It’s hard to believe I’ve been breastfeeding for six months. Soon this phase will be just happy memory. (I’ll gladly stick it out for at least a full year but don’t intend to keep going with a kindergartner.) Anyway, before the memories of the earliest days of this strange and wonderful experience get any foggier in my head, it’s time to talk about my initiation into breastfeeding.
It didn’t start when I had The Baby, though. I need to back up to 2008, first. I was fresh out of college with a journalism degree and had moved to a small city in South Carolina (following The Boyfriend, eventually to be known as The Husband) just at the peak of the economic collapse that made an already bleak job outlook almost comical. So when I got a job offer managing a women’s resource center at the local hospital system, I threw down my Books-A-Million apron (sorrynotsorry) and marched headlong into a field in which I had no business serving as any sort of resource.
I had to prescreen childbirth videos to purchase for the childbirth education classes.
I had to learn the functions and merits of every model of Medela breast pumps and explain to outraged women why they shouldn’t use their sister’s old pump.
I got to know the kindly older nurses who were certified lactation consultants, who taught breastfeeding classes and who helped new moms figure out how to get the hang of breastfeeding. (Lee, Faye, Elizabeth… if there is a heaven, I want those three greeting me at the gates. Seriously, they were saints.)
One time, when no one was available to teach a booked breastfeeding class at the last minute, I had the out-of-body-what-the-shit-am-I-doing moment of seeing myself standing at the front of a room full of extremely pregnant women and their partners, holding a doll up to my own chest and explaining the various holds I had observed the nurses explaining, but that I had never actually seen in action, let alone performed. The not at all convinced faces staring back to me confirmed that a childless 22-year-old with a fresh journalism degree and the stink of desperation is not the spirit guide you want for your journey into motherhood.
Somehow though, I smugly thought of myself as an expert as I approached my own impending date with breastfeeding destiny. Armed with the reassurances of those LCs so many years ago, their warm southern accents engraved in my memory, I practically felt like I had done this before.
The Baby arrived and latched on right away, fervently nursing for a solid hour in the delivery room until we had to convince him to take a break. So I felt affirmed: I, breastfeeding expert, was in for smooth sailing.
Then the no-nonsense midwestern nurses packed us into our Subaru and waved goodbye, and my real adventure began.
Or as I like to refer to it, Hell Month. (How I wish I could call it Hell Week.)
My OB didn’t make it to the delivery, but he did call me when I got home to see how I was feeling. He ended the call with, “Whatever you do, just don’t get mastitis. It feels like you have the flu but worse and you’ll wish you were dead.”
Noted. (Spoiler: He also told me, whatever I do, not to go into labor on Christmas Day. I am an unintentional contrarian, I guess.)
It took my milk a couple days to come in and when it did JESUS CHRIST. Let’s just say I couldn’t see my toes again for a few days.
Latching on became an impossible game of target practice. The Baby would open his mouth wide but wave his little hands in front of it. Getting the latch wrong felt like sticking a high-suction vacuum tube lined with sandpaper to my nipple. Getting it right honestly didn’t feel much better after awhile, because the cracking and bleeding had set in and any contact brought a great deal of pain.
The worst of this hit leading up to a weekend and I couldn’t make an appointment with a lactation consultant until the following Monday. In the meantime, The Husband would hand me the baby and I would start sobbing just from the anticipation of having to feed him. I ended up pumping and feeding him with a medicine dropper for a day or so to give myself time to heal. My nipples were in such bad shape I had to dump out the first half-ounce or so of milk because it was tinged pink with blood.
This weekend was also when I got my first plugged duct, which felt like a horrible bruise on top of a tumor. I read that scrubbing it in a hot shower worked, so I did that. I did that so aggressively that I gave myself a serious friction burn from the washcloth. Plugged duct gone, but skin also gone. (Take it from me tip: Use a bar of soap to coax a plugged duct.)
When I went to the lactation consultant, she helped me work on my latch (which frankly, I was doing right during the day, but every night I would backslide because The Baby would only sleep latched on and next to me, and I was too exhausted to sit up in bed with the light on to diligently monitor his position.) She also took a look at the horrible aftermath of my plugged-ductectomy and said it looked extra red, and that I should watch out for mastitis. I assured her it didn’t hurt anymore and was probably just red because I’m an idiot.
Then I woke up the next morning convulsing with chills, with a 102-degree fever and a weakness that made the aftermath of childbirth feel like child’s play. My OB’s words came back to me: “It feels like you have the flu but worse and you’ll wish you were dead.”
I got some antibiotics and was feeling better by the next day. Latching was slowly starting to get easier and my nipples were starting to heal. I still had to stomp my foot and say FUUUUCK out loud when The Baby started his feeds, but the pain faded after the first minute.
Then I started getting paranoid about getting thrush from the antibiotics, so after feeds I would dunk my boobs in cups of warm saline solution. I also spent half a year’s salary on those Lansinoh Soothies gel pads, which are unbelievably expensive but worth every cent.
I got mastitis one more time – The night before The Husband was due to go back to work, I woke at 3 a.m. with a throbbing pain in my left breast and immediately the chills set in. I felt too guilty to interrupt The Husband’s sleep to ask him for help (stupid), but ended up waking him up two hours later because my chills were shaking the bed. I unplugged this duct without shredding my skin and nursed and laid in bed and felt better that afternoon, but it was once again awful.
Finally, finally, as The Baby got bigger, feeding him got easier.
Quitting never occurred to me as an option for some reason, but I can see why some women do, and don’t blame them one bit. At least I had a GREAT supply, and plenty of time to work on it and lots of help. If I had been in agony and my baby wasn’t getting enough milk, or I had to go back to work far sooner… Ugh. It can be really daunting.
I’m so grateful that breastfeeding worked out for me, despite a rocky start. It is such an awesome bonding experience, it’s free (except for having to keep up with my ravenous appetite) and it’s super, super good for him.
So that’s my stumbling, fumbling entry into breastfeeding. If you’re reading this, feeding your new baby, good luck to you. You can do it. I believe in you! It gets easier, and then it gets awesome.
(And if you decide you can’t or don’t want to do it anymore, you can do that too! Fed is best, as they say.)
How did your early days with breastfeeding go? Share in the comments!