For some reason, the thought of breastfeeding always freaked me out. I would like to say my aversion was down to the thought of the pain – tender and swollen nipples that crack if a baby so much as looks at them, mastitis that the antenatal coach described as an infection caused by rotten milk trapped in your milk ducts (too gross) or the Discovery Channel image of a mommy baboon whose nipples reaches her knees and the baby baboon tugs on them as if they were a chew toy.
Your breasts become public property
It was all of these things, but the main thing that disturbed me was the intimacy and invasion of my body, my personal bits. These are my breasts for goodness sake, mine, my property, mine. But when you breastfeed they are no longer yours, they are theirs, you just carry them around for them. They choose when they want them, for how long and when they are done they don’t have to deal with the damage. The leaking, the tenderness, the engorgement, that’s your responsibility.
Not only do your breasts cease to be your private property, but sharing is also not limited to just you and your baby. In the early weeks after birth, it feels like every man, women and their pack of dogs has full access.
The day I gave birth, with my newborn having been admitted to Nicu, one of the more sturdy looking maternity nurses entered my room. I am still pretty much paralysed from the chest down, due to residual effects of the spinal block from my emergency c-section. Thus I am unable to effectively defend myself. The nurse asked, “Mama, have you tried to get milk yet?”. I looked at her like she was mad and replied, “No not yet.”.
I mean come on! I just got out surgery, my baby is somewhere in this hospital being poked and prodded by strangers and this crazy woman is worried about my milk.
Surely, this is not the most pressing issue right now? The milk has waited nine months so far what’s another 24 hours? Despite my face that was screaming – get the hell away from me – the nurse persevered and strongly suggested – in other words, pulled my top up and began her work – that I try to get my milk flowing. As I did not have a baby to assist in stimulating milk by sucking, the alternative was a warm teaspoon.
Yes, you read that right, a warm teaspoon was used to massage from the top of my breast to the tip in an attempt to stimulate flow. I can’t speak for all boobs, but I have always had extremely sensitive and tender ladies, this is probably due to their size. I am not small in the bust department – I am currently wearing a 38 DD. So, as the little but steely teaspoon traversed my mountainous chest with force and determination of a road roller, small drops of colostrum began to appear at my nipple.
What do my boobs and an almost finished tube of toothpaste have in common? I’ll leave you with that image to ponder for a moment.
With each squish of my boob, more drops of colostrum blossomed and were scooped up by the teaspoon and deposited carefully into a bottle. After about ten or fifteen minutes of this massage (this word is too kind to what was actually happening to me), I had amassed a small fortune of this liquid gold (that is actually its unofficial name in some circles). And thus ended the torture, for the moment anyway.
On a side note, just so everyone is clear how much of a badass I and all other moms are, for more than a week after this I carried the hard-won signs of badassness – in order words bruises of varying teaspoon-esque shapes, sizes and shades of purple adorned my boobs.
In fairness to the nurse, she knew there was no time like the present to stimulate milk flow. I had failed to recall my training – also known as the six two hour antenatal classes I attended a few months ago. My body, the finely tuned machine, was one step ahead of me.
During pregnancy, milk production is triggered by natural hormonal changes, with high levels of progesterone and oestrogen in your system the flow of milk is plugged for want of a better word. As soon as the placenta is delivered, these hormone levels drop, suddenly, and the levels of the hormone that helps your body produce milk, prolactin, spikes. This change in hormones signal to your breast to get the milk factory up and running at full capacity and the distribution line opens up. Thus, my date with the teaspoon and Thuli was unavoidable.
What Thuli also knew was that the sooner I could get something to my baby, the better. Colostrum is basically superfood for your newborn. It is stickier and more yellow than normal breastmilk. The benefits of this first milk are endless as it helps your baby build a strong immune system, supports their digestive system, triggers a baby’s first poop, helps prevent jaundice, gives nutrients for early development, is a complete food that is easily digested by a new-born tummy and helps prevent low blood sugar.
This special stuff is only produced in small quantities and only for a couple of days or so. One of the key things colostrum is good for is for babies born preterm or prematurely. Preterm infants who have access to colostrum have significantly better chances of surviving and thriving.
