While at the Rangemaster Instructor Class this last weekend I was one of around six other women in class. As women are wont to do, we got talking about our children, their ages and other motherly issues such as childbirth and breastfeeding.
I mentioned I was still breastfeeding my youngest and one of the other mothers looked at me and said, "How do you come to places like this and do it?"
"It's not easy," I said.
"No, really," she said. "How do you do it? I want to know."
I realized that as women start to break into the gun community on a more regular basis, with them will come women who are going to be going through some very female specific issues.
I told her that when I got home I would write about it and she said, "Please do! Women need to hear about this stuff."
And as uncomfortable as it may be to read about male instructors need to be aware that if their goal is to reach out to female students they may have to accommodate a few female specific needs, one of which is the breastfeeding mother.
This is the third, multi-day gun class I've taken since giving birth to my daughter. She's nearly two years old and still breastfeeding. I say that very proudly because it has taken a huge commitment on my part to make sure I am doing all I can to keep producing during the times I am away from her. Including this weekend.
What does it mean to be a lactating mother in the gun community?
Lots of prep work.
My first and second two and three-day gun class were when my daughter was four and five months old. She was exclusively breastfed at that time and I should have been pumping on a 3-4 hour cycle to be keeping up with her demands in her absence.
Quite frankly, that didn't happen. But what I did do was sufficient to keep my supply up so that when I got home she was able to pick up right where we left off.
Step One: If you're going to be a breastfeeding mom you need a quality breast pump and the right size shields. I am fortunate enough to have two quality breast pumps and every single size shield. Both of my pumps are Medela Pump-In-Styles. One is the backpack version and the other is the shoulder bag. Many women do not even know that there are different shield sizes for different nipple sizes and that the shield size can change depending on how engorged you are and can even be different from one breast to the other. Too large or too small of a shield can mean painful pumping and poor production. If you are unsure of the shield sizes see a lactation consultant before you leave on your trip. Often times they will help you fit your shields for free. I know that if I did not have a quality pump and the right size shields I would not have been able to pump as efficiently in the time frames I was given. A quality pump is essential.
Step Two: Make sure you have enough milk stored up for your baby for your trip. This
is going to involve a little math, some more time and a lot of
dedication. Determine how much milk your baby is consuming each day. You can do this by weight, by volume or by averages for his weight and needs based on growth charts and then find out how much
milk you are going to need for the entirety of your trip by multiplying your babies daily ounces consumed by the number of days you will be gone (including travel). Set yourself
reasonable pumping and milk storage goals to make that amount of excess
before you need to leave. The more time you give yourself the better
your chances will be. Pumping two extra ounces a day for three months is
a lot easier than suddenly finding out you'll have to pump twenty extra
ounces a day for a week to store enough.
Step Three: Be sure your baby will take a bottle from your intended caregiver. Be aware that sometimes babies will take bottles only in their mothers absence. If they can smell you or hear you they will likely attempt to refuse a bottle. A good test of whether or not a baby will take a bottle is to leave a hungry baby with a caregiver and leave the building completely.
Step Four: You need to be able to cool/freeze the milk to you express. Thankfully, the school I was at the first two times had a refrigerator with a functioning freezer. I asked the owner if I could use the freezer (without telling him what I would be freezing) and he said it was ok. That made storing my milk at those classes very easy. In this last class there was no freezer and it was hot. Very hot! In which case it's important to think again and prep your cooler for storing milk.
1. Make sure the hotel or other location you are staying at has a freezer available. Even if you can't freeze your milk immediately, keeping it cool on ice or dry ice until you can get it frozen that night should keep it fresh.
2. Dry ice is better than regular ice. Ice cubes are better than cold packs.
3. On particularly hot days, the more ice and layers of insulation the better.
Dry ice can be difficult to find but not impossible. I have found it by calling big chain grocery stores in the area and getting it in advance. If it's a particularly hot day buy a foam cooler that can fit inside of a larger cooler. Pack the large cooler with ice and have room for drinks and sandwiches and pack the smaller cooler with dry ice or more ice for your expressed milk.
Step Five: You need to be able to clean yourself and your equipment. Firing ranges are not clean and sterile fields. We shouldn't even eat without washing our hands due to lead exposure, never mind about contaminating your breastmilk with lead and sweat and everything else. And once you are done pumping you have to have a means of cleaning your parts so that they are ready to use when you need to pump again.
Most big name schools will have a bathroom adequate enough to wash your hands and face. Wash all the way up to your elbows with cool water and lots of soap and, if you are particularly dirty and sweaty, consider washing your breasts as well or at least having wipes handy for that job.
If you can, take your parts to an actual sink and wash them with soap and water. In absence of that, what I did was rinse my pump parts with clean, bottled water and then dropped them into a gallon-size plastic bag with soapy water. I rinsed them with the soapy water and then rinsed again with the bottled water. I had a sterilizing steam bag I would use every night when I got back to the hotel.
