The lactating belly dancer
In honor of mother’s day, let’s talk about your boobs. More specifically, how to deal with the changes that happen to them after having a baby and what it is like to gig while you are breastfeeding. You are going to go through what I consider the hardest learning curve I have ever been challenged with in my life: engorgement, sore cracked nipples, leaking, the works. It is all a part of the less than glamorous postpartum journey. But if you are like me, before long after your bub arrives, you are going to be itching to get back out on the dance floor. I was back to it about two months after my daughter was born and quickly found that I would have to make a bunch of adjustments to my usual gigging routine (no surprises there). Breastfeeding while gigging presents some unique challenges and a new mom can use all the support she can get. Here are my two cents about what it is like dealing with nursing a baby and getting back to performing.
First, costuming is obviously going to be a challenge. If you are feeling up to gigging in the earlier days you are really going to want to make sure you have a supportive bra. I tended to favor my Madame Noussa or Eshta Amar costumes at that time because the cups are very structured with wide straps and plenty of coverage on the sides. A soft, but supportive bra with generous cups will be your best friend. You will be dealing with engorgement while you are away from your kiddo and it is important that you have a bra that will accommodate the size change in your breasts. Think finding costuming on your period is hard? Try finding a bra that works when your boobs change sizes in a matter of hours! I cannot stress enough making sure you have a bra that is supportive for this reason.
I also found that using the headband trick was very helpful for altering pre-pregnancy bras for postpartum use. If you have a matching headband for your costume, it is great to just add a few more inches over the top of those milk machines! If you don’t feel like wearing a bedlah or built-in style bra, dresses and costumes that allow you to wear your own bra are also a great comfortable option. For example, L. Rose Designs has a variety of costuming styles that are great for the nursing mama. You also may not want to wear your nursing bras while you dance as they do not provide the level of support needed for the wiggles and jiggles that we do. A more supportive sports bra under a dress, or a more supportive street bra, may provide better control. Another note, while it is important to wear a supportive bra during your performance, try to minimize the time that you are actually wearing it while not performing. This way you are not compressing your breasts for long and inviting plugged ducts. Plugged ducts are no fun!
Next, I highly recommend investing in a good pump, or even just a hand pump if you do not need the full shebang. Being able to pump on the road is really important when you have to spend a few hours away from your kiddo. Check with your insurance company because many will cover a very good breast pump. I was able to get a Medela In Style pump and have really loved it. Some pumps have adapters for your car which is really great. If you do choose an electric pump with an adapter I can’t recommend a hands-free version enough. Those babies are lifesavers, you can touch up your makeup and pump away at the same time!
What I found was most helpful was to either nurse or pump just before getting into costume so that your breasts are not uncomfortably full while you dance. When those babies fill up they can really feel like rocks, so it helps to start out empty! Whether you use a hand pump or an electric one, both are great at home or on the road. Hand pumps can be really useful in a pinch as they are small, fit in a dance bag, and you can sneak off and quickly let down some milk and be back in business. If you are in a pinch you can also hand express. Some people I have talked to even prefer that to a pump. I was never very good at it but it can be handy when you need to alleviate some engorgement quickly. I would also recommend investing in a small travel cooler so that you can save your milk while on the road! Some companies make special coolers to fit pump bottles, but I found a lunch cooler with an icepack and milk storage bags also worked just fine.
Now, let’s talk leaking. You are going to leak milk, there is no way around it. Whether you hear a baby cry, get overly full, or sometimes for no reason at all. Those letdowns can have a mind of their own. If you are gigging it is important to plan for this in your costuming so that you don’t have any mishaps. One of the best ways to prevent leaking while wearing your costume is to express milk beforehand. However, you can also take protective measures in your bra itself. If you are wearing a nice costume bra you can line the cups with a thicker material like felt to provide some protection to the bra itself. Then you can use some breast pads within the bra once it is lined. There are many kinds of breast pads available. Some are reusable and can be washed, some are one time use disposables. It really depends on your preference. Personally, I really liked the Lansinoh brand pads. They have a sticky back to them so that you can secure them to the inside of your bra and they are amazingly absorbent. Everyone has their own preferences and I encourage you to try a few things to see what works for you!
Now that we have covered some of the basics, let’s talk about hormones and supply and how gigging can impact these. First, while you are gigging it is very important to maintain the schedule you have established with your little one whether it is nursing or pumping. Do not skip emptying your breasts at pumping/nursing times. If your breasts remain full it can cause a drop in milk production which isn’t good for anyone. It can be hard to find time when you are on the road and between shows, but try to make time to express milk. Next, realize that if you have jitters around your gig you may also experience difficulty in getting a letdown. The surge in norepinephrine that you experience with sympathetic nervous system excitement actually can inhibit release of oxytocin by the pituitary gland. Oxytocin is the hormone produced by the hypothalamus that is involved in the control of milk letdown. If you experience this phenomenon don’t fret, things will go back to normal once you are relaxed again. Finally, please do not forget to feed yourself when you are gigging. You are expending an incredible amount of energy to both dance and produce milk. Choose to eat high nutrient foods and do not cut carbs. I know this can be tempting if you are trying to lose the baby weight, but if you cut back on your calories you may see a drop in supply. Eat to fuel your shimmies and your baby! Also, keep the hydration up to maintain fluid balance. When you are gigging keep a water bottle with you at all times and keep drinking! It is so important to stay hydrated when dancing and lactating at the same time. Sometimes when I would see a drop in my supply it would simply be due to dehydration, and once I had chugged a few bottles of water I would be back to normal.
Lastly and most importantly, be kind to yourself. Your body has gone through some truly incredible changes and you are continuing to give life to your little one through the vital nutrients in the milk you are making. Take the time to pat yourself on the back every once in a while. So you may have a little extra jiggle here and there, so what? You have made a beautiful human being. And don’t feel guilty for taking the time away from your kiddo to dance. You might be a mother, but you haven’t lost your former identity. You need to feed your body and spirit to stay healthy, if you need to dance, do it!
I hope that these suggestions are helpful to those belly dancing mamas who are itching to get back to it after baby has arrived. Keep in mind the demands on your milk supply will change as baby gets older. You will have less engorgement and will have to express fewer times per day. You will get to the point where spontaneous letdowns are less of a problem and you can squeeze back into some those old costumes without overflow. Everyone’s body changes differently postpartum, especially during lactation. Have patience, be kind to yourself, and try a bunch of different things to find the right fit for you! Keep raq-ing belly dancing mamas!