Breastfeeding daughter

Breastfeeding can be a challenge, but is well known for the benefits it offers both you and your baby.

This is the part of our series on 'The baby fog', which covers major challenges new parents might want to be aware of ahead of time.

Due to their immature circadian rhythms and their need to feed every few hours, babies can’t sleep for long periods. This is what leads to parental sleep deprivation for the first few months. This night waking can actually give mums incentive to breastfeed - the ease of being able to instantly breastfeed in the middle of the night, compared to having to get out of bed to prepare and heat up a bottle of formula, seems to be the best way to get as much sleep as possible.

But many parents find out the hard way how long breastfeeding can take, with some babies taking up to an hour on each breast (especially if they’re sleepy and suckling slowly in the middle of the night). The same thing can also happen in the daytime, which can make it hard to leave the house on time when you don’t know how long your baby will be on your breast.

We breastfed successfully for six months but it was the most intense six months of my life 

Kristy Busuttil, an early childhood education expert, says first-time mums can be unprepared for the demands of breastfeeding.

“In the early weeks and months mothers may feel as though they can’t go anywhere or do anything because their baby may need a feed. With breastfeeding consuming so much time and energy, greater demands may be placed on others around the home to assist with duties that are usually done by mums,” says Kristy, who works with First Grammar Early Childcare centres.

Alternatively, babies who feed quickly and for short periods of time at night may wake for another feed not long after, which can lead to a cycle of constant sleep interruption – as Kylie, a mother to five-year-old Sierra and three-year-old Tait, found out.

“Both my kids were terrible sleepers. I breastfed Sierra for 13 months and Tait for about six months, and looking back I realise that they were lazy feeders. They were only having snacks instead of full feeds, which contributed to the lack of sleep,” she says.

One disadvantage of breastfeeding is that because it’s a natural process of supply meeting demand, there’s no way to monitor exactly how much a baby is drinking from the breast. Expressing milk is one way to get around it, although many new mums find the expressing process as time-consuming as breastfeeding itself, as it needs to be done several times a day to maintain a good supply.

Elise, 25, says expressing was the only way she could give breastmilk to her son Max, now twelve months.

“I gave up on trying to get him to latch on because it was too painful; I expressed and bottle-fed him for all feeds instead,” she says. “I managed to make it to four-and-a-half months of expressing and bottle feeding, but by then my milk supply had basically disappeared.”

Occasionally using formula can make it easier to monitor how much your baby has, but even supplementing breastfeeding with one or two bottles of formula can lead to your milk production being out of sync with your baby’s needs – such as during growth spurts, when your baby may need to be fed more often – and milk production can decrease as a result. Re-boosting milk production isn’t impossible, but can be hard to do, which is why formula may be seen as an easier option.

All this being said, the advantages of breastfeeding are well known, and persisting through the first few months means you’ll get to the stage where your baby’s hunger levels won’t play such havoc with his sleep patterns (this can happen around six months of age, or when your baby has reached a certain weight level). Turn to the Australian Breastfeeding Association or your early childhood nurse for support and information to help you persevere.

Allyson, mum to ten-month-old Charlotte, found breastfeeding to be the most demanding part of motherhood. “We breastfed successfully for six months but it was the most intense six months of my life. I was partially hoping she wouldn’t take to it but I still did it,” she says.

“It was definitely worth it - I just wish I’d known how much of my own pure grit I would have to put into it.”

Other articles in our series on 'The baby fog': growth spurts and wonder weeks, sleep issues, illness and parenting support.