Look, this is an embarrassing topic. To be honest, I don’t much like even thinking about breastfeeding because it makes me feel a bit weird and squeamish. But I also wish someone had told me these things, so in the interest of warning others and possibly engendering some empathy for new breastfeeding mothers, I thought I’d write about it.
But that means if you feel like workin’ boob talk makes you uncomfortable, please skip this post! See you at my next book review or something happy and fluffy.
Gross baby feeding talk incoming. Definitely TMI.
Last chance to bail…
Ok. So breastfeeding. There are a lot of Opinions about breastfeeding, about whether or not you are a good enough mother or if your baby won’t be Einstein if you don’t, a lot of shade gets thrown. But it was pretty hard to actually learn anything useful before I started.
I tried. I am a big research person. I read Emily Oster’s books, Cribsheet and Expecting Better (highly recommend), The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding (a La Leche League book, do not recommend, hated it), and lots of online articles. I watched the Babies documentary series on Netflix (lovely, but mostly about babies and less about parents, duh). And I attended a two-hour hospital class on breastfeeding, which was 70% about why we should breastfeed (and wasn’t factually correct, often), 10% how, 10% about breastfeeding complications, and 10% about how to pump (with 5% of that being totally bogus ways to ask for accommodations). (That class made me real mad.)
My point is, I tried to be prepared. I bought the things. I read the books. I wish I had known more. Here is what I have learned, in the months I’ve been breastfeeding my kid.
- It hurts. Like, way more than I was led to believe. The lactation nurse was like “yeah, it’ll curl your toes!” And that wasn’t warning enough. It hurts about as much as my cat when he kneads the bare skin of my leg; about as much as someone coming up and pinching and twisting a bit of your arm. Except on a very sensitive area. It hurts for every feeding for the first two or three months, gradually getting better as your baby figures out eating. There is nothing you can do for the pain. You are expected to just tough it out. It also, apparently, hurts all over again for each baby, because it has to do with both your body learning what to do and with baby figuring out the mechanics of eating.
- Not feeding the baby also hurts. Especially at first, your hormones are running wild and your body is just churning out milk, and your boobs just fill with milk. They can get engorged. You end up with rock-hard boulder-boobs that just throb.
- Sometimes it hurts just randomly. Even now after several months of practice, sometimes I get a shooting pain, like being stabbed with a needle. No apparent reason. Fun!
- You can leak. Some people don’t. Some people only do if they get engorged. I am one of the “lucky” ones who just leaks randomly all the time. There are these little absorbent pads to stuff in your bra to keep your shirts from being ruined. They inflate like beach balls when they get wet. I have to wear them all the time. My baby sleeps through the night, which is great for my sleep and mental health—except I sometimes wake up in a totally soggy bed. Sometimes it feels like someone poured a half-gallon of milk on me. It is gross and dispiriting. The only advice is to wear a better bra to sleep in. Great.
- Your breasts can get clogged. If you don’t feed baby enough, or wear the wrong clothes, or just whenever, you can get a clogged duct. This was mentioned in the class, but I didn’t know what to expect. It’s a rock-hard limo under the skin, and if you don’t get it out, you can get an infection called mastitis, which is exactly like the flu but with red streaks on your boob. So to avoid mastitis, you have to get the clog out, mostly by trying to put enough heat on it to melt it, but also by squeezing and/or vibration. And when it’s finally gone, you feel deeply bruised even if there are no marks.
- The first month of a baby’s life, you have to feed them at least every three hours, around the clock. And the three-hour timer begins when the baby starts eating (and a single feeding session can last 40 minutes at first. They really aren’t good at it.). So this means, at first, you are constantly either feeding the baby or about to feed the baby. It is exhausting.
- The nurses and LLL lie to you. Breastfeeding is not free. You need nursing bras, and lanolin cream, and a pump (and extra parts!), and new shirts that work with breastfeeding, and and and… Sure, in theory you don’t have to have anything, but in reality people are still spending money on breastfeeding. And don’t discount the time and emotional energy costs!
- Breastmilk is sold to you as the “perfect” food for your baby and you are told you always have enough. Definitely not universally true. Even putting aside baby food allergies (which make the mom stop eating all kinds of fundamental foods like eggs or wheat), you are encouraged to give baby vitamins. If it is perfect, why do you need to add vitamins?! As for always having enough, I have not yet encountered a mom how has not had, at some point, to supplement with formula. This is presented as basically failing, but it is almost universal.
- You don’t have to lose your sense of modesty. I understand a lot of women do, but I still have no interest in being topless around others. I use a cover or leave the room. It’s your body and you get to decide how comfortable you are with showing it, even if you are using it to feed a baby.
Put all this together, and breastfeeding is just hard. When you first start, you are exhausted and in some kind of pain, and have no idea what you are doing, and it hurts. You’re told to just keep doing it, despite running on fumes.
I don’t write any of this to discourage breastfeeding at all. I am glad I have been able to feed my baby adequately, give him the nutrition he needs, and cuddle him a lot. But I don’t think I was given the tools to be successful. By not telling people these things, we a) make the early struggle seem like it is their personal fault and responsibility (if breastfeeding isn’t “magical”) and b) limit others’ empathy for someone going through a challenging time.
I think I would have been less stressed and anxious had I known what to expect. I could have been easier on myself or at least been prepared to change my sheets frequently. I would have had a better understanding of what is normal versus my own struggle.
So that’s my advice to new parents: take it easy on yourself. There is no one way to be successful. And talk to others in a new parent group; they’ll talk about everything, and you’ll learn from real experiences. And good luck.