This is a guest post by Athena Raypold from The Salty Almond, you can read her article on her website too. Athena is a freelance writer based in Edmonton, AB, Athena loves telling stories: about motherhood, marriage, entrepreneurship, and food. Writing about her culinary adventures at The Salty Almond, Athena’s work has also been featured on Eat This Poem, The Edmomton, and A Practical Wedding.
Breastmilk, for many babies, is their first food and the act of breastfeeding is a nurturing, wholesome one, with as many struggles and challenges as cooking a meal (sometimes more, sometimes less). I wanted to write about it here because it’s currently a huge part of my life, it impacts how I eat and it’s currently the only way my son eats.
For me, the journey towards breastfeeding was initially less about connection or nutrition and more about cost: it’s free. If you know my husband, you know that Craig is always thinking about costs, so it was a no brainer that we would breastfeed since we didn’t want to pay for formula. Many people tried to convince me of all the other benefits like bonding and immunity and health statistics, but they really didn’t need to because it’s free. That’s all I needed.
But breastfeeding isn’t always that simple. Prior to breastfeeding, I’d seen or heard of friends suffering with mastitis (a breast infection often caused by clogged milk ducts), thrush (a yeast infection), bad latching and subsequent nipple damage, tongue or lip ties (which prevent proper latching), and low milk production. While the world tends to simplify breastfeeding, it’s actually very difficult in the beginning, and for some, all the way through.
Aware of these struggles, and academics at heart, we wanted to arm ourselves with as many tools and information to best set us up for successful breastfeeding once our son was born. I read Ina May’s Guide to Breastfeeding, I read a plethora of online articles, I got a nursing app for tracking feeds and diaper changes, and we took Alberta Health Services’ breastfeeding class. I thought I was ready. I thought I knew it all. I thought it would be so easy.
Nothing could have prepared me for my birth experience, but that’s a different story altogether. Needless to say, Fitz’s first feeding was formula and glucose in the hospital nursery because I was still unconscious and his blood sugar was low. He had a rough entry into this world, but once we were reunited (four hours after his birth, sadly), he latched onto my breast with ease and we nursed skin to skin for the next six hours straight (before milk comes in, the breasts produce colostrum, which is full of antibodies that protect baby against disease). Little did I know, however, we had a bad latch. Fitz, basically, was lazy: he initially latched on properly (wide and open with most of the areola in his mouth) but then would slide back off so that he was mostly sucking directly on my nipple (in retrospect, this could have been my fault for not properly supporting him, but I doubt it because boy, did I ever grip that tiny skull in the early days). Because I was new to breastfeeding, and it didn’t hurt, I had no idea until my nipples were purple with injury.
On our fourth and final day in the hospital, I noticed my nipples were damaged, and my milk started to come in, so we met with a lactation consultant to ensure that I was getting Fitz to latch on properly, which helped. But no one tells you that when your milk comes in, you’ll likely become painfully engorged. It started with a fullness that progressed to a painful engorgement that made my breasts massive, hard, and lumpy, which in turn made a proper latch an impossibility. Having just arrived home from the hospital, barely able to walk with my c-section incision, and the baby blues creeping in, I was ill equipped to deal with engorged breasts.
After stupidly moving around the house too much, tidying up, I tried pumping, but I barely got any milk out. I was exhausted, emotional, swollen, and in so much pain (I forgot about my pain meds without a nurse to give them to me) which made me unbelievably sensitive (particularly to noise) so, my house full of family eager to interact with Fitz, I locked myself alone in the nursery to cry. I cried hard.
I never imagined that motherhood could be so difficult, that breastfeeding could cause so much agony. But alone, I was able to process and think clearly. I turned to La Leche League for help, and found it: reverse pressure softening, a technique to soften my areola to allow Fitz to latch on. That was my biggest hurdle, the hardest part. Trying to navigate engorgement, feeding, a painful incision, and the baby blues all once was a nightmare. I felt blindsided and helpless. That night, I cried to my mom that I felt like a bad mother (which I obviously wasn’t, but the baby blues are intense).
For the next 10 days, the baby blues made me cry every evening, without fail, and each feeding was accompanied by painful pinching as Fitz latched on to my injured nipples. I tried cotton reusable nipple pads, but they just got crusty and stuck to my sore nipples, I put lanolin on after every feeding, and I powered through the pain. Many times, my mom suggested formula as an option, but I was determined. After two weeks, my nipples healed, Fitz had figured out breastfeeding on his end, and it finally felt like I knew what I was doing. Around that time, I started to feel my letdown reflex (this is when the baby’s sucking triggers the milk to start flowing), and it was almost painful: like a little fist inside each breast, tightly clenching my insides. The feeling was fleeting, lasting only about 15 seconds, but it was surprisingly forceful.
When Fitz was six weeks old and we were visiting my sister in Saskatchewan, I noticed that my left breast was really sore and tender on one side. That tenderness turned to a painful, angry red blotch, and a flu-like body sensitivity and pain. I ached all over, even Craig rubbing my back hurt me. After consulting with my best friend, Layne, I figured out that I had mastitis and got some antibiotics. It took two days for me to feel normal again. A month later, I noticed a tenderness again and got myself to the doctor immediately.
Since then, I’ve had no issues, aside from the engorgement that comes from Fitz sleeping 8 hours or longer, or from being out and about for too long when I am usually feeding frequently. Just last weekend at the Get Cooking Brunch Pop Up, my breasts started to letdown and became quite engorged by the time I got back to Fitz. But the relief that comes with a baby nursing a full breast is like no other (a pump does not replicate this sensation). My friend Amie best described the sensation of nursing as a string being pulled from deep inside you towards your nipple. It’s a very satisfying feeling, once you’ve gotten through the beginning. And there is a sense of accomplishment that I feel with breastfeeding, of purpose, and of connection. I am my baby’s source of food, safety, and security. And as he grows and becomes more aware, he seeks out that safety, that nourishment, at my breast.
Nearly six months later, I still have a clenchy letdown (either it’s gentler or I’m used to it) and Fitz is now distracted at the breast. In the beginning, he nursed almost nonstop so I managed to watch 11 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy in a ridiculously short period of time because there was nothing else I could do while nursing. Now, I have to nurse him alone in his room or he whips his head around (sometimes with my nipple securely attached to his mouth) to look at the TV or whoever is talking to me. He also pulls off to smile and chat to me and flails his arms and hands about, grabbing at my shirt or my hair with his pincher-like, motorcycle revving grip. With his growth and development, he now opens his mouth in anticipation and gets impatient for me to get my breast out for him, like “C’mon, Mom, I’m hungry here!”
Looking back at the beginning, for me, it was worth it. Never mind the convenience of breastfeeding (no bottles to clean or warm up), or the cost effectiveness of it (formula costs up to $2000 a year), the overall value of toughing it out was worth it (for me). I am lucky in that my son will take a bottle of breastmilk from anyone, but still prefers the breast; I know not every child will take both, and sometimes babies prefer the faster flow of a bottle. I am lucky that I can produce a lot of milk; I know not every mother can produce enough. And I feel lucky that I have been able to experience breastfeeding. It’s so fleeting, really. Soon, we try solids (again, he wasn’t into it the first time), and I am so eager to introduce Fitz to the world of food (and cooking, but that will come later).