This post has been sitting around in my head for about a week, waiting till I felt more able to tackle the subject with a little less emotional energy. Coincidentally, a couple of days ago, Steve Dublanica of Waiter Rant wrote about his newborn daughter’s experience with the pro-breastfeeding lobby, and that was the nudge I needed to get around to completing this post.
(If you don’t have breasts and/or if breastfeeding isn’t a topic of relevance to you, you won’t enjoy this post much. Here, go look at some cute animal memes instead.)
Before Katy was born, James and I told each other that breastfeeding would absolutely NOT be the hill we’d pick to die upon. That our baby would be healthy and happy regardless of whether she was raised on the boob or on formula. That no potential employer ever asks job applicants whether they were breastfed as an infant.
Fast forward to the days immediately after giving birth, when I constantly felt like I wasn’t good for anything. I was woozy and exhausted, full of painkillers, clumsy as an ox. James changed his first diaper well before I did. And when I got home, the confinement nanny had a strange knack of making me feel like an interfering interloper.
Somewhere along the line, my hormonal, tired brain decided that the one area where I could be truly indispensable was to produce food for my baby. And then the fixation took hold. No matter how calmly and rationally James reminded me that there was absolutely nothing wrong with giving Katy formula, I would nod and agree, then cry some more over what a terrible job I was making of the whole breastfeeding business.
With the benefit of some weeks’ distance, I feel like I can finally start to look back and see where things went awry. I’m summing it up with the help of some common breastfeeding maxims from the pro-boob faction, which I followed to my eventual detriment.
1. “Breastfeed as soon as possible after birth”
I didn’t manage this in the delivery room because my body went into a kind of shock after giving birth. I was shaking violently, sweating and throwing up. (Not many people will tell you about the possibility of these things happening when you have a baby. They should.) When they brought Katy to me 2 hours afterwards for me to try to feed her, the nurse who was supposed to help wasn’t very good at it – she clearly just needed to get the job done and move on. And since I was on pretty strong painkillers, I didn’t realise that Katy’s latch was bruising my nipples until the damage was done. They brought her in again in the middle of the night too and the bad latch was repeated.
The hospital where I gave birth has lactation consultants who visit every new mother after giving birth. I felt that the one who came the next day was unnecessarily judgemental about how badly the breastfeeding had gone so far. She gave me a “what kind of idiot are you” expression when I told her I had cracked/ bleeding nipples despite having attended the prenatal classes beforehand. Because apparently watching a demo involving a plushie breast and a plastic doll is supposed to help you get it right the first time in real life?! The help she gave consisted of barking orders at me and forcibly latching Katy on correctly, without guidance on how to do it myself later. Net result: I blundered along quite badly in the week that followed, and had to go back for a paid outpatient appointment with another (much more compassionate and competent) lactation consultant to learn how to latch Katy properly on to the boob.
2. “Apply breastmilk on cracked/bleeding nipples to help them heal”
Maybe this is a good idea that works in temperate countries, but in our heat and humidity, the sugar in breastmilk + raw or bleeding skin = fungus waiting to happen. And happen it did. It took two weeks but I think I’ve finally managed to beat nipple thrush, but Katy still has stubborn thrush spots in the back of her mouth that are only just starting to fade.
Nipple thrush is horrible. It’s itchy and it’s painful. It feels like there are needles in your nipples and makes you wish you could rip them off. Even your softest bath towel feels like sandpaper against your skin. Seriously, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. And on the Katy end of things, let me tell you what an almighty bitch is it to get medicated gel deep into the roof of a newborn infant’s mouth without losing most of it on her lips and gums first.
3. “If you feel any pain, the baby’s latch is wrong”
I mentioned earlier on that I went back to the lactation consultant to get the latch right. Afterwards, I still kept feeling pain on one side, and I kept taking Katy off the boob to try to re-latch her. As it turned out there was nothing wrong with her latch. The pain was from the nipple thrush starting, but I kept focusing on the latch and didn’t even consider the possibility that it could be something else.
So yes, if you feel pain, something is wrong. That much is true. Just remember that it won’t always be the baby’s latch.
4. “Keep breastfeeding the baby no matter what. The breastmilk will help heal any sore spots.”
When I had one badly mangled nipple, I nursed Katy only on the other side and used the breast pump on the bleeding side. In the first place Katy refused to go anywhere near the bleeding side – and who’d blame her, the taste of blood must have been nasty. And the pump on its lowest setting was pretty effective at relieving engorgement and getting breastmilk out without further traumatising the broken skin.
Later on I threw this advice entirely out the window once thrush set in. Even though the paediatrician said to continue breastfeeding I thought it was the worst possible idea. If you have fungus infections on your finger and in your mouth, you wouldn’t put your finger in your mouth many times a day and keep it there for 15-20 mins! So for the past 2 weeks, Katy’s feeds have been arriving via breast pump. It’s no picnic having to express milk, then wash and sterilise things every 3 hours – a process that combines the hassle of bottle-feeding with most of the physical issues of breastfeeding. But it’s not worth taking the chance that Katy and I pass the infection back and forth.
It’s now a hair shy of four weeks since Katy was born, and I’m only just returning to the position I firmly held before giving birth: breastmilk is a bonus, not a prerequisite, when it comes to raising this beautiful baby. Obsessing and getting frustrated over breastfeeding will almost certainly make me a worse mother and not a better one, if only because sanity seems like a pretty critical quality in a major endeavour such as this. Right now, Katy’s diet is supplemented with formula feeds once or twice every day, and as far as I can see it’s not hurting her. She’s growing like a weed – she’s already more than a kilogram heavier than when she was born, and busted out of the newborn-sized onesies just two weeks in.
So I still don’t know if Katy’s going to be breast-fed past the first month or so. Part of me doesn’t want to give up simply because this battle – with breastfeeding AND with my state of mind towards the whole thing – feels like it’s been so very hard-won. This is the kind of stubbornness that’s served me well most of my life so far, but maybe it’s time for a new strategy. We’ll see.