This is what breastfeeding is really like.

Definitely NOT like this, at least at the beginning. (photo: northernhealth.ca)
Definitely NOT like this, at least at the beginning. (photo: northernhealth.ca)

It was one of my less sexy moments when a warm, limp cabbage leaf fell out of my bra as I undressed in front of my husband. Then I was caught stuffing handfuls of grated raw potato into my tank top. There were countless bags of frozen peas and corn, clutched to my chest as if I depended on them for survival. Does this sound like some kind of kinky veggie fetish? No. Welcome to the world of breastfeeding a newborn. Raw potato, apparently, can help unblock milk ducts; cabbage leaves do an amazing job of relieving the pain of engorged breasts; and frozen veggies simply soothe the general pain.

If this doesn’t sound bad enough, there’s more: walking around the house topless while trying to get rid of a yeast infection; unable to let soap or water in the shower touch my chest because my nipples are so sore; crying with pain as the baby latches on like a vacuum to nipples that are already cracked and bleeding; doubling over with earth-shattering cramps that contract my uterus in response to the baby’s sucking.

Whoever thinks that breastfeeding is some kind of magical fairy-tale experience clearly hasn’t done it before. Breastfeeding is cruelly painful and thoroughly unfair to have to deal with immediately after giving birth. As if we women haven’t been through enough already, pushing a watermelon through our vag, and then, still bleeding and aching, having to attach an aggressive suction machine to the only other extremely sensitive part of our body. It may feel okay for the first few seconds, maybe even a minute or two, but by the time that little imp has been sucking away as if its life depends on it – oh, wait, its life does depend on it – for ten minutes or more, guaranteed you’ll want to scream, “Stop! Get away from me. You’ve had enough. Please just stop sucking.”

What shocked me was discovering that knowing how to nurse is not instinctive in babies; only sucking is. They attach themselves and go wild, regardless of whether they’re latched on properly or not. Training a newborn how to nurse feels like trying to calm a thrashing fish out of water. My first baby would whip his head around, eyes tightly closed, mouth wide open, dangerously threatening to close in on any round, nipple-shaped object within range and refuse to let go once attached, all the while screaming bloody murder. With one hand, I’d hold his flailing body and try to guide his angry red face toward my nipple, and, with the other hand, support my swollen, bleeding, rock-hard, engorged breast, wishing for minimum pain upon contact. It never worked. The initial suck always took my breath away. I’d go rigid, sit bolt upright, blink away tears, pant heavily, drive my feet into my patient husband’s body or, when it got really bad, yell for something to bite down on in order to distract me from the agony.

If I thought that was bad, I hadn’t yet nursed my second son. He would scream while staying limp, refusing to open his mouth wide enough to fit in a good chunk of boob. It was nearly impossible to train him how to breastfeed properly. As a result, within the first four weeks of his life, we dealt with jaundice (and a resulting traumatic night under UV lights in an incubator), blocked milk ducts, thrush (yeast infection), cracked and torn nipples. I had to keep going, since formula wasn’t an option for me. Every three hours round the clock, I spent forty-five minutes sitting on the sofa in pure torture, trying to nourish my child. Somehow it worked. By seven weeks of age, he weighed 15 lbs. The midwives laughed when they saw him; they’d never seen such a huge newborn.

My goal was to nurse him for a year, like I did his brother. I believe we both dreaded those nursing sessions because, even when he’d learned how to latch properly, he continued to be a disinterested feeder. Then something miraculous happened. By eight months of age, breastfeeding transformed into that magical, wondrous bonding experience I’d always wanted it to be. Instead of gritting my teeth and getting through it, I suddenly started looking forward to it. He would play with my hair and my face, smile at me, show some gusto with his sucking, and snuggle his warm little body into my arms.

