So I've been meaning to write a post dedicated to breastfeeding for a while now, but for some reason have put it off. I knew it was important to talk about, because for the last 7 or so months this blog has focused almost entirely on being a new mom, and if you choose to breastfeed, breastfeeding is an ENORMOUS part of those early months with a baby. But I've delayed this post, largely I think because when you're in the middle of nursing, it's hard to wrap your head around the experience in a logical or meaningful way.
At this point Ryland and I are reaching the end of our breastfeeding "journey" (I really hate that word because it conjures images of dramatic music set montages and inspirational moments, and breastfeeding ain't no Hallmark movie). I only nurse one a day, first thing in the morning, and it's more for comfort at this point than nutrition (the rest of the time we use formula, which is why my baby has become such a chunk monster).
It's strange, because the main reason I've held onto that once a day feed is because I am having a hard time letting go of it. I thought I would be ecstatic to finish breastfeeding, and I am mostly on board with the finish line, but a little part of me is scared to let it go, for multiple reasons including but not limited to 1. I can no longer tell people I am breastfeeding and some will judge for stopping "too soon" when there's no real reason we're stopping. 2. My baby will no longer have that one thing she can only get from me, and she will turn on me and become a sullen teenager at 7 months old. 3. I will no longer get that extra calorie burning boost (what? if any mom says this isn't a benefit and reason to breastfeed she is lying through her teeth), and because I no longer get an extra calorie burst I cannot justify eating ice cream every night like I have for the last 7 months 4. My baby will no longer get any antibodies from me and I will catch some horrible virus, pass it to her, and not be able to protect her with antibodies. 5. If we are stranded on a desert island (don't ask me how, we have no plane or boat rides coming up, but it's still possible!) I will not be able to feed Ryland because desert islands don't have formula. 6. Ditto if the zombie apocalypse hits, or Trump gets elected and anarchy reins and all the formula gets destroyed in riots and/or zombie feasts. 7. If all the sudden Ryland turns into a she-beast demon spawn, I will not have the magic and instant ability to comfort her with my boobs. 8. If sleep implodes and the baby stops sleeping in her crib and we all lose our minds, I cannot turn to plan B, which are my boobs. 9. I will miss it. 10. She will miss it.
I probably would not have thought it possible 7 months ago, when we were at the start of our breastfeeding journey (damnit there's that word again!), that I would be afraid to stop. Because here's the thing, breastfeeding is HARD. Like really hard. Like legitimately one of the hardest things you can do. Before I gave birth, my OB told me that breastfeeding would be harder than labor or running a marathon. She said for her it was harder than med school. And that sounds really intense and dramatic, but she was kind of right (I can't vouch for the med school thing but I'll take her word on it).
And it's not hard for any simple reason but rather a whole constellation of reasons. It can be hard for purely physical reasons. For me at the beginning it really hurt, especially the first few days (which we found out was due to Ryland having a tongue tie, which the pediatrician at the hospital discovered on our last day and "clipped", also fun fact that he quizzed us on and my husband of all people got right and not me who had gone through 13 years of Catholic school, Moses had a tongue tie, go figure). I digress. It hurt. Pretty intensely. Which is a lot to deal with when everything else in your body hurts after going through that minor thing called labor. And when you haven't slept and are totally depleted and exhausted. It got better but it still was painful a lot of the time. I had frequent plugged ducts (which if you aren't familiar basically occur when something causes a milk duct to "plug" or get backed up, can be not feeding or pumping enough, over supply, or just wearing something too tight). I knew I had a plugged duct because I would immediately get a huge, rock hard lump in my boob that was incredibly painful to the touch (like the feel of a tee shirt hurt). I also would feel a little more run down than normal when I got one and sometimes even low grade feverish. They would usually stick around for 12-24 hours and then resolve. Ice and ibuprofen helped but not always enough. And for the first 3-4 months I got them constantly, like 2-3 a week. I also had recurrent blebs (which are also basically plugged ducts but on the nipple itself, and if this is all way too much of an over-share for anyone you probably should have stopped reading at the title of this post). These are also incredibly painful, especially with feeding, and would show up out of the blue on and off.
And I was lucky. Some women deal with mastitis which is basically when your boob catches the flu. There are also the other lovely perks breastfeeding can bring like cracked nipples and thrush and engorgement. Women can have an over supply or an under supply. There can be leaking. There can be spraying. It is a non stop party. I'm not sure anyone does the thing without some pain or difficulties.
And those are just the physical reasons it's hard. Emotionally it can be even harder. It is incredible to feed a human being and to know you are their main source of sustenance. And it is also a HUGE mind trip and a feeling of enormous pressure. There is nothing in your life that can prepare you to basically be someone's human pantry, especially if you are dead set against using formula. In those early weeks lactation nurses will tell you do not use a bottle (or even pacifier) for ANY REASON WHATSOEVER, even if it is a bottle of expressed breast milk (they say it confused the baby and can lead them to reject the breast, which is possible, but not common).
