The 7 Stages of Learning The Art of Breastfeeding

It's natural, but it ain’t easy. Here’s a primer on what you can expect on the first week of breastfeeding.

W hen I was still pregnant, my husband suggested a couple of times that I take a breastfeeding class. But I was somewhere in the middle of being too scared it doesn’t work out that the class would be a waste of time, and too confident that it would turn out so easy that it would be a waste of money. I have never been so wrong before.

My first week as a breastfeeding mom turned out to be, well, pretty much hell on earth. I was dealing the pain and disappointment of an emergency C-section, I was clueless if I had any milk in me, was misled to believe that I don’t have milk, and didn’t recognize when my body was telling me that my milk already came in. We’re here! Nurse and pump now or get engorged…” So there, mastitis right on the first week.

So I wrote this to give you a picture of what the first week of trying to breastfeed is like. What you can expect, how to prepare for it, and what you can do to prevent the perfect storm that happened to me. 

Just a note, I’m all for successful exclusive breastfeeding, and this is in no way meant to discourage anyone. I’m showing some possible roadblocks so you can prepare for them—not to be intimidated by them. If I’m serious about something, I’d rather know what to expect and learn from the mistakes of others, than do it all over again. I hope it’s the same way for you.

So without further ado, here’s your primer on the first week of breastfeeding:

Here’s what to expect on the first week of breastfeeding.
Here’s what to expect on the first week of breastfeeding.
1. Where the hell is my milk?

Right after you give birth, you won’t have a lot coming out of your breasts, and whatever comes out won’t look exactly like milk. What you can expect to have instead is a thick, yellow substance that your body has been making while you were pregnant—colostrum. It’s rich in vitamins, minerals, antibodies, and protein that will help build your baby’s immunity and give him a headstart in physical development.

Colostrum doesn’t normally come in huge amounts, but that’s just perfect for a newborn’s marble-sized stomach. So if you don’t seem to be filling your breast pump right after you give birth--no matter how hard you try--don’t fret, because it only means you’re normal. (I’m sure Mariel Rodriguez-Padilla knows about this now.) You can expect mature milk to come in and surprise you in around 2-4 days time. And when it rains, boy does it pour.

Mariel Rodriguez famously shed some tears for lack of breast milk, but eventually succeeded in breastfeeding her daughter. Courtesy of YouTube.
Mariel Rodriguez famously shed some tears for lack of breast milk, but eventually succeeded in breastfeeding her daughter. Courtesy of YouTube.

So what do I do when my milk hasn’t come in yet? Most breastfeeding experts will say that you should stick to it, and not give a bottle so your baby won’t have nipple confusion. But a lot of newborns will be quite fussy in the first few days, and to any first time parent, hearing your baby cry is just too heartbreaking for you to do nothing.

I’m not a breastfeeding expert, I’m just another breastfeeding mom. So instead of throwing rules at you, I’ll just tell you what actually worked for us. First, you gotta make sure that your baby is really crying out of hunger. It could be the diaper, he might be cold or tired , so make sure you’ve checked on those things first. Then, try latching on again. Switch to the next breast. Try soothing him by holding and rocking him to sleep. But if all else fails, give the damn bottle and be at peace with it.

Just remember, if you do end up giving the occasional bottle, make sure you don’t lose your intent in breastfeeding once your milk comes in. You just went through the crazy ride of giving birth, you don’t have to put a lot of burden on yourself. Breastfeeding doesn’t have to be all or nothing. They say breast is best, but I’d take fed and happy any day.

2. Am I doing it right?

Breastfeeding experts couldn’t over-emphasize the importance of getting a proper latch. With the right latch, you get less pain, and more milk for baby. The better the milk gets off the boobies, the more it tells the brain to produce milk. And seriously, if you are planning to breastfeed, I suggest to take a class, or at least read this guide. He may have never breastfed himself, but we can take it from the wise words of Ser Davos Seaworth:

The Right Proper Ser Davos. Courtesy of HBO.
The Right Proper Ser Davos. Courtesy of HBO.

But so much for getting a right proper latch. Have you ever held a newborn in your arms? It feels awkward, right? They’re tiny, fragile, and their head tilts to wherever gravity takes them. So imagine trying to manage all of that with the goal of keeping your baby in the right position for about an hour. That’s too much to ask!

Luckily, most hospitals and birthing clinics would have experts on call, ready to give you a helping hand. When in doubt, ask for the help of a Certified Lactation Consultant right from the very first moment you feel like something’s not working. She or he (although I assume you’d prefer a she) will watch how you breastfeed, listen to your questions and concerns, and show you how to do it right. Most likely, the nurses in the maternity section would know whom to call, but if not, you can check out this Wiki page to find a lactation consultant nearest you.

As a nursing mom, what also helped me was having a nursing pillow to prop baby up in the right height, while both of us are comfortable. I also held him in a cross-cradle position to support his rather wobbly head in the first few weeks. If you want to try this position, check out this article to learn how to do it properly. But of course we have different anatomies and preferences, so try just about every breastfeeding position in the book until you find what works best for you and baby.

The cross-cradle position. Courtesy of
The cross-cradle position. Courtesy of
3. Is my baby getting enough?

Newborns are very drowsy creatures so it’s common for them to fall asleep on the breast just a few minutes after latching. Nursing makes them very comfortable—it’s perhaps the baby equivalent of a cool and cozy room with a king-sized memory mattress, some fluffy pillows, clean-smelling sheets, and a weighted blanket. Our warm embrace is just meant to soothe them to sleep, sometimes a bit too quickly.

