With my first baby, breastfeeding just didn’t work. I’m sure lactivists would ask if I positioned her correctly or tickled her lower lip or expressed a bit of milk. Believe me, I tried it all (including spending many hundreds of dollars on visits from lactation consultants) but the truth is my daughter Chloe screamed at the breast no matter what I did.
Every day began hopeful, but soon descended into a maddening game of Should I Nurse or Pump? that I got to play every two hours. I had imagined feedings as sweet, cozy affairs, but instead I dreaded them. It’s a terrifying feeling not knowing if you can feed your baby. After a couple of weeks using an impossibly awkward syringe finger feeder so as not to introduce “nipple confusion”, I gave in and used a bottle. Not long after that I decided to stop torturing us both, and gave up free-for-all nursing for more predictable pumping, which I kept up for four months before switching to formula.
There’s nothing I didn’t try, except maybe to persevere for longer. I was the first of my friends to have a baby, so I hadn’t known how hard nursing can be even when it is working, much less when it isn’t. Wasn’t this supposed to be the natural way women have been feeding their babies since the dawn of time? If so, shouldn’t it come naturally? What did it mean about my mothering abilities if it didn’t? And between the constant burning of letdown, the porn star boobs that just didn’t fit my body, and the suffocating feeling of never being able to take a day off from my job as milk maker, I couldn’t understand how anyone could actually like this.
Four years later, I was expecting baby #2, and secure in the knowledge that formula had not, in fact, damaged my hearty kid, I resolved that I would take another stab at nursing but not beat myself up if it didn’t work out.
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And then I delivered six weeks early, and my son Julian ended up in the NICU. Although mostly healthy, he was so tired he couldn’t stay awake to nurse and needed to be fed through a tube in his nose. Unable to do much else for him, I pumped. I was disappointed to find only Lefty produced milk this time around but hoped it would somehow be enough. I tried breastfeeding every day during my visits, but was never able to get him to eat for more than a minute or two before he drifted back to sleep. By the time he was discharged, I had yet to achieve a full feeding. The feeling of dread came back. Would I actually be able to nourish this baby?
But despite odds stacked pretty firmly against us, somehow nursing just worked this time. There was so much boob coming at that tiny little head, but once Julian started staying awake for longer periods of time, he latched like a champ. After being separated from him by an isolette, I couldn’t get enough of the sensation of his downy skin on mine, his contented coos, and the way he fit so perfectly in my arms. With a little practice, I nursed on trains, in restaurants and in front of my dad. I didn’t love nursing in the middle of the night, but I did get through a brilliant couple seasons of Mad Men as a result. In a few months, he grew from a bird of a boy to a butterball, and I had to resist the urge to proudly tell everyone that my left boob did that. I still didn’t love being top-heavy or the maintenance required to look after udders, but it was so totally worth it.
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We happily nursed for 10 months, and when we weaned by mutual agreement. Nine years later, I know Chloe, who is tall, athletic and rarely sick, didn’t suffer from not having been breastfed. I would want anyone who made a well-thought-out decision in favour of formula to know that. But Julian is my last child, and I am so thankful I got a chance for a breastfeeding do-over. I get it now.
Sasha Emmons is the editor-in-chief of Today’s Parent, Canada’s #1 parenting magazine and media brand. She lives in Toronto with her husband and two children.