Friday, August 4, 2017

The Ups and Downs of Breastfeeding

(Photo by Simply Rose)

Breastfeeding. It's supposed to come naturally, right? I mean, it looks so easy. It's what's best for your baby, they say! It's free, they say! It's simple, they say! Rather, I find it to be very complicated. Like, a knee-deep complex, loaded issue. For something that's supposed to be so simple, it really isn't. After childbirth, it's arguably the first thing that women get criticized about and made to feel unworthy about. There are moms around the world crying their eyes out at this very moment about what kind of milk they feed their baby. If you feed formula, you're damaging your baby. If you feed breast milk, are they getting enough? If you breastfeed for too long, you're a weirdo.

It's #worldbreastfeedingweek and I'd like to share our stories. Two different experiences, for two different babies, like night and day.

Breastfeeding Maya
With Maya, I had a very difficult time breastfeeding. I spent a lot of time preparing for childbirth, and not a lot for breastfeeding. I assumed it would come naturally. It's going to sound ridiculous, but when the baby came out, I was appalled when I realized that I'd have to spend so much effort feeding it. (Like what the hell, can't my husband do it? Do I have to do everything here?) I was disappointed when it didn't come naturally. I was ashamed to breastfeed and expose myself even in front of the nurses at the hospital. When they tried to help me breastfeed and they asked if it hurt, I lied and said no, when in reality it did hurt - a lot. But compared to the pain of having a vaginal birth, I thought it was low on the pain scale. I didn't understand then that when breastfeeding hurts, it's because you have a bad latch. And when you get a bad latch, it affects your milk supply. And it hurts like hell, because that baby gets damn hungry and ends up massacring your nipples with it's bad latch. At the end of my birth, I had a severe postpartum hemorrhage as my placenta refused to detach. Then my finicky placenta decided to detach along with part of my uterus and I lost more than a litre of blood, which gave me anemia for 2 years. (Let me tell you, suffering from anemia while being a stay at home mother with no help is no fun at all!) My anemia completely zapped me and also affected my milk supply. My milk came in around day 5, and I nearly had a mental breakdown from all the hormones. Maya's latch only got worse and I remember pumping and getting a bunch of blood instead of milk. Or pumping for hours and only getting a few drops of milk, when my aunt said that my cousin's wife could get a whole bottle of milk in minutes. Then, I started using a nipple shield because my nipples were so damaged, which you had to hold in place awkwardly. Then Maya got addicted to the nipple shield and wouldn't go back to my actual nipple. At Maya's 1 month check-up, we discovered that she had lost weight since birth. I had another mental breakdown. I cried and cried and cried. The midwives suggested to pump and supplement formula for the health of the baby. My midwives were very anti-formula so I knew this was serious. At one point, I used donor milk and I felt like less of a woman seeing my child consume milk from other women, when I couldn't produce enough of my own. I thought, why is it so easy for them and so hard for me?! I pumped every 3 hours for 3 months, out of sheer determination. My milk supply never increased. At Maya's 3 month check-up, I conveyed to our family doctor that I was having a difficult time with the pumping, especially now that Maya was becoming more alert. She suggested I just stop pumping milk and give formula, for my sanity. She said, "Don't drive yourself crazy. She will be fine!" I quit and didn't look back. It was a relief. I still felt a bit guilty though. I wondered if Maya would be less smart than her peers. Five years later, she's one of the smartest in her class.

Breastfeeding Veda
With Veda, I wanted to give breastfeeding another go. I wanted to try to see if I could have a different experience, if I could love breastfeeding as much as the other mothers do. I was just going to see how it went, without expectation, and if I didn't want to then I'd give her formula - because Maya turned out fine, after all! This time, my placenta birthed just as it should, and immediately after, I asked the nurse to help latch the baby on to me. We stayed in the hospital for a few days afterwards and I paged the nurses every few hours to teach me and her how to breastfeed. I got a lot of help, so when we got home I felt really confident. Veda got a great latch from the start and fed round-the-clock which brought my milk in faster, and with a fury. She fed so much that I ended up overproducing milk. My breasts were often so full of milk that I would have to pump extra milk just to feel relief. I got mastitis when Veda was 6 weeks old. After a few months, my milk supply evened out and it became really easy. I breastfed lying down, sitting down, and in all kinds of positions. It took me a while to feel comfortable breastfeeding in public (or in front of my father-in-law, and other relatives), but I just got over it, concentrated on the baby, and I figured that if anyone was uncomfortable then they could just look away. I also wanted to breastfeed for my own maternal health benefits since it can bring down my risk of getting breast cancer. This has been important to me because my mom has had breast cancer twice. Once the breastfeeding started going well, every month I thought to myself, "Oh, I'll do another month. Why not?" And here I am now, having just passed 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding. I can't even believe it. I'm not sure when I'll wean but as of now, I do enjoy it. There is a different kind of closeness when you look at your baby taking your milk. It is animalistic in a sense. In those moments, you know that you are all your baby needs, and it is a fulfilling feeling.