And while I recently became the mother to a prem baby, at this point I knew less than nothing about what that meant for her and her health. Luckily, the nurse did which was one of the reasons she took no prisoners with her teaspoon.
My little bottle of precious magic milk amounted to between 15-20 millilitres – I know right!? How the hell is that pittance of a harvest going to do anything? Well, according to Google, newborns’ stomachs are the size of a marble to start and so 1-4 teaspoons per day are all they will drink anyway.
My husband reverently transported our priceless little stash upstairs to the NICU to be stored in the fridge ready and waiting for feeding time. As he entered the NICU like a proud huntsman returning with his bounty, he received congratulation and praise (on my behalf) for the amount of colostrum his wife had produced. Particularly from one of the senior male paediatricians, and as men are want to, much backslapping ensued.
In principle, I am not offended by this exchange, it’s actually quite sweet to envision grown men practically chest-bumping over a tablespoons worth of liquid that neither of them had any part in creating. But in the same breath, the thought of strangers appraising the quality and quantity of my bodily fluid and sending their applause via my husband is more than a little weird.
Another fun time in the story of my (mommy) life, was a visit from the physiotherapist. The OBGYN recommended I see a physio post-surgery – this sounded wise. Thus, a day or two after my surgery, in walked an elderly gentleman followed, like a shadow, by a young woman. She couldn’t have been more than eighteen years old. The man introduced himself and then her. She was a high school girl doing job shadowing in her matric year. FFS.
I assumed the man would be interested in my abdomen and my ability to sit up and stuff. Nope, like seemingly everyone in this hospital, he was most interested in my breasts and their milk production. He also proceeded to lift my top in a matter of fact manner, before I could even say, “Hey buddy, I don’t even know your last name” or “you’re old enough to be my dad”, and examine my chest and palpate my breasts. While the shadow looked at her feet with such petrified determination I thought she might be able to burrow to China just with the force of her mind and stare.
So, that extra bit of awesomeness happened.
The pressure to succeed is crushing
I am sure most moms, who have tried or succeeded in breastfeeding, would agree that the first time you try to breastfeed is an overwhelming and daunting experience. Your mind is speedily thumbing through every piece of information you ever read, heard, learnt or was told about breastfeeding. And the pressure is on to get it right – after all “breast is best”.
You worry will she latch properly (yes like a frikkin shark)? Will my milk flow (some days it will be a yes for me, but some might answer no for this question, breastfeeding is hard and complicated and doesn’t always work despite your best efforts)? Will it be enough (not always)? Will it be too much and drown her (flow might be too much at times, especially when she is very little, but never so much to drown her)? Will it squirt across the room like a sprinkler (it can, in hindsight I should have had much more fun with this feature than I did)?
Rely on more experienced dairy cows for advice and get all the gadgets you need
A few days after the teaspoon incident, was the first time I tried to breastfeed. Before this, I had been pumping to get the milk going. Incidentally, I had inherited a very nice, slightly used, manual one breast pump (the drawbacks of one boob at a time will become clear shortly), but whilst in hospital, as a mom with a baby in NICU, I had access to the “Rolls Royce” of breast pumps: The Sucker 2000. This baby was on wheels, my friends, wheels. It could suck the air out of soccer ball in a split second and it had simultaneous double pumping capabilities.
So, you could suction the little sucker cuppy things on each boob and wander the halls of the maternity ward if you so desired, with the Sucker 2000, you were free to come and go as you pleased. I never did that. But I like to think I could if I wanted to.
The only limitation to my freedom was having to hold the cups on my boobs the whole time I expressed. What’s the point of mobility when your hands are not free.
This is where other far more experienced dairy cows (aka mom friends) come in handy. A friend, and mom, came to visit me in the hospital and she delicately enquired as to my success in breastfeeding. And I showed her with pride my meals on wheels and shared the one design flaw I had noted.
This mom looked with the same look I suspect Yoda gave Luke. “Oh, how much she still has to learn.”
The next day she brought me her pumping kit to loan, I mean this mom was kitted out if breastfeeding was a professional sport she would have been the Serena.
