A Breastfeeding Journey – My Experience in Japan

A Breastfeeding Journey – My Experience in Japan

From my experience, breastfeeding is encouraged here in Japan. Just like natural births are the norm, it’s almost expected that new moms will breastfeed.

Back in 2011, I was a graduate student and taught mommy and toddler English classes as a part-time job. the mothers, four of them, routinely fed in the middle of class. The first time a mother fed in class, I was surprised. Not by the sight of seeing a woman breastfeed, but rather at how smoothly it all went. From the way my student was positioned, I had no idea what was going on. I simply thought she was holding her son.

As I was teaching class -less English conversation and more arts/crafts, dance and introducing simple vocabulary- I just asked mom to position her body so that her son could see what was going on in class!

For all the chatter over the internet over the “indecency” of breastfeeding in public, my first exposure to breastfeeding showed me that the act was a normal part of motherhood. What I saw in my classroom, seeing the ease of feeding, and the nonchalant way the moms treated feeding in public was a major factor in my choice to breastfeed when my daughter was born.

When I was pregnant, and especially in my visibly pregnant third trimester, I constantly asked by both women and men if I planned to breastfeed. For the record, most of the inquiries came from neighbors in my condo or people that I became acquainted with through daily walks with my dog. (Although, a few strangers on the bus did ask as well.)

Women didn’t hesitate to use the opportunity to tell me their experience of breastfeeding or the regret they had that they were unable to.

Breastfeeding was actively encouraged in the maternity classes held at my clinic. On top of this, the topic of breastfeeding and its benefits was routinely brought up in the English and Japanese maternity books I read throughout my pregnancy. Needless to say, by the time my due date approached, I had been indoctrinated into the awesomeness of breastfeeding.

I, however, was also exposed to the stories of moms who truly wanted to breastfeed but for various reasons couldn’t. With those experiences in mind, I told myself that if I couldn’t breastfeed it wouldn’t as long as the baby was healthy and fed.

At 36 weeks pregnant, I submitted my birth plan to the clinic. On it, there were several options regarding feeding during the hospital stay.

  1. I plan to exclusively breastfed; please don’t give my child formula.
  2. I will breastfeed, but please supplement with formula.
  3. I plan to use both formula and to breastfeed.

As you see, there was no “I plan to formula feed my child.”

In my case, as I didn’t know if I would be able to produce milk, I chose the second option. In my birth plan, I opted for kangaroo care but forgot to include that I wanted to feed immediately as well. However, as I rested in the LDR my baby was brought in for her first fed. I had no idea what I was doing, but with guidance from the midwife, I helped my newborn daughter with our first time nursing.

In the hospital, we new moms were on a nursing schedule. We were to go to the lounge four times a day, every four hours, from 6:30am. Even those who opted to have their baby in the room with them were to bring their baby to the lounge for nursing.

I found it funny that the women were so reserved about feeding in the nursery when public baths are a big part of Japanese culture. I didn’t mind and figured if I was going to feed my daughter in public I’d better use this opportunity to practice my technique.

The lactation nurses were very hands on, showing us various holding positions and how to make sure the baby was latched on properly. We were also taught massage techniques to get us through the days after birth when milk began to flow and when our breasts became uncomfortably firm.

I was told that my milk was coming in just fine and that it wasn’t necessary to supplement with formula. This is the paradox of breastfeeding. You can never run out of milk if you continue to feed. Your body will replenish its supply. However, if you don’t feed, you run the risk of your milk running out- and painfully swollen breasts.

Nevertheless, on the day of my discharge, I bought formula because it was being sold in a special gift pack at an incredible price. For just under 4000¥ i got a 200ml bottle, a large can of powder formula, 2 boxes 20 individually packaged powder formula sticks and a box of the local version of powdered baby pedialyte. This formula was also the same used in the nursery so I thought it would be best to use the same formula and bottles to which my daughter had already become accustomed.

I also bought formula because I wanted my husband to participate in taking care of the baby. I didn’t want him to feel as if there was little he could do. If he were familiar with feeding the baby, I could use those feeding times as a short break for myself.

But as we all know, nothing goes according to plan. My baby was born in the winter, my favorite season, but there’s nothing fun about late night feedings. Especially when you’re still recovering from an episiotomy and it’s a cold winter’s night. And arguing with my husband that he should make formula so that I could sleep didn’t make the situation easier.

In the end, the convenience of breastfeeding took over. In her first month, I used a nursing pillow for night feeds as I did in the daytime. Sleepy and cranky, those weeks were the hardest. As my milk production increased, I found out that I have an extreme letdown (when the milk flows after the baby latches on). It’s painful and forceful enough to choke my poor baby. It almost made me want to give up and go straight for the formula.

Going into the second month, I became more comfortable with nursing laying down and co-sleeping. Nighttime feedings became a breeze. She’d fall asleep in my arms, and I wouldn’t even notice.

Now, I feel completely comfortable feeding her. I appreciate the flexibility that breastfeeding gives me. Once my baby latches on, there’s little that I need to do but support her head. This leaves me with my hands free to eat or snack, type on the computer, read a book, etc.

On top of that, I’ve mastered the art of feeding in a carrier, which is a major breakthrough. Once you can feed in a carrier, it’s a game changer. I thought I didn’t want a baby attached to me 24/7, but with a dog in the house, I feel that she’s safe in her Ergo Baby. I can wash dishes, vacuum the floors, hang and fold laundry all while she feeds.

I’ve also successfully fed her in public- on a bus, at the US Embassy, at our doctor’s appointments. I didn’t feel any sort of embarrassment or hesitation.

The hardest part of breastfeeding is…No alcohol! Naturally, I did not drink during my pregnancy, so I should be used to it. Still, I really miss drinking cocktails, wine and sparkling wine. I drink canned non alcoholic cocktails, but it’s essentially a carbonated drink. Yummy but just doesn’t cut it.

I’ve also become more conscious of what I eat, more so than when I was pregnant. Breastfeeding helps to burn calories (yay!) but it makes me so Hungry. And thirsty. I keep healthy snacks on hand to ease the hunger and a stock of bottled water to drink while I nurse.

My advice to any moms considering breastfeeding is to try it! If it works for you, that’s great. If not, that’s ok as well. And, stock up on nursing pads and nursing camisoles!

{{This story is solely my experience. I encourage all moms to use their own judgement to decide what is right for their baby.}}

Check out my other posts on life with a baby in Japan:

Pregnancy and Birth in Japan – A Reference Guide

Japanese Celebrations for Baby

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