The pearls of wisdom dispensed to expectant mothers include a string of statements about the importance of breastfeeding though it may be ‘slightly uncomfortable‘ at first. Perseverance, I was told, is your friend. Soon I would be snapping and unsnapping my contented baby from my boob with the kind of careless abandon generally reserved for summer holidays. It should not hurt. Soft pillows and feathers would surround me.
After Sprout’s very medically assisted entry into the world, I was determined to breastfeed exclusively for the recommended six months. I went to a class about it, I read books, I watched videos. The latch, well-meaning internet videos opined, is all-important. Just follow the easy steps and everything will be golden and glowing.
I hardly know where to begin. I am still exclusively breastfeeding, but if I had one iota less of bloody-minded resolve, I would have given up after six weeks. I knew the first two weeks would be difficult; the information I had overloaded assured me that I would be trapped in a chair with a baby clamped to my chest. If only that were all I had to contend with.
Those instructional videos might have been relevant for the 1% of mothers who have a perfectly calm hungry baby who obligingly gapes open its mouth while the rest of its body hangs relaxed. Me? I had to feed an angry octopus. Trying to carefully manhandle a flailing fragile red-faced bundle of desperation into the correct position was a game I was destined to lose.
Oh, I won in the sense that it worked: he got enough to eat. But the teeth-clenching toe-curling pain I endured for the first few minutes of every feed; the cracked and bleeding nipples which took days to heal; the number of times I almost sent K-man to buy an industrial quantity of formula. These things will stay with me forever. Sprout puked pink, and I worried about him bleeding internally. No, said the midwife, he’s swallowing your blood and he can’t digest it. For two weeks I used a combination of lanolin cream, nipple shields, and a breast pump: I stopped bleeding, and the pain lessened from severe to serious.
The assorted instructionals implied that this was happening to me because I was doing it wrong. Maybe I interpreted it this way because I was a hormonal emotional wreck, but one thing I’ve learned so far about motherhood is that there really is a shit-ton of Blame the Mother flying around. That’s a whole separate piece of writing I’ve got boiling away inside me. The three breastfeeding advisers I consulted all checked the latch and pronounced it to be perfect. One told me I have Reynaud’s disorder (I don’t). I expended far too much mental anguish worrying about the need for a ‘correct’ latch and trying to follow step by step instructions and ‘bring the baby to the boob, not the boob to the baby‘ while Sprout wailed and tried to turn himself inside out.
After eight weeks, it gradually stopped hurting. I believe several things happened concurrently to cause this. First, Sprout’s mouth had grown so he could feed more effectively and not abrade the surface of my skin with his tiny tongue. Second, my nipples had toughened like an old goat’s. Third, I jettisoned the well-meaning advice about how to achieve a latch and just jammed as much boob into his mouth as he could take. It worked.
I wholeheartedly appreciate, accept, and support breastfeeding and would never suggest formula is better for the baby, and would not have it any other way for Sprout. But I still find breastfeeding a pain in the tit both literally and metaphorically. But I don’t think it would hurt humanity if it were publicly acknowledged that not every woman finds it a blissful spiritual experience. I cannot think I am alone in finding it very difficult but continuing because it is better for the baby.
Even without the pain, there are still major drawbacks. Chief among these is that nobody can do it for me and sometimes I would like to spend more than two hours of my life without boomeranging back to my son to present my boob. Pumping milk enables this, but means I have to prevent my milk supply dropping by either feeding or pumping as close as possible to the time I would have been feeding anyway so it seems rather pointless.
Sprout has gastric reflux, which means that after most feeds I need to give him Gaviscon Infant. To do this, I have to dissolve lumpy powder in just-boiled sterile water in a sterile container immediately before feeding him, then find a way to get it into him at the end of a feed when he is full. At home, this is difficult. On the road it is virtually impossible. If I were formula feeding I could simply tip the sachet of powder into his bottle, shake, and have at it.
Yes, I know it is but a short section of my life. I also know that the benefits for him outweigh the inconvenience to me. But this inconvenience should be acknowledged as such: the fact that a benefit exists does not mean a corresponding disadvantage disappears. I don’t need or want a medal. I’m simply fed up of reading and hearing information given in a wrist-slapping chagrined tone, and which implies that women who do complain about breastfeeding or give up before too many weeks have passed are selfish delinquent mothers who are doing it wrong. Breastfeeding might be all marshmallows and halos for some, but the truth is that for others it is a painful, dismal, lonely experience which they go through because they know it is the best thing for their child.
I refuse to feel bad for finding breastfeeding difficult and looking forward to its end.
Edited to add: This morning, an envelope arrived from my mother containing a cut-out of an article by Eva Wiseman (my mother said it’s because she thought I’d enjoy receiving post, but I think she had no idea how to search for and email a copy of the article to me). In the article Wiseman says pretty much what I’ve said above, only she says it better and more succinctly. Find it here.