Your beautiful little baby emerges into the world, lungs forcing out the first wails of a new life while tiny red fists fly. He is cleaned up and handed back to you, and your heart is full. He latches onto your breast for the first time and there is an immediate moment of bonding.
This is how I thought things would go. This is the impression lots of moms have: breastfeeding is the easy and natural process of feeding your baby. The truth is that breastfeeding is anything but. I had heard stories about breastfeeding difficulties before birth, and was relieved that other moms-to-be had heard the same when one of them timidly raised her hand in birth prep class and said “I heard it really hurts.” My mind was assured when the nurse responded “It should not hurt if you are doing it right.” No problem then, I thought, I just had to make sure I was doing it right.
As it turns out breastfeeding has been one of the hardest parts of motherhood. So much so in fact that I have come so close to giving up so many times. I wish that I had known the realities of breastfeeding and not just what the class taught me (however the class was immensely educational, so take one of those too!). I want to provide you with my experience so that you, mom-to-be, aren’t in for such a shock, and may be able to put some of the advice to good use.
I was fortunate that part of my post-partum hospital care was a visit (or two, okay more like four) with a lactation consultant. Lactation consultants are usually nurses that have advanced certifications to provide counseling and education about breastfeeding. Since it takes several days for your milk to fully come in, you may only produce a small amount of colostrum—or nothing at all. That is normal and okay. But it is still important to try to breastfeeding right away, as it mutually benefits both parties. It helps bring the milk in for you, and trains your baby to properly latch on. And try I did, shocked each time at how painful it was for my baby to latch on to my breast. It may have been because he was early and smaller, or because it just was what it goddamn was, but it hurt. Tiny mouths trying to learn how to latch often pinch nipples in the process, leaving one sore mother behind. The lactation consultant simply said, “Got to have some pain, mama, for the baby.” I was also told to pump regularly after each feeding to help the milk supply come in.
So after the whirlwind of birth and the hospital stay, I went home, baby and rented hospital-grade pump in tow. I pumped faithfully after each feeding for days. One of the things I wasn’t told was when to stop pumping. Oh and by the way the more you demand (pump), the more you supply (milk). My body started overproducing milk and I got mastitis as soon as the milk came in because my baby wasn’t yet effectively eating—and he was so tiny that he couldn’t drain it all even if he wanted to. My doctor put me on anti-biotics. My left breast was swollen, red, and angry—as was I—and the right one not far behind. Why didn’t they tell me this?, I thought, as I was painfully trying to heat the tissue with rice pads so I could pump out the excess milk that had backed up.
I figured out on my own via Googling and trial and error how to reduce milk production. Mainly, don’t pump after each feeding or pump only enough to release the built up pressure if needed and cold pack breasts after feeding to help stop milk production. Other women have the opposite problem and cannot produce enough milk. As I haven’t experienced this, I cannot speak to it, but I can only imagine it would be equally frustrating and painful. Many women have one breast that produces a lot more milk than the other, which leaves a uniquely frustrating problem to solve. One more thing, for some women milk letdown hurts like an m-f. For me this is the case. It is like painful tingles every time. Others feel nothing. All individual.
I have just about found the right balance between breast feeding and pumping (to store some excess in the freezer), and Baby T and I are working each time together to get a better latch and better positioning so that it hurts less and less. So why didn’t I quit? Mainly because I am so stubborn, and also because I already have developed the revered mother’s guilt. I also like the bonding that this repetitive routine provides for me and my son. As you will be told a thousand times, breast is best, and that is probably true. Your body makes food specifically tailored to your baby’s needs, and also builds intestinal fortitude and immunity. I felt too guilty to quit, and so suffered silently (and not so silently) for about a month trying to get the hang of breastfeeding. I was fortunate enough to not have cracked nipples or other serious breastfeeding concerns—which by the way are not normal and should be consulted by a medical professional immediately.
Last words: you ultimately need to do what is right for you and the baby. Working through breastfeeding for a few more months is what is right for me right now, but it is also perfectly acceptable to choose to formula or to pump and bottle feed your baby. Formula is prepared to be a nutritional and healthy source of food for your baby, and there is no shame in choosing not to breastfeed. If you experience that much pain and stress from feeding, it isn’t worth the emotional damage to you and the conveyed anxiety to your baby. Lactation consultants are a wonderful resource and extremely helpful with latching and positioning, but they too come from a particular point of view and are just one voice in many of feeding options.
Breastfeeding is truly an experience like non-other. If that is what you choose to do, you can do it, I fully believe in you. The most important experience, though, is the one you have with your baby, regardless of how that looks.
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