A quick note on lead exposure and breastmilk: What you ingest will make it into your milk supply. You will inhale or otherwise absorb lead particles throughout your time at a gun class. That lead has potential to make it into your milk. Try though I may I have found no reliable source of information to indicate that that exposure is enough to harm your baby through your milk. Even so, some mothers choose to pump and dump the milk they express during and immediately after gun classes. That is your choice. Personally, I have not had an issue giving the milk I have expressed during gun classes to my children and the lead tests they have had in their childhood have all come back normal.
Step Six: Store your milk in bags, not bottles and bring a big enough cooler. Bottles take up more space and you run out of them pretty fast. For a weekend class while exclusively breastfeeding I filled an entire freezer with over 200 ounces of breastmilk. I was using 5 ounce bags and had well over 40 bags of milk in the freezer before I left. That's a lot of milk.
Step Seven: Find a private place with power. I hate to tell you this girls, but most of the time that's going to end up being your car. Lots of gun schools, if they have a bathroom will only have one. Sometimes it might only be a portable toilet with no power and no running water. Even if it has power and running water there's likely going to be a line of people waiting to use it during breaks.
Buy a power adapter for your pump that fits your car or a battery pack (beware that battery packs often don't provide adequate power for good suction), turn on the engine to get the air conditioner or heater working (whichever you need), hang some sweaters over the windows if you don't have good tinting and pump away. If you are particularly sensitive about looky-loos, make sure that you don't park in a place with lots of foot traffic (ask me how I know that one!).
Step Eight: Have your pump set up and ready for quick pumping sessions on short breaks. You may be squeezing in a quick pump with just enough time to take the nagging, painful edge off in five minutes before you have to run off to class. You don't want to be plugging in your hoses, getting your bags and shields and power hooked up. If you're going to pump in your car, have all of that set up so that all you have to do is jump in, flip the switch, pump and go. You may not even have time to store the milk you pump in an ultra short session or be able to clean yourself and your parts adequately and might have to dump what you pump (it's okay to cry over spilled breastmilk) but a five minute session can stave of engorgement, pain and mastitis. If you can sneak it in do it!
Step Nine: Know how much to pump. If you're lucky enough to pump as often as your child nurses then pump only what your child would eat. Depending on how much milk you produce your child may or may not empty your breast at each feeding. If you are struggling with your milk supply already and there may be delays in when you can pump again, empty both breasts and pump for an additional five minutes or so to make sure they are good and empty and stimulated to make more. If, however, you have a good supply and you pump too much your breasts will think you need more and will produce more. You could end up far more engorged and uncomfortable than if you just pumped enough for one feeding at a time.
If, however, you feel any hot or firm spots, empty that breast COMPLETELY while massaging the area to avoid plugged ducts and mastitis. Keep in mind that your breast tissue runs all the way up to your armpit so don't forget to massage there as well working towards your nipple.
Step Ten: Be prepared for engorgement, unexpected let-downs, leaking, plug ducts and the potential for mastitis. The best way you can avoid all of the above is to make smart decisions about the clothes you wear. Sports bras and tight shirts will compress your expanding breasts throughout the day and can cause plug ducts that, if not handled well and quickly can and will lead to mastitis (a breast infection). Wear a quality nursing bra and a looser fitting shirt that can stretch and expand with your breasts.
Invest in some leak-proof nursing pads that will catch any unexpected leaks or let-downs through the day and change them as often as needed for your comfort. Trust me, you do NOT want to be trying to stifle a let-down in the middle of a live-fire shoot house!
When you are able to rest for the evening, take a hot bath or shower and consciously check your breasts for hot spots, places that feel unusually firm or are particularly sore. If any are found massage the area rigorously, preferably while pumping (yes, it will hurt) and take an anti-inflammatory.
Step Eleven: Eat and drink well. Your body needs extra calories to produce milk. Yes, it needs water but it also needs protein and fat. Stay hydrated and eat enough protein and fat to keep your supply up. Breastfeeding can take up to an additional 500 calories a day to maintain. Don't skimp on the snacks.
Step Twelve: Speak up for yourself. If you're in a fast-paced class that wants to have a "working lunch" or doesn't take breaks, put your foot down. It won't do you any good to get mastitis on the second day and find yourself in bed with a fever and the most pain ripping through your body you've experienced since childbirth (I've had mastitis three times in total.. I know of what I speak).
For the rest? Roll with it. You'll figure it out. I promise!
And to instructors: Be aware of who you have in your class. Get to know your students before hand. If you find out that you have a young mother in your class consider having an hour long or at least half hour long lunch so if she needs to pump she can do it without rushing. If you have a freezer available to you let her know it and welcome her to use it. She may be uncomfortable asking. If she says, "Why would I need a freezer?" don't worry about it. You offered. If she needed it, she'd know why you were offering it.
I know instructors don't always have a choice of where they teach and don't have control over things like bathroom facilities, power, water and refrigeration. But you do have control over when to take breaks and making someone feel comfortable. If you suspect there's a nursing mother in class attempt to give her a little more time, especially for the lunch break. Not only will she need to pump in that time but she'll have to eat and probably go to the bathroom, too. I guarantee she won't want to be a burden to the class so help her by giving her time and space if available.