There is a one-word answer for me to the following questions: “What do new moms DO all day… and night? Why do people say new parents don’t sleep?” and “Why do new mothers disappear?” The one-word answer is something that many women with newborns do (70% in the U.S.) — and do for up to 35 hours a week — but that is seldom discussed or understood in terms of the time it takes, and the impact it has on a woman’s life, and the lives of those around her.
This word encompasses a massive contribution that women have made to the world that is often covered up, both literally and figuratively. And that word is: “Nursing.” To visually display the mind-boggling extent of nursing in the first weeks of a baby’s life, I decided to chart every time our sweet new baby nursed with me for two weeks of her first month. Look at the resulting chart and gasp! I swear this is real, and the only inaccuracy is that there are too FEW feedings charted because I was so bleary at, say, 3am. (March 1, for example, likely had a 2am feeding that I forgot to chart, because I know for a fact that I haven’t slept more than 3.5 hours at a time since our little cutie was born five weeks ago.)
To summarize what that graphic shows, new babies need to eat every 1 to 3 hours, day and night, because they have teeny-tiny tummies. Imagine what it would do to YOUR daily life flow to insert in a whole-body activity EVERY 1-3 hours, 24 hours a day! It makes it mighty hard to get anything done — I’ll tell you that. As I just posted on Facebook, “Painfully fitting: I can’t seem to finish my article about how nursing is all-consuming because… nursing is all-consuming! Hehe…” Another nursing mother instantly replied: “Truer truths have never been told.”
So what does this mean for you? Well, if you know a new mother who is in her first month or two of nursing (the most intense time for it), there are some easy but hugely impactful ways that you can help that mother out. First, ensure she has a big glass of water nearby (making milk mandates hydration, and nursing mothers get positively parched), and provide her with food, as milk production slurps calories and makes a gal ravenous. When providing food, anything that can be eaten with one hand is ideal because feeding a baby ties up an arm, if not both.
Make sure the mother has a cloth or tissue nearby to clean up spills. Offer to do any of the other tasks that nursing makes so difficult to find time for: Diaper changing, cleaning, cooking, laundry, shopping, etc. Finally, acknowledge the mother for the life-giving contribution she is providing. Nursing takes up to 35 hours a week in total, which is more time than many well-paying jobs. If no one acknowledged you for something you did for 35 hours a week, that would feel sad and weird, wouldn’t it?
What does this mean for you if you’re pregnant or planning on having a child soon? Recognize how much time nursing takes, and put anything and everything in place to support it. In our case, my husband’s amazing parents came and lived with us for several weeks to help out, which was EVERYTHING. Other people I know pre-cook and freeze meals or have friends sign up to do so, hire a postpartum doula or mother’s helper, or activate delivery services for groceries and diapers. If you are currently pregnant AND have a toddler, understand that it will be hard to get out from under the new (constantly nursing) baby and play with your toddler for more than 15 minutes at a time for the first month or two, and watching both rascals at once is a recipe for screaming, “Don’t touch that lamp!” to the toddler while you’re immobilized nursing the baby, then having the lamp smash to smithereens while your gleeful 2.5-year-old sprints down the hall and milk sprays everywhere as you attempt to put down the wailing babe. That is to say, the more help you can get watching the toddler while you’re with the baby for the first few weeks, the better!
What does this mean for you if you’re also a nursing mother? I acknowledge you for what you’re doing — go you! — and call on society to acknowledge and support you, too. What about mothers who have difficulty nursing (as I did with our first child), mothers who pump instead of nursing, or are juggling working and pumping, and mothers who use formula? I acknowledge YOU for all you do, and understand that feeding a baby by all those methods with all those factors is also extremely time-intensive and all-consuming. Go YOU!
At last, after 14 days of attempting to finish and publish this article, yet being agonizingly thwarted each day by a yelping baby who I love, AND who wants to nurse without pause, I shall finally click “PUBLISH” and send these words your way. This brings us to my final point: What else can you do to support a nursing mother? Help her do what makes her feel fulfilled and happy, because all that energy she’s pouring into giving and giving to another human every 1-3 hours needs to be replenished. In my case, writing articles for YOU does just that, so I send gratitude to my husband who is currently bouncing the baby upstairs so that I can finally write!
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