A Breastfeeding Journey – My Experience in Japan

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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 baby/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 -more arts/crafts, dance and introducing simple vocabulary- I just asked mom to position her body so that her soon 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 ways 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.

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

The maternity classes at my clinic also actively encouraged  breastfeeding. 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 also heard 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 I wouldn’t make myself feel guilty about it as long as the baby was healthy and fed.

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

  • Please don’t give my child formula as I will exclusively breastfed.
  • I will breastfeed, but please supplement with formula.
  • 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.

Little Kaiju had her first feed in the LDR. 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 shy about feeding in the nursery when public baths are a big part of Japanese culture. I figured if I was going to nurse in public, I’d better use this opportunity to practice my technique.

The nurses and lactation experts were very hands on. They showed us various holding positions and how to make sure the baby had a proper latch. 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.

Still, I bought formula because it was on sale  special gift pack at an incredible price. For just under 4000 yen I got a 200ml bottle, a large can of powder formula, 2 boxes 20 individually packaged powder formula sticks and a box of the Japanese version of powdered baby Pedialyte.

I bought formula because I wanted my husband to participate in taking care of the baby. I also thought that 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. Little Kaiju was born in the winter, my favorite season, but there’s nothing fun about late night feedings 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.

READ: Birth in Japan: Natural or Epidural?

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 first 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 was 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 because more comfortable with nursing laying down and co-sleeping, and nighttime feedings became a breeze. She’d fall asleep in my arms after nursing, 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.

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 carrier. I can wash dishes, vacuum the floors, hang and fold laundry all while she feeds.  

READ: How To Choose The Right ByKay Baby Carrier For You

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

I have yet to encounter a negative comment, but if I do, I would calmly say, “Should I let her cry or do you want to take over?”

The hardest part of breastfeeding is…No alcohol!  Naturally, I did not drink during my pregnancy, so what’s the problem?

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 make sure to keep healthy snacks like trail mix and kids animal crackers on hand to ease the hunger and a stock of bottled water to drink while I nurse. I’m fairly certain that snacking during feeding negates any potential weight-loss benefits.

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. Remember, a fed baby is a happy baby!

A Breastfeeding Journey – My Experience in Japan


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