Whew. I am nearly six weeks into motherhood and while there are parts that are really lovely, there are other parts that are REALLY HARD. For those of us who normally find relief and release by running, the stresses of new parenthood can be compounded. Here are my top ten tips for surviving the beginning of it all, particularly when running is not advised. Note, I am not a medical professional and this is all just based on my experiences. I would love to hear from others in the comments below!
(1) Acknowledge that Feeding a Human is Hard.
This is my #1 tip because most of the first month of my son’s life has been filled with stress about breastfeeding. I won’t go into the whole story here but I’ll just say breastfeeding is NOT easy, and although there are many resources out there if you seek them, sometimes you can get conflicting information (e.g., “if you bottle feed your newborn, he will never want to breastfeed again” vs. “nipple confusion is overrated” vs “your baby needs more calories so you need to use a bottle” vs. “you don’t need to use a bottle — he will get what he needs”), or sometimes it just doesn’t come together as quickly as you might like. And even if all goes well, it just takes a ton of time and energy and you may find yourself with breastmilk all over your body and on all of your clothes and on your couch and your dog and your bed. You may find yourself walking around REI with two wet spots on your chest. You may have to whip out your boob in the middle of Costco…
Anywho, if you want to breastfeed and are experiencing any pain or have questions, definitely seek out a lactation consultant either at a free clinic in your area (check local hospitals and birth centers) or by engaging one one-on-one. If you don’t get a good vibe from one, definitely try another. Again, without going into details, I had chatted with a consultant who was a bit “old school” and not as empathetic to my baby as I wanted (implying he was “lazy”?!) so I sought out others and ended up working with a great lactation consultant one-on-one. I also worked with a pediatric dentist and consulted with an occupational/speech therapist. Fortunately, our breastfeeding is mostly back on track thanks to a LOT of pumping (with a hospital grade pump that I rented) and the support of these folks and my family. A few other tips in addition to what you’ll find online and in most courses:
- Try different positions and bolstering. I never had the right pillows around for “football,” and “cross cradle” the way it was taught at my hospital felt unsteady and caused my hand bones to hurt. He chomps a bit when I recline too much. Turns out, a cradle position works best for us, but I try to vary the angle to mix things up.
- Instead of pushing on baby’s head or neck to bring them to your breast, press between the shoulder blades.
- Don’t hunch over baby to nurse. This often results in a poor latch, and it will hurt your back. Better to lean back a bit — I promise gravity won’t prevent your baby from getting milk!
- If you are unsure about how much milk your baby is getting, you can get some certainty by going to a weigh-in clinic or breastfeeding club and do a before-and-after weigh-in. But you can also check for wet and dirty diapers and look at overall weight gain. And if your baby seems content! (With that said, sometimes my guy is just fussy, not still hungry!)
- If your baby seems fussy or won’t latch, see if they need to burp. Usually just sitting my guy up or on the shoulder for a few minutes lets him burp without actually needing to pat his back. Interestingly, he often cues hungry (hands in mouth, rooting), when he needs to burp — not eat– just one of those things I’ve learned about him that I couldn’t learn from the internet!
- Tummy time is great — it strengthens and stretches baby for all kinds of activity, including feeding — but tummy time right after eating will probably result in spit up.
- Don’t cry over spilled breastmilk. (But I totally have.)
ALL THAT SAID, if you do not want to breastfeed or decide that breastfeeding is too painful, hard, exhausting, etc., THAT IS OK. Right before we had a breakthrough I was thisclose to stopping putting him on the breast, instead opting to pump exclusively or maybe go to formula. (I’d been “triple feeding” which involved direct breastfeeding, formula feeding, and feeding pumped breastmilk — YIKES and I am sorry to anyone else who does this protocol!) I promise you that you will not harm your child or your bonding if you opt to exclusively pump or to formula feed. You may even get more sleep and experience less stress — factors that will make you the best mom you can be! Breastfeeding is not worth sacrificing your mental or physical health!
Final thought on this: you are breastfeeding, remember to eat! No dieting when you’ve got to feed a little monster! For the first month, I ate some healthy food but also really indulged with what made me feel good — ice cream (LOTS OF ICE CREAM), croissants from the Farmers’ Market, etc. If that is what your body is telling you, get it. After the first month, I decided I wanted to focus a little more on fruits and vegetables, so I worked on cutting out most processed foods and did meal prep so that I would have fresh, whole foods in my fridge. Because who is going to peel carrots holding a baby?! Here are some of the things I kept on hand:
- Big Tupperwares of oatmeal and steel cut oats, soaked in water and ready to go into a single-serve bowl to heat quickly in the microwave. To get really ahead of the game, add flaxseed, cinnamon, and nut butter to the mix. Oatmeal and flaxseed are alleged to help milk supply.
