I feel like I should want to breastfeed, but I’m totally freaked out by the idea. Why do I feel like this? What should I do?

Excerpt from Asking for a Pregnant Friend: 101 Answers to Questions Women Are Too Embarrassed to Ask about Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Motherhood

It’s normal to be nervous about breastfeeding, although this feeling is rarely talked about. Most women hear only about how breastfeeding is the most natural thing in the world, and so great for our babies. While the latter is definitely true, it doesn’t always feel natural.

If you try breastfeeding and find it’s not a fit for your family, you can of course stop. But for many women, there are a slew of “breastfeeding fear sources” that can be unraveled, and often healed, helping them move from fear to gratitude and excitement about breastfeeding. Here are the main concerns:

Shift in the relationship with your breasts: It can be startling when a part of your body that’s probably been sexualized most of your life suddenly becomes a source of food. Some women organically make this shift, while others find it strange to have a little human sucking on a part of their body society has labeled sexual. If you’re in the latter camp, take heart that every woman I’ve worked with who had this block found that once she started, the act felt more natural every day until it finally became second nature. There’s nothing wrong with you if breastfeeding initially feels bizarre. (I dive deep into this topic in the next question.)

Possibility of not producing enough milk: There’s a chance your breasts won’t produce enough milk, because of circumstances like excessive blood loss during birth, limited milk ducts, hormonal imbalances, various medications and herbs, and other factors. While this can be incredibly frustrating and disheartening, a lactation consultant can help you determine why you’re not producing enough milk, and provide effective solutions.

It’s also good to know that the only way to confirm you’re not producing enough milk is baby’s weight. Not being able to get much out while pumping or feeling like baby is not eating enough does not mean your supply is low. Your baby’s pediatrician can help you determine if you need to get your supply up.

Pain from cracked nipples: The first two weeks of Hudson’s life were unreasonable torture for my nipples. I didn’t know he had a shallow latch (because I didn’t call a lactation consultant), so I suffered through bloody, mind-bending pain until my nipples finally toughened up and everything was fine — or maybe he figured out a better latch.

The suffering didn’t need to happen. If I had only asked for support, a lactation consultant could have provided tips to eliminate, or at least lessen, the discomfort. But I didn’t ask because I naively thought it was supposed to be like that — that I had to martyr myself to breastfeed. Don’t follow my lead. Speak up if breastfeeding is confusing or painful.

The newborn being entirely dependent on you for food: It can feel overwhelming to have a tiny, defenseless human dependent on you for protection, booty cleaning, connection, language acquisition, bathing, entertainment, and, well, pretty much everything. But these are all tasks others can help you with. The exception is sustenance — if you choose to breastfeed. This form of feeding is all you. Even if you plan on your partner giving baby bottles of breast milk, you still have to produce that breast milk. It feels like a big responsibility because it is.

I felt buried by this responsibility until I realized it forced me to foster a powerful bond with Hudson. We were together all the time (he was a cluster feeder), which led to us quickly finding a rhythm for our relationship. And because oxytocin was released each time I fed him, I was blissed-out at the end of each feeding. A study published in the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine even found that breastfeeding can decrease a woman’s chances of developing postpartum depression during the first four months of the baby’s life. But of course, it’s not a panacea. Some women will still develop postpartum depression no matter how much they breastfeed.

The gist: While I totally get the concern of being the sole source of food for your infant, it’s been my experience that the early demands of breastfeeding could provide innumerable benefits for your transition into motherhood.

Others seeing your breasts: I never thought I’d be okay with my brothers, father, father-in-law, and pretty much everyone I encountered in the first few years of my child’s life seeing my boobs — or at least some side- or under-boob. And yet, I quickly stopped caring. There’s an assortment of breastfeeding covers that allow women to get out the milk jugs without anyone seeing, but I couldn’t be bothered. I just got the fullest boob out, my voracious child latched on, and people looked away. However, I would sometimes breastfeed when Hudson was in the ErgoBaby, my all-time favorite baby carrier, which provided ample coverage.