God sure does have a sense of humor, I think. With my first baby, I didn't make enough milk. With my second baby, I had too much milk!

Looking back, both my babies had different latches and sucking styles, just as they have different personalities. They also had different appetites. They have different little mouths too. I wish I had known this in the early days of being a first time mom, but it's something that you realize only with experience. 


When it comes to breastfeeding, there are lots of ups and downs. It's simple, but it's not......

For example, there is also a lot of privilege attached to breastfeeding. To exclusively breastfeed for years, you'd have to have a partner who is earning enough to support both you and the children. Or you'd have to get adequate maternity leave, which sometimes involves no pay or a big pay cut. Some moms have no choice but to return back to work. Or you'd have to have an employer who would allow you to pump every few hours. And pumping equipment is expensive. Just like formula companies are big businesses, so are breast pump companies. Yes, breastfeeding is technically free, but it's actually not.

Babies feed every few hours and the mom's body has to be available at all times, day and night. If you supplement or pump the milk, you risk losing your milk supply. The only way to truly guarantee a steady supply is to exclusively breastfeed - which comes at a cost of the mom. Sometimes the cost is time, or even sanity.

 On top of being pregnant for 9 months, it's a huge additional sacrifice of the mom's body. For example, if the baby nurses and needs to be pacified by mom, you might not get enough time to do much of anything else. Even something as important as a dental appointment is difficult to plan if you don't know what time your baby will want to nurse.

It's also a lot of pressure being the sole milk-provider of the baby. You have to be careful what you eat and drink, you have to eat enough calories and stay hydrated. Most moms take herbal supplements to increase their milk supply or drink specific herbal teas (while researching and avoiding others that can lower your milk supply). By the way, the lactation teas taste like shit. There's always a fear that your supply will drop and how will you feed the baby? Moms who are not able to produce enough milk cry their eyes out (I was one of those with baby #1).

And it's all emphasized by the fact that men just don't get it. They think that you just shove it in there and the baby will take it. Um, no, dude. You have to get a good latch, which can take months of round-the-clock practice - for both baby and mom. Sometimes the baby will latch and you will have to re-latch to get the perfect fit. You have to let the boob hang in the right way. Leaning over to breastfeed can wreak havoc on your back, while lifting the baby up to your nipple can wreak havoc on your arms - continually. As the baby gets more alert, they may get distracted nursing in public.

And don't forget the staring. How much people can stare when you nurse your baby in public! How much people ogle at your only-for-sex breasts when their purpose is really to feed your babies. Nursing covers are really only for small infants and as soon as your child learns to swat their arms, covering up is not an option. For many women, nursing in public can be uncomfortable and humiliating, and worse if strangers make comments - especially to an exasperated mother who's just trying to feed her hungry/fussy/tired baby.

Plus, don't get me started with the sore or cracked nipples. The bleeding nipples. Constantly leaking milk. Thrush. Mastitis. How irritating nursing bra's are.

Any mom who breastfeeds their baby (or attempts to) knows how hard it can be. That's why I absolutely despise moms who make other moms feel bad for not breastfeeding, as if it's some kind of gold-medal competition. It's an intensely personal decision that the mom has to make based on A LOT of different factors. I don't think we should shame women for not breastfeeding. Or wanting not to because they don't like breastfeeding. If men had to breastfeed, I bet they wouldn't even make it past Day 3!

But, all the above reasons are why moms love it so much, too. Because when it works - really works - there is a sense of pride and accomplishment for being the sole provider of milk for your baby. It's a sacrifice of one's own body that women do with a sense of joy of wanting to be as close as possible with their babies, as their infants gently suckle and drift off to sleep. Just like a pregnant women beams with pride when she rubs her tummy, a breastfeeding mother does the same as her child takes her milk. It is a very intimate experience.

