Breastfeeding is really hard. And it had me feeling like I’d already failed as a mother before I’d barely become one.
By Nicole Fuge, Mama Disrupt® Managing Editor
Breastfeeding – often hailed as the most natural form of nourishment for a newborn – comes with its own set of challenges. For many of us, it’s not the serene image of motherhood as often portrayed. But rather a journey filled with hurdles that can push our boundaries of physical, emotional and mental resilience.
With both of my babies, I grappled with the complexities of breastfeeding. For the first few weeks, each feeding session was a tangle of frustration and tears, a stinging reminder of an unspoken failure. The weight of societal expectations, combined with my own aspirations of motherhood, nearly broke me.
And it wasn’t until speaking out after intense challenges with my second child, that I realised I wasn’t the only one going through this.
“CRADLING HIM IN MY ARMS, MY SHOULDERS GO UP, I GRIT MY TEETH AND HOLD MY BREATH IN PREPARATION OF THE PAIN. IT’S NOT A PERFECT LATCH, IT NEVER IS AT THE START, BUT I’M TRYING TO PUSH PAST IT. I START TO SOB OUT OF SHEER EXHAUSTION AND FRUSTRATION, WHY IS THIS SO HARD?”
Breast intentions … confusing directions
As a new mum, I was very impressionable. I had no idea what to expect from breastfeeding, nor how to do it (looking back, the antenatal classes were not helpful at all).
I hung on every word and listened to every piece of advice from the people looking after me and my baby. And I did everything they told me to do. The only problem was, that every single person had different advice about the best way to breastfeed.
Every time a doctor, midwife, nurse or lactation consultant would come in for observations, they would ask how feeding was going and ask me to show them. They would then tell me I was doing it wrong and show me another way. So then I would continue feeding that way for the next few hours until the next person came in and would berate me in the same way.
I later found out (after a baby blues breakdown on day 3) that there is an ‘old school way’ and a ‘new school way’ of feeding, plus everyone has their preferred technique. No wonder I struggled!
Second time’s the charm
After a rocky start, I went on to breastfeed my daughter until she was 20 months old. And that gave me a lot of confidence when I had my son. I thought breastfeeding would be a breeze. The only thing was, being a brand new baby, feeding him would be a totally new and different experience. Which is something I hadn’t thought about, nor had anyone told me.
To be honest, I actually struggled more the second time. And that was a harsh reality to overcome in itself.
The first week home
I remember my hardest night. We were barely home from hospital and I was adjusting to life as a mum-of-two. My son was hungrier than my daughter was at that age (turns out that is actually a thing – on average, boys feed more than girls) and I was completely defeated.
I wrote this in my journal…
“My baby starts to cry. He is hungry. Again. I slowly sit up, while my husband does his best to comfort our newborn son and I try to remember which side I fed from last. Both my nipples are completely ravaged, cracked, bleeding, and I’m dreading the moment my baby tries to latch.
Cradling him in my arms, my shoulders go up, I grit my teeth and hold my breath in preparation of the pain. It’s not a perfect latch, it never is at the start, but I’m trying to push past it. I start to sob out of sheer exhaustion and frustration, why is this so hard?
Breastfeeding is natural, it is supposed to be easy, why is this so hard? I feel like I’m failing him already. I feel like I’m a bad mother for even thinking about formula. But I just don’t know what else to do. I know that breastfeeding is important, but at what cost?”
Make or break me
That night, which could have been the breaking of me, ended up being the making of me as a mother. I wanted to (and felt like I needed to) push through and try to find a way. Because at least then, I could rest easy knowing I had exhausted everything, and that would still mean I’m a good mum.
With the benefit of hindsight, I now know that just isn’t true. A mother’s mental health matters, and we should feel supported in making the decisions that we believe are the best for our baby, for us, and for our family. We need to stop being shamed and told we’re not good enough.
All pain, no gain
I desperately texted my mum friends and one of them told me about nipple shields. Something I never even knew existed, despite this being my second child. And let me tell you, they literally saved me. Without nipple shields, I don’t think I could have continued feeding. I wore them until my nips healed and then gently weaned myself until I was strong enough to not need them anymore.
I also struggled with low supply – something I experienced with both of my babies, but it was much harder with my second because he was just such a hungry boob monster. So we bought an emergency tin of formula. I called it that because I was really reluctant to mix-feed. I felt like a failure if I did… thanks to social conditioning. But even still, knowing that tin was in the pantry took the pressure off and reduced my stress, because I knew that if I needed to, I could give it to my baby and he wouldn’t go hungry.
I also pumped like crazy, baked lactation cookies, drank smoothies, took fenugreek, and ate boobie brownies while I was up feeding in the middle of the night. I became obsessed with trying to boost my supply so that I could ‘properly’ provide for my babies and ‘be a good mum’.
I am fortunate to have a supportive husband who went out and found me nipple shields and mum-approved baby formula. But breastfeeding our baby was something only I could do. And I felt immense pressure to be able to do it and to nourish them in such a way. Especially because I wasn’t able to pump a decent stash in the beginning, bottle feeding wasn’t an option (unless I cracked open that emergency formula).
And as so many mums know, those cluster night feeds are really lonely. But it is somewhere in those deep, dark nights that you get to know yourself on another level – a mother level – and you realise that you possess a strength that only we have.
Now, my son is almost two-and-a-half, and that milestone will mark the end of our breastfeeding journey. If only my former self could see me now…
Tears of joy, the first time I fed you,
Tears of pain, while learning to feed you,
Tears of painful joy, this last time I feed you.
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