Nursing through the Holidays: A Guide

written by Lindsay McNamara

Nursing is a task that is complex, surprising, and ever-changing. The way you feed your baby in the first week of life will be nothing like the way you feed your child at one month or four months. It’s constantly changing, offering new challenges, and revealing new solutions. It's a relationship that evolves over time. As any seasoned nursing parent can tell you, the holiday season can present a few of its own unique challenges. If you are a breastfeeding parent then knowing the obstacles ahead, how to prepare for them, or even avoid them is going to make this season that much easier.

Clogged ducts
A clogged duct is characterized by a tender, localized area of the breast, often with a lump or knot and possibly with redness or heat in the area. Pain may intensify or move as the baby is latched and feeding. Clogged ducts are often a byproduct of not nursing frequently enough but can also be caused by restrictive bras, localized trauma (such as your Aunt Tilly accidentally elbowing you in the breast while wrestling dishes in the kitchen), or an uncomfortable latch from a distracted nurser. The best treatment is to eliminate as much milk from the breast as you can manage. Nursing, pumping, hand expression and warm compresses are the standard tactics to alleviate a blocked duct. Massage, using a vibrating toothbrush or even a comb to gently draw milk towards the nipple are also frequently suggested with much success. Personally, I have always found dangle nursing to be the swiftest approach. This is a nursing position that allows gravity and a release of tension in the soft tissue to drain milk toward the nipple at a surprising rate.

Nursing strikes
A nursing strike is a period of hours or days in which a clearly hungry baby simply refuses the breast. It can be a refusal of one or both breasts. This is probably the most common source of holiday feeding panic that parents encounter. Nursing strikes may be a result of the baby spending too much time playing or visiting with family. When baby is used to having one dominant caregiver and is suddenly being thrust at multiple caregivers, even a happy and social baby may revolt when the primary caregiver returns. In an effort to communicate their feelings of social exhaustion, mild rejection, or just lack of control, they may take a stubborn stance against the breast.

Or, baby spending more time away from you could lead to engorgement and clogged ducts, which can also bring on a nursing strike. A blocked duct can rapidly become mastitis—a breast infection—that may alter the taste of the milk and make baby refuse the breast. A strike can also be caused by anxiety and the pressure for baby to nurse in an unfamiliar environment where they feel displaced from their routine; this is especially possible if you are traveling.

And sometimes strikes just happen. Remember, your baby may be hitting a growth spurt, or teething, or any number of things. Staying calm, isolating yourself and baby into a calm, controlled environment, and patiently showering them with relaxed attention while casually offering the breast can help de-escalate stress that they may be experiencing. This is sometimes called a “nursing holiday,” and it can be relaxing for you, too.

Continuing to offer the breast is the best course during a nursing strike, but it's also important to listen to your own wisdom and consider supplementation if your baby becomes over-hungry, over-agitated, or even mildly dehydrated. Offering a bottle of formula may be just the reset you need to get back on track with your goals.

Cluster Feeding
Cluster feeding is when a baby demands to be at the breast more often than usual, often feeding for 5-40 minutes at a time and repeating every 5-20 minutes. This can go on for hours and become very tedious for parents, often continuing well into the night and disrupting sleep. Cluster feeding can sometimes be a way your baby tries to compensate for separation or over-stimulation during the day. Passing the baby around to visit with family members can be one of the joys of parenthood, but it is important not to overlook feeding cues.

Cluster feeding can also be caused by the introduction or overfeeding of solids by well-meaning and excited parents and family members. New foods and flavors are fun, but too many can leave baby feeling overfull, or suffering from gastrointestinal discomfort. As far as your baby knows, more nursing is the best and only remedy.

Missing nap times during highly social engagements is another source of cluster feeding issues for many families. If your baby is on a solid napping schedule, try to provide them as many opportunities as possible to abide by, that to avoid an overtired baby who cluster feeds to compensate.

Pumping is already its own challenge, and if you rely on weekday pumping or exclusively pumping to feed your baby then this is an important note. Do not stop your regular pumping schedules just because you have extra time off. Do everything you can to maintain your usual pumping schedule, even if you are feeding your baby directly. The reason I suggest this is because every year I see the pump is set aside to enjoy the long weekend and then when work rolls around, panic sets in, as pump response may have dwindled or even disappeared. This can leave your breasts overfull and aching and put you at risk for post-holiday blockages, not to mention the extra stress of diminished output.

During your holiday, expect to pump less as you may be feeding directly from the tap more. That's okay. Just aim to maintain regularity at the pump. I promise you will be thankful for this. Also, it goes without saying, but have extra membranes and tubing on hand. I’ve heard tell of many a garbage disposal accident by a helpful family member, so have a backup.

Comments from family or friends
It seems like no matter how supportive or how accommodating a family is, there will always be that one person who says something that rankles, even if it's not intentional. It's never easy to handle, but try to stay calm. You are doing what you think is best for your baby, and your baby is relying on you. Never be afraid to conduct yourself in the manner that is most in alignment with your baby's needs, your responsibility to them, and your comfort level. Many parents find the support of an outside community to be empowering. These communities exist in many places such as online chat rooms, Facebook groups, La Leche League meetings, and in our own friend groups.

The best solution for dealing with all nursing pitfalls during the holidays is to be prepared and avoid them in the first place. Have a plan. When you arrive in a new environment, establish a designated nursing spot and feed promptly on arrival. Your baby may prefer the quiet of an isolated room to avoid distraction, or they may prefer the soothing harmony of voices in a comfy chair among the hubbub; you know your baby best. This also allows baby to acclimate to a strange new surrounding and possibly many new unfamiliar faces in a way that feels safe and secure. If your baby is easily distracted you may consider a “nursing necklace.” Typically this is just a large beaded necklace or other tempting, baby-hand-friendly bauble that is worn by mom and can hold baby’s interest while nursing. I also suggest carrying a simple vibrating hand massager and a Hakka style hand pump in your diaper bag for emergencies. Remember to carry the contacts for any nursing troubleshooting you may need, such as numbers for a trusted lactation counselor, a nursing hotline, or even just an experienced friend. Check in with your support groups and bookmark the best online resources for solidly researched information.

I hope this list has helped you be mindful of how you and your baby can prepare for and tackle any feeding hiccups that may arise during your holiday. Know that almost any scenario can be resolved with patience and guidance. As they say, the one constant is change, and nursing is no exception. Enjoy your holidays and may you sail through smoothly.