That sort of casual attitude is exactly how I did NOT approach breastfeeding. I approached it with a delightful cocktail of fear, apprehension, conviction that it would not work and yet utter determination that it would. Being something of an over-researcher, long before May Blossom was born I was reading about breastfeeding and the low rates thereof in many modern western countries. I read blogs about how hard it was by people for whom breastfeeding was a disaster for mother and child. Basically, I scared the shit out of myself.
Many of my friends had new babies while I was pregnant so I spent a lot of time watching them breastfeed, and what quickly became apparent was that my nipples were ALL WRONG. Not pointy enough. I was going to be too shy to show them to anyone and thus get help and advice, and so my child was going to starve, despite my massive tits. When I, with great embarrassment, mentioned this fear to a few people, like H and my parents and a few close friends, they all poo-pooed my concern. My dad, father of three breastfed children, cheerfully reassured me, ‘Don’t worry, the baby will suck them out in no time!’
So I went into this breastfeeding lark feeling very frightened. To make matters worse, May Blossom was born by Caesarean section. This, the Internet of Doom assured me, would lead to a very great chance that breastfeeding would fail. We would be separated immediately after the birth for anywhere up to half an hour and so my child would fail to bond with me and would end up being a lonely tobacconist with a terrible immune system and no empathy.
Breastfeeding didn’t fail for us. I had to use a nipple shield to help May Blossom attach correctly for the first few days, and there was some hand expressing and feeding of colostrum with a syringe. (There was also the hilarious and beautiful moment when H explained to his dad about colostrum, the egg-yolk-coloured, highly concentrated supermilk that is the newborn’s food until the normal milk kicks in. Pappy was blown away. So impressed was he by the tales of the mighty powers of colostrum, that his entrepreneurial mind immediately switched on. ‘Wouldn’t it be great,’ he said, ‘if they could harvest it for some really amazing purpose!’. ‘What,’ asked H, gently, ‘like keeping newborn humans alive?’)
After a week or so we ditched the nipple shield, as she had indeed sucked the nipple into shape, and then the pain began. Babies have very small mouths. To feed correctly, they have to get your nipple right in there, with the tip of the nipple against their soft palate. If it’s against their hard palate, further forward in their mouth, after a few minutes of sucking it feels like you’ve slid front-first down a cheese grater. Once your nipples are cracked, it’s hard for them to heal, on account of how you have to keep poking them into what is essentially a saliva-greased pencil sharpener every couple of hours.
There were tears. Mostly mine. Night after night I made H call the breastfeeding association’s hotline to beg for tips, assistance or just plain encouragement. I would be crying too hard to talk to them most of the time, and H did a valiant job of interpreting my queries: ‘I think she wants to know what to do when the cloth nipple pads you recommended keep pulling the scabs off her nipples.’
Scabs. Nipples. Those are two words that should be separated at all times by at least a hundred other words, yet in the first month of my daughter’s life such horrors were commonplace.
Then, to add insult to injury, there was the oversupply issue. No sooner would May Blossom manage to successfully latch on, than her gulps would start to come quicker and quicker, and her eyes would get larger and larger in panic as, my milk threatened to drown her. Eventually she would break away and the milk would continue to spray like an out-of-control fireman’s hose. It was not cool. We solved this issue by changing her position. Instead of being held in front of me, like a normal nursing baby, we favoured a position H dubbed ‘The Bear Went Over The Mountain’: I lay on my back and she lay on top of me, head pointing up (pictured above). She would raise her head, shake it from side to side like a ravenous doberman, and clamp on. This was accompanied by a noise that sounded like she was miming biting into an apple. It was a cross between a chomp and a gulp, and it was scary enough to send even my good nipple burrowing back deep into my chest cavity. There I would lie, looking like I had lost a wrestling match with a Liliputian. That was not cool either. Nor was it particularly outside-the-home friendly.
As May Blossom grew, feeding became easier. I could feed her in more positions (including on my side while still mostly asleep), and the convenience of breastfeeding began to really hit home. Breastfeeding means you can be really, really disorganised, and that appeals to me enormously. I was never stuck without food for my child when we were out, and I could calm her down with a boob whenever and wherever. It was a lifesaver on planes, long car trips and when I just wanted the crying to stop.
And it was lovely. She adored it and so did I. When she wasn’t sleeping for more than twenty minutes at a time and I was depressed and there were six kinds of shit going down in our lives, feeding my baby made me happy. The noises she made when she wanted to nurse; the expressions on her face as she did … they are not things I will forget. (I could see the expressions on her face because I refused to put a blanket over her head while feeding her, as women often seem to do these days. After the first few weeks of being manhandled about the boobs by midwives and lactation consultants galore, I seemed to get over my shyness. Also, I was raised to consider it rude to pull the tablecloth over one’s head at the dinner table.)
When she weaned, the day before she turned eighteen months old, I cried. It was the right time for both of us — I had been reducing her feeds for a few weeks and she was perfectly happy to stop — but it still felt like the end of something great and beautiful. I didn’t want to breastfeed her forever, but I also didn’t want it to ever stop. We were so lucky breastfeeding went well, and I will always be grateful for the hard work my H, May Blossom and I put in to get it established, and thankful for my family and friends who supported me. Breastfeeding made my little girl glowy and plump, though I can’t say much for the fabled benefits to the baby’s immune system: May Blossom had more ear infections, viruses and spots in the first year than any other baby I know.
Now, three weeks after her last breastfeed, May Blossom shows no sign of remembering any of it ever happened, the ungrateful imp. She can see me topless without so much as mentioning milk, and she happily watched a friend’s newborn feed without needing to come and harrass me for a drink. I think that means she was ready. I just wish I didn’t miss it so.