Before I even gave birth to my daughter, breastfeeding overwhelmed me. As soon as I found out I was pregnant I knew that nursing was without a doubt what I wanted for both her and I. And because I like to try and be as prepared as possible, I did my research on the subject. Had I not dug in and unravelled the many layers that pertain to breastfeeding I would have been in for the biggest surprise of my life. Upon researching and reading I learned that many new moms are dealt with a variety of different challenges when it comes to feeding their child. For many, this natural and organic process can feel so foreign. Once I discovered all the different issues that can effect establishing a healthy nursing relationship, I felt like I was bound to fail. Bad latches, improper positions, too fast or too slow let-downs, post-partum depression and lack of bonding, clogged ducts and mastitis, tongue ties, stress about milk supply and baby’s weight gain, and so on. I was 100% wanting to nurse and this information left me hesitant to even try. I mean something was bound to go wrong, right?
After reading into the different challenges and their potential solutions, I gave up on all the research. I was beginning to stress over hypothetical scenarios that I wasn’t even sure I would experience. I decided it was best to go with the flow and deal with the problems should they arise. I definitely do not regret gaining that information though. What I did learn was that breastfeeding did not always come naturally and that it could potentially be both very physically and mentally demanding. Going in knowing I had to maintain a certain amount of strength to master this womanly art, most certainly got me through the hardest of times.
I can remember the first time I held Eliana up to my bosom to try and nurse her. Although she was a bigger baby (9 pounds), she was still so delicate and small in my arms. And what I’m sure every mother dreams of when first attempting that latch-was so not my reality. I always hoped for a clear and magical moment where I look down at her and she naturally and effortlessly finds my nipple, latches on like a dream, and nourishes her sweet body with ease. Instead I felt drunk and high although I promise I was neither. After over 55 hours of labour and a whole day of trying to push out a stuck baby I was lucky enough to have been able to open my eyes. As I placed her to my chest, I felt unsure and awkward and like I was already “doing it wrong.” I honestly don’t even remember how the first attempt went. It is all a blur. I do remember that every nurse that came in fondled my breasts in a different manner and I was shown so many nursing positions that it made my head spin. In addition to the conflicting demonstrations, I was of course being pressured to feed her every 2 hours. I had just given birth and I was already being affected by the anxiety of breastfeeding. I could not wait to get home to try establishing a bond in a comfortable and familiar space.
Once we did get home, I definitely felt more at ease and things were moving along smoothly (or so I thought). Eliana was a slow eater and would often fall asleep at the breast which resulted in frequent feeds. I was fine with this since I knew it would encourage my milk supply to come in. I was totally chill about it all and figured she was just learning and building strength and stamina. Nursing is hard work for those little babes. I never worried that she was starving or being deprived. I trusted that my body was doing everything it should be for her. And then it happened. The same thing that happens to so many parents: the dreaded weight loss in their newborns. On day 3 we had a midwife come for a home visit and she disclosed that Elaina had lost 9% of her body weight (once it hits a 10% loss, supplementing is highly pushed). My milk had still not come in yet so my midwife gave me a few tips on how to help encourage it to come in. I was advised to strictly feed her every 2 hours which once we got home I had switched from that same guideline from the hospital to feeding on demand. I was shown a compression technique to perform while nursing to encourage milk flow. I was told to not let her fall asleep at the breast. I had to stimulate her even to the point of startling her with a cold cloth to ensure she stayed awake. I cringed hearing all of this information but for some reason still went against my gut instinct and more or less followed the advice for a day and a half (minus the cold cloth-I just couldn’t do it). By this time, it was evident that our latch was not ideal. My nipples were raw and sore, just in time to feed her every 2 hours (which was more like every hour by the time she finished). After a day of this I was absolutely miserable. I had deep cuts in my nipples, I had no patience left, and for the love of God-I didn’t have enough hands for this shit. How was I supposed to hold a delicate newborn in the correct position, perform a compression technique on my breast, and smash my boob into her mouth at the right opportunity all at the same time? I recruited my husband to be the boob smasher but I felt like I was not going to be able to pull this off. The moment he left for work I would be down a boob smasher and I would be drowning in failure. I will never forget the guilt of dreading to feed my child. I would tense up into a big ball knowing I had to hold her against me and endure all that pain that I did just a short hour ago. What kind of mother doesn’t want to feed her child? That guilt, by far, is the worst emotion I have ever felt.
Both my mother and husband were with me during Elaina’s newborn days. They were great and they were supportive and respectful of my decisions but I still felt so isolated. I felt as if I were in a deep dark closet all alone left to debate what my next move was. I didn’t read any of this in any book. I read about latches and positions and saw pictures but all of that became irrelevant and useless in real life. I remember remembering that the book said it would be hard and that challenges could arise. I remember making a mental note to stay strong if it ever came to this point. With everything in me I just wanted to scream “fuck you, book.” “Fuck this, I’m out. I just can’t do it.” But I am such a stubborn bitch so I couldn’t give up just yet.
