Jessica Bower, IBCLC
When moms are breastfeeding for the first time, I almost always say "breastfeeding is so much more than food" at some point during an in-home lactation visit.
I'm often asked by new parents: "But are they getting anything at this point? How do I know when the baby is done? Why do they want to eat again right after they 'finished'?" How long is cluster feeding normal? Why do they cry when I lay them down?"
It's possible that a baby is not getting enough milk at the breast (this is why a visit with a lactation consultant is helpful - to confirm weight and milk transfer), and that's why they want to stay latched nonstop. But it's actually more likely that your baby just wants to be close to you. And for most babies, their favorite place is going to be the breast - preferably with a nipple in their mouth. It's possible that if they are very full, they might be satisfied with using your breast as a pillow. That way, they feel your closeness and soak in the skin to skin and know that the milk is nearby.
Babies are smart. They have been inside you for nearly a year. When birth occurs, they are not suddenly ready to transition to hours a day apart from humans contact. They know that closeness, lots of sucking at the breast, and lots of milk removal is what they need to do to establish a good milk supply. This process can be very tiring for new moms who are also recovering from birth. Most first time moms tell me, "I had no idea how hard the first few days breastfeeding would be." So what's a mom to do with a baby who wants to breastfeed almost constantly?
First, have reasonable expectations. This time of baby wanting to stay close to you nonstop will not last forever. Especially in the first several days postpartum - before your colostrum transitions to more mature milk - more time at the breast will mean that your milk will transition sooner. It also means your baby will get back to birth weight faster than if you have limited feeds. It also means better long term milk supply. So the hard work you do breastfeeding in the early days will pay off later in breastfeeding.
Second, get some help from friends and family. Here's something else I almost always say in a lactation visit in the first few days postpartum - "The only thing you need to do over the next several days is feed yourself, feed your baby, and sleep." That's right. Get your partner, friends, and family on board to help with everything else. The things you don't need to be using your mental or physical energy on are: care of older children, care of pets, making meals, cleaning the house, or entertaining guests. If anyone is coming to visit, they should come with some yummy food and asking you how they can help. You can come up with a list before birth of things people can do to help you: take the dog for a walk, fold a load of laundry, bring a meal (or set up a meal train), clean your bathrooms, come play with an older child - think about what can help you now so that when people say "how can I help?", you can actually give them a practical way to assist. For partner support, one of the best ways the partner can help is by doing diaper changes in the night so that the mom can just breastfeed. Also, if the baby will not sleep between feeds and cluster feeding has been happening for a few hours and mom needs a break - get dad to do skin to skin with baby to let mom get a nap.
Third, get some professional help if needed. Our community has amazing resources. Hire a postpartum doula to come to you in the early days postpartum to help ease the transition. Postpartum doulas jump in wherever you need them - doing laundry or dishes, holding the baby so you can nap (they are amazing baby whisperers), helping meal prep, talking with you through your feelings about birth and the postpartum time, and more. Consider getting meals prepared for you in advance to take the burden of food prep off your plate. If you're finding this phase challenging emotionally, you're not alone. Consider a counselor who specializes in the postpartum time. If breastfeeding is overwhelming, contact me to get support. We can do in-person visits (usually free with health insurance), chat on the phone, text, or do virtual visits. I know there's never a "one size fits all" approach to breastfeeding - we can come up with a feeding plan that works for you. For all these resources and more, check out this post.
So, dear mom, hang in there. Breastfeeding is not just for food. You and your baby are both adjusting to this time where you're no longer one unit, but two. It's hard. Take care of yourself and get support so that you can eat and sleep. But also recognize that your little baby is adjusting and wants to be as close to you as possible.
Get support. Know it's normal. Be encouraged.