I am done breastfeeding, in all likelihood, forever. But it is still one of the most emotive topics of babyhood for me and every time I hear about a friend or a friend of a friend who was unable to do it because she was somehow misguided along the way, I feel a mixture of frustration and sadness. Not, to be clear, because I embrace unqualifiedly the idea that ‘breast is best’: we can be thankful that, with the help of so many thoughtful commentators, the breast versus bottle debate is now moving beyond the linear simplicity of that particular slogan turned battle-cry.
Rather, it is because what I think is ‘best’ when it comes to babies and milk is for a woman to be able to make an enlightened decision about what is right for her - and her child - with the most information and least regret possible. And so often, it seems, this simply isn’t the case. The bottle is the not the enemy here: choosing the bottle from a platform of confusion, fear or misinformation is.
If we look at new mothers in a Venn diagram, there are always going to be women who choose to breastfeed and who then achieve it with little incident. So too there are always going to be women who choose to formula feed and do that with little incident. These two groups should pose no problem for either health-care practitioners or enquiring onlookers and hopefully each side will enjoy the benefits their preferred milk-source has to offer.
It is the middle section of the circle that deserves our attention: the group of women who want, sometimes desperately so, to breastfeed but who don’t or can’t in the end. To be sure, some of these women or their babies will encounter insurmountable physical and/or emotional obstacles that will ultimately make breastfeeding inappropriate for them. For the others, however, there is probably something more that can be done to help them accomplish their goal. It is not always easy to know, of course, what exactly that ‘something’ is.
I have a vested interest in this particular sub-set. I often look back at my own experience breastfeeding my first child with utter amazement. How, oh how, did I pull through those initial ten weeks? It is all too easy to see that had things been different, even only a little, I might have taken another path. Several factors worked together, I realize in retrospect, to keep me doing it day after day after day: the medical and social culture I lived in, the fact that my own mother breastfed and supported me in the endeavor, a fierce psychological commitment to a cause I didn’t know I harbored. The path not taken wouldn’t have been a bad one. But it also wouldn’t have been the one I wanted and that still matters.
What makes breastfeeding so hard starts with the fact that it is virtually impossible to explain the reality of it in advance. You may never have changed a diaper before. You may never have folded a swaddle with origami-like precision. But learn these things once and you will no doubt proceed through the early days of your baby’s life with enough mastery to get the job done to everyone’s satisfaction. Breastfeeding, on the other hand, promises nothing like a comparable or stable rate of success. It is a continual work in progress, changing daily and weekly as the baby himself changes.
And even if you think you understand the words and the concepts introduced at your La Leche class, even if you were able to cradle the practice doll in a flawless cross-hold position, none of that will mean anything to you. Not, that is, until 2:43am, when you sit propped up in bed with a mountain of pillows and a writhing two-week-old on your lap who is apparently going through a ‘growth spurt’ but who still refuses, for the third time in a row, to clamp onto your red-raw nipple. The answer you are looking for right then, well, it’s not in your notes and it’s not necessarily in your ‘What To Expect’ either.
So nobody can really tell you what it will be like, partly because you won’t believe them and partly because your story will be unique. But here are the three things I wish I knew before that first time I raised a baby to my unsuspecting breast. Knowing them, individually or collectively, wouldn’t have stopped the tears. But it might have normalized what was happening to me and given me a better context in which to make the decision of whether to persevere or not.
1. It is probably going to hurt. A lot. A toe-curling, jaw-clenching lot. A proper latch is very important, but it is plainly false that there won’t be pain even if the baby is attached just perfectly. Sometimes untried nipples are so sensitive that the grip of a tiny and eager mouth alone is enough to leave them feeling battered and bruised. This sort of pain can take weeks - and even months - to subside, but it will go eventually and breastfeeding almost always becomes pain-free and comfortable over the course of time.
2. It is a constant responsibility. Breastfeeding works on a supply and demand basis which means that you have to build your milk supply to meet the baby’s demand by feeding him over and over again. Day and night. For many women, the milk supply is too fragile in the first weeks to opt out of even a single feed. Not having enough milk is often a case of not making enough milk. Making enough milk can feel like a full time job at the best of times and when you are exhausted and recovering from birth it is even more gruelling. Supplementing with formula early on is a very tempting - and sometimes legitimate - option, but it can also be problematic, especially during that no man’s land when you are waiting for your milk to ‘come in’. The best advice I ever got in this respect came from a midwife on day three: today is gong to be hard, she said, the baby is getting hungrier and the colostrum isn’t quite going to cut it, but things will be better tomorrow. Or the next day. Simply knowing in advance that the first phase of breastfeeding is about putting your head down and weathering the storm is half the battle of surviving it.
3. It is an emotional minefield. Breastfeeding mothers tend to be a little crazy. There is a wild swirl of hormones in play and when you combine that endocrinological fact with the pain and the constancy of feeding and the responsibility of always having to do it yourself, the ensuing hysteria is not surprising. You will over-react to things. You will worry that your baby is not getting enough to eat or gaining enough weight. You will scream at your husband for letting the baby sleep too long (or not long enough) and thereby compromising the perfect balance of milk you have just managed to engineer. Life will become for you the spaces in-between the feeds. Prepare for this. Prepare your partner. And then wait until you wean to meet again the saner, though perhaps slightly more bereft, version of yourself.