The antenatal breastfeeding course I did at the hospital certainly gave no indication that breastfeeding could be anything other than “easy and natural”. There was almost zero attention paid to the fact that breastfeeding can be difficult. Bloody difficult. And painful. There was no real acknowledgement that breastfeeding was a LEARNT skill that needed to be taught and practiced as opposed to some sort of immediate, instinctive reflex. And, like any acquired skill it was going to require a lot of practice, a lot of trouble-shooting, a lot of pain, a lot of frustration, a lot of tears.
During the hospital course we role-played breastfeeding by holding up plastic babies to well-worn crocheted breasts with pink floppy nipples.
Seriously. This actually happened.
It felt a bit stupid at the time, twenty shy and slightly awkward-looking women all holding a rigid plastic baby up to a floppy woollen breast and, in hindsight, I now realise that IT FELT STUPID BECAUSE IT WAS STUPID.
Crocheted breasts don’t have flat nipples, engorgement, fast let-down, slow let-down, undersupply or oversupply. BECAUSE THEY HAVE NO SUPPLY AT ALL.
Plastic babies don’t have tongue tie, they don’t fall asleep on you mid-feed because they have jaundice, they don’t scream at you in frustration and hunger because they can’t attach properly, or because your flow is too fast, or too slow and they don’t have a lazy or overzealous suck. BECAUSE THEY DON’T SUCK AT ALL.
Preparing a room full of women for breastfeeding by getting them to practice positioning and attachment using an inflexible plastic doll whilst telling them all that it was “easy and natural”, dismissing everyone’s concerns and reaffirming that everything would be fine once the baby arrived does a massive disservice to women.
All we got was a whole bunch of “breast is best” platitudes and the repeated message – overtly and implicitly – that breastfeeding is “easy and natural”, despite the fact that for many women it is anything but easy. We were glibly informed that having just given birth, your baby will do this amazing thing called a breast crawl, haul himself up, latch on to your boob and get busy. Here, watch this video. Simple. You just have to lie there.
Naturally, when the truth turned out to be horribly, horribly different I felt like a failure. Breastfeeding is easy and natural, right. So why the hell can’t I do this? What is wrong with me? Why doesn’t my baby do what the baby in the video did? Why is he just lying there like a dumbstruck lump on my chest and looking at my breast like he has never seen one before? Oh, that’s right. He hasn’t.
To paraphrase one of the many post-natal conversations I had about the terrifying realisation that I wasn’t able to feed my baby, this is kind of how it went:
Hugzilla: Why can’t my baby attach properly?
Midwife: You have flat nipples.
Hugzilla: (looks down at nipples, mouth agape) What the fuck? They’re not flat.
Midwife: Yeah, but they’re not very good for breastfeeding.
Learning that I had “flat nipples” (go figure?) was just the first in a very long list of things I didn’t know about my boobs before having a baby.
* I never knew that my breasts would explode in size overnight when my milk came in. And be rock hard. Seriously rock hard. Like a rockmelon. That I could go from a B cup to a GG cup literally overnight. And that it was as painful as it sounds.
* No-one told me that my boobs would leak milk. That if I so much as even looked at my baby, or a photo of my baby or even just thought about my baby then seconds later the entire front of my shirt would be soaked. That I would hear some random baby crying over at aisle number nine in the supermarket, get a massive let-down and be covered in breastmilk.
* No-one told me about all of the physical things that can go wrong with my boobs in those early weeks trying to breastfeed: thrush, blocked ducts, cracked nipples, engorgement, mastitis, vasospasms. And they all hurt. Oh, how they hurt. And the afterpains, the intense contracting of my uterus like I was being thrust back in time to the early stages of labour. What the hell?
* No-one told me about the pain. The agonising, toe-curling pain. All I got was the glib line “If it hurts, you must be doing it wrong”. Rubbish. If it hurts I might have any one – or several – of the multiple things I just mentioned going on, even if attachment is perfect. Breastfeeding CAN hurt, even if you are doing it right. Breastfeeding was a mostly unpleasant exercise in gritting my teeth and digging my toes into the ground for the first 6-9 weeks with both of my children.
* I didn’t know that it could take up to an hour to feed a newborn baby. And that I would have to do it all again two hours later. For weeks on end. I didn’t know that I was going to spend so much time stuck on the couch with a baby clamped to my boob that in the early days I feared I would never get my life back again. I honestly felt resigned to a life of couch potato-dom forever.
* I didn’t know that breast pumps sucked. Literally and figuratively. And that I’d have to milk myself like a cow, using my very own hands. I also never expected to be milked by a midwife either, but I am kind of glad for that.
* I never knew that babies bite. I never knew about niplash. I never knew they would reach up and twist your other nipple with their tiny little fingers, razor sharp nails digging into soft flesh. And that it would hurt.
And while no one ever told me the difficult things about breastfeeding, I also never really knew about the cool stuff either:
* I never knew that I would be able to shoot a piercingly accurate stream of breastmilk across the room if ever I cared to do so.
* I never knew how endearingly funny and heart-warmingly cute a milk drunk baby looks. That they actually look drunk.
* I never knew that boob juice was a wonderful, all-purpose cure-all.
In pain? Boob.
Who the hell knows but he won’t shut up? Boob.
* I never knew that breastfeeding was going to protect my second-born from so much illness when my three year old started preschool and was struck down by some new bug or cold or virus every.single.week.
* I never knew that I was going to loathe breastfeeding so much in the very beginning, dreading the prospect of every feed. I honestly hated it with every fibre of my being. I was tired, so tired. It was painful. It was so time consuming. I hated the feeling of being tied to my baby. But what I also didn’t know is that I would eventually come to love it so much that 14 months later I would be wracked with deep, heaving sobs of grief as I gazed down at the peacefully sleeping baby in my arms after our very last feed. That I would never want it to end.
So much so that I can’t bring myself to wean my 15 month old yet because he is my last baby and I will never have the experience of breastfeeding again, and there are simply no words that can adequately convey how profoundly sad and bittersweet that feels.
The stuff I never knew before having kids.