Your breasts belong to you: now’s the time to get to know them
Pregnant women and parents often wonder, What’s inside? What do the changes mean? How will I know they work? Will I be able to breastfeed my baby?
Breasts live on your chest, as you may have noticed. They are supported by muscles and ligaments that attach to your rib cage. The attractive round shape is mostly fat (sorry!) – but the clever stuff grows inside while you’re pregnant. This means that large breasts and small ones can all make milk. The difference between melons and fried eggs is mainly the insulation.
What’s happening inside your breasts while you’re pregnant?
When you, who are now a mum or pregnant person, were a tiny frog-like thing inside your own mother’s womb, your milk-making cells were already developing. By the time she felt your first kicks, you were already beginning to grow the ducts that would bring your milk out for your baby. While you bobbed about inside your mother’s womb, your body continued to grow blood vessels and muscles, nipples and nerves. If you are carrying a girl baby, she’s already preparing to feed your grandchild.
When your mother gave birth to you, you had a flat baby chest of course, but underneath the skin miracles were already at work. When you changed from a young girl into a woman and your periods started, you grew more milk-making cells and more tubes to bring the milk to the nipple. The tubes or ducts branched and divided, reaching from all parts of the breast towards the nipple. The rounded shape developed too. Every time you had a monthly cycle, your breasts grew more milk-making glands and tubes.
While you’re pregnant, the changes in your breasts may make them ache or feel tender as the hormones that grow your baby also grow the milk-making system. Your body is preparing to feed your baby, even while you sleep, work at your job, care for your family, or put your feet up. Your breasts may feel heavier and the shape may change.
Changes on the outside
On your skin, you may notice colour changes in the darker circle around the nipple (areola). The darker shade will help your baby find his way to the breast after you’ve birthed him.
The bumps round the edge of the areola produce natural cleanser and moisturiser for your nipples. A rinse with water every day is enough to keep them clean – soap or shower gel could remove your skin’s moisturiser, and creams are not needed.
Stretch-marks are caused by the growth of your breasts. It’s the pregnancy hormones that make them grow, getting ready to make your baby’s food. It’s lovely to massage your breasts gently with oil or lotion – you can get to know them that way. (I don’t think it will stop the stretch marks.) Wear your mama-tiger-stripes with pride!
From the beginning of the third trimester of pregnancy (around 28 weeks), breasts start making the first milk in tiny quantities. They’re preparing for the baby’s arrival – but the placenta makes hormones that block milk production. (As soon as baby and then placenta are born, things start to change!) Babies’ sucking reflexes develop around 28 weeks also. Even if your baby is born before 28 weeks, your body immediately starts making colostrum, and then milk – because the placenta’s out. If the birth is after 28 weeks or more of pregnancy, you probably have some colostrum already. If you don’t see it immediately, no need to panic, it will happen.
You’ll also make colostrum if you’re continuing to nurse an older little one while you’re pregnant.
You can hand-express a few drops of colostrum towards the end of your pregnancy, if you just want to see it, or want to get the knack of hand expression before the baby arrives. It’s thought to be a good idea to wait until six weeks before your due date, and to avoid doing this if you’re at risk of going into premature labour. (In this case, the doctor may have counselled against having orgasms also.) Why? Hand expressing can stimulate the release of the hormone oxytocin – a hormone that squeezes the muscles inside the breast and also the womb in labour. Yes, nipple stimulation is one way of helping your body start labour, once it’s the right time!
What’s your baby doing now?
Blissfully floating about…enjoying the sound of your voice…learning the sounds of your body…practising sucking and swallowing by drinking amniotic fluid…savouring different tastes depending on what you’ve eaten…recognising the voices of their toddler siblings (at womb height!) and other family members…discovering what sounds make you happy and relaxed, or tense…loving the safe feeling of being held all the time, fed all the time, stroked by the inside of your womb, rocked and soothed and involved in your life… pushing feet and hands against the stretchy walls…. All good practice for the outside world!
Doubts and fears about breastfeeding?
Once your bump starts to show, everybody will want to tell you their own birth and feeding experiences. Because obviously, that’s what you want, right? This is mainly for their own benefit, to unload something that happened to them, although there’s also a nice impulse to draw a new mother into the world of parenting.
There’ll be somebody who ‘didn’t have enough milk’ – and this rare person always lives in your street. You may be wondering if your breasts will make enough milk.
