The SRE Guide to New Parenthood: The Feeding Feedback Loop
Updated: Jul 8, 2021
This is Part 2 of the "SRE Guide to New Parenthood" series, where I apply principles from the field of Site Reliability Engineering to raising an infant.
It is a well-hidden societal secret that learning to feed a new baby in a way that is efficient, minimizes pain and frustration, and results in net positive emotions for the new parents is a challenging, non-trivial journey.
NB: There are many valid ways to feed a baby, Fed is always Best, but if feeding the baby breastmilk is a goal, new parents must understand that learning to nurse is not necessarily easy, and should be supported accordingly.
I liken learning to breastfeed to learning to ski as an adult. They are both activities that require a lot of patience and extensive paraphernalia. The first few times you try a downhill snow sport, you probably hurt yourself, get frustrated, and want to give up more than once. With enough practice, a bit of coaching and instruction, and a fair amount of grit, it likely starts to hurt less and make more sense. Some people decide they were never meant to be a skier, and that's also perfectly fine. The beach is fun too.
Learning to nurse is like learning to play a new sport in a number of ways. There is a lot of nuance to the technique, and it's a team effort. Not only do the birthing parent and newborn need to learn how to respond to each other's needs and return each other's volleys, but partners, lactation consultants, and other support may be required as well, especially for physically positioning the nursing parent and baby. Especially at the beginning, during the floppy newborn phase, feeding may require contorting one's body into uncomfortable and challenging positions, which is physically demanding. To stabilize the baby while nursing, the baby should be supported by pillows rather than held up in the arms for long periods of time to avoid repetitive strain injuries, such as with a My Brest Friend pillow.
A common refrain about breastfeeding is that it's all about "supply and demand", essentially a form of positive feedback loop. As I learned from my differential equations class, it turns out that figuring out a stable place within a feedback loop system is not easy. Like once when I noticed my supply dipping, I started pumping more to increase it, and accidentally ended up needing to deal with oversupply. While that may sound like a good problem to have, there are unintended pitfalls with that. For example, I needed to pump overtime to avoid engorgement, an uncomfortable and painful prospect, which is an additional burden if you are already pumping every 3 hours around the clock and running on little sleep. Reducing supply is not trivial either, as it requires accepting the discomfort in the short term towards the goal of moderating production over time. Achieving the sweet spot requires a lot of trial and error, experimenting with variables like feed frequency (# feeds per day), feed length (duration), and many other inputs. I used my engineering degrees and a lot of creative problem solving to figure out what worked and adjust over the first few months (more details to be shared in a future post). I eventually was able to decrease the pump sessions to only need 3 pumping sessions within 24 hours, yielding a much more tenable schedule as I returned to work.
As I started back at work, and my baby started at daycare, I kanban'd the heck out of my milk production. Balancing between the bottles for today and the next day, and ensuring enough milk was defrosted and ready while avoiding spoilage, requires an ongoing mathematical model constantly running in the back of one's mind. It's almost a second full-time job.
Many new parents expect breastfeeding to be a straightforward process, since it's "natural", and are unpleasantly surprised when they run into trouble. As a society, we don't ask people on the street to solve differential equations in their heads, so new parents should cut themselves some slack. It's ok for it to be hard, and for it to take time to get into a rhythm.
The kanban'ed milk production system in various phases of bottling and defrosting.