The ups and downs of breastfeeding

Breast is best. Or is that part of the test?

When I was first asked to be part of the Kalila team one of the first things that came to my mind was breast feeding, the difficulties I experienced and wouldn’t it have been great if I’d been able to find an honest account of the ups and downs of nursing when I needed it most.

One of the things that I found hardest when Olivia was first born was this air of “assumed mothering” that comes with the territory. By this I mean the many many many helpful comments starting with “I guess you’ll be… or “I assume you want to…” and “You’ll definitely need to…”. To be honest in those first days home with Olivia I had no idea of what I may or may not do, what I might need and not need and the assumption that I would or wouldn’t be doing certain things was a little over-whelming at such an emotional time. And breast feeding is one of those areas that can come with a lot of unnecessary pressure.

Whether you chose to nurse your newborn or not is a purely personal choice and one that I hadn’t really given much thought to until Olivia was born. I had half an idea that I wanted  to breast feed as long as I was able but if not then fine as there are many great formulas available and the important thing is that your child is fed and healthy. I gave birth in Italy where, unlike my home country the UK, once you are released from hospital you are pretty much on your own with no health visitors popping in to give you parenting advice and practical help with bathing and feeding. As such, after 2 days in hospital I found myself home alone with a new baby and very little else! In hospital a nurse had given me a 10 minute demonstration on how best to hold Olivia whilst feeding but I was armed with no more this and at no time did anyone ever mention the pain!!

Olivia enjoying some milk!
Olivia enjoying some milk!

Before you panic let me assure you that there is a happy ending to this tale but I had to go through a few emotional highs and lows before I got there and there were a lot of tears involved.  In the first few days I experienced the panic of not having enough milk as Olivia was crying lots and not seeming satisfied with what she was getting from me. This was followed by more of my own tears and a sense of “I’ve failed!” then a trip to the pharmacy to get formula as a booster. Fortunately my paediatrician put my mind at rest by telling me that this is usual in the early days until the really good milk starts to come through in abundance hence not to worry and put the formula away as baby’s fine.

The following weeks and dare I say it months were full of weepy phone calls to my friend Rachel, a nurse and mum of two, who inadvertently became my breast-feeding guru. Intermingled with the joy of eventually mastering the art of nursing were days of excruciating pain and discomfort where my nipples felt like they were on fire or my ducts blocked leading to the early signs of mastitis. Luckily I never experienced full mastitis but the discomfort that comes with swollen and sore breasts is unique and no cream, oil, potion in the world really comes close to alleviating it. I realise that my account of nursing so far seems completely at odds with the beautiful images we see of breast feeding mothers in books and I’m not writing it to deter anyone from nursing, on the contrary, if you bear with me we’ll get to the good bit!

From here came the months of easy contentment where nursing became second nature and body and mind were finally in sync. Through gritted teeth and perseverance I got past the “ouch” days and finally made it to the days of snuggling up together on the sofa for a feed. Those days were a source of great satisfaction and enjoyment, yes really I did come to enjoy it. Harmony springs to mind as I did feel like it was a moment in the day where we both got to relax and sit in harmonious contentment. And as Olivia grew and became more expressive we also shared many a cheeky moment  and much laughter (milk in the eye moments and similar!)  In between times there was many a day when I felt like I wanted to give up and by the way why does “give up” have to carry such negative connotations? People never asked if I was stopping just if I’d “given up yet” as if it was a foregone conclusion.

I guess the moral of my tale is that nursing was not nearly as easy as I expected. We automatically assume that something natural should come “naturally” to us and that our body is after all designed for this so how hard can it be? But the reality is that, like many things, it’s a skill that we have to become comfortable with and there will be days where we hurt and want to curl up in a ball and cry. I went on to nurse for 18 months and ironically was so sad to stop that I went through a whole new period of tears at the thought of no longer having that bond with my baby. But then as every bottle feeding mum before me could have told me I experienced the high of freedom that comes with no longer having to wear nursing tops and being able to leave baby without first expressing bottles full of milk! Which reminds me…expressing is a whole other story!!