And after the darkest time spent in that closet, I knew what I had to do. I took a deep breath and tuned into that mother’s intuition that I was ignoring. I sent my husband out to buy a nipple shield. I also bought a pump. My midwives advised against using these alternative methods. They were not rude or condescending and they had valid reasons as to why I should just stick to exclusively breastfeeding but I knew deep down that I needed this. I knew deep down that if I had any chance of salvaging any progress that Eliana and I had made, I needed to take a step back. So out the window went the strict feeding schedule. I went back to feeding on demand and let her take her breaks at my breast because shit, she deserves her rest, too. I used the shield and the pump sparsely only when I really needed to give my compromised nipples a break. I stopped trying to juggle everything at once in a nursing session. I quit the compressions since they were just contributing to our latch issues. I really tried to be present when feeding Eliana so that I could really pinpoint where our latch was going wrong. Once I figured it out (she never opened her mouth wide enough for a good latch), I YouTube’d solutions to our problem. Again, with research comes an overwhelmingly array of information but I decided to take in one morsel of advice at a time. We eventually mastered it with practice.
The second I decided to trust my intuition, I felt as if I could breathe again. This comforting feeling came over me and I knew that everything was going to be okay. I felt relieved that I was able to trust my body once again but ashamed that I doubted it for those long couple of days. My milk finally came in on day 6. With that regular flow, Eliana of course gained her weight back without any issues. My nipples did take a while to fully heal and I still had to learn what feeding positions worked best for us and my fast let-down. However at around week 3 I remember waking up, gently picking up my daughter and nursing her. After a few minutes I paused with excitement as I realized we had finally made it. She was latched on like a dream, I was experiencing no pain, and we were in complete sync. And just like I did after I had finally pushed her into this world, I tilted my head up to the sky with closed eyes and a face full of gratitude and pride and said “I did it.”
At her 4 month check-up, our paediatrician flagged her quick weight gain. He mentioned that if she gained that much weight and that quickly by the following appointment, he would be concerned. I had to hold back my smirk. How ironic. Just 4 short months ago, I was being advised to force feed my child and put my mind and body through hell doing so. And now, she is borderline too chubby. I personally took it as a compliment and gave myself another pat on the back for overcoming my challenges.
My wish for the breastfeeding (or attempting to breastfeed) mommas out there is to realize that although breastfeeding may be challenging, you aren’t doing anything wrong. You are learning to nurse just as your newborn is learning to eat. It takes time, patience, and practice. The language used when teaching women how to breastfeed rubs me the wrong way. There is so much negativity and so many things that we or the baby can be doing “wrong.” We forget that breastfeeding is an act that mom and baby need to learn together. All that Eliana and I needed was time. Time to learn and time to practice. From the first attempt to feed her in the hospital, I felt like I was doing it all “wrong” but I didn’t do a damn thing wrong. The words chosen can make us feel so inadequate and it’s such a shame because it’s supposed to be such an empowering experience.
We are not any less of a woman should we experience some learning curves in nursing. We are not any less of a woman should we decide that breastfeeding is not the answer for our family. We forget that a post-partum mother is extremely vulnerable. She is already physically and mentally exhausted despite having to stress over feeding methods. Having gone through the challenges I did, I will never question another mother’s decisions. Breastfeeding has a slew of health benefits but they serve no purpose if mom herself isn’t sane.
My nursing story leaves me more emotional than my birth story. Establishing our breastfeeding bond tested my strength and patience beyond anything else in my life. Looking back, I wish I had hired a professional Lactation Consultant that I was 110% comfortable with. Consistency would have been helpful as I was getting different opinions and suggestions from 3 different midwives and a public health nurse. I was always left more confused than ever after hearing their conflicting solutions. Aside from that, the only other thing I could have controlled was trusting my body and myself. I did not write this to encourage mothers to go against medical advice. I’m not trying to stir up the professional pot of recommendations but what I did learn was that I never should have doubted myself. A mother’s intuition is no joke, do not ignore it. I did write this blog post to let all of you new mothers know that you are not alone. I have been in that dark closet and I know how isolated you feel. The guilt, the helplessness, the pain of it all eats away at you. I know you feel alone and you are surrounded by the pressure to make nursing work. You are bombarded with perfect baby bonding pictures all over social media. You are reminded hourly that your child relies on you for nourishment whether or not you feel healthy enough to do so. I wish I could do more for you. I wish I could hold your hand and fast-forward to the part where you have all the answers. But I’m no magician and in the end, this will make you stronger, whatever the outcome. I share my story because it’s important to know the realities of breastfeeding. It’s important to know that some challenges can be overcome but most importantly, please know that you are never alone.