4 Keys to Successful Breastfeeding After Surgery

Prevent Biting While Breastfeeding

With about 8 years of solid exclusive breastfeeding experience, I have had my fair share of challenges. I have struggled with flat nipples, thrush, foremilk/hindmilk imbalance, and more. But, one of the most challenging events I have had to prepare for and go through, both mentally and physically, has been surgery.

With my second baby, it was having my wisdom teeth removed. With my third, it was having my tonsils removed.

When you are ill and breastfeeding, one of the first questions that come up is “Can I have surgery and continue breastfeeding?” The answer is a big YES. Continuing the breastfeeding relationship throughout the recovery process is absolutely doable. It may seem daunting, but it can be done. I hope my story inspires you to be positive if you are facing surgery while still maintaining a breastfeeding relationship with your child.

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Anesthesia, Pain Killers, and Breastfeeding

One of my biggest fears about surgery was if the anesthesia and pain killers were safe during breastfeeding. I pretty surprised to find that even some of the heaviest pain medications I would be taking would be safe. The key is knowing what medications you will be taking, and check with a breastfeeding medication reference, such as Medications and Mother's Milk.

This book is not cheap, but you can call your local lactation consultant and have her check her reference book for the medications you will be taking. She may even be able to recommend some alternative medications if the ones you will be taking are not safe.

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General anesthesia is also safe. As are many other forms of anesthesia. What matters is how fast the medication metabolizes in your system and how much will be present in your milk. Most of the medications used during and after surgery metabolize very quickly and/or leave very little traces in your milk.

How to Prepare for Breastfeeding After Surgery

I'm not going to tell you that breastfeeding after surgery is easy, because it's not. The older your baby is, and the more established your baby is at breastfeeding, the less likely it will impact your relationship in the long run.

If you are an attachment parent or cosleeping, your recovery from surgery could be very difficult for your baby and you.

Firstly, you will most likely be on very heavy pain medications, and therefore, it will not be a good idea for your spouse or family to leave the baby alone with you as you sleep. It will not be a good idea for them to leave the baby with you to sleep in a chair, either.

So how do you prepare for such a difficult road bump in breastfeeding? Here are the most helpful things I learned during my recoveries:

1.) Pump and store breastmilk if you can.

This is not always possible before surgery, either because of time restraints or low supply from illness. My supply was so low before I had my tonsils out, that I could not store up any milk, though I did have a few bags in the freezer from before.

If for some reason you must miss a feeding (like the day of your surgery), baby's caregiver will have something to offer.

2.) Recruit help.

Having to care for a breastfed baby while mom is not around can be very stressful. Get as much help for your spouse as you can from friends and family, with meals, childcare, household chores, etc. Let them know your expected recovery time and tell them exactly what you need help with.

3.) Bring a pump, breastfeed right before surgery, and as soon as possible after surgery.

My husband brought the kids and me to the hospital, and it gave me a chance to breastfeed right before I was wheeled into surgery. After my tonsillectomy, I arranged for someone to watch my older kids so that my husband could bring the baby to me at the hospital. I also brought along my pump. I knew that my breasts would be full just a short time after surgery. I also wanted to breastfeed as soon as I felt well enough to sit up and hold my baby.

Of course, it helps to alert your doctors, nurses, and anesthesiologist that you are currently breastfeeding and how you plan to handle the recovery process. Let them know if you've talked with a lactation consultant about your options, and if needed, you may ask for lactation consultant support at the hospital.

4.) Breastfeed when possible, but focus on your recovery.

Plan to have your spouse or support person available to care for you during the entire length of your recovery. Breastfeed as often as possible, but don't let breastfeeding interfere with your recovery.

Comfort nursing is okay, as long as you can handle it during this time. As long as your baby is getting enough to eat, either through breastmilk or food, know that your baby will be fine.

Your baby will cry. It's okay. You are not a bad mom. 

You are recovering from surgery, and you should be very proud of yourself for continuing to breastfeed through such a difficult time. Your baby will be okay, and you can resume your normal breastfeeding bond after recovery.

Nights may be very hard for your spouse, especially if you are unable to cosleep. After my tonsillectomy, I was unable to lay in bed for 2 weeks (I had to stay at a certain angle.) My son had a very rough time. But we made it through, and he is continued breastfeeding until the toddler years.

Breastfeeding after surgery is possible!

Please leave a comment and let me know of your own breastfeeding difficulties and experiences, or let me know if you have any questions. I would be happy to answer the best I can.

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4 Keys to Successful Breastfeeding After Surgery

Vanessa Pruitt, PLMHP, MS