There’ll be somebody who wants to share the agony she went through!
You can listen politely, smile, and file their experience away in your head under ‘not relevant to me.’ This filing cabinet will be bulging by the time you’ve been talked at by all your friends, relations and total strangers in the post office queue. Slam it shut – your experience will be different. I hope this website will help you understand what can be a challenge and how to overcome any difficulties that arise.
If you’re one of the many women who have experienced unwanted touch to your breasts at some time in your life, you may have mixed feelings about breastfeeding. You may worry that the baby’s touch will remind you of abuse. You may be determined to reclaim your body by feeding your baby how you want. Or you may sway between these viewpoints depending on how you feel day by day.
Some abuse survivors find it empowering to breastfeed: finally getting their lives back. Of those who find it hard, some find ways to cope with triggering – perhaps by distracting themselves with TV or phone while the baby feeds. You are not obliged to gaze lovingly into the baby’s eyes all the time she’s at the breast – it becomes commonplace after a while. The baby won’t mind if you carry on with life while feeding, as long as you give her some loving interaction at other times.
If you think breastfeeding may be difficult for you because of past experiences, it may help to talk things through with a counsellor or trusted friend while you are pregnant. Your doctor or Health Visitor may be able to help you find the right person for you, or look for charity websites to use alongside breastfeeding information.
Most medications are compatible with breastfeeding, a few are definitely not, and some can be used with care, under medical supervision. So if you need to take your medication, it’s a good idea to find out more about it before your baby’s born. Often there are alternatives, if your current type is not safe to use while breastfeeding.
Your doctor should support you to breastfeed – it’s recommended by the World Health organisation, by the UK Department of Health, the American Academy of Pediatrics…. and so on! The question is – ‘How can I get the medication I need while I’m breastfeeding?’ Not ‘Can I breastfeed when I’m taking my medication?’
If the factsheets don’t answer your question in enough detail, and you’re in the UK, try the helpline for Drugs in Breastmilk.
What are the formula companies up to?
Formula (also known as baby milk, powdered infant milk or ready-to-feed milk) can be useful when it’s needed. There is no reason to advertise it, in my opinion. You might think that it’s not advertised, particularly if you live in a country where advertising is regulated. Take a close look….
In the UK, companies are not allowed by law to advertise milks for babies under 6 months old. So, they invented new milks – for babies over 6 months old (called ‘follow-on milks’) or even for toddlers (‘growing-up milks’.) These milks are not necessary, according to the World Health Organisation. The trick is – they use the same logos and branding on the milks for older babies as for the infant milks, and ensure they are placed next to each other on supermarket shelves, so that the shelf-talkers for the older milks (which are legal) draw attention to the milk for younger babies (it would be illegal to stick a shelf-talker on those.)
In the same way, the TV adverts for baby milks (in the UK) refer to milks for babies over 6 months old, so they don’t break the law – but often the baby models look younger than that. With their catchy messages, they hook us into thinking they are part of the cuteness of babyhood.
Once you start looking for logos of formula companies, you’ll see them everywhere – on leaflets you receive talking about anything other than feeding (so they get around regulations), in magazines, on the internet, inviting you to join their club, get a free cuddly something-or-other, etc etc . Feel free to chuck such misinformation in the recycling. They want to register their logo and branding in your brain, while you are pregnant and your hormones are going wild, so you think of them as friendly. That’s enough for now: their ker-ching moment will come soon enough.
They’re stalking you, waiting for a moment when you’re tired, maybe breastfeeding feels difficult, and you’ll remember those friendly people with their pretty logos who are ‘only there to help’…. (Cue sound of cash registers snatching our hard-earned money and whizzing it to wealthy share-holders…. While confused parents wonder what happened to our plans to breastfeed?)
We’ll look at the ways formula companies undermine breastfeeding at each stage of the baby’s life.
For unbiased information about formula milks, see First Steps Nutrition, an independent charity.
For more about advertising and promotion of formula, see Baby Milk Action
Partners and other supporters: how you can help
Don’t underestimate the practical things you do: bringing money in, cooking simple meals, taking out the rubbish, doing laundry, keeping the home clean enough….(this is a good time to practise if any of these tasks is new to you).
