This is what breastfeeding is really like

new baby
© K Martinko

You'd think nursing a newborn should be easy, instinctive, even painless, considering how biologically imperative it is. But as many new moms discover, it can be surprisingly challenging.

It was one of my less sexy moments when a warm, limp cabbage leaf fell out of my bra as I got changed in front of my husband. Then I was caught stuffing handfuls of grated potato into my tank top. There were countless bags of frozen peas and corn, clutched to my chest as if I depended on them for survival. Was it some kind of kinky vegetable fetish? No. Welcome to the world of breastfeeding a newborn. Raw potato can help unblock milk ducts; cabbage leaves relieve the pain of engorged breasts; and frozen veggies simply soothe the general pain.

If this doesn’t sound bad enough, there’s more: walking around the house topless while trying to get rid of a yeast infection; unable to let soap or water in the shower touch my chest because my nipples are so sore; crying with pain as the baby latches on like a vacuum to nipples that are already cracked and bleeding; doubling over with earth-shattering cramps that contract my uterus in response to the baby’s sucking.

Breastfeeding is not always the peaceful mommy-baby bonding experience that posters in the doctor’s office make it out to be. Some women find it easy in those early weeks, but I wasn’t so lucky. As if we haven’t been through enough already, after pushing a watermelon-sized human out of our bodies, we then have to attach an aggressive suction machine to another extremely sensitive part of our body. It may feel OK for a few seconds but by the time that little imp has been sucking for five minutes, guaranteed you’ll want to scream, “Stop! Get away from me. Please just stop sucking.”

What shocked me was discovering that knowing how to nurse is not instinctive in babies; only sucking is. They attach themselves and go wild, regardless of whether they’re latched on properly or not. Training a newborn how to nurse feels like trying to calm a thrashing fish out of water.

My first baby would whip his head around, eyes tightly closed, mouth wide open, dangerously threatening to close in on any object within range and refuse to let go. With one hand, I’d hold his flailing body and guide his angry red face toward me, and, with the other hand, support my swollen, cracked, engorged breast, wishing for minimum pain upon contact. The initial suck always took my breath away. I’d go rigid, sit bolt upright, blink away tears, drive my feet into the floor.

My second son was worse. It was nearly impossible to teach him how to breastfeed properly. Within his first four weeks, we dealt with jaundice, blocked milk ducts, thrush, cracked and bleeding nipples.

I think many women become discouraged with breastfeeding because they aren’t told what it’s really like.

Ours is not a breastfeeding culture. Generations are spread out, so kids no longer grow up seeing their mothers nurse younger siblings. Most women still nurse in private, hiding their bare breasts beneath covers or sitting in designated nursing rooms. It’s not entirely normal to nurse an infant visibly in public, despite everyone agreeing that, nutritionally, it’s the ideal way to feed a baby.

There is not enough discussion about the challenges of nursing and the inherent pain at the beginning. Perhaps the breastfeeding lobby doesn’t want to discourage women from nursing, but I think it would help women to persist by painting a more realistic picture.

Nor are there enough lactation consultants to provide in-house support to new mothers. The childbirth experience does not end upon discharge from the hospital; in many ways that’s when the real challenge begins, when the aching and bleeding unite with sleeplessness to create a particularly disastrous combination that threatens nursing success.

I am now nursing my third baby, who is 5 weeks old. It’s going much better this time, although we still have the occasional bad latch and intake of air, followed by crying, burping, and spewing milk. At least this time I know the miracle will eventually happen, and breastfeeding will transform into a relaxing, wondrous experience, just like it did with my other two. Then I’ll be glad I stuck it out, once the memories of cabbage leaves and bits of dried potato found in unexpected places have faded.

My advice is to any struggling new moms who want to nurse is don’t give up. Ask for help, talk to other mothers about real-life experiences, buy a tube of pure lanolin oil, and never underestimate the power of vegetables to help you out when you most need it! It’s tough and painful, but it’s worth it.

This is what breastfeeding is really like
You'd think nursing a newborn would be easy, instinctive, even painless, considering how biologically imperative it is. But as many new moms discover, it can be surprisingly challenging.

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