Where the hell am I going to get a cabbage leaf at this time of night?
It’s 2 a.m. and my breast is engorged — at least I think it is; there’s a huge throbbing lump in the left one that I’m pretty sure is naht a tuma, in the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but a result of something wrong with my breastfeeding.
First of all, my boob hurts like a mo-fo. And everyone’s sleeping. And my 3-week-old daughter is about to wake up again screeching for food, bless her heart, and I won’t be able to give her any out of my veiny, humongous G-cups (yes, there is such a thing, I’ve discovered) unless I get some cabbage leaves to fix them, according to Dr. Internet.
Second, I don’t think she’s getting enough food from me. She’s always sucking — no, chomping — on my boobs then crying after. Maybe it’s gas, maybe it’s constipation, maybe it’s tiredness, but as a new mom I am terrified that it’s me: My body’s not producing enough milk for her.
I could “supplement,” but even I, who knows next to nothing in these “mommy wars,” has somehow been acculturated to believe that I must do everything in my power not to use formula and to continue nursing. Including, possibly, starving my daughter.
Little do I know that at three weeks, I ain’t seen nothin’ yet — engorgement, clogged ducts, something called thrush, which sounds like a character from The Hunger Games, and can lead to “mastitis,” a condition that will end with you in the hospital — are just some of the exciting things I have to look forward to.
I’ve run marathons, finished a triathlon, and even went through four years of infertility treatments. They said motherhood would be hard, but — and I’d scream this in more than shouty caps if I could: WHY DIDN’T ANYONE TELL ME ABOUT BREASTFEEDING?
Why didn’t anyone tell me that committing to breastfeeding would turn me into a crazed maniac who never eats, sleeps, exercises, or leaves the house — forget socializing — a worrywart always fretting about either feeding, prepping for feeding or recovering from feeding? Why didn’t anyone warn me that breastfeeding would ruin my sleep, my sex life, my work, my body, and my very sanity?
And that by taking on breastfeeding, I’d be creating a dynamic so unequal that in this very feminist day and age, I would end up being the parent primarily responsible for my child?
What This Is Not
THIS IS NOT GOING TO BE A REVIEW OF THE BENEFITS OF BREASTFEEDING OVER FORMULA. No, I am not going to go into the plethora of studies that aim to show that nursing is better for our children — helping their immunity, their health, their body mass index, and their ability to fly (okay that last study hasn’t been done yet, but mark my words: It will be).
Enough has been written documenting it — and recently, debunking some of it (“Study does not link breastfeeding with Child’s IQ”), because it’s nearly impossible to separate breastfeeding from the types of people who breastfeed.
I will not go into it because (a) I’m too tired from nursing, and (b) it’s been drummed into us subconsciously while we weren’t paying attention. We all get it: Breast IS best.
What we don’t get — not until we’re in the thick of it with clogged ducts at 2 a.m. — is what committing to breastfeeding actually means: how goddamned hard it is. And what you need in terms of a support system in order to do it. And what you will give up if you stick with it. Which, by the way, most women do not do: stick with it.
Only a third of mothers who said they wanted to exclusively breastfeed for three months or longer made it that long, according to a 2012 study in Pediatrics. Some 42 percent stopped in the first month, and 15 percent stopped before they left the hospital.
Boy, do I identify with that. Had I known what breastfeeding entailed, I might not have been so quick to say yes to it in the first place.
How I Decided to Breastfeed
“Will you be breastfeeding?” people constantly asked me during pregnancy.
“I’ll try,” I would say, then pointing to my growing double D’s, add, “with these guys, I sure hope so.” (Little did I know then that breast size has nothing to do with ability to provide milk.)
Like everything pregnancy-related, I had no definitive stance on breastfeeding: After trying for so many years to have a baby and undergoing so much pain and torture, I promised myself I was going to be easygoing about everything.
I was not going to partake in the mommy wars, in which women are judged for not breastfeeding and can only get away with opting out if they have a really solid reason — like they’re on meds or don’t produce milk or their nipples are cracked and bleeding. (Like, bad bleeding.)
I don’t live in Stroller Central, in neighborhoods like Park Slope, Brooklyn, or Santa Monica, California, where that kind of peer pressure exists.
Because I’d spent four years trying to have a baby, I thought the least I could do was try breastfeeding. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, no problem.
Besides, how hard could it be?
What It’s Really Like
PICTURE THIS: A beautiful, natural-looking woman looks down lovingly at her serene and smooth baby, cradled in the crook of her arm, suckling contentedly on her perfectly small and round B-cup breast. Nirvana, right?
Now picture the reality: a disheveled, sleep-deprived mom (me) with knotty hair and smelly pits wrestles with a scrawny 1-month-old, trying to cajole her to get back on this orb, which is 20 times the size of the newborn’s head.
The baby scratches and claws at the painful breast then sucks voraciously for a few minutes, then falls asleep for 15. Mom, like a prisoner, doesn’t move because soon babe will wake up screaming, ready to suckle again, possibly to satiation or boredom with the whole breastfeeding thing.
When we’re finally done — the whole ordeal takes an hour — I have only another hour before the next feeding, because she’s supposed to eat every three hours from the start of the last breastfeeding session.
Granted, it’s not that bad for everyone. Some women find their way to a harmonious nursing experience within the first few days and are blissed out, not only because they are successful but because of the released oxytocin — the hormone you also feel when you fall in love, aka “the cuddle hormone.”
But even if it all goes swimmingly — even if your baby suckles efficiently (one friend said her baby finished in 15 minutes flat), even if it doesn’t cause you cracked nipples, blocked ducts, mastitis, or thrush (a yeast infection I had on my nipples), nursing can still be quite challenging.
