Breastfeeding is something I always assumed I would do. I was breastfed as a baby, and it just made sense. What everyone failed to inform me, however, was how difficult it could be.
My daughter was born after a 43.5 hour labour. I was completely exhausted and suffering from a second degree tear, but that did not seem to interfere with the intense feeling of euphoria that flooded my body. I wanted to start breastfeeding right away. There was a shift change in the hospital right after the birth, and my wonderful midwife was replaced with one that was not so gracious. The baby's head was shoved on to my breast, and I was left to basically figure it out on my own.
I had no idea how much it was going to hurt. After a few hours the euphoria was gone and the exhaustion and pain I was experiencing was overwhelming. I couldn't sleep. I was overflowing with hormones and emotions that I was not prepared to deal with. The baby kept crying, but I couldn't figure out how to feed her, and was too weak to pick her up or hold her very long. In the morning a new midwife came and showed me some compassion, but didn't have time to stay with me and help. She told me that breastfeeding was going to hurt me more than most women because I was so fair and had flat nipples. But that I could do it just as well as anyone else. I was frustrated and by then my nipples were completely destroyed. I had no help, and was getting no rest. Every time the baby cried my heart sank through the floor at the thought of having to endure a feeding. I wasn't sure if I could keep doing it. The thought of nursing for a whole year, 6 months, or even 3 months was too overwhelming to think about. I couldn't believe other women could actually do this, it was so hard.
We ended up leaving the hospital early and then spent a day or so in a birthing centre where there were no other patients and the midwives were able to give me their full attention. Finally, after many tears and having two midwives constantly at my side for what seemed like an eternity trying and trying and trying to get the baby to cooperate, she finally figured out how to latch properly. She had become a very fussy baby, undoubtedly just as frustrated as me with the whole breastfeeding thing.
I was relieved to be able to go home, although things remained extremely difficult. My nipples had been torn up and bleeding for three days, and even though my daughter finally figured out how to latch properly and was not causing any more damage, the healing process was long and painful. A midwife came to my home every day for a week to check on the baby and I and help with breastfeeding. My daughter lost a lot of weight in the first three days, was running a fever, and was still not feeding well, so I ended up having to go visit my doctor. Fortunately, my doctor, midwives and everyone around me was very supportive of breastfeeding and switching to formula was never suggested, even though I secretly wished I could just give up and be done with it. After about 10 days she finally gained a llittle bit of weight. She wasn't back up to her birth weight, but she had at least gained some, so my doctor was satisfied with that and just urged me to continue on. I was also surrounded by a wonderful community that believed in me and encouraged me to persevere. My husband and I were living in Australia at the time, and our families were back in Canada, so I don't know what we would have done without our amazing friends. I learned to take it one feeding at a time, and not worry about anything else. Breastfeeding was now my more-than-full-time job.
It took 3 weeks for my nipples to finally heal, and considering that I had to feed 8-10 times a day, around the clock, it was the longest 3 weeks of my life. My nipples were still quite sensitive, even though the wounds were gone. I dreaded every feed. Every time she latched on I would scream and curl my toes. Shortly after the sores and scabs had disappeared, I suffered a short bout of mastitis. I thought I was going to die. But I continued to nurse through it, and after about 24 hours, I started to feel better. My breasts still hurt for several days though. Then just to ensure I had the full spectrum of the painful nursing experience, I got thrush when my daughter was about a month old. It came in association with the constant yeast infections I had which hindered my postpartum healing and made sitting extremely painful, and also horrible fungal infections in my finger and toe nails, which made holding anything and walking painful as well. I was in an extremely rough shape. Not to mention the overwhelming feelings of rejection by my daughter and failure as a mother. I was a physical and an emotional wreck.
My daughter was experiencing her own pain as well, it turns out. She was always fussy at the breast. She would eagerly latch on at first, but shortly after the letdown she would arch her back, pull off and scream. The rest of the feeding would consist of me trying to squirt milk down her throat as she screamed. It was so frustrating for both of us. I was devastated that breastfeeding was a battle rather than a bonding experience. I can recall a few nights in the first couple of weeks where neither of us slept, and we both just cried and cried. She wouldn't sleep all day either. It was very hot. We were both exhausted. She was constantly hungry. She was not a happy baby whatsoever, and never smiled. During the day I would try to feed her for an hour, and then give myself a break for an hour, just holding her while she screamed. Once the sun went down she would normally sleep for a few hours at a time, and accept the breast a little more willingly since we weren't sweating on each other as much.