He’s now fourteen months old, but I can’t give it up now. Nursing is our special time in the morning and at night, a glimpse left over from the babyhood that’s quickly disappearing as he starts walking and talking. Now that the excruciating pain is over, we’re left with a connection that’s been forged by fire. I’m glad I stuck it out, now that the memories of awful cabbage leaves and bits of dried potato found in unexpected places have faded. I just wish I’d known how tough it is – and that this sort of pain is normal.

I think many women quickly become discouraged with breastfeeding because they think it’s wrong to feel pain. Of course ongoing pain isn’t okay, but the reality is that it takes a while for anyone’s nipples to toughen up and for a baby to learn what to do. My advice is, stick with it, and never underestimate the power of vegetables to help you out when you most need it. Cabbage will quickly become your best friend, until too much of it gives you thrush, and then you’ll make your husband really happy by walking around the house half-naked with massive boobs for hours on end. It’s a win-win situation, I suppose.

Related Posts on FRH:
The Breastfeeding Wall
Baring Breasts for Baby

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20 thoughts on “This is what breastfeeding is really like.

    1. Hahaha, I was actually thinking of you as I wrote. Oh well, it’s better to be prepared than not, as I already said 🙂 And believe me, cabbage and potato are wondrous things.

      1. Definitely better to be prepared!! All I had ever heard was how magical and natural breastfeeding was and then BAM – the vacuum sucker & bloody nipples began! I was so shocked and disappointed! I felt like I’d been lied to my entire pregnancy! No one ever said it would hurt and I never would have thought natural breasts could be so BIG! It was an awful until about 3 months into it and then suddenly it became effortless. With baby #2 I was even able to multi-task while nursing having perfected the art of doing everything one handed! I did go through a few weeks of thrush – basically feels like knives & needles coming through each of your milk ducts – but after that cleared up we were back to smooth sailing. I nursed both my babes for about 14 months each. It was bitter sweet weaning them. I enjoyed my freedom and independence but missed being their life line. All the pain & suffering of the first few months were well worth it.

      2. Yes, thrush was pretty much the worst sensation ever, knowing that he’d have to keep sucking on those nipples which were already throbbing with pain and feeling completely battered. I swear if I ever have another baby, I’ll spend the first few weeks completely topless to avoid encouraging that yeast growth at all costs. It was awful. As for multitasking, that’s impressive. I never figured out how to do much more than sit on the couch. In a way, that was good, though, because it forced me to stop moving, calm down, and relax a bit.

      3. You are right. Breastfeeding a newborn is complete and utter torture. After 2.5 weeks of continuously developing blisters on one of the most sensitive of all body parts, and battling thrush (among other postpartum horrors), I finally had a chance to have a lactation consultant come over to take a look. She puzzled over us for over an hour then finally told me that I was doing everything absolutely perfectly, and that I would just have to wait a few more weeks until my baby’s tiny receded chin pops out and/or he until he learns that it’s not nice to jam mommy’s nipple up against the hard roof of his mouth. She recommended finger exercises and a nipple shield in the meantime. The real insult is that, somehow, none of those stupid nipple shields seem to fit me, and they sometimes cause an entirely different/painful problem. This blog post is so honest, it’s making me cry all over again – for entirely different reasons!!!

      4. Oh no! I’m really sorry to hear that you’re suffering so much while nursing. After writing that post and getting so many contradictory responses, I began to wonder if I was unusual for having such an awful experience with breastfeeding, but I guess it really depends on that unique combination between mother and baby. You never know what you’re going to get. And don’t worry, it WILL get better.

  1. In case you have another newborn in the future, I used pure lanolin when my kids were newborns. I had no cracking or bleeding. I did still have some pain, but it was not so bad.

    I had one baby who was taken to the NICU shortly after birth and did not get to nurse until the age of 3 days. By then, she did not wish to learn but fell asleep instead after a couple of sucks.

    1. Lanolin helped me a lot, though I think I started using it later than I should have. It was a solution, instead of prevention. I also got a prescription for Toronto’s breastfeeding guru Dr Newman’s magical nipple ointment and that was a huge improvement.