But aside from all the tubes, suckers, gedoontes, inside the kit was an item sent straight from the heavens above – the feeding bra. This little wonder is a sports bra type contraption with a hole on each side where the nipple should be. Then you stick your little pump suckers through the holes so they sit flush on your skin with the little pluggy bit sticking out like the most insane Madonna stage ensemble and attach the plugs to the tubes, attach the tubes to the machine and voila you are operating heavy machinery hands-free.
So, strut around the maternity ward crocheting and expressing at the same time – the world is your oyster. I didn’t do that either. But again I like to think I could if the urge struck.
All these little things make breastfeeding infinitely easier, less inconvenient and less overwhelming and would highly recommend that if you are going to give it a try, kit yourself out with whatever you can buy or borrow.
It doesn’t always work out as you planned
I digress, back to the first time I tried to breastfeed. Yet again motherhood proved there can be no plan, no expectation of how things will play out. In my mind I imagined this tender moment, just me and my baby, eyes lovingly locked as she tenderly nurses and I calmly and serenely look down on her. I envisioned instinct would kick in on both sides and we would just know what to do. It would be as easy and natural as breathing.
I am not sure why my stupid stupid hormone and Hollywood movie addled brain believed this, I had heard enough horror stories to know breastfeeding is not easy.
Never mind latching, just physically getting my baby in the proximity of my boob was challenging, she was attached to wires and tubes, she had a drip that could tear out of her little hand at any moment. Also, the level of privacy in a NICU is almost zero, so keep dreaming if intimacy and serenity are what you want.
For those who are lucky enough to never have been inside a NICU, it is busy, bright and confined. There is the constant beeping of machines, interjected with the disturbing distress alarms to signal a baby in need of help. The ward is big considering its tiny occupants, but the machines are cumbersome and many, so when it comes to doing anything you are never far away from the next someone trying to do their own something.
The nurses brought a rickety screen to shield us and provide a modicum of privacy. But obviously, the nurses remained to try and Tetris my baby into a feeding position at my breast. I had no idea what I was doing, and so ended up sitting back with my arms limp and useless by my side whilst the nurses did all the work. One nurse brought the baby to my breast and the other tried to guide my boob into her mouth, and between the four of us, we managed to create some semblance of breastfeeding.
After this very brief experiment, I was embarrassed, discouraged and angry (at whom I am not sure – myself, the nurse, the hospital, the baby, the universe). It was all a bit too much for me, the noises, the nurses, the wires, the latching, the baby, the screen, the act of breastfeeding and so I decided to wait for her to come home before trying that again. Sure, in my absolute naivety, that that would make it all work according to plan (there I go again with that word, when will I learn?).
And so for the next 8 days, I became a dairy cow. I got the business of milk production down to a fine art. I stayed in the hospital for two more nights than was necessary for my procedure but wanted to be close to my daughter.
Don’t be afraid of the dark, there are worse things
While in hospital, I would wake up to an alarm every two or three hours, express for about 45 minutes, walk my small but precious produce to the NICU, a floor up and on the other side of the building, to be ready and waiting for baby’s next feed. On my way back to my room, I would stop at the nursery in the maternity ward to wash and sterilise bottles and breast pump accessories.
Even though it is a building technically full of people, a hospital is a lonely, and eerie, place in the middle of the night. It felt a bit like I was the lead in a zombie apocalypse movie. You the know the ones where the heroine finds herself walking in what should be the bustling streets of a city to only find herself alone, except for the odd deer that suddenly runs from some side street to scare the living crap out of the hero and disappear into a subway station. Ok, so I didn’t see a deer in the hospital and there were no zombies (unless you count the on-duty night nurses) but walking the ward and the corridors of the hospital in the middle of the night alone, especially if you are gingerly shuffling around in slippers and three-day-old PJs, can feel rather apocalyptic.
I carried on with this routine (of every two to three hours expressing, walking, delivering, returning, washing, sterilising, sleeping) until I left the hospital and my baby behind. Once home, I would still wake every two to three hours to pump, I would build a store of barely half-filled little milk bottles, supplied by the hospital. And then every morning I would arrive with my Tropika branded cooler bag containing my stash of milk (labelled in Sharpie with baby’s name, date of express and quantity in millilitres).