Three weeks after the birth a mama in our church heard my daughter cry and informed me that she had 'the reflux cry'. Her own two daughters had reflux as babies, and she knew the sound of the distinct cry. She showed us how to hold her upright with a hand firmly on her tummy to ease the pain, and even came to our house and helped us prop up the bassinet so our daughter could sleep as vertical as possible. This helped immensely. We finally got more sleep at night, and were able to help her cope during the day. Nursing was still quite the ordeal, but we were getting used to it. Knowing that my daughter was also in pain helped me to be more compassionate. We were in this together.
Breastfeeding hurt me for the first 4 months of my daughter's life. The reflux affected her ability to nurse and keep food down for 6 or 7 months. But eventually we found our groove. I finally felt like I could breathe again. I had an excellent milk supply thanks to my hour-on-hour-off feeding schedule in the early days. My daughter gained weight, slowly but surely. She was always skinny, but healthy. Eventually she began to smile, and around 6 months after she was born I was rewarded with her first giggle. When we moved back to Canada we were occasionally urged to give her formula, but by then there was no way. We had worked too hard. I was extremely confident in my decision to breastfeed. I realized that this whole experience was indeed a bonding one. We had persevered together despite everything, and in doing so we were bonded together much more solidly than we would have been if breastfeeding had gone smoothly.
Breastfeeding became a big part of who I was, I did a lot of research on it, and decided that I would nurse as long as I could. I discovered attachment parenting, and found a community that supported me. At one point I even considered becoming a lactation consultant.
My daughter ended up nursing for 19 months. Around 18 months of age, she started becoming less interested in the breast and not asking for it much. When I would offer her the breast and she wasn't interested she would bite me, so I quickly stopped trying. Eventually she stopped asking completely. It was totally natural and I didn't experience any pain as a result of weaning. My breastfeeding experience was in like a lion, out like a lamb. I was kind of sad in a way that she weaned so early, I wanted to nurse her until she was at least 2, and had dreams of tandem nursing her and her sibling that we were trying to conceive. But I was completely satisfied. I know I did the right thing, and my daughter and I had a wonderful relationship. I proved to her that I would never give up on her no matter what. I felt like a champion. I was so proud of myself. I can totally understand why many moms choose not to breastfeed or stop breastfeeding, it is definitely not easy. But for us it was worth it. My sense of failure at first had now become a very satisfying sense of accomplishment.
At first breastfeeding was awful, but my daughter and I persevered together, and honestly it taught me so much. I learned to be patient and selfless, and discovered that motherhood was HARD and often painful, but so worth it. Breastfeeding broke me as a person more than anything in my entire life, but like a seed, in doing so made room for much personal growth. It eventually built me up, stronger, wiser, and more determined than ever. It taught me what I needed to know deep in my heart, lessons that cannot be explained in words, and made me into the mother I would need to be for my children. It humbled me, and also empowered me. I think all mothers probably experience this no matter how they feed their babies, but for me the trials (and eventually triumphs) of breastfeeding was my 'make AND break' experience of motherhood. Breastfeeding was so much more than just nourishing my baby, even more than bonding as well. Breastfeeding laid the foundation of motherhood for me.
I am currently breastfeeding my son, who is 6 months old. My experience with him has been completely different. It was hard at first, again, as it took him 2 weeks to figure out how to latch properly, and to be able to handle my powerful letdowns. I would pump a little at first until the flow wasn't as forceful, attempt to nurse him, and then I would pump more and feed him my breastmilk with a small cup. But it didn't hurt at all, thank God. The worst part was having to wash the pump in the middle of the night. After a couple of weeks he figured it out, and we have been going strong ever since. He is such a wonderful baby! He seriously brings so much joy to my life. He has been smiling and giggling from day one, and loves to cuddle. He nurses like a champ, even in public, which has made my life pretty easy. He nurses every 3-4 hours during the day, and every 2-3 hours at night. But he sleeps and naps well, and is just so darn cute and happy, so I don't mind his frequent feeds. At 6 months he is 23 pounds, and no one has suggested giving him formula, haha.
My two breastfeeding experiences were vastly different, but both equally as rewarding. I would encourage any new or expecting mama to stick it out, no matter how hard it is at first. Surround yourself with people that love you and support exclusive breastfeeding. Don't allow yourself the option of giving up (unless absolutely medically necessary, of course). Accept it as a new essential part of life, like breathing, eating, and going to the bathroom, and it won't seem like such a burden. Don't treat it like a chore, or it will become one. It is not easy, but it is worth it. If you can make it through the first few weeks, it gets much better. Persevere, and you will be rewarded in the end. Most of all, cherish the nursing experience with your baby, no matter how much it hurts or frustrates you, because some day you will miss those intimate times.