The post below shares some of my thoughts on the complex world of breastfeeding, so if you’re not interested in reading about boobs, and their maternal functions, then scroll on by, and quickly as this is likely to be long.
This is not a pro or anti breastfeeding rant. In my books, fed is best, however it needs to be done, so long as you’re not giving your kiddo coffee or beer, I think you’re good. The ramblings that follow are simply my experiences of feeding my first born vs feeding my second, and an overall message to not be put off if you have a bad experience with one child, as it could be completely different for another, as I found out.
I, like many other first time mums, thought that breastfeeding would be “the most natural thing in the world”. It’s what boobs are there for, right? To feed those babas (despite what our other halves may think). I knew it would hurt at first, someone had told me something about that, but you know, women have been doing this for thousands of years and all that mumbo jumbo, it couldn’t be that bad (much like my understanding of labour pains – until I caved and begged for the epidural. Turns out I ain’t no martyr).
Your daughter has a perfect latch I was told in the hospital by three different lactation nurses. Really? Are you sure? Because it hurts, A LOT. They checked, they taught me how to brush her nose with my nipple, how to tilt her head, the flipple technique. Yep, a perfect latch. Two more lactation consultants confirmed it. Then why did it feel like a vampire was attacking my boobs every time she latched on? I once fell asleep feeding and dreamt I’d been bitten by a dog, only to wake to find my daughter had just latched back on.
I’d ask other mums and they’d say, oh it hurts at the beginning but it gets better. I didn’t know if it would get better because my boobs would toughen up like the soles of the feet of a child who’s been running barefoot all summer, or if my daughter’s latch would miraculously improve as she got older – but she already had a perfect latch, right? Perfect latch, my ass!!!!!
Every time my daughter cried out to feed, I would have to mentally prepare myself. I would take three deep breaths, hold in the last one, clench my fists and curl my toes. Then I’d hook her up and let out that breath as a squeal through gritted teeth. She would clamp down her vise-like jaws and I’d quietly suffer my scheduled torture session. But why? Why go on if it hurt that much? Because I didn’t want to be a bad mom! No, that’s not it. I didn’t even want to be a good mom. I wanted to be an amazing mum. I wanted to be a natural mother (not a one with nature, a tree hugging, naked on the weekends kind of mum). I thought motherhood should come naturally to me. I’ve been babysitting since I was a 12, am an ex teacher and have a nursery nurse qualification, I should have this motherhood thing down pat already. In hindsight being “good” at breastfeeding has nothing to do with it. After all being a natural at anything suggests an ease for it, not sheer, nail biting agony. I was clearly not a natural. And at the time, I, like many others, felt irrationally that bad at breastfeeding equalled not so natural at motherhood equalled judgement from others that I must put myself first and my child second… err no!!! That was me judging myself because I was failing my own expectations. Hindsight (there’s that blessed thing again), tells me that the way you feed your child and the reason you choose that method has zero to do with whether you are a good mother. It’s not like I judged others before for how they fed their kid, I really didn’t think about it, but unexpectedly it was how I judged myself. And I realised in those early months as a mother, that there isn’t a bigger bitch to yourself than the little demon sitting inside your head, that gnaws at your self confidence and knocks you down when you hear someone else talk about their successes, their methods or strategies. It turns out we judge others a lot less than we judge ourselves, at least that’s what I found. I didn’t ever judge anyone else for bottle-feeding, that was their prerogative, but I somehow felt I had to breastfeed and using formula would mean failure. But as Forest said, stupid is as stupid does. So I persevered… through four bouts of mastitis, and holy cow did that knock me back a peg or two. Jeez Louise. I felt like I’d been hit by a freight train each time. I’d get the chills, shake uncontrollably, have a rampaging headache, and want to cry. My temperature would sore and I could barely muster the energy to pick my daughter up. It was like flu times a million. But I pushed on through with the help of antibiotics and my loving family.
That was until a trip back to England to visit family ended in a hospital admission. Those nasty little symptoms of mastitis began rearing their ugly head on a train ride home from London. I ignored them, I’d be fine, I’d push through. Or… my right boob would balloon to the size of a bowling ball and I’d end up in the ER with a raging temperature and would be admitted avec baby to the newborn ward with a suspected blocked duct. A blocked duct!!! That’s what they told me despite my boob being bigger than my head. I had previously been able to pump four ounces in next to no time but could barely fill the bottom of a bottle in an hour. I knew it was more than a blocked duct. My infection markers kept rising and IV antibiotics weren’t doing the trick. Finally on the third day I saw a different lactation consultant, the third I think I’d seen so far, and she took one look at me and said, “errr…. That’s not a blocked duct, you need a scan.” No shit, Shirley Locks!!!! And the scan revealed an abscess. They drained 250 ml of infected fluid from my right boob. I could literally see it deflate as they did it. But I could not breastfeed anymore. I had to take antibiotics that were too strong for my daughter and I had to let my breast heal in case the abscess came back. Thankfully it did not. And I finally had the doctor’s orders to stop breastfeeding. I could stop the self-torture, I could feel ok about bottle feeding, because it wasn’t my decision. I’d made it three months, and I would be ok with that. Or so I thought; I didn’t expect to feel a pang of jealousy and shame every time I saw someone nurse their baby, but I did.
