Off the top (ha!), I will say, that I’m not here to judge. Every mama does what is best for her and her baby when it comes to filling that baby’s belly so he or she can grow strong and healthy. And I empathize with that paralyzing feeling of guilt that you are possibly making the wrong decision, regardless of what that is. And it’s a pretty awful way to start out mamahood, second guessing your choice of milk and worrying about it. But I’m not writing about that (today). Instead, I’m going to tell you about my battle with my boobs.
Stories about breastfeeding are much like birth stories. You generally only hear the horrible ones along the lines of “my baby wouldn’t latch properly and screamed at me and I nursed until my nipples were cracked and bleeding”. And when I was pregnant for the first time, I heard a lot of those stories, often accompanied by some small piece of ridiculous advice or presumption such as: you should vigorously rub your nipples with a washcloth to get them ready; you have darker pigmentation so it won’t bother you. Well, the first is a bad idea simply because vigorous nipple stimulation releases oxytocin which can start labour. And the second bit, is based on science but I am here to tell you did not ring true.
Throughout my pregnancy with R, I kept waiting for the giant pregnancy boobs. I bought a soft bra in a bigger size to grow into; I wore tight t-shirts and asked my partner if my boobs looked bigger. I did not. They did not. This was a true physiological sign that something was going to go amiss with breastfeeding. No one caught it.
The fact that I was ripped off the gigantic pregnancy boobs was actually not the first sign that breastfeeding, or rather milk supply, was going to be a problem. The first sign would have been that I have PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome). But neither my GP, who is awesome, nor my midwife, who is awesome, nor my naturopath recognized this potential barrier. None of them caught the lack of big boobs as a sign, and certainly none of them mentioned that my bottoming out iron was going to be a problem for milk supply. (Low iron had other concerns that were addressed).
Shortly after her birth, R latched with no problems. She pretty much stayed there for the better part of six months. I kid you not. The first 48 hours, she nursed in my arms contentedly sucking up all the immune system building colostrum I could give her. We nursed sitting up and lying down. But her third night, she got hungry. And then she got angry. And Mark and I felt hopeless. R latched and wouldn’t let go, she sucked away for about twelve hours straight until our midwife came for a home visit and squeezed my breast and re-positioned her and counted wet diapers. I was reassured that my milk would come in soon and that my baby was getting what she needed. I found that very hard to believe given the yells that would come forth when the milk did not. I cried. Mark held me. He couldn’t hold R because she would just get angrier and then be harder to settle down. My parents wanted to visit again and when they did my mother got angry with me for something and my father made me feel guilty about it. So, yeah, not helpful. Mark’s older kids were with us that night and feeling displaced so he had to spend time with them and all I could do was lie on our bed, tears streaming down my face as I desperately massaged my breasts and murmured to my baby girl. This would become an all too familiar routine. That night, the fourth night, my milk came in. I knew it came in, because I woke up to R gulping away. I was flooded with relief and spent the night staring at my beautiful baby girl who drank with wide eyes looking up at me.
But R and I would have a tougher than expected breastfeeding road. She was a lazy nurser. I say that with love, affection, and humour (now. Not so funny then). She would nurse for less than ten minutes and fall asleep. When she woke up, she’d do the same thing on the other side. I tried rubbing her head and her feet. At some point, more desperate measures were recommended in order to ensure she was taking in enough milk, and I had to rub her with a cool, wet washcloth. She didn’t like that. My nipples cracked. My nipples bled. My nipples healed. I called La Leche League for advice, grateful that I had had the foresight to attend a meeting while pregnant so I at least knew the lovely woman I was speaking to. I called my midwife who came to visit. R was gaining weight slowly but steadily and she was a long baby so she looked like a scrawny monkey. Gradually her cheeks got fuller and her body a little plumper.
But at just over three months old, she hit the expected growth spurt and became angry baby again. She was attached to my nipple all the time. All.The.Time. Mark and I were already used to the fact that she was in my arms all the time and that wasn’t really a problem for me. I was on maternity leave and she was my only baby. But at three months it was different, and when I went to pump milk to give Mark a chance to feed our baby, I ended up with plugged ducts and full blown mastitis.
Mastitis is a breast infection. It is horrifyingly painful to nurse through it and worse to not nurse through it. Your skin burns and swells on your breasts. Touch is excruciating. Cold shivers and hot flashes set in as does a fever, the shakes, and fatigue. This is not the medical textbook definition I’m providing you with, it is what I experienced. All while my baby would struggle against my breasts, flailing in my arms, and not settle no matter what I did, forcing me to change position, walk around, and cry – a lot. I spent several days completely topless with her in the baby wrap trying to nurse upright from a rocking chair. I sought the attention of a very sensitive massage therapist who managed to help ease some of the pressure and start the fluids moving and draining.
When I recovered from that I realized that I had very little milk coming in at one time. After months of only nursing for five to ten minutes at a time, my body was only producing enough milk for five to ten minute spurts. Except now R was starving and wanted to nurse much longer. This was compounded by the low iron, the hormone imbalances from my PCOS;and the three month postpartum hormone (mal)adjustments and so I ended up on a prescription for Domperidone that I took for over a year because every time I tried to wean myself off of it, my milk supply would go down. Now, I have no scientific proof, but I am pretty sure that my horrifying weight gain once I went on the ‘scrip can be mostly attributed to it.
Before I started the prescription, which was offered various suggestions on how to increase my supply. Primarily, to lie down skin-to-skin with my little girl, increase my fluid intake, and decrease my non-mama duties. I took this advice happily. I tried breast massage before every nursing session and hand pumping as my daughter nursed. I was advised to drink fenugreek tea. It started leaking out of my pores and I reeked. I mean, I sincerely stunk. I couldn’t cope with it. It was bad enough to be going through massive hormone upheaval, to feel desperate to feed my child, but to smell awful too – and my partner could not disagree – was horrifying to me. At the time, midwives in Ontario could not write a prescription for Domperidone, and the Jack Newman clinic was too far away for me to reasonably get there, so I consulted my GP who provided me with a prescription but not a ton of advice on consequences and how to build up and wean off the pills.
The time that passed between getting the Domperidone and my milk supply increasing seemed like months. I couldn’t go anywhere or be near anyone. I felt like I was failing my child. I felt that somehow because I wasn’t producing enough milk for her; I wasn’t being a good enough mama. I missed my cousin’s wedding because I just couldn’t bear to be around people while my child cried and wanted to nurse. People like my parents who would have wanted to hold her and “comfort” her resulting in a more irate and now frightened baby as evidenced by every single visit when they would take her out of my arms and walk away and she would scream.
R and I went on to have a very successful breastfeeding relationship. One might venture to say, an overly successful one as when I wanted to wean her, I couldn’t. And when we did, at 2.5years old it was because I was crying with pain from sensitive nipples as I was pregnant with L. R wasn’t getting any milk anymore at that point, it was just comfort. And I wanted to at least preserve some of the good memories of breastfeeding. We did. I have a lot of good memories and I have a strong, beautiful, smart six year old girl who still sleeps with the soft pillow I used to tuck under my head when lying down to nurse her. It was a long trip, both ways, but well worth it.