Get help when you needed it, but don’t stop trusting your gut
A few days after I returned home, my daughter was discharged and we brought her home. This marked the time to start breastfeeding in earnest. And with this entered a new minor character into my story – the lactation consultant. This a person you pay a hefty sum of money to in order to help you figure out something that has been labelled “the most natural thing in the world” and all its tricks of the trade.
This particular lady came to your home and tried to help you master breastfeeding. She was one part highly experienced, highly recommended nurse and one part batshit crazy. She was a bundle of energy and positivity that made you feel like you could conquer the world but then poof she was gone, like a genie back into the lamp, and you were left feeling deflated and not sure where to start.
My husband found her particularly vexing, as she turned to him and said, “Daddy” (I think this was a sure sign she couldn’t remember his name, she also called me “mommy” for 100% the same reason), “you need to go and get her on high-quality protein, right now and lot’s of it, she must snack and drink the whole the time she is breastfeeding, she needs salmon, almonds, biltong, oat bars, a goody bag that she can keep next to the chair and graze on.”
Graze on, like a good dairy cow.
He didn’t like being told what to do, and I loved that she made me feel like I was an Olympian boxer who needed to be pampered between bouts.
Breastfeeding is not for everyone – and that is ok!
For four weeks, which is not that long, I know, I persisted. Feeding. Expressing. Bottling. Freezing. I am actually quite proud of myself looking back because I was seriously struggling with Post Partum Depression, and seeing as one of my major symptoms was a fear of being left alone with her – and you do not get much more alone with your baby than when breastfeeding.
The mother is sent from the communal areas of the house to baby’s room to feed whilst seated in a specifically designed feeding chair, with feeding cushion and iPhone with feeding app.
This arrangement did not work for me, but in my addled state, I still believed fiercely that I need the chair, the cushion and the nursery to nurse. Thus, if I could not go to the mountain, the mountain would need to come to me. And so I wheeled my husband’s fake leather office chair into the nursery – it suited the décor perfectly, not out of place at all – for any visitor to join me in the nursery as I fed. It was also not really an invitation as much as it was a command if I had to sit there, so should you.
But ultimately my heart was not in it and for most likely that very same reason my milk flow began to drop. No matter how long I pumped and no matter how much jungle juice and smoked salmon I consumed, it dwindled.
This low production, even though I didn’t enjoy expressing, stressed me out even further – it was the one mom thing I seemed to be good at, milk making. And so I pushed myself and punished myself. But to no avail. It was at this point I decided to stop. My husband and I discussed it, we discussed it with our daughter’s paediatrician, and we all agreed we were fine with our baby switching exclusively to formula.
And just like that my stint as a dairy cow was over.
As moms, we all want to do right by our children, and we are often told what “right” looks like by external sources. Breastfeeding is no exception, we are told during pregnancy and post, that breast is best. And so we persist through the pain, through the tears, the blood, the terror and dread, until we realised what most moms come to realise.
Breast is not always best. Not for every mom. Sometimes a bottle is better. Sometimes formula is better.
Because while breast milk is a miracle substance and is without a doubt the best food to feed our babies – a mom who is happy, relaxed and sane is also critical to a thriving baby. So, even though formula is not the best (it’s just good), sometimes good is better.
As Caroline Hirons, mom of four tweeted earlier in 2018, “I can’t believe its 2018 and we’re still discussing breast vs formula like it matters at the end of the day. Just feed your kid and get on with your day. They all grow up to eat Haribo and McDonalds anyway. Yes, even your kid, kale-blending Cynthia in the pilates pants.”
Illustrations Credit: Jamina Bone (find her on Instagram or on her website – Momming With Truth)
Leigh Tayler is a writer, a Leo, a feminist, a fan of The Walking Dead, a lover of all things unicorn and nearly succumbs to rage strokes on the daily. Oh, and she also happens to be a mother to one small feral child. She wears her heart on her sleeve and invariably tells it like it is, the good the bad and the ugly. She juggles her writing, her family, her sanity in-between a demanding career in advertising. She has no shame in sharing her harebrained and high-strung anecdotes on her experience of motherhood, no sugar coating, no gloss, just her blunt truth with a healthy side order of sarcasm. Find her on her blog, The Ugly Truth of Being a Mom.