”Breast is best" they drill into your head the second you find out you're pregnant. And for some people, it is. Certainly, for babies, breastmilk contains great benefits that even the best formulas available in the market still can't completely match. But breastfeeding is really, really hard for some (most?) people - and I don't think we talk about that nearly enough.
Like lots of new moms, when I was pregnant with Daisy, it was my plan to breastfeed. When she was born, she was unable to complete a suck-swallow-breathe cycle and thus aspirated when she tried to feed orally. She received her meals via NG tube for the first 8 months of her life then transitioned to solid food. I still tried to provide her with breastmilk in the early days. I pumped for about four months - even though I hardly produced anything. It was agonizing and painful but I felt such guilt that I couldn't give her what was "best" (the breast!), I worked hard at squeezing out what little I could.
When Ella was born, my number one priority was nailing the practice of breastfeeding as quickly as possible. This is what I thought breastfeeding would be:
My baby gently attaching herself to me in the soft morning light, making cooing sounds and looking up at me with hearts in her eyes.
A tender bonding experience that would connect us mind, body and soul.
A graceful piece of motherhood I would reflect on fondly upon for years to come.
This is what breastfeeding actually felt like for the first few weeks:
An alternate universe in which I felt like a cross between a vacuum cleaner and a cow.
An incredibly boring and depressing activity that consumed many hours of each day and involved more biting than I ever imagined.
A life in which I never slept more than 3 hours at a time, rarely had time to shower or do much of anything else and was constantly covered in breastmilk.
Now, a month into working hard at this, Ella and I have finally hit our groove with nursing. After a lactation consultant convinced us she had a tongue tie that needed laser revision, we sought a second and third opinion that clarified she just has a mild lip tie which causes some pain with breastfeeding but doesn’t require surgery. Using a nipple shield has helped lessen the pain. What I’ve learned is that we don’t need to exclusively breastfeed at every eating time. We nurse once during the day and once at night and the rest of the time, Ella is fed breastmilk via bottle that I’ve pumped. This works well because it allows me time to rest at night (Nick wakes up with her once in the middle of the night and feeds her by bottle) and during the day (when our nanny feeds her by bottle if I am napping).
Here is the good, bad and ugly of MY experience breastfeeding. Note: every experience is different and this is not all-encompassing.
There is something very satisfying about being able to feed my child with my own body.
I am able to produce enough extra breastmilk (using supplements & vitamins which I’ll recommend in another blog post) that I’ve built up a big supply of frozen milk for when I go back to work - this makes me feel productive and protective.
I’ve lost almost all the weight I gained in this pregnancy (30 lbs) within the first two and a half weeks because of breastfeeding.
When Ella falls asleep at my chest after nursing, I feel a strong loving connection to her - and, BONUS!: it seems to help her sleep peacefully through the night afterward.
Many women struggle to produce enough breastmilk for their babies and need to supplement with formula. This is totally okay! We don’t talk about this enough and it makes those of us who have experienced it feel "less than". If you had a C-section or your baby is born early, milk won’t come in easily. This is nature.
Breastfeeding can be painful. If your child has any issue latching, if you encounter mastitis or thrush, if you have highly sensitive nipples or very dry skin - you’re in for it. Nipple shields during feeding and applying generous amounts of lanolin after will help.
Breastfeeding is extremely time-consuming - at least it feels that way in the beginning. Once you get the hang of things, it becomes possible to multitask while breastfeeding or pumping.
Breastfeeding can be isolating and an experience that is difficult to share with a partner.
Most mothers will likely encounter a number of lactation consultants during a hospital stay and/or their work with a doula or midwife. When we were in the hospital with Ella, we worked with four lactation consultants throughout our stay then another at our pediatrician’s office and a sixth consultant we met with independently. Each “breastfeeding expert” had strong convictions and it seemed each opinion conflicted with the previous opinion. One said I should breastfeed every two hours no matter what (including the middle of the night). Another suggested I only breastfeed without pumping at all. A third recommended I pump and breastfeed equally so my child would be just as happy with the breast as with the bottle. I was so overwhelmed with information and opinions I actually cried after meeting with one consultant and decided to stop listening altogether.
Breastfeeding can be a major trigger of negative emotion for some women. I suffer from DMER which makes the experience of breastfeeding really difficult for me. Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex is a condition affecting lactating women that is characterized by an abrupt dysphoria, or negative emotions, that occur just before milk release and continuing not more than a few minutes. The emotional responses experienced with D-MER fall within a three-level spectrum: despondency, anxiety and agitation. The most commonly used words used are: a hollow feeling in the stomach, anxiety, sadness, dread, introspectiveness, nervousness, anxiousness, emotional upset, angst, irritability, hopelessness and general negative emotions. (Taken from DMER.org)
My Advice to New Moms
I keep learning this lesson over and over and over again and it’s the #1 most important thing you can know as a mother (new or otherwise): follow your instincts. Do your research and gather information then make the choices that feel right for you and seem right for your baby. We may not always feel confident going into motherhood but we are all equipped with the instincts to protect and nurture the babies we make. Doctors and Google and midwives and friends and classes and books and doulas are all wonderful but no one knows what is best for you and your baby better than YOU. Follow your heart, your mind and your body - and your baby, too.
If you are determined to breastfeed, stay with it as long as you can - it does get easier every day - BUT, know this: breast is best ONLY when it is best for the mother. If breastfeeding makes you feel sad, anxious, lonely, angry - or anything that isn’t positive - evaluate whether it’s worth the sacrifice. You will be the best mother you can be when you feel whole, healthy and happy. You will be just as wonderful a mother for feeding your child formula. Formula-fed babies are just as healthy and beautiful and brilliant and happy as breastfed babies. In short: screw “breast is best”. What’s best for YOU is best. No matter what you choose, I am behind you 100 percent ♥