Breastfeeding challenges part 1

Breastfeeding is one of those subjects we all have an opinion on. It’s also the issue that leads to the most frustration in new mums. We’ve always been led to believe that breastfeeding is physiological, that it’s “enough” to get the baby to the breast and he’ll latch on and feed easily. Yeah, right. This couldn’t be further from the truth for most. In fairness, going to the bathroom (number 2) is also physiological, yet a lot of people need help with that. A testament to this is the number of ads for laxatives! So, why do we assume breastfeeding is easy? This thought causes a lot of frustration, feelings of guilt and insecurity which, ironically, hinders breastfeeding even more.

To breastfeed can be quite a challenge. Disclaimer: despite the WHO guidelines of exclusive breastfeeding up to 6 months, the truth is that each woman is her own woman and has the right to choose whether she wants to breastfeed or not. Let’s stop with this bullying of women who chose not to breastfeed, or those who wanted to yet couldn’t for some reason. And I’m talking to the latter, specifically. If with this series of post I manage to help but one, I’ll be happy. Although most women do initiate breastfeeding before leaving hospital, by the time they hit the one-month mark, many have given up. And of the ones that continue, a large number stop around the 3-month mark. It’s basically down to lack of support and information. Support is crucial.

I’m speaking here about my experience, as it’s the only one I’m 100% familiar with. Each mother, each baby, each family is unique. Yet the challenges are all more or less the same, to a certain extent. I had a great pregnancy, I loved being pregnant and imagined my baby being born vaginally, having skin to skin contact for hours, he’d latch and everything would be peachy. However, nature played a trick on me and at the onset I had all the conditions to be unable to breastfeed. Baby S was born at 33+5 via emergency c-section and I’d been hospitalized for 4 days before that with a ruptured sac and high risk of infection. He was in NICU for 14 days. I had no such thing as skin to skin – – I managed to see him before he was whisked off to intermediate care by his father. And this is where the breastfeeding saga began… I really wanted to breastfeed him exclusively until he turned 6 months old. However, faced with this scenario, I would be lucky to breastfeed at all, even more so for 6 months. So, the most important thing is: take it one step at a time. I’m writing this post to tell you that yes, it is possible. And to encourage the mothers and fathers who, just like us, lived through something that was far from the ideal they’d imagined all along.

The feeling of returning to the ward without my baby was odd. There were two more mums there: one had her baby with her and the other was in the same situation as me. The nurse came to me and the first thing I told her, and I was adamant, was “I want to breastfeed. What do I have to do”? She replied I’d have to express milk with a pump, to stimulate the let-down and that in order to do so, I’d have to sit up (which I learned isn’t an easy task after a c-section.) “Fine”, I said, “I’ll sit”. She came to me again after 6 hours (the maximum time we should wait before expressing) and “forced” me to get up and walk to the bathroom. Oh my, 20 yards have never seemed so far away… and the 2 steps to get to the bathroom? Hell. I was dying to see my son, but the diziness wouldn’t allow me. It was 11 pm. I saw him for the first time at 2 am, taken there on a wheelchair by an assistant who looked more like an angel. I got very familiar with the hallways that connected my ward and the NICU during the following days.

Back to the expression… when the nurse came to me for me to stand up, she had with her an electric Medela pump (luckily I’d bought a smaller version of the same brand, which made life easier later on). I was told that it was normal if nothing came out in the first 4 tries and that I would have to insist, in order to stimulate milk production. It was actually the first 5. Nothing. At this time, I beacme crippled with fear – what if I don’t have milk? What if I’m never able to express? Our mind races at this time. I had to quieten my thoughts. That first dawn, the baby in the ward cried and I didn’t have mine with me. I felt like I’d been stabbed in the heart. I also cried, silent tears so I wouldn’t disturb the other mothers. I made a playlist with meditation music and positive affirmations and tried to express again. On the fifth go – some colostrum. I wept tears of happiness. As liquid gold it was, the nurse put it in a tiny syringe and I “ran” (well, dragged myself) to my baby so I could finally feed him what his mommy had produced. I continued to express – every 3 hours, 15 minutes on each breast. And a little more came out (almost) every time. It’s very difficult to express milk when you’re in pain and bed-ridden. At one point I spilled the little milk I’d managed to express and cried in anger and frustration. But slowly, I’d express and feed my baby who, after a while, was on mommy’s milk alone.