First, you have to constantly be drinking water (16 ounces an hour), like Michael Phelps training for the Olympics.
Second, you have to eat, like a lot. Sure, you lose weight, but you’re exhausted: You’re burning 500 to 600 extra calories a day; that’s like an hour of boot camp or three hours of yoga. And while in principle you’d love to exercise or stretch because your body feels sore from sitting so much and contorting yourself into positions the Kamasutra never mentioned, you won’t have any time.
Third, you are consumed with thoughts of breastfeeding even when you’re not doing it. Like a lawyer racking up billable hours, you chart every second on your breastfeeding app. I could talk to you now, but then I’ll sleep an hour less, I found myself thinking most nights when I finally climbed into bed with my husband.
But talk was the only thing we could do in bed because after a day of nursing, the last thing I wanted was someone else touching me. (Not that my husband was so eager to get it on since I smelled like a cheese factory from all the spit-up.)
Look, I’m a 40-something, overeducated, white, work-at-home freelancer with a husband who also works part time from home. I fit all the demographics of those who breastfeed.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, breastfeeding rates are significantly higher among those with higher income (74 percent) compared with those who had lower income (57 percent); they’re higher among mothers 30 years and older than among younger mothers, and higher among whites than blacks (but not Hispanics).
So if I’m having a hard time getting to three months of exclusive breastfeeding, how are women less fortunate than me doing it? Women with full-time jobs. Women with two jobs. Women with two or more kids. Single moms. Poor moms. In other words, the very women much of the “Breast Is Best,” campaign is aimed at, hoping to stave off the obesity and poor health often prevalent in lower-class children.
And while I realize that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months (followed by breastfeeding with food until 12 months) — there is no health care policy in place to support it.
I’m coming to the conclusion that in order to succeed at breastfeeding exclusively, one not only needs six months’ paid leave but also a housecleaner, personal chef, and personal trainer.
What the Experts Told Me
So why do we stick with it? Why do we persevere with nursing if it can be so difficult?
Many, many women do not.
Others go back to work by three months, and they either pump and have their caretaker bottle-feed the breast milk, or use supplement formula during the day and nurse only in the morning and at night.
I, myself, was about to give up but I’d committed to try for three months, so after reading the entire Internet and Breastfeeding for Dummies, I found a lactation class in my neighborhood for $25. (Private consultations cost hundreds of dollars.)
Turns out, I wasn’t the only woman blindsided by how difficult and time-consuming nursing is.
“We have removed breastfeeding from nature,” said Beverly Solow, a lactation consultant for the last 30 years. She said if it were so “natural” we would see it every day, all around us and know what proper breastfeeding looks like.
(Instead, women hide their nursing babies under curtains.) She compared it to walking — we’d know that someone walks crooked because we know what correct walking looks like.
“May I?” she said, asking permission to pinch my breast and quickly push it into the baby’s mouth to improve her latch. She also showed me not to hunch over so I wouldn’t get shoulder cramps and told me to wake the baby during feedings to make sure she ate enough.
(While the pediatrician said she was gaining fine, the consultant weighed her before and after a feed and said she needed to eat more.) Another mom told me where to rent a hospital-grade pump, which would help increase my milk production.
But it wasn’t until a few weeks later at the same clinic with a different lactation consultant that I learned I might actually have a problem. “The baby might have a problem with her tongue,” said Heather McFadden, who also told me which supplements to take to increase production (fenugreek and milk thistle).
“The problem might not be your supply, though,” she said, and referred me to Dr. Linda Dahl, an ENT who specializes in helping infants of breastfeeding moms.
“Probably a third of women have a hard time nursing — but instead of fixing the actual problem, most of the advice is to try to control everything else around it,” Dr. Dahl said, noting that experts find things wrong with the mother, like her breast is too big/small/inverted/flat, instead of asking, why can’t the baby nurse?
“It seems really obvious: The baby is trying to get food. If they get tired when they want to eat, they fall asleep,” she said, describing my exact issues. “The problem almost always is the baby can’t open her mouth.”
Dr. Dahl advised a frenulectomy, a simple procedure that releases the lingual frenulum under the tongue, which would allow the baby to open her mouth wider for a deeper latch. (It’s similar to the procedure performed on babies with tongue tie, which is a more serious condition that can also affect speech as well as breastfeeding but is usually identified at the hospital.)
I agreed, although I had to close my eyes while a nurse held my daughter down in my arms. When the procedure was over, there was a little blood and I was sobbing, until but my daughter happily suckled at the breast.
In the End
A few days after the procedure, breastfeeding was a different animal altogether.
My daughter could now open her mouth wide; she’d clomp on my breast and gulp down milk as if she’d been in the desert for 40 years. She’d eat to satiation and be done — in 15 minutes. She was full and happy, going from the 37th percentile in weight to the 57th percentile.
Suddenly, I understood what all those women who gushed about breastfeeding were talking about: I was getting the oxytocin without all the stressful cortisol. Now, I was the beatific mom gazing adoringly at her serene baby on the boob. It felt awesome and powerful to be able to nurture this human being. It had only taken three months, one surgical procedure a lot of perseverance to get there.
Resources I found helpful:
- Kelly Mom is one of the best online resources for breastfeeding, discussing how it works, how to increase supply and much more.
- Beverly Solow and Heather Mcfadden are certified lactation consultants who offer group and private classes.
- Dr. Linda Dahl is an ENT who specializes in infants and breastfeeding mothers.
- The Complete Idiot's Guide to Breastfeeding and The Nursing Mother's Companion are available on Amazon.com
Photo Credit: Stocksy