You’ve got your own concerns about feeding your baby – but you may feel they come second right now. Please ask all your questions: you are the most important support system your partner has got. You are scientifically proven to be the biggest factor in whether she can reach her breastfeeding goals or not.
Inform yourself about breastfeeding
- it’s a great way to support your partner!
To find answers to your questions: ask your partner, she’s finding things out every day! Ask health professionals if you can attend appointments with your partner. Read websites (especially this one!) Read whatever you can lay your hands on, with a critical eye. If it’s got company logos on it – bin it. If it’s published by one of the breastfeeding charities, it will contain useful information. World-wide, La Leche League International publishes reliable unbiased information in many languages, and has an A-Z of possible difficulties and solutions.
In the UK, have a look at these breastfeeding charities:
In other countries, La Leche League International runs groups and national organisations world-wide. You say it ‘la lay-chay’. It means ‘the milk’ in Spanish.
Share what you’ve learned today – it can be fun to figure out together what’s nonsense and what’s useful.
When you’ve got some tools in your tool-box, you can help your partner find breastfeeding solutions to breastfeeding challenges. No point reaching for a wrench when you need a spanner….
You have feelings too!
You may be in awe of the changes happening to your loved one’s body. Friends, colleagues and random strangers love to give you advice. It may be confusing to find yourself moving from captain of the ship to first-mate, with her making decisions without always consulting you. There may be no space for your feelings to play out or even to be taken into account. I feel for you: you are also a lovely human being. You’re vital as chief support person. You are a dad or also a mum – which makes you hugely important. Fathers, lesbian mothers who are not bearing the child, and partners of pregnant people have a hard time: many sources of information miss you out. Seek out those groups and health care providers who value you.
There are probably a range of emotions shuffling through: excitement and pride, overwhelming terror, immense joy. Plus people expect you to get through the day in a normal manner. I have to warn you – this will continue for the next, oh, eighteen years or so?
You’ll be surprised how you can also find support from friends and colleagues who have families – look out for people who talk about their kids in a kindly way. They will probably be delighted to chat about their experiences and help you along the way.
If you’re attending groups or classes for expectant couples, you may find the others there are also looking for new friends to accompany them along this new path. Don’t be shy to ask for contact details, or offer yours.
Your homework for today!
It’s really useful to practise talking about challenges together. Men especially are trained by western society to fix problems quickly and efficiently. With breastfeeding, you’re helping the mother to find solutions, so she can gradually work her way through difficulties, find her own ways that work, and build up her relationship with the baby.
So today’s homework is: each of you practise asking your partner for something, and responding warmly when she or he asks you for something. Could be a glass of water or an apple – just asking and responding is the work. Tomorrow try something a bit more difficult. Ask for her or him to just listen to you, with attention and understanding, not try to fix your problem. Another good sentence to practise is: ‘How can I help?’ Everyone should learn this!
It can be lonely if you’re on your own – all the information for pregnant people seems to be geared to couples. You may be discovering some advantages: you make the decisions, nobody argues (except maybe your mum…!) You need and deserve a comfortable home for you and your baby, security, relaxation. Society should support you to care for your baby, because babies and their mothers are important. All of our futures depend on mothers and babies and the good connections they make to each other and the rest of us. I’d like to thank you, on behalf of all of us, for all the work you’re doing and the care you give your growing baby.
Many mothers have to move and find themselves isolated, because of relationship break-up or family disagreements or poverty. It can be daunting and depressing when you don’t know anybody, and it takes time and effort to build up a support network. It’s not your fault: many so-called civilised societies treat mothering like dirt. You are a valuable person and so is your baby. You and your baby will be a blessing to your new community – when they get to meet you!
When you write your birth plan
include the information that you plan to breastfeed your baby. This will help your midwives, doctors, and birth partner.
They need to know that you want skin-to-skin contact with your baby immediately after birth, for an unhurried time. Many hospitals throughout the world provide this as standard care. Some haven’t discovered yet how valuable it is. You can help educate them by requesting this basic human need. What’s the best time to discuss your needs and expectations with your health care providers? Now, while you’re pregnant!
Get your information together
The people who can help with breastfeeding are out there. Now is the best time to locate them and put their contact details in your phone or notebook – wherever you can find them quickly. In the UK, the breastfeeding charities have telephone helplines and local groups.
