I always knew I wanted to breastfeed. I imagined cuddling a brand new little sleepy baby, drinking contentedly and smiling up at me: his mummy. I pictured lunches with old friends, coffees with new mummy friends, my little baby feeding, gurgling & sleeping on my lap. I knew of all the health benefits and had attended all the breastfeeding workshops and read all the leaflets. I understood about supply and demand. I loved the idea of continuing to use my body to make the food for our baby and the ease of not having to worry about sterilising bottles or warming bought powdered milk , appealing to my low-maintenance lifestyle. I was ready and excited. I knew that 'labour' would be hard work but after all that, the feeding would be easy, wouldn't it?
I hadn't appreciated that after a 'normal' birth, we'd be home so soon, long before the milk properly came in, far from the midwives trained to help you latch your baby on.
It never occurred to me that when the milk came in on day three, breasts became painful boulders all the way up to the armpits.
It never occurred to me that the let down of milk, the contracting of muscles & releasing of milk, would require controlled breathing to cope with waves of pain.
I never realised that I would leak milk inbetween feeds.
I didn't know that the milk could spray uncontrollably for a minute or two.
I didn't realise that feeding a tiny new born baby would require such patience and perseverance, that getting the 'perfect latch' could seem so unattainable.
I hadn't pictured my baby crying in a rage of hunger and frustration while we stumbled over the basics of feeding. Me crying too, in pain, sadness and an overwhelming miserable feeling of failure.
I hadn't prepared myself for blocked ducts, mastitis, over-supply, engorgement or the indignity of doing the shopping with chilled cabbage leaves tucked inside my bra (great for reducing inflammation, fyi.)
But I'm one of the lucky ones. I was lucky to have plenty of milk to offer and a baby who could, eventually, latch on. I have a wonderful husband who made emergency trips to late night shops to buy a breast pump, backup formula milk and changed nappies; he brings me snacks, drinks & muslin cloths while marooned on the sofa for epic nursing sessions. I was lucky to be able to feed from both sides. I was lucky to have had a 'normal' birth at 38 weeks (both times) and could feed without worrying about an abdominal wound, major tearing or the after-effects of strong drugs. I didn't have to worry about cracked, bleeding nipples or breast abscesses. Believe me, I've had it relatively easy. I was also lucky to have been helped by great midwives, breastfeeding councillors, sympathetic listeners at the end of the NCT breastfeeding helpline and my own mother who breastfed all her three children. The best advice I received was to relax, lie back and let my hungry newborn root around and find his own way on. Not all women in the world can access such services, support or even the formula milk that would've been a pretty good substitute if I'd not been so doggedly determined.
After a couple of uncomfortable months, we eventually got there. I kept going because my babies continued to grow and gain weight. And I'm so glad we kept going. I know that some new mums manage to feed without any issues, but many, like me, really struggle. Many chose other good options or have to give up, or told to give up. My doctor told me to stop feeding because of suspected mastitis. I'd usually take the doctor's word as law, but luckily (?!), I'd had a bad case of the same thing before and was told by another doctor that the best thing is to keep feeding, to keep the milk flowing. Antibiotics would make the milk temporarily saltier, I was told, but that was all.
Considering this common struggle to establish the art of breastfeeding, I find it surprising that this basic need of nourishing a baby still receives such hostility amongst some people in some places. While many places do encourage nursing mums, including cafes & churches, some still find it unacceptable. Thanks to the nature of social media, nursing mothers have shared stories of being shamed in public, banished to a toilet or told to stop. In response, breastfeeding sit-ins have been organised to challenge this old-fashioned view, raising awareness and trying to force change. Social media giant, Facebook, had previously censored images of breastfeeding but after the rise in the controversial "brelfies" [breastfeeding-selfies], such sites have reviewed their policies. I was recently breastfeeding outside the hospital and a few women commented,"good on you!" "You go, girl!" All positive reactions, thankfully, but I do find it strange how something so natural has become so radical.
I'm pleased to report that I have become the breastfeeding mamma that I hoped to be, casually offering a feast to my little one like it's no big deal. It's not an act of exhibitionism but a basic practical need to feed a baby. I've written this for all the new mums who might struggle a bit or a lot or not at all. I've written this for everyone to know a little more about the background story of that mother smiling down at her baby, breastfeeding on the bench in the market square, at a service station or midway on a hike by the sea.