Even before I got pregnant, friends and family began breathing down my neck about the absolute importance of breastfeeding.
Most of this was in the form of welcome, solicited advice. They shared horror stories of cracked nipples, sleepless nights, fussy babies, self-doubt and more. I steeled myself for all of this and looked up ways to prevent the worst case scenarios.
Both my mother and mother-in-law had breastfed four children apiece. At first they tiptoed around the issue, describing it as a joyful, rewarding experience and showed no regret. As soon as I expressed the desire to follow suit, the (well-intentioned) advice and graphic details poured in.
One friend admitted that her milk took almost two weeks to come in, and even then, it didn’t make the ordeal much smoother. By the time she truly felt like she’d gotten the hang of it, five months had passed. Five months of feeding every couple hours. Of sore arms and bleeding nipples. Of feeling dejected and inadequate when she had to supplement his diet with formula milk. Her child is thriving, but so is the child of another friend who never breastfed for a day.
One friend insisted that I had to solicit the help and advice of friends who had breastfed their children “for at least 3 years, or it doesn’t count”. She also endorsed a book about breastfeeding that she claims had helped her immensely through the process. Photos of her infant daughter on social media bore the hashtag #breastfedbaby. I later found out that she had not been able to breastfeed her child at all, and had instead resorted to purchasing breastmilk from a milk bank. When her child stopped receiving breastmilk –in 9 months — a new hashtag, #whydidIgiveupbreastfeeding, appeared.
A relative with two children of her own would steamroll through every conversation we had by loudly and enthusiastically urging me to breastfeed. The entire conversation started before I even got married, with her asking if I’d had a boob job. I hadn’t, and she quickly covered up with “oh because I know you want to have kids, and if you’ve had a boob job you can’t breastfeed.” Ever since, she has been a flood of “DON’T GIVE UP” exclamations, both spoken and in written texts. At first I figured this was all with good intentions, until she made snide remarks about someone else’s boobs and I recognised a pattern. As soon as she heard the news that I had literally just pushed my child out of my body, I received this text from her: “How is the breastfeeding?” I told my husband that if she ever so much as breathes the word “breast” in my direction from that point on, she would be banned from our home.
Male friends would say “but it’s got to be worth it, right? That’s why everyone recommends it. Women have breastfed their babies since the dawn of time — it can’t be that bad.” It was the same logic I followed, up until the day I started trying it myself.
My breastfeeding experience was described by every midwife, nurse and doctor as “impossibly smooth” — and it was horrific.
After the first suckle, my nipples immediately started burning with pain. It hurt to wear bras, and hurt not to. Warm water felt good on them when I showered, but I had to bite my lip to keep from screaming when toweling them dry — even with the gentlest dabbing — afterwards. They felt like they’d been slashed with a knife when I had to make the baby suckle them again. And again. And again. Pretty much on the hour. Ointments and lotions provided very brief relief. Everyone told me “it would get better” and tried to be encouraging.
To help the baby get used to latching on, all “fake nipples” were forbidden. Before my milk came in, we had to feed the baby formula milk — poured into his mouth from a cup — but first, we had to make the baby suckle for as long as he wished. Pacifiers — which were so effective in keeping him calm — were declared contraband because they caused “nipple confusion”.
Day 2, they checked my posture and declared I was doing everything “completely wrong” and that my breasts were producing “absolutely nothing”. I bit back tears as the baby sucked on my sore nipples and a doctor pushed, pressed and squeezed my arms, shoulders, breasts and the baby until she was satisfied. I would feed while the baby suckled what we knew was nothing, silently wishing my milk would come in, biting my lip to keep from screaming every time he latched on, my toes curling from the pain that persisted as he continued to feed.
My husband and mother in law, both of whom I adore under normal circumstances, made me contemplate murder when they “helpfully” “re-positioned” my body while I breastfed. Just as the baby latched on, sending pain shooting through my entire body, they would push my shoulders back. They were every bit as eager as I was for this to work, and overly critical of my wincing expression and tightly-coiled posture, practically shrill with cries of “relax! Just relax! Push your shoulders back! YOU NEED TO RELAX!” Or so it seemed in my head as their shoving and prodding made the baby lose my nipple and panic wildly so that I had to calm him down again and deal with more pain as he re-latched. Sometimes this process made the baby tug desperately on my nipples so he wouldn’t lose it — it was painful enough that I worried my nipple had come clean off.
I told my husband, as calmly as I could through a flood of tears, that I didn’t want anyone touching me while I fed the baby. Anxious to provide some form of support, he tried rubbing my legs instead while I fed, which made me feel terribly ticklish while I was coiled up with pain — so even this gentle gesture had to be banned.
Day 3, the doctors gave us a plastic syringe and told us to drip formula milk onto my nipple to hold the baby’s interest. Breastfeeding became a two-man job — I would hold the baby in the precarious, fully-horizontal, doctor-prescribed position with one hand and squeeze my breast with the other hand to fit his tiny mouth, while my husband dripped milk every now and then with the syringe.
Day 4, the doctor suspected my milk had finally come in, and showed me how to squeeze my breasts to express it. When we saw those first drops of milk my husband and I were jubilant. It was no longer pointless! The baby could have my milk at long last.
The pain persisted, and new pains presented themselves. Burning and swelling when they were full, bruised and chilly when they were empty. I had to cover up with blankets after every feeding. My nipples chafed and peeled, as did the area around them. Through the second week, every time the baby fed the area around my nipples would flare up with a burning pain — the baby’s gums rubbing against it repeatedly was causing the skin to come off. Everything my nipples touched immediately soaked up with milk — my bras, clothes, the baby’s clothes. Milk dripped onto my lap when I peeled back my nursing bra to feed him. I had to pad my breasts with countless pads, towels and drop cloths — often while wrestling a desperate, panicky baby.
Nothing made him cry harder than hunger, and I soon discovered why other mothers would drop everything, wherever they were or whatever they were doing, to feed their newborns. Breastfeeding seemed to comfort him through everything. Before the baby I would have been mortified about showing too much cleavage. Now, whipping my breasts out in front of friends and family or in public was No Big Deal if it eased his suffering.
Sometimes my milk ducts would become clogged, and I would practically beg the baby to feed in order to ease the terribly bruised sensation. Sometimes my husband would sleep topless without blankets and still be sweating, while I huddled freezing under the duvet, wrapping it tightly around my breasts while trying to stay still so I won’t wake my newborn child, who can’t sleep unless he’s cuddling me.
Every time the baby finished feeding, he would perform a little dance of sleepy, expressive contentment. His eyes would close, his body would relax and grow heavy, his legs would fold up, his face would break into a radiant, self-satisfied smile. I would smile back, stroking him gently, and in two minutes I would reluctantly sit him up or hold him over my shoulder for a little burping, or risk his projectile breast milk vomit. This was our special, private dance every one to three hours.
He steadily gained weight. His body filled out with healthy fat and grew longer and stronger. He grew smarter too, and began to smile and gurgle excitedly when he knew he was about to be fed.
In those moments when I am feeding him, and his tiny body is in my lap, his big bright eyes are concentrating hard, his little fingers are curled up around mine and I’m stroking his soft hair, there is nothing more important to me in the whole world.
The pain persists.