Skip forward 16/17 months to a third trimester check up with my midwife. My husband had already been very insistent that the first hint of mastitis with our second baby, and that was it. Formula feeding all the way. Our daughter was thriving, she’d proven there was nothing wrong with formula, but I still wanted to succeed at breastfeeding (as though it were a badge earned on my Scout vest of motherhood). Anyway back to the midwife. She asked me if I planned to breastfeed again. When I said yes, she looked surprised. She then explained to the trainee that in all her years in the profession, I’d had the worst breastfeeding related health issues that she’d seen. She then told me that while she is normally a huge advocate for breastfeeding, if I had said I didn’t want to try, she would have supported me fully. She’d known how hard I’d tried before and how traumatic and painful it had been and she would have understood if I didn’t want to try again. I was so shocked, and somehow I felt proud of myself in a weird way. Of course my husband piped in at this point, he would support me to but the first hint of mastitis and he was closing the open milk bar for good. And my midwife actually agreed. She didn’t want me to risk an abscess again. She had done some research on overproduction, which she thought had contributed to my issues, and she advised me not to pump at all for the first month. Funny enough this was counter to what the lactation consultants told me at the hospital. They said that with my history I should pump, and even sent me home with a hospital grade machine. My midwife begged me not to use it. I trusted her and she was right.
When our little guy latched for the first time, I felt that familiar pain. It was like being prodded with a scorching iron. It hurt, not as bad as with our daughter, but surely it was only a matter of time. I told myself I had to make it to 3 months so they were equal (like they would ever care about how long they were breastfed for). Part of me didn’t believe I’d make it to 6 weeks, and the little demon on my shoulder told me to count myself lucky if we reached two weeks. I’d even gone out and bought new teats for the bottles because I expected to need them pretty quickly. I put them in the cupboard; ready to pull out the moment I needed them. Four months on and they are still there, sealed in their boxes, untouched and also unable to return because blasted Toys R Us has closed!! But that’s a happy fail. As it turns out what I had suspected two years ago, I know for certain now. My daughter did not have the perfect latch, in fact, she had a pretty shitty one. My son, however, now that kid knows how to eat. Yes there was pain in the first few weeks but not like with my daughter. When I’d had her, my nipples had cracked and I’d been advised to put APNO cream on them after each feed. My husband being a first time and slightly paranoid dad, had read the ingredients and despite being told that it was ok for our daughter to ingest, had decided that the ingredients were too dangerous and so I’d barely used it. This time when I sheepishly said “they’ve advised I use APNO cream again,” he said “hell yeah, get that stuff on”. I think he was willing to help me apply it with a shovel if I’d asked him. Turned out he was as traumatised by my first breastfeeding experience as I was. So I put on the apno cream, and when I got a blocked duct, twice, I just followed all the advice. Heat pads, massaging, and continuous feeding on the affected side. It worked.
Now don’t get me wrong, it was certainly no walk in the park. I still faced similar production issues as I did the first time; oversupply and a very fast let-down that would spray all over my son’s face like a fireman’s hose. Block feeding, under the guidance of some great lactation consultants, helped get this under control. But the initial latch pain subsided in just a few short weeks. We reached 6 weeks, I was in shock. Then 8, then 10, and then 12. I’d done it, I’d made it to the 3 month mark, I couldn’t believe it. But the biggest shock was that I could carry on. No pain, no major issues, I was a breastfeeding mum… and you know what…. I felt proud of my boobs for not being two little shits this time around, but I didn’t feel anymore natural a mother for breastfeeding my second than I did formula feeding my first. So I knew for sure that I had just been a little mental the first time around for feeling the shame.
Right now I’m reaching the stage where I don’t have to wear pads in my bras all the time to catch the leaks, a stage I thought I’d never reach. I’m still in shock that it’s been so problem free this time in comparison to last time. I have not had one bout of mastitis. It’s amazing. I don’t know if it’s just a difference in latch, the religious use of the apno cream when my nipples were cracked, or what, but something is working this time, that didn’t with my first. And my prize is that I don’t have to stay up late washing and sterilising bottles, and I don’t have to carry hot water and powder for formula during the day. Middle of the night feeds are easier and quicker, but he still feeds every two hours during the day and wakes once in the night, while my daughter who was on formula by this age, slept through the night and went longer between feedings. So there are cons to breastfeeding too. But this isn’t an argument about which is best.
No, this is simply a message to any mums who are struggling with breastfeeding or have struggled in the past, it could be a totally different experience next time. Don’t think of yourself as a failure, and don’t assume it will be the same again, it might be, but as I have learnt it might not be. Give it a go, you may be pleasantly surprised. I know I was.