If you have questioned why breastfeeding is so painful or exhausting or hard, or felt like it’s making you depressed and unhappy then you are not alone.
I always presumed that if I had babies I would breastfeed. Maybe it was because at a young age I’d watched my mum breastfeeding my baby sister and the thought that this is what you do when you have a baby, had stuck in my mind.
By the time I was pregnant, the choice to breastfeed had been further enforced by the ‘breast is best’ mantra. It looked easy on videos and leaflets (baby is placed on nipple, opens mouth, knows what to do, milk starts to flow…) and whilst pain in labour (oh we all want to know about the ring of fire..) and pain relief options were deemed a necessary part of the ante natal learning process, issues that could arise in breastfeeding were not. Without the knowledge of what could go wrong I had built my expectations high up there – then sat in tears 4 months later feeling as though I was way down there. The ‘best’ had infact become the ‘beast’, that had chased me into a deep dark hole.
It was not only because of the pain of let down..and engorgement…and the toe curling ‘someone is cutting my nipples with a razor’ feeling, or the poor milk supply that had me hand pumping (wt?) for 6 hours a day to try to increase flow, It was also the guilt and shame. The guilt that I wanted the best for my baby but couldn’t provide it. The guilt that I was finding it so hard, so flipping exhausting, the guilt that I wanted to get each feed over with and wasn’t using the time to bond, the guilt that I was doing it more for me and those embedded beliefs and ‘breastfeeding goals’ that I had. The guilt that I was a bad mum because I was letting her down and not forgetting the additional narrative I’d formed in my head about what others would think of me for pulling out a bottle instead of a boob...Yes, I was a mess.
Breast vs Formula
In the most recent study of feeding rates in Australia, over a third of babies (39%) were fed either exclusively with formula or a combination of breastmilk and formula, for the first 4 months. A separate study mentioned ‘A traumatic birth, lack of professional support, inaccurate beliefs about how breastfeeding works, pressure from others, negative attitudes to breastfeeding in public and the lure of false advertising’, as contributing factors to ‘pain, perceived or real low milk supply, or a belief that formula is needed’. Women in the study reported that they believed that ‘if they had been cared for, supported and guided through this period, their mental health would have been protected’.
As the saying goes ‘fed is best’ and whilst my breastfeeding journey did not go according to how I had envisaged, when I finally decided my mental health mattered and stopped breastfeeding, my daughter became a happier baby. She fed and slept better which had a knock-on effect on my well-being too. That voice in my head had nothing more to say!!
I’ve had 2 more babies since and made the choice each time to breastfeed. Baby no. 2 was a breeze. We were both in sync and I fed until she was 12 months old without issues. With Baby no. 3 I managed to get to 6 months but with low supply again and finding out she had a dairy intolerance, choosing to stop made it easier for us both. Guilt was nowhere to be felt!
Breastfeeding Education, - the HOW with the good AND the bad
Whilst perseverence is one thing, having the tools and awareness of breastfeeding ins and outs would be helpful. Questions such as how do I increase supply? How do I deal with cracked nipples/mastitis/blocked ducts? Or how do I deal with pain? should be openly talked about alongside how to position a baby’s nose on the nipple for latch. Just as breastfeeding is natural so too are the problems associated with it!
Openness is one of the keys to a positive feeding experience. For those who have experienced breastfeeding issues share your story with other pregnant women and for those currently going through a challenging time know that you are not alone.
Helpful Tips for Breastfeeding
1) Prepare your nipples. Nipples are delicate and although over time breastfeeding will ‘toughen’ them up, applying coconut or olive oil or a nipple balm before nursing even begins, will help to soften, moisturise and minimise cracks and dry skin. Once baby starts to feed, breast milk itself can also be used on the area to help ease damaged skin. Nipple Shields can also be useful but prolonged use may cause latch issues when not using them.
2) Use heat and cold compresses to help with engorgement and let down.
3) Know where to get support in case you need it; have the contact details of a lactation consultant, midwife or local breastfeeding support group, to hand. During challenging times when your head is just not in it, you will be glad to have one less thing to think about.
Breastfeeding Association Australia Helpline: 1800 686 268
Plunketline New Zealand: 0800 933922
Helplines available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
4) Like birth, every breastfeeding experience is different. Every child feeds differently – even each of your own. Comparing the process with others or against your own expectations of how it should be, is not a true measure of supposed success.
5) YOU MATTER TOO – You are entitled to make choices based on what is right for you, - not only your baby.