As my pregnancy crept ever so slowly to an end, I thought a lot about whether I would miss the experience of nourishing this other, of being able to provide everything it (he) needed to survive. Then I started having contractions, and 3 short weeks later Oliver was born. We got off to a great start breast-feeding, and while nursing him before dawn it dawned on me - aside from baby Gap, I was still the sole provider of everything he needed. Just the method of delivery changed.
I love nursing. I love that my son's chubby thighs are from me (my milk and my genes!), I am privileged to spend every few hours (a little less privileged in the middle of the night) cuddled up, bonding, nourishing... it is lovely. I didn't know I'd enjoy it this much - it surprises me still. It is sort of like discovering that what was previously only decorative is suddenly functional - like your favourite bracelet is also a GPS unit. Breasts - pretty and useful! Who knew?
I realize how fortunate we are, Oliver and I, to have navigated nursing with only a few minor injuries*. This 'natural' process is not so natural or easy for some, and I urge those mamas who have trouble nursing but want to forge ahead to seek out a lactation consultant. Irrespective of how you feed your baby, from the bottle or the breast, poor posture at mealtime will cause discomfort in the upper back; do this every two hours and it can become agonizing. Add in a lack of sleep and bending over a change table... and you get the picture. I'll leave the technicalities of nursing to Janice, my favourite doula, prenatal educator and breast-feeding instructor, but allow me to draw on my dual qualifications as a nursing mother and a chiropractor to offer a little help and some relief for nursing pain and discomfort unrelated to the chestal region.
- Breast-feeding moms, nature and the laws of engorgement are on your side, since they dictate that you hold the baby on alternating sides with each feed. Bottle feeding moms (and dads!), on the other hand will usually pick a preferred side, leading to asymmetry and more pain. Another downside to single-sided feedings is that the baby may develop neck muscles asymmetrically from turning their head in one direction. Consider switching sides, even if holding the bottle in the other hand feels odd at first.
- The most useful prop is a nursing pillow - especially in the early weeks when the baby is tiny. It helps bring the baby closer to the breast, to prevent hunching over. There are a variety of different types, so find the one that works for you. Mine was polka-dotted, that worked best for me. Really any pillow will do, you don't need a cleverly-named one (really - breast friends?) to support things (the baby, arms, low back). Stack pillows under and around yourself and the baby until you are comfortable. It's not rocket science.
- Put a pillow or other support in the small of the low back - maintaining this curve is key. When you collapse through the low back, your shoulders are thrust forward and the neck must compensate to stay upright. Keep the lumbar curve supported, and your upper back and neck will fall into a better position.
- Get a massage! Have someone watch the baby, or ask if you can bring the baby along (they sleep so much in those early days, and many therapists will be happy to accommodate you, especially during slower periods in the middle of the day). At the very least, have your partner attempt a shoulder rub. If anyone deserves a massage, it is a new mom. 'nuff said.
- Get an adjustment! Really... just do it. Your posture has experienced so many changes throughout pregnancy, hormonal changes have relaxed and tensed your ligaments, you now carry around an ever growing load of baby... the stress on your spine is significant. A chiropractor can restore mobility, reduce pain, get things back to normal, whatever that is! The relief from that first adjustment after baby arrives is enormous. Moms... get your back adjusted. Aaah.
- Relax the shoulders. There is a tendency to raise the shoulders when we don't need to! This shoulder hiking happens when feeding the baby, holding her, rocking her... but your shoulders are not needed! Relax them. You can hold the baby just as well with them down, away from your ears.
- Get comfortable at the start of a feeding, so that 10 (or 45!) minutes later you aren't going numb or in pain from holding the baby in an awkward position. In a cradle hold, soften the shoulders and rest your elbow on a pillow, not against a hard arm rest. A food stool is great too, for taking pressure off the legs and low back. In a side lying breastfeeding position, put a pillow under the neck and another between the knees. If Mama's not comfortable, NO ONE is.
- Experiment with different feeding positions. Bottle feeders, switch sides, or have someone else take over a feeding or two to give yourself a break. Breast feeders, there are many positions to try, and even though you may have a favourite, mixing it up may prevent muscle overuse. And be creative - you don't need to use the positions listed on a website or breastfeeding pamphlet. Whatever gets the baby to the breast comfortably is good. Lying across your chest, sitting on your lap... really, whatever works, works. Oliver will quite literally latch in any position possible. I once fed him suspended from the ceiling by a series of bungee cords.
Hopefully meal time is an enjoyable one, for all parties involved. Luckily, my young son has a sophisticated palate and really enjoys eating; indeed I am consumed with joy.
*don't let the baby latch onto your chin. It may seem funny at the time, but you will regret it.