- Plain Greek yogurt mixed with cottage cheese and nut butter. Goes great with berries or on the oatmeal.
- Washed organic berries. Also kept frozen berries as backup.
- Assorted mushrooms sautéed in butter. Yummy for eggs, alone, on toast, etc. Most of my veggie prep was really simple (fat, salt, pepper) so that they stayed versatile.
- Roasted carrots.
- Refried beans.
- Avocados. Love them plain with salt, with eggs, or on toast.
- Cooked rice. I made some delicious rice bowls with cucumber and tofu.
- Cooked potatoes and sweet potatoes.
- Kale, broccoli, or other greens cooked with coconut oil and chili sauce. I LOVE Lhatt brand sauces.
- Fava beans or peas sautéed in butter. These are in season this summer but you could also use frozen.
- Coconut rice (pre-riced) and kale with a store-bought Indian simmer sauce from the Maya Kaimal brand.
- Sparkling waters. Gotta stay hydrated!
(2) Get Nursing Clothes. Sized Up.
When I was pregnant, I got a small collection of seasonally-appropriate maternity clothing. I was SO looking forward to getting back into my regular clothes after giving birth. Two small oversights. First — I gained 50 pounds during my pregnancy. While I did lose 15 lbs right away, the other 35 are still around for a while. So my normal clothes are not going to work… Second — I am breastfeeding (and pumping) and normal clothes are not conducive to that. No, I need basically a whole other wardrobe for the next year or so — one that allows me to feed my child when he demands it and to pump when needed.
For the first few weeks, I was in such as daze that I didn’t even attempt to wear real clothes or to purchase nursing-wear. I did have a few nursing bras that I’d purchased while pregnant. That is all you need to get started. I also got a few Target nursing tank tops. But then at some point I decided I wanted to look and feel human again. I wanted to wear a real shirt. So I ordered some organic cotton shirts from H&M, and then I found Boob Designs, a Swedish company, that makes nice, lightweight dresses and shirts that are great for summer nursing. I also discovered Ollie Grey, which makes bras that can be used for nursing and hands-free pumping (most nursing bras do not also hold a pump), and I got a nursing sports bra from Boob for when I am ready to get back to working out. Finally, I bought some shorts from Athleta in a size that actually fits my current, post-baby body.
Speaking of, don’t forget that right after having a baby, you probably will not be the same [bra, pant, shirt] size as you were pre-baby, and not all nursing-wear is adjusted for post-baby bumps. So take a close look at sizing and I recommend going up a size or two if in doubt. For instance, I am usually a size small for tops and dresses, but I’m wearing a medium or even a large in some clothes at the moment.
(3) Get a Dockatot.
OK, I did not register for a Dockatot. I had never even heard of it. But then we received TWO (!??!) as gifts from different groups. We were planning to return one but then before we knew it, these things were saving our lives and we were wondering how many more we could fit in our house…
So, yeah, I’m a fan. “What is a Dockatot,” you ask? Well, it’s basically a little pontoon raft for baby-holding. You can set it on the floor or on a coffee table or on a bed (of course be careful on any raised surface especially once baby can roll) and you set the baby in it and you can pee or watch TV or cook some vegetables or eat some popcorn. OK you might be wondering “Can’t I just put baby in a pack and play or under a play gym or on a blanket on the floor?” You could. But the Dockatot is lightweight and mobile and padded. You can carry a sleeping docked baby from one room to the next and set him down undisturbed. You can watch him in the kitchen even when your play mat is set up in the living room (for the record, we got a Lovevery playmat/gym and we do like it, but we use the Dockatot way more frequently and I don’t see these as substitutes at all).
(4) Find the Mamas.
No one will understand the chaos and frustration and joy that is new parenthood quite like someone who is going through it at the same time. I’ve been so fortunate to find mama support from two primary sources. First, I have a friend who had a baby shortly after I did and a friend who is currently pregnant. We have a text chain going and it is spectacular to be able to go through these stages with them, even though they don’t live nearby. Second, to get the in-person support, I’ve been going to various free events in my community focused on new-mama-hood. For instance, the hospital and a local birth center both have breastfeeding clubs where moms bring babies, nurse, weigh the babies, and chat. It is really informal and nice and no-drama. There is also a post-natal yoga class at the studio where I found such great community prenatally, and I am excited to get back there, hopefully to re-unite with some of my ladies from prenatal yoga. I HIGHLY recommend that other new moms check out the resources in their communities.
(5) Trust Your Gut.
