The first night I brought my daughter home from the hospital, I was trying to get the hang of the breast-feeding thing. Sure, I’d had hours (and two lactation consultants) squeezing and moving my breasts around to where my baby seemed sufficiently fed. I went home thinking I could do this.

Then midnight hit, and I tried squeezing (they tell you to serve your breast like a sandwich) and feeding my little one, and she just kept crying. I instantly became convinced she was starving, and awoke my sleeping husband in tears.

We went to the pediatrician the next day, who calmed my fears. My daughter wasn’t starving, and it probably would take time, a lot of Googling, and many late-night texts to my mom friends to figure out the breast-feeding thing.

That night was just one of many “breast-feeding firsts” that new moms go through.

The first time your milk (really) comes in

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It takes the above experience to know that I was really, really anticipating the actual breast milk I’d heard so much about.

Colostrum, the first milk a mother’s body produces, looks more like an oily substance. It’s thick and yellow, and the body doesn’t seem to produce a lot of it. This can really make you think you aren’t making enough milk for your baby. But your baby really only needs a tablespoon or two at a time for the first few days, which is why they feed frequently in the first week.

But then your actual milk comes in. This takes about three to four days. And when it does, it can hit with a vengeance. Your nipples may be sore from starting to breast-feed your infant and getting used to latching and feeding. Then your breasts start getting very full, and you know that breast-feeding has really started.

Some side effects associated with milk “coming in” include:

  • changing consistency from thicker and yellow in color to whiter and thinner in texture
  • fullness
  • heaviness
  • leaking milk
  • tingling
  • warmth

The result can be very uncomfortable, but it does get better. If your baby is nursing well, engorgement should only last about 48 hours. In the meantime, take advantage of treatments like placing refrigerated green cabbage leaves on your breasts (it works!) or soft ice packs made specifically for breast tenderness. Try placing warm wet towels on your breasts before feeding, and expressing a little to soften the nipple. You can also place protective nipple shields in your bra or shirt to reduce visible leakage.

The first time your milk shoots across the room

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Also known as the let-down reflex, the milk ejection reflex can range from a trickling stream to the forcefulness of a machine gun.

The let-down reflex is when the nerves in your breast send signals to your brain that it’s time to release milk. Some women may have a more forceful (read: projectile) let-down than others. A woman’s breast milk is naturally higher in water content during the early part of the feeding (this is known as foremilk), which at some point in time gives way to hindmilk. This later part contains more fat.

You don’t necessarily need to be worried about a forceful let-down. But if you repeatedly have one, you may want to hand-express your milk for a minute or so before feeding your baby to avoid the rush of milk that can make them cough or gag.

The first time you pump

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No words have been Googled more by me as a new mom than ways to pump faster, more effectively, or have more volume. But it all starts with the first time you pump. You will read the instructions and watch several YouTube videos before it’s finally time to press that button and start.

Pumping can feel weird, and it certainly doesn’t feel as cozy as cuddling up with your baby for a feeding. But it serves a wonderful purpose: to provide the best nutrition possible to your little one. Some tips to help you start:

  • Take some pictures of your baby, or even a video. Thinking of your baby or listening to a recording of them will promote the let-down reflex.
  • Try to keep your stress levels low. While it’s easy to get impatient when pumping, stress seems to affect your milk flow.
  • Drink plenty of water before and after pumping (you have your hands kind of full during the actual pumping).
  • Change the position of the pumping funnels. Just as you likely change your baby’s position when feeding them, it helps to hit different milk ducts in your breasts when pumping. Sometimes even leaning slightly forward and curving your back can be enough of an angle change to help you.

Pumping gets easier, then sometimes it feels harder. But it’s part of the feeding process for when you return to work or must leave your baby for a few hours or days.

The last time you feed your baby

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This one’s a tough one. Whether you’re weaning your baby, not producing enough, or your baby loses interest in the breast, knowing you are feeding your baby for likely the last time can be hard.

Breast-feeding is truly a relationship only you and your baby have. Some moms are happier to end the relationship than others, but whether you fed your baby for a day or two years, pat yourself on the back for doing it. Because it’s certainly not easy.

Ways you can honor your breast-feeding relationship and move on to new and exciting milestones with your baby include the following:

  • Find new times in the day to cuddle with each other. Breast-feeding can be about closeness and comfort. Establishing new ways to bond with your baby can help.
  • Slowly stop breast-feeding if possible, to avoid the discomfort that can occur when stopping “cold turkey.”
  • Use the same treatments you use when your milk comes in as when you end breast-feeding: taking a warm shower, applying cabbage leaf compresses, and taking over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.

The takeaway

Breast-feeding can have more twists and turns than a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. There are many firsts you will encounter. Enjoy it, mama! 

Rachel Nall