I had two very different experiences breastfeeding.
My first son, Max, was born after a long and difficult labour. I had no idea going into new motherhood that breastfeeding would be anything but a natural and relaxing experience. As Max, now 5-years-old, would say “Easy peasy lemon squeezy!”
Things got off to a bad start. Severe engorgement. Flat nipples. Postpartum depression. A very hungry and vocal baby. A bad case of jaundice.
Nurses that gave me conflicting advice at each visit to my hospital room. No fellow mothers living close by to guide me. Hormones!
Things went from bad to worse. To make a long and painful story short, Max and I breastfed for the last time when he was 7 days old. I pumped 4-6 times a day until he was 8 months old and then, exhausted, switched to formula.
I remember vividly sitting on my friend’s couch when Max was a newborn saying “Even animals can do this. What is wrong with me?” while the tears poured down my face.
I remember sitting in the doctor’s office for Max’s two-week check-up and feeling shame as I bottle-fed my baby while the other mothers around me breastfed.
I was consumed with guilt, embarrassment, sadness, anxiety.
Wiser, more relaxed, and confident as a mother, I gave birth to my second boy, Isaac, after a shockingly fast and medication-free delivery. Within minutes of being born, looking like the spit of his big brother, this little bundle was breastfeeding like a champ.
And, for all intents and purposes, breastfeeding Isaac has been going well.
Granted, I was more prepared this time, and worked hard. I read the books. I watched the videos. I talked to other mothers. I had a knowledgeable and supportive doula. I studiously watched my sister breastfeed my niece, Lydia. I met with a lactation consultant. I had an incredible community health nurse who visited my home day after day (after day!) until we got it right.
As Isaac approaches his first birthday, I can honestly say that breastfeeding has been truly one of the most enjoyable aspects of motherhood for me. And we have no plans to stop anytime soon.
However, these two vastly different experiences leave me conflicted about breastfeeding, and how we can best support new mothers. These feelings surfaced again recently while talking to a new mom who, like I did, is having trouble breastfeeding her new baby boy. As she spoke, I could hear the anxiety in her voice, and it was all too familiar.
I found myself wanting to help: I could give her my books and videos! The phone number for my lactation consultant! Here, borrow my pump! Have you tried the football hold?!
On the other hand, I wanted to say: It’s okay if it doesn’t work. You are still a good mother. You are not harming your child. I know you love and treasure him more than life itself. Your baby will be grow up to be happy and healthy, regardless of how you feed him.
What would be most helpful? Why is she, and why was I, consumed with guilt about the inability to breastfeed? How can we support and help new moms who want to breastfeed, without inadvertently pressuring and demoralizing them? How can we let new mothers make informed and confident choices about feeding their babies? These are my lessons learned:
1. Talk about it!
I honestly had NO IDEA that breastfeeding would be difficult….until it happened to me. Then it seemed that the stories were everywhere, and over time I realized it was very common. I think my lack of awareness before the baby came contributed to my feelings of shame and isolation.
2. The first few days are critical.
With my first-born, our breastfeeding journey was over after just 7 short days. With my second, I got as much help as I could in that first week. That community nurse who visited me daily? I don’t think I could have done it without her. She was incredibly empathetic – she even cried with me one day. I have since thanked her, but I don’t think she will ever know how much her constant, calm, and supportive presence helped me. Not only did she assist me with the mechanics of breastfeeding, but she BELIEVED I could do it, when truthfully I wasn’t sure I believed it myself.
3. Talk to Dad.
With our first son, I didn’t know what to expect, and my husband, Mike, certainly didn’t either! During my breastfeeding struggles, we often ended up frustrated with each other, no doubt rooted in our shared concern for our sweet little Max. Not surprisingly, the more frustration I sensed from Mike, the more upset I became and then the less likely I was to have a good nursing session with Max. And so the cycle went. But with our second son, Mike and I knew what we were facing and how our emotions would impact one another. He knew what I needed, because we talked about it at length before Isaac was even born. Of course it’s a no-brainer that communication in a marriage is a good thing, but it’s absolutely critical in relation to successful breastfeeding.
4. Seek out those that support you, and stay away from those that don’t….at least at the beginning.
I have some wonderful people in my life. Wonderful people who come with vastly different qualities, strengths, and personalities. I find some of these people to be calming and supportive in times of hardship, and others (although they do not mean to) to be judging and alarmist during times of stress. For those first few weeks with my second baby, I knew I would be emotionally vulnerable, and consciously kept a distance from those people. As Isaac and I relaxed into a good rhythm of breastfeeding, I was able to let those people back into my life and enjoy them again.
5. Breastfeeding promotion has come a ways, but still has a long way to go.
How many times when I was pregnant did I hear some variation of the slogan “Breast is best.” It was everywhere. But, at no point, not once, did anyone say to me “Breastfeeding is hard. Here the the name of people/places that can help you.” Yes, we all know that breastfeeding is good for mom and baby for many reasons, but very few people talk about the challenges and the emotional stress when things don’t go right. We need to talk about this. We need to share stories. We need to help each other, without judgement, so that mom’s can try breastfeeding and decide if this is right for them.
About the Author
Maria is mom to Max, 5, and Isaac, 1, and lives in Montreal, Quebec.