The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding is a book unlike any other! It draws on the experiences of thousands of families world-wide. If you read it while you are pregnant, you will find a realistic image of day to day breastfeeding, joys and challenges. The authors are LLL Leaders and mothers themselves. They write about real babies, using their own friendly voices. This book doesn’t tell you what you should or should not do – it explains what your baby needs and how to mother him through breastfeeding. An early edition saved my life as a new mother.
Find people you connect with
You may feel private about your pregnant body and not want to join groups. Thinking ahead, you might meet others you like at antenatal groups and classes. You could go along and see what it’s like? When you’ve got somebody’s phone number you can feel more confident – a quick text conversation helps you know you’re not alone. Your midwife, Health Visitor or Child and Family Centre (in the UK) can tell you what’s on locally.
Are you thinking about employing a doula? Some doulas help you while you’re pregnant and provide help and comfort at the birth. Other doulas can support you afterwards in lots of ways, including providing information about local breastfeeding help. (Many support mothers throughout the birth-giving months.)
La Leche League (LLL)
offers mother-to-mother support and information – the groups welcome pregnant parents as well as those breastfeeding babies. The discussions cover topics you probably wonder about, such as how to get breastfeeding off to a good start; avoiding and overcoming difficulties; introducing solid foods. Some groups run as informal discussions with a facilitator, some are more of a coffee morning style. A trained and qualified Leader (breastfeeding counsellor) runs each LLL gathering. They can help with challenges and answer questions. LLL groups support parents on every continent except Antarctica – www.llli.org is the international website and www.laleche.org.uk is for Great Britain.
Take a look at some online forums while you’re pregnant: seek out ones that are moderated by qualified breastfeeding counsellors. Notice the difference between posts from enthusiastic members and posts from moderators. Other parents may urge you to do this, or buy that, or believe certain things … Qualified moderators will offer information and support you to find your own path.
While you’re pregnant is a good time to grow the community around you who can support and help when the baby’s born. They may include family members, friends, house or flat-mates, work colleagues or neighbours. You may be surprised how people want to help when there’s a new baby coming. You will be able to give back to them with some help and support later, maybe when they’re ill and your baby’s a bit older. This is how communities develop, so every time you can accept an (appropriate) offer, you’re helping everybody. Even if you can’t repay them in practical ways, having a new baby in their lives is a blessing that many people appreciate. You are always the boss: help can be on your terms. Maybe you can make a list of jobs and share them out?
List of jobs – stick it to the fridge!
The first couple of weeks, you’ll need food, so plan shopping and cooking ahead if possible. While you are pregnant, can you borrow a space in somebody’s freezer? You can prepare some meals now, and store them for the first week or two of the baby’s life. If anyone asks: ‘What do you need?’ you can add them to the cooked meal rota – more helpful than yet another vest!
Others can help with laundry: take it away and do it, or put it on for you at home, hang it, dry it, fold and put away. (Folding optional – simplify all tasks!)
Suggest help with cleaning – most jobs can wait, but you are allowed to ask anybody to do anything for you. Again, simplify – hygiene and comfort, no washing curtains at this stage.
How about a baby shower of promises? Like a baby shower where people give you things, but one where they offer help after the baby’s born. While you are pregnant, you make a set of cards with notes of things you’d like done, one job on each. At the shower party, your friends take one away if they can offer to help with it. (Similar to an auction of promises – which charities often use for fundraising.)
Taking care of you
All new parents need emotional support. The good friends you make now will last a lifetime. If you feel shy or nervous, they probably do too, and might welcome a call or text. ‘How’s it going, being pregnant?’ It’s a good time to practise communication skills with your family. ‘I need’ is a good phrase to try out; needing help at a crucial time in your life doesn’t make you ‘needy.’ ‘I feel’ can be useful too: it gives them information about you without judgment of them. They can’t read your mind, so it can help to tell them how you’re doing today.
Getting help doesn’t mean you have to have troops of visitors! The first two weeks of a baby’s life are precious. Relatives and friends may think they can join in – but in fact it’s special time. The baby needs to be glued to her mother’s chest (or birthing parent’s chest) most of the time. Send relatives and friends a photo, invite them to leave a meal or pop by to help, but they can wait to get to know the baby. (Except for grannies of course. Grannies are special. But you can even have too much of grannies, however helpful they are.) It’s ok to say ‘We need some quiet time, thanks for all your help, see you next week.’