So, to the moms that formula feed, you're doing a great job. To the moms who couldn't get their milk supply up, you're doing a great job. To the moms who are struggling to breastfeed, you're doing a great job. To the mom who loves breastfeeding, you're doing a great job. To the mom who has to use donor milk, you're doing a great job. To the mom who is breastfeeding for 2+ years, you're doing a great job. Every experience is different, no two babies are the same. And let's all just take a minute to respect it for what it is -  an intimate, personal experience that is just as unique as the babies themselves.

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9 comments

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. I have enjoyed reading your blog since some time and this post really hit home.

    We just had our second daughter in February (my husband is also from India, I am European).

    Breastfeeding our first daughter (whose middle name coincidentially is Maya) was a catastrophy. Having experienced breastfeeding our second daughter, I realized the problem was low milk production due to poor latching/sucking. I stopped breastfeeding after three months.

    Our second daughter has a totally different drinking "technique". Even though she had serious health issues after she was born and I had to provide formula milk she has come back stronger and stronger. We have managed to reduce the formula steadily and formula is now less than 10percent of her daily milk intake.

    I totally agree that one shouldnt judge a mother on what path she has chosen, especially if not knowing her story. Unconstructive advice will just create stress to the mother and ultimately the baby and will certainly not help with milk production.

    Much love from one mother of two beautiful mixed girls to another ;-)

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  3. Juliana Lopes-SeikoAugust 4, 2017 at 9:40 PM

    I loved this post and how you point the differences for the sake of information. I really appreciate you shared your intimacy to help other women. Great job!

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  4. Thanks for the very intimate share, I really like reading your well thought out posts. Also, I didn't find space to comment on family photos but this one of the three of you is one of my top pics along with the picture of the four of you standing and smiling for the camera. You're beautiful!

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  5. This is by far the most informative, comforting, practical, incredibly useful and more importantly an honest post I've read about breastfeeding. Thanks so much for this post. I really hope a popular international magazine or news panel member come across this post because its something EVERY woman needs to read. Whether she is a mommy or not. We need to understand that EVERYONE's body is different and it doesn't work in the same way. From menstrual cycle to conceiving and delivering the baby. Stop making other women feel less competent just because their bodies refused to cooperate.
    Z

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  6. I haven't had any kids but I have to say a lot of this judgement comes from campaigning and out inability to discuss honestly what motherhood entails. Everyone just makes it look all stars and unicorms filled with joy only. People, most of all other mothers only talk about the positive aspects of parenting (especially in Asia) and it is so taboo to say that you want a break form your kids. People weren't even talking about post partum depression until few years ago.

    Until few years ago, even I believed that breastfeeding is best, easy because of all the sciencey/health campaigns going around - breastfeeding reduces your cancer risk. It's cheap. It's free. It's natural. It's good for the baby's development blah blah. But as I read more about other women's experiences, I learnt that it is not the case. Women need to be taught about this and it is not easy as 1-2-3.

    There is so much judgement going on for mums - your kid is crying - she must be a mean mom, breastfeeding is a problem, not breastfeeding is a problem.

    It is amazing how other women gloss over childbirth, managing kids - I have heard so much of these - oh the joys of motherhood. You will have energy for handling your kids. They are so cute. They are so nice, easy to handle without acknowledging the fact that sometimes kids drive you nuts.

    Yes, it is a wonderful experience and joyful but we need to acknowledge the other side.

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  7. One of the best blogposts I have read in a long time!!!
    I myself breastfed my daughter for 3+ yrs till she self weaned
    And I have gone thru all the phases that you mentioned for Maya

    I just wanted to prove that I am not any less of a mother so I tried very hard to overcome all the hurdles and at the end I was able to breastfeed my baby till she joined play group

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  8. spot on. You couldn't have said it better. Interesting and enlightening read.

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  9. Dear Alexandra,

    Thank you for this incredibly informative, intimate and helpful post! I haven't had kids yet, but probably will in the next few years, so I will bookmark it for future reference (including a note to make my husband-to-be read it too)!

    It's appalling how judgmental and non-informative much of the discourse around breastfeeding is. I wish women helped each other more like this rather than judging each other in Parenting Olympics. Thank you so much for providing your sane, empathetic perspective!

    Best,

    Ramona

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