30 January 2016

Breastfeeding: The Struggles and Rewards


From the time I realized I wanted children, I always knew I would breastfeed. Another option didn’t really even occur to me after years of watching my mother nurse all six of my younger siblings. First of all, she normalized breastfeeding for me so seeing a woman nurse was a non-issue for me. I also thought nothing of watching her hand express milk into a bottle on one of the rare occasions she left the baby with a sitter, or into a bowl of baby cereal when the baby started taking solid foods. Second of all, my mother created a tender image of the mother/baby relationship as she cradled each of my siblings to her breast and nursed them. I saw the sweetness, and the safety she created there at her bosom. She really made breastfeeding look so effortless. After years of watching her, it never occurred to me that perhaps breastfeeding wouldn’t come easily. It’s one of those things you assume just happens when you watch a woman doing it.

My first daughter was born after 23 hours, half of which I spent sleeping, having succumbed to taking an epidural. She was sleepy, I was tired, and five hours after she was born I brought her to the breast for the first time where I spent over an hour trying to get her to latch onto me. Muscles I didn’t even know I had ache as I tensed them to hold her to me, put the nipple in correctly, and keep her awake. In those frustrating moments, I realized why many mothers don’t nurse and I was so afraid I would be one of them. Then, she latched. It was beautiful. She began to suck and I had no idea if there was actually anything coming out, but my body relaxed because at least she was sucking. In subsequent feedings she got better at nursing and began to demand it vociferously. She also started filling her diapers. But breastfeeding was still anything but easy. I remember the toe-curling, mind numbing pain I experienced for two months due to an improper latch. I didn’t know that she was latching on incorrectly. She was getting all the milk she needed so I didn’t really care. I just held my breath when she latched on and waited a minute or two while the burning pain turned to numbness.

At two weeks, she was a pro at nursing, though it still hurt, but we had to introduce a bottle so that she could eat when I went back to work. She hated the bottle. She fought, and screamed until she was so exhausted she needed a five minute catnap. Then she awoke to scream some more. At the same time, the bottle introduced nipple confusion into our nursing relationship. Now she not only didn’t take the bottle, but she seemed to have forgotten how to take the breast too. Through tears and heart palpitations and worry that made me sick to my stomach, we persevered. I was determined, determined not to fail. My first child would be breastfed until she was at least a year old. Then, suddenly, two months had passed and I don’t know how it happened: whether I relaxed, or she relaxed, or she just matured past a difficult stage, but suddenly here it was: the effortless nursing I had always observed as a child. Truly effortless. Baby cries, baby nurses, baby falls asleep with a contented, milk-drunk look on her face. Nursing was no longer a chore, it was our solace, our happy, safe space. Now nursing was everything my mother had showed me it could be. Two months of engorgement, bleeding, blisters, crying, fighting, fussing, worry, failures, and pain were over. Just like that. All the work had been worth it. My daughter and I finally solidified a healthy nursing relationship that actually felt easy and lasted until she was 25 months old.

With my second, third and fourth children, I was able to have a natural birth and nurse them within the first hour after they were born. They both lay on my bare skin still covered in amniotic stickiness and learned to nurse in those first magical sixty minutes. I don’t know if nursing them was easier because we had a better start at it or because I was more relaxed about it. Each of them had their own nursing difficulties as well, but my prior experience and a proper start certainly helped us through the rough patches. Nursing is natural and instinctual. But it is not easy. It’s hard. It can be almost impossibly hard and I now fully understand - not just with my head, but with my heart. Now when I see another woman struggling through it, I can weep for her, and with her because I remember. But I can also smile for her and tell her that she can do it. As difficult as it was to begin with, my children were all able to nurse well into toddlerhood. It gets easier. I promise. It will get easier, and it will be worth it.

Disclosure:  This is a contributed post.

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