To say that I struggled with breastfeeding is an understatement. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And one of the most stressful. My drug-free birth, which was insanely painful and mildly traumatizing, lasted a day and a half. But that was a cakewalk compared to what was to come.
Breastfeeding, like birth, was incredibly painful, except that I had to endure it eight hours a day for what felt like was going to be the rest of my life.
I had done all the research while I was pregnant and, for me, breastfeeding seemed like the best thing I could do to give my daughter a healthy start in life and I was hell-bent on making it work. From the moment she was born, my baby had a great sucking instinct (as exhibited by the fact that she quickly destroyed my nipples) but neither of us could figure out the latching part required to actually get a decent amount of milk into her. I had pre-emptively hired a doula to help, but her approach was so aggressive I couldn’t get the technique to work solo.
And so the struggle began.
Within 24 hours of coming home from the hospital, we went to the paediatrician for our first appointment and my baby had lost weight. This is normal, to some degree, but the doctor was understandably concerned when I told her that breastfeeding wasn’t going well. She wanted me to come back in three days to check in.
I came back and breastfeeding still wasn’t going well. My daughter had lost more weight. Then the doctor told me she was showing signs of dehydration. I lost my mind. I became hysterical. I realized bad things were going to happen if I didn’t feed her right then. My doctor offered me a bottle of formula and my daughter downed the whole bottle in seconds. It broke my heart. She was hungry.
I took a break from breastfeeding her for two glorious days to let my nipples heal (they were raw and bleeding from a series of bad latches) while giving my baby a combination of pumped breastmilk and formula. Despite my doctor’s advice, my doula told me that I would cause nipple confusion if I continued to give my baby a bottle and that she would never learn to latch. Cue the panic!
So instead of bottle feeding her, my doula instructed me to give her pumped breastmilk through small feeding tubes taped to my chest.
My days and nights went like this: Attempt to get the baby to latch for a half hour while she screamed in my face. Then feed her pumped milk through feeding tubes. With one hand I would hold the bottle up so the milk flowed out into the tube attached to my chest and with the other hand I would hold my baby while she sucked. Then after that ordeal, I would hold her upright for a half hour so she didn’t spit up my hard work all over me, while simultaneously pumping more ounces for her next feeding. Then we’d both get two hours of sleep (or three if I was lucky) and start the insane process all over again. I couldn’t leave the house because the tube feeding was so elaborate and I barely put a shirt on for weeks (my partner’s entire family saw me topless, multiple times). It felt like my life was over.
At this point my baby was gaining weight, but I was exhausted. My paediatrician recommended another alternative—a lactation consultant. I called her right away. The LC repeatedly told me that I was, and I quote, “doing it wrong.” So helpful.
An hour after leaving she texted to ask how it was going. I told her not well. Her response? “You’re not doing it right.” I KNOW LADY, THAT’S WHY I HIRED YOU.
My partner came home shortly after her visit to find me sitting shirtless, sobbing so hysterically that I could barely hold my child. “This cannot go on,” he said. He was right. A friend of mine had recommended nipple shields so he suggested giving them a shot. Nipple shields are silicone stick-ons that basically act like fake nipples on top of your own and they have tiny holes for the baby to suck the milk through. It was a Hail Mary, but we were desperate.
My baby took one look at my fake nipple, latched on and started breastfeeding like it was no big deal. My doula and the lactation consultant told me not to use them. The baby won’t feed efficiently or learn how to latch properly, they said. I ignored both of them and did not invite them back to visit. A piece of plastic had just saved breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding still wasn’t perfect, but it was manageable and my baby grew a round belly and roly-poly legs. I could leave the house without a series of contraptions. Eventually, after a few months, we transitioned her off the shields, but there were challenges. She’d get a bad latch and destroy my nipples and cause pain for days.
I now have a beautiful, chubby 14-month-old. She still loves breastfeeding and finally so do I. I joke that I’m not sure how we are ever going to stop.
What I’ve learned is this: Breastfeeding is the worst and the best. It’s important bonding time, it’s great for your health and for the baby’s and frankly, I never thought I’d say this, but it’s an amazing thing if you can make it work. But if you can’t, that’s okay too. It is damn hard and anyone who judges a woman for not doing it has no idea how difficult breastfeeding can be. If reading this gives hope to any new mother in her darkest hour, then I’ve paid it forward.