Add the fact that you can’t really measure exactly how much milk comes of you, you’ll be wondering if your baby is getting any. Perhaps every Type A breastfeeding mom wished their boobs were transparent and had graduated marks on it, so they can tell how much milk they’re producing.

Every Type A breastfeeding mom wished they had transparent boobs with graduated marks, so they can tell how much milk they’re making.

So what signs can you look for just to have some peace of mind that you’re not starving your child? Here are some clues that your baby is having enough breast milk:

 • You breastfeed your baby around 8-12 times every 24 hours.

 • He spends at least 10 minutes of deep, rhythmic sucking with swallowing sounds on each breast.

 • Baby has around 6-8 wet diapers and 2-5 soiled (poopy) diapers per day.

 • Baby wakes up to nurse every 2-3 hours.

 • He appears calm, satisfied, or even sleepy after nursing from you.

4. Someone get me a glass of water. NOW.

One of the things that really surprised me when I started breastfeeding is the extreme thirst that comes with it. It’s something I only experience when I have those dumb moments of going for a 1-hour jog and forgetting to bring a drink—except that now I get super thirsty while I’m comfortably seated on the couch. And of course it happens while you’re tied to a nursing newborn—so you need someone else to fetch the much-needed drink for you.

Scientists are still puzzled by what exactly causes this extreme thirst that comes after you let down your milk. It’s a curious phenomenon for scientists, because while most feelings of thirst are triggered by dehydration, this one is not. What they know so far is that breastfeeding thirst (okay, I’m calling it that) is a complex chain reaction that is ultimately triggered by the baby’s suckling. Some theorize that it’s an evolutionary adaptation to keep mothers from getting dehydrated while fluids leave their bodies to nourish a baby. I think it’s just awesome that my baby’s suckling can cause intense sensations in my body.

So, you’ve been warned. To keep this from happening while you’re left alone with baby at home, on the second floor, perhaps with a with a fresh C-section, one boob out to nurse your baby—your mouth, your lips, your throat drying up while you imagine the all the water that is in the kitchen downstairs—then be prepared. Always have a glass of water by your side. Pack some nuts or fruits too for when you get hungry.

5. So am I sitting here all day or what?

A newborn will feed every 2-3 hours, for about 30 minutes to 1 hour per session—you’ve probably seen that from flyers and pamphlets from your breastfeeding class. What you probably haven’t heard is how the timing actually works. 

See, it’s not really 30 minutes of breastfeeding with 3 hours of intervals in between. You count the time intervals from the time you started your last feeding, to the time you start the next. If you’re not so lucky, and especially when your baby is going through one of those growth spurts, this could mean getting up to feed your baby every hour, resting for just about one hour in between, day and night. Whew! 

When this pattern started to take shape in our home, my husband started to call me, The Milk Machine.” And that’s exactly how I felt at some point. Like my whole purpose was to get up and feed a little creature when he’s hungry. If you’re a wild soul who’s used to going places and not being tied down in one place, this experience could be emotionally draining. I’ve read stories of women who gave up breastfeeding not because they had issues with supply or latch or work, it’s just that breastfeeding made them feel very trapped.

So my suggestion for those who are planning to breastfeed is to have a breastfeeding nook at home that will also help keep your sanity. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy—it could just be a comfortable chair with a side table for your drinks and snacks, a phone, a tablet, and maybe a remote and the TV in front of you. 

Come to think of it. You finally have all the time to sit down and catch up on that show you’ve always been curious about.

6. If. Only. I. Could. Get. Some. Sleep.

Oh, the dreaded sleep-deprivation. I used to look back at my days as a career student in college as sleepless.” I didn’t realize how much I’ve set the bar low until our son was born. At least, no matter how bad it got, I had the weekends to look forward to as a sleep-deprived student. As a sleep-deprived parent, you’ll have 3 months more of it at the very least.

Believe it or not, studies show that exclusive breastfeeding actually gives new parents more sleep. Sounds counter-intuitive at first, since with exclusive breastfeeding, you can’t really delegate feeding sessions unless you pump, which also takes time. But it appears that new parents could actually get more rest by exclusive breastfeeding, because of the reduced overall prep time. You won’t have to wash and sterilize bottles, and when baby wakes up for a feed, you don’t have to pour and shake anything. You just get a boob out and baby latches on.

Studies show that exclusive breastfeeding actually lets parents get more sleep.

Despite that, speaking from experience, I don’t think exclusive breastfeeding makes much of a difference in the early weeks. You will get exhausted and sleep-deprived no matter how you choose to feed your child. Plus there’s a certain pressure to perform” if you’re breastfeeding instead of just giving a bottle. It’s just sort of a rite of passage we gotta accept—a baptism of fire. The first week will be the most difficult, but trust me, it gets better.

But of course, if you feel like you are about to reach your breaking point, don’t suffer in silence. Ask for a helping hand. Perhaps you can give one nighttime feeding or even a whole night shift to your hubby or mom. They could give your baby formula or pumped milk while you recharge. Just be sure to nurse and pump the next day to prevent engorgement.

7. I’m so happy I might cry.

I lost count of the number of times breastfeeding has moved me to tears. I cried when I thought I didn’t have milk, when my baby seemed fussy at the breast, when I just felt trapped in the couch, sleepless and exhausted. 

And perhaps you will cry, too. But you know what, when you’ve finally figured it out and you’re watching that beautiful creature nurse from you, it will be amazing. When you see that baby has everything he needs right in your arms, you’ll know those tears have been worth it.

What's your story?

Are you a breastfeeding mom? What was the first week of breastfeeding like for you?

Share your experiences on the comments section below!

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