  2. Glad it’s better now. I was lucky and both my babies were good feeders. Breastfed my son until he was 18 months. He wanted to keep going but I was done. Those were precious times.

    1. Good for you! I’m hoping to reach 18 months with this little guy, though I can tell he’s already less interested and gradually weaning himself. I can’t force him to want it, but I’ll be sad when it’s over, especially if we decide not to have another baby.

  3. I was much luckier than you! My only problem was my second, who was born 9 lbs 14 oz and 23 inches long, wanted to eat continuously…I did crack and bleed and suffer with him, but only for about 4 or 5 weeks. I’d already nursed my first, so didn’t want to quit…and you are right. It was definitely worth it.

    1. It makes such a difference when the first has been a good nurser! Once my first got established, he was great, so that was a huge motivator in keeping going with the second, who was so much more difficult.

  4. How true! I also get annoyed that the breastfeeding argument is so polarised – it is hard work for so many women, but also a wonderful, sensual, unique experience once you get going. With my first, I was so shocked that the nipples take such a battering – I thought I was failing. Luckily a good friend said that pretty much everyone has to deal with the cracked nipples at the start, but the breastfeeding lobby keep it quiet (for the wrong reasons I think, her honesty really helped me).
    LOL Whimsy at your baby – he was a whopper wasn’t he? Our little guy (the tortured comedian) came out, went straight into Daddy’s arms and tried to latch on to his nipple – we like to think it was his first performance and he did have the whole operating theater in stitches (boom boom!). 🙂

    1. So true — I wonder why the breastfeeding lobby thinks that keeping on quiet on the associated challenges will encourage people to persist. It’s not helpful. Thank goodness for my midwives who reassured me all along the way. I don’t know what I would have done without them!

  5. That toe curling, eye scrunching pain started to happen to me after a week or so. AND only my left boob became engorged. So much so that Little Miss couldn’t even attach to it! (Also resulting in once close friend pointing while stating “Look at your boob!”) It lasted only for a few weeks, but I remember the one time she spit up, and it was all brown because I hadn’t noticed I’d started cracking and bleeding and she’d swallowed my blood 😦 . Sticking with it was completely worth it in the end and is now my favorite time of day with her. Although, she recently got a top tooth in (having gotten her 2 bottom early on) and this seems to be a new challenge that we are crossing at the moment! I’m going to be heart broken when the time come for it to end 😦

    1. Oh, that’s awful having only 1 boob engorged! Ouch. I never had problems with my kids biting, even after getting teeth. L did it once and I snapped at him, and he’s never done it again. Eventually they’re just so focused on wanting milk that they don’t want to fool around.

  6. I breastfed my son for two years. It was a good experience all along. I remember me though while pregnant searching on internet for hours about changing diapers, clothing, sleep routine, and breastfeeding. So, I was very determind to do breastfeeding right from the first moment as I had seen how many problems could come up. Thank God my son was good at it as well. I think the trick is the mother to push the head of the baby on the boob rather bring the boob to the babys’ mouth. I had very little cracking. I didn’t put any soap on my boobs during the two years – soap dries the nipples. I had both boobs engorged but I found on internet that I had to take 4-5 hot showers a day and massage and extract the milk – this defenately works for me. In the 3rd day were OK. My son did not get sick for the first two years. But once I stopped, he had an mild ear infection. I travelled a lot, so it was so nice that I just had to pack only clothing, no bottles etc. Plus, breastfeeding is inexpensive.From the age of 6 month old, he started to learn drinking from normal cups and so when I stop breastfeeding we did not use any bottle, or sippy cup. He just drank normal milk.

  7. Shocking, a little surprising but interesting and definitely something worth knowing! In all my years alive thus far, I’ve not come across anyone who talks about this aspect of breastfeeding – perhaps its a social thing and women don’t feel comfortable admitting theyre having a hard time nursing because it makes them bad moms or something (?), I don’t know but all that same, thanks for the information. Always good to learn something new, more so when its outside your wheelhouse.
    Cheers.

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