I am breastfeeding.
There were many things I didn't know about breastfeeding. I thought I was prepared. I had read everything I could on the subject, I had watched videos on what a proper latch looked like. I had learnt the advice of the breastfeeding evangelists by heart. So when Yu was born 6 weeks early, without having yet developed the ability to suck and swallow, our start was rough. Not so much as in difficult, but as in a long, slow, learning process* where I cried in desperation many, many times. Where I was -almost- ready to give up, but wouldn't, because I wanted to try as hard as I could. Even in the hardest moments I could still find the force to go on, so I did. There were tears of tiredness, tears of sadness, tears of disappointment at a dream that I might have to let go, after trying it all.
As soon as baby Y. was born I started pumping. 7 times per day, every 3 hours, to correspond with her feeding times, while she was still at the hospital. When they explained this to us, I, confused, asked Mark how I was going to do this. Schrodinger's equation had already well established the uncertainty principle stated by Heisenberg: no particle can be in two places at the same time, so how the hell was I going to be pumping at her feeding times while having her laying on my chest/ learning to latch as well.
It took a while for my tired self to understand that the timing did not have to be so precise. But I knew from my time working with dairy cows that if you skip a milking session or are late, the production diminishes. There were many things I didn't know about breastfeeding and one of them was that breastfeeding makes you very, very tired (or maybe that was just the intense pumping schedule I was on). I can only compare the feeling to a 10-hour jet lag that just wouldn't get better.
I would wake up at 5:45 to set everything ready, then be pumping by 6:00 a.m., then eat something, drink all the tea, oatmeal or rice milk, chicken broth, water, that I could. Schedule naps and snacks while at the same time trying to do a million things a day, to process the birth, to (not) understand. By 15:30 p.m. I was so exhausted that I would have to force myself to sleep, even-though my brain was still on. I got cranky and grumpy and anxious and irritable from such extreme tiredness. I was not a nice person.
We would visit Y. twice, sometimes 3 times per day at the hospital, where we would put her on the breast, weigh her before and after each nursing session and then let her take the rest of her meal via a nasogastric tube or a bottle. Sometimes, after having nursed for 25 min, the sucking would make her so tired she'd fall asleep, and when we weighed her she'd have drunk less than 5 mL. I did not want to and was not going to give up on her, but it was discouraging to see her try so hard and not get any measurable results. I remember a particularly dark moment, sobbing hopelessly in Mark's arms, when I thought she would never learn to latch and take enough milk to feed herself and imagining we'd have to be at the hospital until June. Or keep on pumping for as long as I could handle it and have her drink my milk from bottles.
Now, 7 months and a half later, Y. is still breastfeeding. It's like at some point a switch turned on, and suddenly, she knew. This happened 4 weeks after her birth date, when she would have been almost 38 weeks.
Establishing a breastfeeding relationship is hard and we wouldn't have done it without the amazing support we had from so many people. There were all the nurses at the pediatric department during her hospital stay, always encouraging, telling me "it was going to be fine". There was the lactation expert from the hospital, who had a lot of experience on premature babies, who told us how to use a nursing pillow, which positions were best to try with her being so tiny (the rugby position that is), who told us to ticke her, to rub her cheek or chin or massage my breast to stimulate the sucking (breast compression); who recommended the use of a nipple shield at certain moments and of a Supplemental Nursing System for a couple of times too. There were the doctors, who not for one second stopped trusting Y. And my mom and my mother-in-law who were there to comfort me when it was needed, to tell me to go-the-f***-to-sleep when no one could stand me, who made soups and tea and made sure I was eating and drinking enough and stayed well nourished. There was Mark, there were friends from high school who had been there before. It was Sol who told me that the rules for preemie babies were different, that even if she got bottle-fed she would still want to come back to the boob. It takes a village and it takes the right words at the right times. I am so grateful for my village.