Luckily, I never encountered comments from breastfeeding-in- public shamers, but even if I had, I’m pretty sure I would have just rolled my eyes. Feeding my baby when he was hungry felt like the most innocent, natural act, and I felt no shame.

With that said, you have every right to want breastfeeding to be a more private experience, and there are ways to achieve that. You can utilize one of the aforementioned covers, pop into one of the pumping stations that are showing up in more public spaces, or do anything else that makes you more comfortable breastfeeding.

Becoming nutritionally depleted: As breastmilk is made from your body, it can deplete you if you don’t stay on top of your food and water intake. Typically, a breastfeeding mother needs an additional five hundred calories a day, ideally from nutrient-rich sources.

Much like in pregnancy, during breastfeeding the body takes what it needs to provide baby with the ideal ingredients for health. If you have a surplus of nutrients and are consistently adding to the supply, you and baby will be fine. But if you’re lacking, you could experience postnatal depletion, which could cause exhaustion, poor concentration and memory, and big emotional shifts.

Maintain your vitality by drinking lots of water and eating breastfeeding superfoods like salmon, eggs, avocado, green leafy veggies, sweet potatoes, legumes, whole fat yogurt, whole grains, nuts and seeds (especially chia and flaxseeds), fenugreek, Ashwagandha, and turmeric. If possible, buy organic.

As you can see, many factors can understandably make you hesitant about breastfeeding. But with the right support and techniques, you can get past these blocks and have a successful journey through this amazing aspect of motherhood.

What to do

Know that breastfeeding is initially a struggle for many women. Needing help with this dynamic undertaking is so normal, and it’s often made much easier with the right support.

Hire a lactation consultant. A great lactation consultant helps you solve logistical issues with breastfeeding, figure out the best ways to make the experience more physically comfortable, and resolve any mental blocks. Because not every lactation consultant will be a good match for you, interview various candidates before your baby is born. This allows you to pick someone you’re comfortable with and have go-to breastfeeding support when baby arrives.

Join a support group. Connecting with women who have similar concerns and struggles can normalize your breastfeeding experience and provide a safe space to share your thoughts and receive supportive feedback.

Soothe pain by expressing milk onto topless breasts. Beyond ensuring that baby has a good latch, one of the best ways to pacify painful nipples is to push a bit of milk out of your breasts and dab it on each nipple, as breastmilk has amazing healing properties. Then, go topless for a while, allowing the milk to soak into the cracked skin.

Make healthy snacks and a big metal water bottle easily accessible. Prevent breastfeeding from draining your vitality by regularly restocking it with nutritious food and lots of water. I would get hungry and thirsty almost the moment I started breastfeeding. If I didn’t have water and food within arm’s reach, I felt trapped. Make sure you’re equipped for the multiple daily feeding sessions by having a bag filled with healthy goodies (that no one but you is allowed to pull from) and an always-filled reusable water bottle (metal is the safest).

Remind yourself how good breastfeeding is for you and baby. When you’re feeling overwhelmed by your breasts and babe, remind yourself that breastfeeding can do the following:

-Lower your baby’s risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), childhood leukemia, stomach viruses, lower respiratory illnesses, ear infections, and meningitis

-Decrease their chances of developing allergies or becoming obese

-Provide regular helpings of vitamins, nutrients, and other disease-fighting substances that serve as natural immunizations for your baby the first few months of life

-Improve cognitive development

-Save your baby in the case of an emergency, as it protects them from the effects of a contaminated water supply, helps prevent hypothermia, and requires zero supplies

-Reduce your chance of developing ovarian and breast cancer

Making breastmilk even more amazing is the fact that it’s custom made for your baby. Your milk ducts contain sensors that pick up signals in your baby’s saliva, telling your body what your baby’s unique body requires; your body then responds by creating customized milk. Your body also responds to pathogens you’re exposed to by producing customized milk that helps protect your baby from the pathogens’ potentially harmful effects.

Know that there’s no shame in stopping. If after trying all these sources of support, breastfeeding is still causing more stress than solace in your life, you have every right to stop. While I’m all about the benefits of breastfeeding, I’m more about women doing what is best in their unique situation. If the thought of switching to formula fills you with relief, follow that instinct.

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