastfeeding babies.
- Negotiate with dad for one sleep-in morning a week. He must take baby and disappear. It’s going to make a massive difference to how you feel the rest of the week.
- Try to catch a nap in the day, while baby is sleeping (and of course clean when baby is cleaning and cook when baby is cooking, I know!).
- Remember that this is not going to last forever. One day you will sleep through again. The health advantages that you are giving your baby are going to last for many years though, long beyond your sleep difficulties.
Diet and breastfeeding
There are three groups of mothers concerned over their diet while feeding:
- Those who are stressing that their babies are not getting all the nutrients via the breastmilk
- Those wanting to follow a certain diet to lose weight
- Lastly, those of you who are like me and grew concerned over all the nice things that I was no longer supposed to eat.
Regarding your breastmilk’s nutritional value – your milk is perfect for your baby, and even if your diet is not perfect, it will be far closer to what your baby needs than any formula out there. There are many things in breastmilk that formula cannot even begin to copy. You should obviously try to eat healthily, and you can continue taking your pregnancy supplements. But your body will first take what baby needs. The one group of nutrients to take not of are omega fatty acids; if your own diet is deficient your breastmilk may also not have enough. Most people can, in any case, benefit from taking an omega fatty acid supplement like salmon oil.
Can you diet while breastfeeding? Of course, breastfeeding itself often helps mothers lose weight. But some do struggle. If you follow an energy-balanced diet you should lose weight. You may benefit from a visit to a dietician for some guidance if you struggle to do this. A medical check-up to exclude any medical reasons for struggling to lose weight is also a good idea. Unfortunately, most weight-loss medications and herbal supplements are not safe (or not tested) in breastfeeding mothers. Each programme should be able to give you their recommendations.
With regards to all you need to supposedly cut out I at least have good news. The research says you can eat all foods in moderation. You should also eat like you did in pregnancy, as this is the environment in which your baby grew. In fact, one of the advantages of breastfeeding is that baby gets exposed to different tastes and to allergens in mom’s diet, which helps to protect them from allergies later on.
Of course you will get little ones more sensitive than others, and if it seems that your baby reacts every time you eat something specific, by all means try cutting it out (and then eating it again) to see if it makes a difference to baby’s winds and cramps. In my experience it mostly does not. But you can ignore anyone giving you lists of all you’re not supposed to eat while you are still pregnant.
Remember that sadly excessive amounts of sugar in your diet can affect the sugar content in your milk and can lead to excessive weight gain in baby. But we should all focus on reducing sugar anyway, whether one is breastfeeding or not.
Alcohol and breastfeeding
For many mothers the idea of having to avoid all alcohol for however long they are breastfeeding is stressful. The good news is that newer research proves that the occasional use (1-2 times per week) of alcohol in moderate amounts (1-2 drinks) are not harmful to a breastfeeding baby.
According to Thomas Hale in ‘Medication in Mothers Milk’ (2017) a mom can breastfeed as soon as she feels neurologically normal. If you are sober enough to drive, you are sober enough to breastfeed. Less than 2% of the alcohol consumed reaches her milk. Alcohol does not accumulate in breastmilk, but leave the milk again as soon as the blood levels return to normal. Blood levels peak 0.5-1 hour after birth, although this will differ from person to person.
You should keep in mind baby’s age as well. The smaller the baby, the more immature the liver and the larger the amounts of milk that baby consumes. In babies under the age of 3 months alcohol would be most harmful, and during this period you may choose to avoid usage. A toddler breastfeeding will be able to metabolize any alcohol more effectively.
READ MORE: Specific guidelines for alcohol consumption
Caffeine and breastfeeding
I felt that this deserved its own category! Many people would kill for coffee, and for years breastfeeding moms were told to avoid caffeine. The general consensus nowadays is that 2-3 cups of good quality coffee a day should not be harmful to your baby. Some studies show that even up to 5 cups a day may be fine.
The effect on baby will once again depend on age (younger babies may be more sensitive), on the amount of caffeine in the specific type of coffee you are drinking and on whether you also had caffeine in your pregnancy.
If your baby seems wakeful and fussy after you had coffee you can consider reducing your coffee intake or using a decaf version to see if it makes any difference. However, decaf coffee has gone through many chemical processes and many feel that it may be more harmful than any caffeine consumed.
Of course coffee is only one source of caffeine – it can be found in many other drinks as well. Different coffee mixes will also contain different amounts of caffeine. Click here for a more detailed break-down on caffeine in different products.
Sex and breastfeeding
Breastfeeding doesn’t carry the need for any limitations in your sex life, apart from obviously having safe sex, should you be in a situation where this is necessary.
Sex is an important component of your relationship with your partner and is worthwhile investing in, especially as a baby already places some strain on your relationship by consuming a lot of your time and energy. One challenge that breastfeeding moms may experience is feeling quite ‘touched out’ comes evening when baby has finally settled down. Communicate this to your partner. It sometimes helps to just take a 30 minute break to have a coffee by yourself and to calm down after the day before engaging in other more amorous activities. The latter will also leave you feeling more relaxed and closer to your partner, even if beforehand you didn’t quite feel like it.
Occasionally a mom may experience some vaginal dryness due to hormonal levels while breastfeeding. Keep a lubricant at hand if this is the case.
Now and then oxytocin during sex may cause a let-down reflex which can lead to milk leaking. This may bother you or your partner, or not. You can keep a towel at hand or continue wearing a bra and breastpads. This is more common during the earlier months of breastfeeding than later on.
Will I ever go out again?
Yes you will! Of course feeding in public is a topic on its own. Western culture sees breasts as sexual objects, and the idea of a baby on a boob does not fit that image which is why many feel uncomfortable with it.
But does the fact that something is seen in a certain way by a certain culture mean that it’s correct? You should seriously consider to which point you want to make other people’s issues your own. In my opinion the issue with feeding in public is often more in the mom’s head than in those around her. There are many ways to cover up so that those around you won’t even notice you are feeding. And if they do, does it really matter? Very often it’s someone that you are never going to see again. If they see a boob they are looking too hard!
You should do what you feel most comfortable with, but if women are stopping breastfeeding – a normal physiological function – because they don’t feel free to do so in-between others of the same species we should seriously evaluate our values as a society.
Going away without baby
You will have to wait until baby is older before you can leave baby for any significant amount of time. Most mothers would in any case not want to leave a small baby, but sometimes there may be circumstances where this may be necessary.
You will have to express breastmilk during this time to prevent engorgement and keep your supply going. There is a chance that a baby may refuse the breast after a few days of bottle feeding. This would be more likely in a smaller baby; after a year most babies should return to breast although this will depend on the time of separation.
A word of encouragement
In the bigger scheme your breastfeeding journey will last but a year or two (though longer is great, if you feel up to it). There will be many years ahead to go to restaurants, many social events, many nights of sleep. Your body will someday be your own again. You will have your bed to yourself again. But you will never have the joy again of holding your little one in your arms while he falls asleep with that milk-drunk look on his face. Remember to not focus on the challenges so much that you end up not enjoying the gifts that breastfeeding give. To answer your question: Can I have a life and still breastfeed? Yes, you can!