Whenever I interview with a potential birth client, I warn them that I am not a "rainbows and unicorns" doula. I am realistic and straightforward. This post is all of that, and I have wanted to get this confession out into the world and set it free. Before I begin, let me make it clear that anything I write here is not meant to be a judgement on others' choices. This is all simply my experience, and it is valid on its own.
Chapter 1: It Hurt
When I had my first baby, she latched on like a champ right away. The nurses sang out my praises that I was "a rockstar" and "a natural". I had intended to breastfeed for at least a year, so this was encouraging. About 8 hours later, after she had nursed approximately 7.5 of those 8 hours, it felt like someone was slicing my nipples with razor blades each time she latched on. I had just accomplished a 42 week *induction* without pain medication of any kind, so I knew I was not imagining that this was excruciating.
No one checked her for tongue tie, and I didn't know to ask. I did see a lactation consultant in the hospital and they said she had a great latch (which she did, from the outside, at least). I coped with cracked, bleeding, and extremely painful nipples for weeks. Toe-curling pain at each latch on, 12 or more times per day. I pushed through...out of sheer stubbornness, I suppose. I also credit my background in competitive gymnastics. Pain was often a price to pay for reaching a goal. It was not a foreign concept to me.
One day, around 6 weeks, it no longer hurt. This is been the pattern for all 4 of my babies. We've since had babies with tongue ties, bad latches, you name it...and my growing knowledge allowed me to access resources to resolve all those issues. The pain has been marginally better with each one, but still...there, for a reliable 6 weeks.
Chapter 2: D-MER
D-MER is a fun little condition where a breastfeeding mother feels like crap, emotionally, for the first 30 -60 seconds of each feeding. It is a physiological response, as opposed to a psychological one, that has to do with the change in oxytocin and dopamine levels required to initiate milk flow. It is not an aversion to breastfeeding (although that exists too!) The really fun thing is that I didn't know what was happening to me until I googled "why do I feel depressed during let-down" after I was already well into breastfeeding my second baby. Aha! This is a thing! There is a medical term for it! It is rare, and there is a spectrum of severity, but many women experience this same temporary chemical effect on their mood.
Thankfully for me, this effect fades after 6 months or so, and I didn't get it at all with my 4th baby. Just knowing that it was a purely chemical reaction made it easier to cope, and also knowing that it will fade over time helped, too.
Chapter 3: It Is Time-Consuming
I like to do things. I have learned through nursing 4 babies that, for the first 3 months, I need to lower my expectations of "doing" to zero. Why? Let me explain. You know how everyone remotely knowledgeable about breastfeeding promotes feeding-on-demand at least 8-12 times per day? Now, double that, and you would start to approach the amount of times per day all of my children have "demanded" to be fed. It was close to every 45 minutes. All day. I would get slightly longer at night. Considering a newborn can take anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes to feed...you do the math.
It is a lot for what feels like a long time. However, because I chose to feed on demand despite the hefty time-commitment, I always had adequate milk supply and even over-produced at times. I learned later on that I likely have a smaller storage capacity, which means I make plenty of milk, but don't have a lot of room to store it in between feedings. This is a normal variation among women and has nothing to do with breast size. Kellymom.org explains it well:
Think of storage capacity as a cup – you can easily drink a large amount of water throughout the day using any size of cup – small, medium or large – but if you use a smaller cup it will need to be refilled more often.
Around 3 to 4 months, everything always gets miraculously easier. Babies nurse more efficiently (read: less often and for less time), their mouths and stomachs are bigger, they aren't having a growth spurt every three days, milk supply is well-established. Ahhhh *sigh* we made it. At this point, for me at least, it's a breeze.
Chapter 4: Breastfeeding in Public
Did I mention I like to do things? After an initial resting space of a few weeks, I need to get OUT. Babies are portable so they go with me. And remember how often my babies need/want (stress on the "want") to eat? Inevitably, they will need to nurse while we are out. I have nursed babies all over Richmond and up and down the east coast, and have never resorted to a bathroom (would you eat your meal in a bathroom?).
In fact, I'm quite a nursing-in-public "lactavist" now, so it may surprise you to find out that I don't actually enjoy nursing in public. It makes me very uncomfortable. Like most women, I have a very deeply ingrained (and unrealistic..and unhealthy) need to please everyone around me and I have to fight off that inner voice whenever I nurse in public. I NEED to feed my baby, because she is hungry (or tired, thirsty, or overstimulated, or cold, or scared...or any of the other million legitimate reasons they need to "come home" and nurse). I am obligated to my baby, not the strangers at Target who might be mildly uncomfortable for the 5 seconds they walk by me. I am obligated to my baby, not my own immature desire to stay within my comfort zone at all times. The alternative is staying home (nope) or pumping milk to bring out, which is even more time consuming and can affect milk supply (so, no).
In an ideal world, breasts would not be considered purely sexual objects by society and breastfeeding in public would be such a completely normal thing that it wouldn't even register as someone walks by. But we do not live in an ideal world. While I'm uncomfortable, my action of nursing in public is helping to move that societal norm towards normalization, and that is something I am proud of. I hope my daughters have babies in a world where nursing in public is just...nursing.
Well folks, there is the shocking revelation that a woman who started a company primarily based on lactation products does not actually love breastfeeding. Let me be clear that there are moments and spaces of time where it is easy and convenient and wonderful. But there are struggles and sacrifices and difficulties too, which is what I wanted to highlight here. Despite all of these things, I breastfeed for a few reasons:
- I am able. There are medical reasons why some women can't breastfeed, and thank goodness we have an ever-evolving option in those cases ("science milk" as one of my favorite birth clients called it). With one of my babies, there came a time when I became un-able due to a medical reason. I switched to formula and have never felt bad about it.
- Breastmilk is the ideal food for babies. Every body of science and medicine has proven it over and over again. I like science and evidence backed by research. While formula is a great option when medically necessary, breastmilk has antibodies, probiotics, chemical signals, enzymes, antioxidant compounds and other things we don't even know the purpose of yet.
- Health benefits for both of us. Research has shown that breastfed babies, overall, are healthier and possibly smarter. Their parents lose less time from work for illnesses. Moms also have a lower risk of breast cancer directly related to the amount of time she breastfeeds. I have a lot of cancer in my family, so I'm always up for lowering my risks.
- I avoid unnecessary work. That's code for "I don't like washing dishes" and "I don't like bringing extra stuff with me". Washing and putting away the breastfeeding "equipment" is already enough.
Is breastfeeding a love/hate relationship for you, too? Share your experience in the comments below!
Miesha Vargas is a mother of 4, a professional birth doula of nearly 8 years, a certified Lamaze childbirth educator, and the founder of Monarch Birth & Baby.