Any woman who has given birth knows that while we are inundated with information about pregnancy, there are key postpartum issues that do not get enough air time: i.e. that your breasts become hard as rocks and sensitive before your milk comes in, and that the first day after a c-section is brutal.
Perhaps these details are better left unsaid, but one thing should be conveyed clearly to women who intend to breastfeed: “Breastfeeding may be natural, but it doesn’t always come naturally.” My mother worked as a nurse in the newborn nursery for decades and shared that wisdom with me when I had my first baby.
Looking back, those early days were tough and her support critical. As I waited for what seemed like an eternity for my milk to come in, I remember crying as my frustration grew with every new sore on my body. It was comforting to hear her remind me that breastfeeding was something I had to learn and that the calmer I was, the more easily things would flow.
When my milk finally did come in, I remember exactly what I was doing. I was standing in the doorway of my living room, wincing as my rock-solid breasts brushed up against a soaked t-shirt. I remember removing it and calling for my husband as milk sprayed from my body onto the couch, our black lab, and the floor. I had never felt uglier. I had a headache from crying and couldn’t get my son to latch on without pain. My body was raw, my couch was wet, my spirits were broken, and I broke down and asked my husband to do the thing I never thought we would do: call the in-home lactation consultant listed on the hospital discharge papers. I had laughed when the nurses explained the option, because I was certainly not going to be showing any more strangers my breasts. Well not only did I show them to our visitor, I was so distraught when she arrived that I greeted her while sitting on my couch with my top down. It was not my best moment.
But in the weeks and months that followed, I had better moments—and I am grateful to that woman. She patched me up, gave me a nipple shield so my son could latch on while my skin healed, and she prepared me for the transition away from it. Many women warned that between the pacifier and the shield I wore, that my son would never latch on naturally. I ignored them and bonded with my baby. I went on to nurse him for a year thanks to her support and to my mother continuing to remind me that, “It’s breastfeeding, not nipple feeding.”
According to the fact sheet on breastfeeding released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in December 2017, 60% of all mothers do not breastfeed for as long as they intend. Reasons range from unsupportive work policies and lack of parental leave to issues related to lactation and latching. I can relate. I was only able to overcome my initial struggles with early intervention and ongoing encouragement from mothers who guided me through my journey. With their help, I learned how to nurse discreetly in public, pump and store milk, and wean my baby. Not only did this help me achieve my parenting goals, knowing how to manage breastfeeding allowed me to throw my friend an out-of-state baby shower two weeks after I gave birth, attend her overnight bachelorette party and her wedding as the Matron of Honor, train for a marathon, work, and sneak weekends away with my husband. All were complicated situations worth struggling with and they were managed with support.
Breastfeeding is not as straightforward as it may seem to new mothers. We can support them by spreading the word that breastfeeding may be natural, but it doesn’t always come naturally—or attractively.