Breastfeeding Is Hard (At Least It Is For Me)


breastfeedingThere are a couple of myths about childbirth and child-rearing that I’ve found to be, well, myths. For example, I always thought my water was supposed to break in a torrent while dining at a restaurant and would facilitate the need for my husband to shove his way through bystanders and run hollering into the ER while I panted nearby. In fact, only about twenty percent of labors begin with water breaking and rarely escalate so quickly. With my first daughter, mine was broken for me by the midwife after about twenty-four hours of labor.

Another myth is that having big hips means more room for the baby to slide right out. I have what I like to call “sufficient” hips, and my oldest daughter was unable to drop during labor and had to join us via c-section.

But the biggest myth of all (for me anyway) is that breastfeeding is easy. After two times around, I’ve found that it is far from simple.

When I was a kid, everyone gave their babies formula. My mother was actually given a drug or hormone (she doesn’t know which) in the hospital to dry up her milk when I was born. Now, a lactation consultant is one of the first people a new mother meets after childbirth. Nursing is not only encouraged, it’s almost expected. Confessed formula-feeders are downright bullied in some circles. But no one tells you that nursing is hard. It is.

I thought that I had trouble nursing my firstborn because she was whisked away to the NICU immediately after her birth (meconium in the fluid), where her first meal was formula. Although my milk came in early (and what a surprise it was to disrobe in the hospital bathroom only to discover a set of inflated boobs attached to my chest!), she had trouble latching, and I was given a set of nipple shields to use when feeding her. They seem to be a great invention, but they are both tricky to keep in place beneath the wriggling mouth of a newborn and messy—said newborn falls asleep mid-meal. You wind up with a silicone nipple full of milk that spills down your belly as soon as you remove it (or, more often, when you forget it’s there and it falls off).

After her birth, my second daughter was brought to me in the recovery room and set to nurse right away. I felt like she latched without much trouble, but when the nurse pulled her away, we discovered my bloodied left nipple and a tiny piece of skin flapping away where nothing should ever be flapping. The nurse declared a previously unnoticed blister or other sore to be the culprit, but I’m not convinced. I mean, how the heck do you get a blister on your boob? It’s not like wearing shoes without socks at the start of summer.

And though I had successfully nursed my first daughter for about nine months, I found that with my second, breastfeeding was not like riding a bike.

I remembered what to do, but my baby was a total novice. If I tried to nurse her while she was asleep or not quite ready to eat I ended up jabbing her in the face with my breast for half an hour. Wait too long, and she’d panic—I’d find myself with a screaming newborn violently shaking her head back and forth, seemingly disgusted by the engorged breast I was thrusting her way. I rang for the night nurse more than once when she refused to latch onto my left side. (What do you mean she has a preference?). Since she did have a preference I tried to use the right side more (I mean, why fight it?) but because I was overusing the right side, each time I fed her on that side I got to experience a pain that can only be described as excruciating.

Those gel pads you put in the fridge brought some relief, but then I’d have to clean the goo off of my boob before the next feeding. But I’d had a c-section and getting out of bed quickly was nearly impossible, so I’d tried to use the left side because it didn’t hurt. But the left side didn’t hurt because baby wouldn’t use and when I tried to use it she’d scream at me. It was a vicious cycle.

Once I got baby into the swing of things, and she was really nursing away, I got those lovely uterine contractions. Those are good! The uterus is supposed to shrink back down to size, and nursing facilitates that, but I honestly thought that the surgeon left her twin in my womb when she took her out—the pain was equal to some of the late-stage labor pains I experienced. The nurse assured me that I was not in labor again, but that the contractions usually increase with subsequent births—awesome!

When we got home and there was no nurse to ring for, out came the dreaded nipple shields (they do work). I was no longer surprised by the nocturnal boob jobs but still not accustomed to the sensation of a let-down (it hurts) or to wake up to aching breasts that let you know they’re ready to nurse, even if the baby isn’t.

I’m also pretty modest. I once saw a woman breastfeeding while doing her shopping at Target, and while I wanted to high-five her for her feat of multitasking, I knew it was something I’d never be able to do. If the baby is hungry, I’ll feed her whenever and wherever, but I pack a bottle of pumped breastmilk or formula if I know I’ll have to feed her while out of the house (or when anyone other than close family is visiting).

The point of all this is not simply to kvetch about this most natural function of motherhood (although it’s kind of nice to get it off my chest, heh heh) but to say that breastfeeding is hard. Or, at least, it is for me. And it is for lots of women.

I know several people who were discouraged by a tongue-tied baby, or low-supply, a long NICU stay, or simply by the fact that when it didn’t happen as easily as they were told, it would, thought it was something wrong with them and gave up.

I knew I could do it with my second daughter because I had done it before, but for first-time moms, how disheartening must it be when they find that something they are told is so natural and so easy, maybe isn’t? We all know the benefits of breastfeeding, and I’m not here to advocate one way or the other.

Everyone should do what is best for them and their baby. But if encouraging women to nurse is the goal, perhaps we should be more honest about its trials and tribulations if we want to encourage success.