Shawn Johnson East on nursing for the first time after her older daughter refused: 'I didn't know how to breastfeed'

Shawn Johnson East talks having two kids under 2, breastfeeding for the first time and the important reason she's taught her daughter to swim. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Shawn Johnson East talks having two kids under 2, breastfeeding for the first time and the important reason she's taught her daughter to swim. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

Welcome to So Mini Ways, Yahoo Life's parenting series on the joys and challenges of child rearing.

How is the queen of the balance beam balancing two kids under 2? So far so good, says Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson East. Already parents to daughter Drew, who turns 2 next month, she and husband Andrew East welcomed son Jett in July. In the nine weeks since giving birth, the retired gymnast has been throwing herself into breastfeeding — an experience she didn't have with her daughter, who resisted nursing — and slowly trying to carve out some moments for herself.

Here, the former Dancing With the Stars champ and Philips Avent ambassador opens up about the baby buys that have been a "lifeline" for her, having a pandemic pregnancy and experiencing nursing for the first time.

I'm always curious about celebrities and maternity leave because obviously your job isn't a typical one. Did you take any dedicated time off to be with the baby?

With my daughter, I think I took three days off. It was harsh. It was very hard. And I had so many meltdowns and I got so overwhelmed. With my son, I started planning from the day we got pregnant. I said, "OK, I want a minimum of six weeks where we don't talk work, I don't do work, nothing." And we were able to kind of clear our schedule enough to where I did get a solid six weeks. I think I actually got eight weeks, which is awesome. This is technically my first week back.

You're working with baby product brand Philips Avent. How did that come about?

I partnered with them back when I was pregnant with my daughter. I had no idea what I was doing as a mom, and didn't even know at the time that Avent was the boss that they are. I learned that firsthand. I went into the whole mom process with my daughter planning to breastfeed and do things a certain way. I very quickly learned that every baby has a mind of their own. My daughter refused to breastfeed, so I exclusively pumped and had no idea what to do with any of that. And Avent came in like a superhero and was like, here's your product. Just do this. And it worked beautifully. And she was the happiest bottle-fed baby for over a year.

And going into my son, I had just tried so many products and kept coming back to Avent... they have truly just been like a lifeline for me. So this was an easy, easy partnership for me because we use it so much.

Did that experience with Drew get into your head at all ahead of your son's birth? Were you worried that he'd also resist nursing?

Yes. I was terrified because exclusively pumping is so hard and it's so time-consuming and it's just a commitment. It was something I was really passionate about: Because my body was making milk, I felt like I should give it to my daughter if there was a way I could. So I spent a lot of my time traveling around the world, pumping on planes and in between media days and sessions and all those things. And that was a lot for me. And I would do it again for my son, but I hoped I didn't have to.

But I was also scared because I didn't know how to breastfeed. So if he was a breastfed baby, that was a whole new journey for me to learn. It's just been a learning experience — momhood is — but he has made it easy. He's an easy baby and I think it's been as smooth as it could be.

Parents would typically get these sorts of products at a baby shower or sprinkle. Having had Drew pre-pandemic, and then Jett during the pandemic, was your experience with those milestone moments vastly different?

I feel like it was completely different. With my first, I was so oblivious to everything. Because of my career as a gymnast and because I started so young, I had never even babysat before. I had never changed a diaper. Like, babies were a whole foreign thing. So I was so new going into all of it, that I did everything so big. We had the huge baby shower and we had multiple [showers]. We had one in Indianapolis where my husband is from, and one in Iowa and one back here...

And then getting pregnant [with Jett] and going through all that during the pandemic and having to isolate and be very cautious, we wanted to do things very smartly. It was a good time when restrictions were lifting so we actually got to do a little combined gender reveal/sprinkle with some of our closest friends that we trust more than anything in the world, who had pretty much quarantined to be able to come to the sprinkle. We got to do one of those, which was awesome. We didn't ask for any baby products because going into it a second time, I was very picky. I knew exactly what worked. I knew exactly what I wanted. I didn't need the trendy stuff; I wanted what worked and what was a staple. So I was like, "just come celebrate and come eat blue cake" [laughs].

What were some of the things that you realized you didn't actually need or wind up using?

All of it [laughs]. I feel like with my daughter, I bought everything wrong and then finally used everything right. And with my son, I was just lucky. I feel like it's just kind of the world we live in, everybody's into the trendy, new, modern, kind of fancy stuff, and nobody wants to trust the old, tried-and-true trusted brands. That sounds weird to say, but I remember I tried everything that was neutral-colored and modern and super-abstract and all these super-expensive toys. I just went with everything as high-end and dumb as I could with my daughter, and she hated all of it and she didn't use any of it. And I bought the most expensive little [baby swing] and she hated it and screamed bloody murder... [But] you find stuff that works... If a rainbow threw up on it and it's 10 bucks, a baby's going to like it.

You recently posted a video of Drew jumping into the pool. When did she start swimming?

A good friend of ours is Bodie Miller and his wife. They actually lost one of their baby girls [from] drowning in their pool, so they're huge ambassadors and advocates for ISR [Infant Swimming Resource]. We actually started my daughter in ISR when she was, like, 6 months old, so really young. And it's kind of a rough process at first, introducing an infant to the discomforts of being face-down in the water and then learning to hold their breath. But for us, we are around lakes a lot, we're around a lot of pools or around the ocean when we used to live in L.A., so it was a really, really important thing for us to get her in that as soon as possible. She's actually been doing it for almost a year and a half, which has been huge for her. It looks impressive, but there's been so much time spent behind it and that's why she is so comfortable in the water. But we really wanted that because such close family friends have been impacted by it.

You've now got two kids under 2, which seems very hard-core. Are you finding ways to carve out some time for yourself amid all this?

The goal for the first six weeks was to find enough time to take a shower a day. A shower just felt like I was in a luxury spa. Now that we're kind of past that hump, I'm starting slowly to be able to have like an hour or two to go work out or go get my nails done. So yes, I'm slowly finding that time and feeling like a human being again. But it does take a little bit.

Having your first child can feel like a bomb dropped on your lap. Does going from one to two have that same impact, or does it get easier?

One is a bomb. One turned our life upside down in the best way possible, but like, [I had] mental breakdowns every other day, had no idea what I was doing... I felt like it was a massive identity crisis, which nobody talks about. You're changing who you are [when] you have a kid. And I remember feeling isolated, and there were just so many new transitions that I was going through.

With a second, I knew to expect all of that. So I went in expecting a bomb, which made it easier because it really wasn't. I think the only thing that has been difficult within the transition is finding time for my husband, time for myself. We're still trying to find the balance of kids in life, but I think it's easier than the first.

How would you describe your parenting style? Do you and Andrew have a good cop, bad cop thing going on?

I think I'm probably bad cop. I think I'm stricter than Andrew is. Andrew's more free-spirited with our kids, which is a beautiful thing. I think having that balance is great, but I truly think it depends on the topic or the issue. There are some things that I'm very lenient with that he's very strict with and vice versa. I don't think there's one thing that we're truly exactly the same on, which is probably a good thing, because there's always kind of a good cop, bad cop play back and forth.

Do you have a hard-and-fast rule that Drew knows not to cross?

Because of her age, we really haven't had that yet. Everything is progress and we're just learning the communication styles, but the one thing, or maybe two things, that have presented themselves once or twice is biting and hitting, and that's a no. We don't do that here. We've made that clear.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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