Yvonne Hogan: Breastfeeding doesn't always go to plan - those promoting it must reflect this reality
It is National Breastfeeding Week, a HSE initiative to promote breastfeeding. The theme of the week is 'Every Breastfeed Makes a Difference'. This theme speaks to me, as my experience of breastfeeding, particularly in the early months, was literally trying to survive from feed to feed.
With my first daughter, the pain was excruciating. I dreaded each and every feed. It felt like someone was pushing knitting needles through the centre of my nipples, while holding them in a vice grip.
I kept going because I had a friend who had fed both her children and I trusted her when she told me that the pain would eventually go, which it did after about eight weeks.
I fed her for nine weeks exclusively, when, with much guilt, I introduced a bottle of formula in desperation during a growth spurt. I kept that bottle up and eventually weaned her from the breast at around 20 weeks.
When I was expecting my younger daughter, who arrived late December last year, I thought breastfeeding the second time around would be a breeze. I couldn't have been more wrong. My milk was very slow coming in - I had a caesarian section which may or may not have had anything to do with it, and the baby screamed and took ages to settle to feed.
After a couple of days I gave in and gave her a couple of millilitres of formula and it was enough to settle her down to try to feed from me. I did this a couple of times while I was in the hospital and eventually she seemed to be getting enough from me. But each feed was torture. I was bleeding, I had blisters and one nipple was so sore that I just stopped using it. I got mastitis.
After a week at home I called a private lactation consultant (the baby was born just before Christmas so I didn't have the public health nurse), who weighed the baby and found her to be a little bit underweight and recommended I supplement the feeds with formula and/or expressed milk. She looked for tongue-tie and found mild anterior tie, but nothing that would cause such pain, so we worked on the latch. She also recommended that I hire a hospital pump to build up my supply. I went to my GP to get antibiotics and ointment for my infected nipples. I soldiered on.
The baby was weighed weekly by the public health nurse until she reached the desired weight, at which time I returned the pump, stopped supplementing and just fed her myself. The pain and the blisters continued. I called another lactation consultant who suggested that I see a plastic surgeon to look at her tongue as that could be causing the problem. I didn't. She also suggested I see an osteopath, which I did. At this point the baby was nine weeks old and I had spent around €500.
I decided to stop spending money (although I did shell out another €50 on silver angel cups, that seemed to ease the nipple pain, but gave me big welts on my areola) and just keep going until the pain went or I could stand it no more. Try to get from feed to feed. And slowly but surely the pain went.
You may be wondering why I persisted. I persisted because I am very lazy and I hate to plan. I hate washing and sterilising bottles and having to get up in the middle of the night to make them. I would rather get blisters than have to be organised.
Also, I love how intuitive breastfeeding is. You don't have to work out how much to feed and when, you just feed the baby whenever she asks for it.
You can go out for the whole day with nothing but nappies and wipes and you have a solution to every possible problem that arises: baby is tired, feed them; baby is cranky, feed them; baby won't go to sleep, feed them; baby is teething... and so on.
Nine months on and I am still feeding my daughter. It is no longer completely pain-free because she has four teeth: Two up and two down. When they come together, it is like a nail clippers. Sometimes she bites me and it cracks her up when I wince in pain. She laughs even more when I put my finger in her mouth to try and break her grip. If I pay attention, I can pinpoint the moment she moves from satiety to boredom and prise her off, but more often than not these days, all our feeds end with a nip.
But I am glad I persisted. I am back at work now and she is in childcare and it is a lovely way of reconnecting in the evening when we get home.
When she wakes up in the middle of the night, she is back to sleep within minutes of feeding. I do like to complain about it, but I relish this precious time with my tiny girl.
But if she were my first child, I would have given up within weeks. I would have compared my experience to the literature promoting breastfeeding - particularly how it shouldn't hurt if done properly - and decided that there was something wrong with me.
I have no doubt that there are some women who have a textbook experience with feeding, but I would wager that there are more who do not. Those promoting breastfeeding would do better to reflect the spectrum of breastfeeding experiences, so that women feel less isolated and demoralised when it doesn't go exactly to plan.