I've heard stories from moms' who were told on those early days that their milk was "too thin". How can you ever, as a supposed expert, nonetheless, tell that to a woman who wants to breastfeed and is doing all that she can? A woman who is going through the sensitive, vulnerable period that is the puerperium? If vet school taught me one thing is that the composition of milk can change by modifying nutrition, water and food intake... And that caring for infants requires learning, even in some animal species (new gorilla-moms know nothing about baby-care, and so, they rely on culturally taught knowledge passed on by the older gorilla females in the tribe. Or they imitate by watching their older peers).
I survived those early, crazy, chaotic days by making lists. I spent my time with my mind wanting to do all the things at once while my body was simultaneously demanding rest. I was running like a headless chicken. I didn't realize the tiredness, the lack of sleep, the hormones can affect your memory. I used to brag that I always knew which day we were on and what I had to do, no need of writing things down in an agenda, I was just so good.
Then I turned into Dory, constantly repeating: "P Sherman, 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney" or else I would forget. I started carrying around a small notepad and constantly scribbling my thoughts, trying to stop them from disappearing forever. Either that, or doing the things right in the moment a thought crossed my mind. There was a time I was making myself a tea and I poured boiling water into the pot of sugar, just like the mad hatter.
There were so many things I didn't know. Believing everything the breastfeeding fundamentalists preach did me no good. There were tears over the decision to start using bottles to stimulate her sucking and swallowing abilities because, they said "you should never give a bottle or a pacifier before 3 months of age, otherwise the baby will get confused and lazy and will prefer those to the breast". (Eventhough, for premature babies, it is OK to bottle-feed, as part of the learning process, as long as you combine it with lots of skin-to-skin time and practice opportunities at the breast). I didn't know that babies sometimes need to suck on something, even when they are not hungry anymore. My mom would try to use a pacifier to calm her down and I would feel like it was treason to the boob, afraid of the consequences, even when after putting her on the breast she would refuse it after a minute because she wanted the suction but not the milk that came with it.
|Image via Tea Party girl|
I didn't know that at the beginning breastfeeding can hurt and that pain does not mean you're doing it wrong. But that is what you are led to believe when the pro-breastfeeding evangelists say things like: "if the baby is latched correctly, it shouldn't hurt". It is true, if the baby latches on the nipple, not on the full areola, it will hurt, and the nipples may suffer. But it is also true that the let-down reflex, when the milk is coming down the ducts can be painful, particularly those first few times (weeks?). And, when you're feeding every 2-3 hours, feeling sore can be expected. I am not saying breastfeeding should hurt, or that you shouldn't be alert for signs of mastitis like stabbing pain or a fever, but that the opposite message can be confusing, even damaging. I thank my mom for telling me to toughen up and explaining it would get better, that this was just my body getting used to it. Pure lanolin and breast milk on the nipple after nursing eased the feeling away.
I ended up with a huge stash of freezer milk that I was not going to use because I am lucky to still be able to stay with her and I don't intend to wean her now. I am aware us being able to breastfeed is a blessing, and I can only be grateful for everyone who supported us during our delicate start, as well as for many factors that might have helped establishing my supply, such as the hospital-grade pump I used for the first couple of weeks. I was so happy to come full circle, as finally, last week, I was able to donate my milk to a mom of twins who needed it and whose babies' will hopefully enjoy it.
For the record, I don't think, unlike this author, that breastfeeding is overrated, but, being there right now, I can say that it requires a lot of emotional support, good advice at very crucial moments, and, it goes without saying, good nutrition and hydration.
And while we're at it, here are some articles on the subject that I've found well thought of:
-Here's an article, in Spanish, that talks about the gritty, sometimes difficult, reality that breastfeeding can be: "La friega de amamantar a los hijos".
-Here's a great shot of Gwen Stefani breastfeeding and the wise words of acress Jaime King:
"These are the moments a mother lives for. Breastfeeding should not be taboo -- and bottle feeding should not be judged -- it's ALL fun for the whole family:).
"We all feed our children differently, but we are all feeding with love, and in ways that work for our individual circumstances and family dynamics,”
-Here is a great article on the "Breastfeeding is beautiful" photo journal project by Jillayna Adamson.
-Why a prejudiced world needs to see our breastfeeding selfies.
-And here are some great photos of women breastfeeding through history.
* (though it was around 25 days)