So here's the deal then. You come home from the hospital with a new human of whom you are solely in charge. You are still physically spent from labor. You haven't slept and you aren't going to sleep. There are people coming in and out of your house. You are totally in love with your baby but also terrified that you are going to kill your baby. And to this, you add in the fact that you are their only food source. And in the beginning they eat almost constantly. They are like little zombies (I don't know why I keep referring to zombies, maybe because it's almost Halloween?). They are ravenous. And your supply is low at first so they have to eat that frequently to boost your supply. But it means that at best you may have an hour or two between feeds, all day and night at first. And sometimes they take an hour to eat. And the time between feeds is from the start of one feed to the next. So if you do that math it pretty much means the baby will be attached to your boob 24/7. You might have like 30 minutes of free time.
30 minutes is not enough time to take a good nap or run an errand or pretty much do anything well. And so no matter how much you enjoy breastfeeding, you feel enormous pressure to be available for your baby constantly if they can't get a bottle. I remember going to Kroger in the early weeks and just feeling tremendous guilt, because what if my baby got hungry and I wasn't there. I would have people watch her while I napped but if I heard her crying, no matter how hard they tried to comfort her, I knew that the only thing that would really calm her down were my boobs. And yes, it gets better when they can take bottles (either expressed breast milk or formula), but you still feel so much responsibility. It's just a huge mental shift to go from being a free person who can go wherever, whenever, or even take a trip, to being someone who someone else relies on entirely for their nutrition and growth. It also can lead to what I like to call "I think she's hungry" syndrome, where if another person is taking care of your baby, whether that be your husband or a friend or family member, every time your baby starts to cry you hear the words "I think she's hungry" directed towards you. And in their defense, in the beginning, the baby probably is hungry. But it can feel like every time you pass your infant off to someone else for a few minutes, there's is a timer ticking down to the inevitable time you will hear "I think she's hungry" and get a crying baby passed back to you.
And if your baby rejects a bottle like mine did for a while, then you will literally feel like you can't leave your house and if you do have to leave your house, say for work like I did, you will feel miserable the entire time knowing your baby is "starving" (not really, just being really stubborn, but that's not a lot of comfort at the time). I remember for those few weeks she wouldn't take a bottle, I felt this intense pressure to always be with her. I felt like I would never be able to go out for an afternoon of errands or to dinner with my husband or God forbid a day trip. It's a lot.
Breastfeeding can also be isolating, especially if you're not comfortable with public feeding (and some women just aren't, I think it's great for women who are and no one should ever judge a woman who does breastfeed in public, but it's not a universal thing). I spent a lot of time in the backseat of my car feeding Ryland in the early weeks. I spent chunks of time indoors in rooms alone during parties or at my house if I had guests over. And at work after my maternity leave ended, for the first few months back, I basically spent every lunch break in a room by myself attached to a pump. I kept thinking of that scene in Mean Girls when Lindsay Lohan eats her lunch in a bathroom stall. And it really does feel like that. Minus Regina George and with a lot more human cow action.
Breastfeeding also makes getting dressed a very different experience. Let's just say that you can say goodbye to any "cute" bras for quite some time because all that matters is accessibility (plus underwire, at least for me = plugged ducts city). Also dresses don't really work unless you want to pull your entire dress up to feed. For the first few months you pretty much decide to wear based on how easy it is to get topless (I would imagine that's the same philosophy behind many spring breakers in Cabo).
And if you're reading this and thinking to yourself why on God's green earth would any woman breastfeed, I should say that it's not all horrible. Actually some of it is really great. No, some if it is better than great. And I'm not even going to get into the health benefits like antibodies and decreased risk of allergies and yada yada because we've all gotten that speech. Some of the times you spend breastfeeding your baby will become these shining, beautiful moments that lodge in your heart and memory. It is empowering to breastfeed. As much as it's a feeling of pressure, it's also a feeling of enormous capability. Once you get over the mind trip, it's kind of amazing to know that you can keep a HUMAN BEING ALIVE. With your boobs! That's crazy right? But in a beautiful way.
You are your baby's favorite person on earth if you breastfeed. Plain and simple. Sure Ryland is probably going to be a total daddy's girl, but for these early months I was the center of her universe. Fine, my boobs were the center of her universe. But by proxy I was kind of a big deal right? And that bond forms so instantly and irreversibly with breastfeeding.
There's this feeling/emotion you get when you breastfeed and have your let down, which is entirely hormone driven, but it's this weird magic too. One of my best friend's described it as feeling "homesick" and she was totally right. You do feel homesick and almost sad. But you feel homesick for your baby, and if your baby is in your arms, you can experience being homesick and feeling like you are coming home all at once. It's bizarre but wonderful.
