Breastfeeding: Milky misery or lactose loveliness?

I love breastfeeding my baby. She’s 13 months old and we’re still going. It’s easily the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done and I’m lucky enough that she still relishes feeds; her little eyes rolling back into her skull after her final gulp, like a tiny drug addict. That sweet, sweet hit of lactose.

Let me assure you now though, that this isn’t simply another rosy ‘pro-wabs’ post. All this symbiotic mushy stuff came at a huge price to both of us. I’ve been to the brink of depression with it, I’ve experienced physical pain that in all honesty far eclipsed the birth, and worst of all it nearly cost us being able to bond at all in those precious first few months.

‘Why the frig did you do it then?’, I hear you cry. Fair point. I’m not sure I’ll ever really understand my motives for carrying on back in those early days. It was such a haze of surging hormones, lack of sleep and utter shellshock. But I guess I felt that by stopping I would have failed at the one thing every woman is supposed to be able to naturally do.

All the pre-natal classes I went to, everything I’d read before, all those beautiful pictures of naked women breastfeeding their cherubic, doe-eyed babies, it all made breastfeeding seem as natural as breathing. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that this was absolutely what I was going to do.

When it came down to it though, it just wasn’t working. We’d been doing it as a species since the dawn of our existence, I thought, so why the fuck was muggins here having such a hard time of it? Essentially, I felt like I’d ‘failed’ at being a ‘natural’ mother.

Of course I now know that’s all bollocks. Not feeding a baby breastmilk isn’t failing. It’s not even conceding. I’ve fed my baby formula plenty of times in the last 12 months and it’s a successful alternative for tons of women.

What I do feel is a real tragedy is that we are constantly bombarded with the ‘breast is best’ mantra, and yet there is often little or no consistent support past that.

Personally, I came across some wonderful individuals in the NHS who tried their best to help, but there never seemed to be any overarching strategy for post-hospital support, and little understanding of how to help when thing were REALLY going wrong. We’ve been told time and again how breastfeeding reduces the strain on the NHS and how all mothers need to do it. Yet they fail at every turn to facilitate educating women on how to breastfeed, how to deal with the NUMEROUS painful side-effects and how to emotionally support these broken, tired new mums that feel like failures because it isn’t working for them.

The truth is (and they never tell you this in pre-natal classes), breastfeeding is fucking hard. And that’s why so many people stop doing it. It isn’t because people are lazy, it isn’t because people are ignorant or selfish. It’s often because people go into it with the expectation it will simply ‘click’, and it’s a shock to the core when it goes wrong.

In all my travels, out of the hundreds of new mums I’ve met since having a baby, only a handful have found it a piece of piss. Those lucky bitches.

In all honesty, I’ve never known pain like that of trying to latch on an uncooperative baby to nipples so raw and tender you could cover them in rice and serve them up as sushi. By day three after giving birth, when I saw the baby’s ravenous mouth coming towards my cracked, bleeding nipples, it was as if a buzz saw was about to make a valiant attempt at breastfeeding from me.

The worst bit wasn’t the pain though, it was the dread of the pain. The dread that consumed me and made me fear the baby, and fear the pain that she caused me. It hurt to bend over and tie up my shoes, it hurt to lay on my side in bed, it hurt to put on a seatbelt, it hurt to unload the dishwasher, and worst of all it hurt to pick her up and hold her against me. I resented her. I felt guilty to the point of depression for resenting her. This was supposed to be easy. They all said it would be easy. Where is my doe-eyed, tranquil baby that’s supposed to lap gently at my breast like in all those bloody pictures? Why couldn’t she just do it properly?

The poor baby, try as she might to sustain herself from the trickle of milk she was able to squeeze out, was not gaining any weight, and a return to hospital was almost on the cards.

In those first nine agonising weeks I had managed to rack up a bevy of glamorous ailments including blocked ducts, mastitis, a bacterial infection and the little-known condition, called what-the-fuck-is-happening-to-my-nipples-they-feel-like-they-are-being-Jack-Bauer-style-tourtured. All of this before the baby was FINALLY diagnosed with a tongue-tie and we were able to have it corrected, and that was only because I paid a private specialist to examine her and me as a last resort. (I’ll do another post on tongue-tie in particular down the line.)

In the weeks following the procedure, feeds finally became quicker and more importantly she finally started gaining weight. The damage was so severe it took a good few weeks for the pain to subside, but after helping Pfizer stocks soar with the amount of painkillers I was taking, at around 12 weeks in, I finally started to enjoy breastfeeding. And we finally started to bond. Thank fucking Christ.

And from there things just got better. After all that agony and upset I was finally able to hold her close and let the love course through me as she fed, snuggled up next to me in bed. And she seemed to enjoy it more too, now that she could finally get her fil. I’ll tell you there is no stranger, more amusing sight than being motor-boated in the cleavage by a six-month old baby. Weird, lovely baby.

I can’t help but wonder how different it would have been for us in those early days if her tongue tie had been spotted in the hospital when she was born. We’ve been lucky that it so far hasn’t caused any long-term issues. But when I think back to the pain, and the feeling of helplessness that I couldn’t give my baby what she wanted, it’s frustrating to think that all could have been avoided, and probably could have been avoided for many, many women in the same position, if only the right support had been put in place.

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