What nobody tells you about breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is rewarding, but it is hard.

Breastfeeding is rewarding, but it is hard.

We are currently in the midst of World Breastfeeding Week (1st to the 7th August), and I am currently covered in breastmilk. As is most of my furniture.

I have quite a visceral understanding of the need to protect, promote and support breastfeeding.

My first baby did not latch to the breast until he was six weeks old. When my milk came in and for two weeks afterwards, I suffered engorgement to the point that not even a breast pump could latch to me and I had to be milked like a cow. My breasts were red, hot, tight and rock hard. You could’ve turned me upside down and shaken me and they wouldn’t’ve moved a millimetre. Jamming icepacks in my bra is something I now have an entire system worked out for.

And the milking hurt even more. I could not do it myself because it hurt so much that I had to get myself into a meditative state to withstand it.

After five days in the maternity ward, I got mastitis the day I got home. I remember my husband hand expressing for me while I shivered covered in blankets and sobbing. He just kept saying "I’m sorry" and I kept hissing back "Keep going".

Once the engorgement came down, I was on the pump, but I had so much milk, and such a risk of repeated mastitis, that I was pumping a litre a day more than my son was consuming. We bought a deep freezer.

I spent an hour out of every three round the clock “massaging” (euphemism for prodding, beating and squeezing) my boobs and pumping. I had alarms set for 11 am, 2 am and 5 am to remind me. I had a blocked milk duct at least once every day (more massaging!), needed an ultrasound to clear those blockages five times, and got it again before it was all over. The sound of a breast pump still makes me feel edgy.

The only reason I didn’t quit in those first six weeks is down to the support I was lucky enough to be able to afford from a private lactation consultant, who eventually got my son to latch. She was worth every cent. And still cheaper than the formula I would’ve had to buy had I decided not to continue breastfeeding.

But nursing at the breast brings its own challenges. The pain of initial latch you feel for the first thirty seconds or so every time your baby feeds for the first few weeks is agonising. It feels like someone is slowly scraping off your nipple with a razor blade.

And breastfeeding also means that it’s always your turn. Every time your baby is hungry, it’s your turn. Those middle of the night feeds? All yours. Every time the baby starts mouthing for a feed (even though you just fed them half an hour ago!), that’s you. It’s easy to feel like you’re drowning in a pool of breastmilk and tears (both yours and the baby’s).

Breastfeeding means that, even after your baby is born, you are still a life support system for another person. And everyone around you will always think the baby is hungry. Not so long ago I yelled at my sister in law "She is not hungry! She is f—ing tired!" Luckily, she has breastfed her own children and so knew exactly where I was coming from!

And even though exclusively pumping for those first weeks with my son was close to unbearable, there are some ways that it seems preferable to the experience I’ve had with my daughter who latched perfectly ten minutes after she was born.

I’ve now learned what cluster feeding is. It’s where your baby seems to believe they are a new appendage of yours that is permanently attached to your nipple for hours and hours. It had me wanting to rip the skin on my chest off because it got so itchy from the mixture of being permanently damp and exposed to her body heat.

Four months since she was born and I have still only been away from her three times for no more than an hour at a time. She is only just starting to drink from a bottle and not always reliably. So, again, it is always my turn.

But breastfeeding also gives me lovely little quiet moments of reflection. Where, just for a few minutes, I stop worrying about the piles of washing and dishes and toys everywhere, and get a glimpse into the world of those Huggies commercials. Sun streaming through the window, staring into my baby’s eyes and feeling that deep love. There’s a fair bit of “the real magic” there too.

Breastfeeding is rewarding, but it’s hard. That’s why women need support.

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