If you like snuggles, breastfeeding is pretty much the snuggliest thing in the world. I will miss so much snuggling with my baby while she ate. I will miss the peace of those times, especially in the beginning when she was cranky pretty much any time she wasn't eating or sleeping. I think in some ways it must be nature's way of giving new moms opportunity for rest. It felt overwhelming at the time, but looking back I kind of miss the single minded focus of breastfeeding in the early weeks. I miss camping out on the couch with Netflix on and the boppy around my waist, and pretty much staying that way for hours (and being waited on by the husband, because when you're feeding a baby nonstop you deserve someone who will bring you plentiful Fresca's and cliff bars). I miss how when the baby was just her absolute crankiest, I could calm her instantly. I could always give her what she needed in those early months by breastfeeding (which if you feed on demand, is kind of the idea). I knew when I fed her she was happy and content and everything was okay in the world while I had her in my arms. Your boobs really can feel like they have magical powers because they can instantly silence a crying infant.
And feeding her in bed (IF you do it safely, which we did) is just the best of the best. I cannot overstate how well I slept when I nursed at night. SO much better than now when I am constantly straining to hear her crying from the other room. I think because of the hormones involved in nursing (on top of feeling homesick, you also feel really, REALLY sleepy), sleeping while I breastfeed just felt like the soundest, deepest sleep in the world. I think that's why I always felt pretty well rested the first few months. Until my last days on this earth, I will hold at the very center of my soul the memory of how it felt to lie in bed and feed her as we both drifted off to sleep. Life is very rarely perfect. It's almost impossible to achieve a perfect moment. Those were perfect, 100%. If heaven feels like those moments I'm good for eternity.
Oh and when they get older and stop breastfeeding and look up at you and smile with just pure and total adoration and then go back to the boob like they just wanted to give you a "Go Mom" boost, that's pretty freaking great too. Or when their little hand reaches up to softly touch your face or hair. Or when they fall asleep nursing and you can watch their sweet little face sleep so soundly.
So yeah, the good stuff, is kind of the best, and not best in the way people usually say that and it doesn't really mean anything. But best as in true definition of the word, good in a way I had never experienced good before. I think for me, looking back, there were a lot of reasons breastfeeding was hard, and only a few reasons why it was good, but the few reasons it was good were so huge and magical that they overshadowed the bad.
I guess despite my insistence otherwise, breastfeeding has been a true journey (cue inspirational music and the shots of me walking pensively on a beach or through a field somewhere). I have hated a lot of it. It has often been hard.
But looking back, I would do it again, because the good parts of breastfeeding will go down as some of the best and truly happiest moments of my life. Breastfeeding, when it doesn't hurt and is going well, allows to feel a stillness and peace in your soul that is kind of indescribable, and a connection to your baby that is everything.
But, and this is a big but, it's not for everyone. There are some women who the bad overshadows the good, because the bad can be a lot worse. There are some women and babies who just can't do it, for a plethora of very solid reasons. There are some women who don't want to do it and that is absolutely their choice. I absolutely reject the tidal wave of breastfeeding evangelicalism that has taken over lately. And I'm a nurse. I know the health benefits of breastfeeding. I do think it should be encouraged. I do think it's good for mom and baby.
But so is not eating ice cream or being organic or working out 5 times a day. Just because something is healthier choice doesn't always mean it's the right choice or that it works in the context of a person's life. It is total BS to say that formula is bad for a baby. It's absolutely not. Again, pediatric nurse here. I know what is "bad" for a baby's health. Formula is not on that list. Not even close. Any baby who is well fed is well fed, period, regardless of it's formula or breast milk. There's way too much pressure on women right now to feel like if they give formula they are failing or hurting their baby. And that's just not true. I was scolded in the hospital for giving Ryland a tiny of bottle of formula. Nurses and doctors can advocate for formula and breastfeeding but ultimately it is the mom's choice alone that matters. It's amazing that as a society, we've pretty much gotten to a place where a woman's body is her body and that the only one who should have control of it is the woman, EXCEPT for when it comes to breastfeeding. Then it's everyone's business and everyone gets to weigh in. Nope. Sorry. Doesn't work that way.
Okay, off soap box.
So that's what I have to say about breastfeeding, which is only scratching the surface. After you have breastfeed, you realize that it's a topic that can fill volumes. Early on it's kind of all you want to talk about. And we should talk about it. Women should support each other and be kind to each other. If a desperate, exhausted mom whose baby isn't gaining weight and who has mastitis for the 3rd time is talking about stopping breastfeeding, don't use that as a springboard to preach the breastfeeding gospel and shame her into not using formula. Listen to her and accept her choice. Because it is HER choice.
At the end of the day breastfeeding concerns two people, baby and mama. It is incredible. It is hard. It is beautiful. Any mom who does it is a super hero. Any mom who doesn't do it is also a super hero. We all just want what is best for our babies. There's the saying that breast is best, but I think we should change that. Breast is great. Formula is great. Let's all make our own informed choices, love our babies, support each other, and we'll all be okay.
I'm a thirty-something mom of two, wife, pediatric RN, and writer with a passion for the all the big and little things in life.