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.