I won’t go into detail too much here because I think this is self-explanatory. People will say it and you won’t believe it at first, but you know your baby best. It may take some time to decode them but slowly and surely you will get to know your baby and their noises and their moods and their routines. You will know what feels right to you, what feels too risky, what you need to research further. And it’s always your call, so advocate for yourself and your baby if you face resistance. (All that said, please vaccinate your child unless you have a legit, evidence-backed medical reason for abstaining.)
(6) Engage Professionals.
I debated whether “Trust Your Gut” should come before or after “Engage Professionals” on this list. I decided to go with this order because I think the vast majority of questions can be handled by trusting your intuition and research and fellow mamas. But there are some tricky situations where bringing in professionals is really important, and sometimes you just need a professional to edify a decision you’ve made and to help you feel more confident in your mothering.
I already discussed lactation consultants above so I won’t belabor that one. They may also refer your baby to other therapists (massage, etc.) or healthcare providers (such as dentists).
I also want to highlight another type of amazing resource that you may have in your community: the postpartum doula. I learned about these folks through my prenatal yoga community but did not plan on engaging a postpartum doula because I had family coming to help me and didn’t think I’d need anything else. But then I was sitting on the couch the first day home alone, with family gone and my husband back at work, and I was like OMG I DO NOT KNOW WHAT I AM DOING AND I’M ALL ALONE AND I’M EXHAUSTED. So I called a postpartum doula service and booked it. My postpartum doula came to my house for four hours. For about the first hour, we spent some time talking about my baby, our breast-feeding struggles, some other questions I had about newborn care. The doula was a newborn expert and also a lactation consultant, and she helped me better understand my baby’s cues (for example, she showed me an app that demonstrates different types of crying and what each often means) and gave me a few pointers and thoughts on feeding. Then she sent me to nap for three hours in the guest room while she watched my baby. And changed my bed sheets. And did several loads of laundry. And wiped down my counters. And loaded my dishwasher. And cleaned my bottles and the parts of my breast pump. And hardboiled eggs. And made me a lunch of yogurt, berries, and delicious avocado toast. And gave me some nursing pads because I was leaking everywhere. I woke up and ate lunch, and then she put me and the baby back “to bed” before she left. Wow. I felt SO refreshed and energized after this visit from a woman who is a professional in helping new moms feel their best.
Finally, don’t forget how valuable a professional cleaner, professional chef (whether in your home or at a restaurant), professional massage therapist, or professional pedicurist can be. I got a massage 10 days after giving birth and it was one of the best things I could do for myself.
(7) Get Cloth-Ready for When You’re Ready.
If, like me, you are planning to cloth diaper, I recommend also having some disposables on hand to start. With all of our breastfeeding stresses, I was glad to just have the ease of disposables for the first few weeks. Now that we are using cloth I know that they are not so scary but in the moment I needed one less thing. Also we are using a service that rents out the gear and does the washing, and I’m pretty stoked about it.
It is OK to watch six hours of “Love It or List It” when you are home alone with a baby. I also recommend Dating Around on Netflix if you want to cringe, or Schitt’s Creek for something mindless but adorable (give it a few episodes, I swear!).
(9) Take the Six Weeks. Or More. Or Less.
Somewhere someone invented this idea that moms need six weeks to physically recover from a vaginal birth. In my experience and from talking to others, you might need less or you might need more. You have to listen to your body yada yada. But even if you feel great and want to get back “out there,” as my lactation consultant put it, “You need to do what nourishes you.” Make sure your “out there” isn’t draining you or stretching you too thin.
My first few weeks, I really needed to lay low physically. I tried to do a Whole Foods-Target combo run while wearing my baby, and I just about passed out afterward. I did make it to some new mom groups early on because those helped me cope with all the questions and offered good, low-stress social time. During weeks three through six, I felt a lot better physically and went walking and hiking (moderate hikes only), did a postpartum barre class, went to gentle yoga, and did a postpartum water aerobics class. But the whole time I checked in to see if these things were “nourishing me” or if I was doing them to prove something to myself or others — which is so common in these days of social media, especially among athletes.
Whew, OK I swear I’m almost done. It’s shocking what I’ve learned in such a short time! I’ll leave you with one last nugget to think about. The BIGGEST challenge with having a new baby is that God made us with only two hands. How am I supposed to hold a baby, check Facebook, make avocado toast, shower, and throw the ball for the dog when I only have two hands?! Enter: baby wearing. Also a great alternative to hauling around a stroller. We now own no fewer than six (SIX?!) baby carriers for various purposes and stages. For the newborn period, our favorites are soft wrap carriers. We started with the Boba wrap, which I really like, and then my husband also got a K’Tan which is our new favorite, and easy enough that he feels comfortable using it. I started using it in the house in the morning while I brush my teeth, etc. but I’ve also used it doing errands and even hiking. A lifesaver, PLUS my baby loves it!
OK, thoughts and questions?!