Six things I wish I had known about Breastfeeding!

The following article has been written by Megan Wynne, a fine artist, breastfeeding advocate and mother of two.  

“Still Attached”

When I was pregnant with my first child, like many mothers-to-be, I was obsessed about being prepared for labor and delivery. My dad is an OB/GYN and I have always been fascinated by pregnancy and childbirth. However the real reason I read so many books and sat up front, asked questions, and took meticulous notes in my childbirth education classes was because I was absolutely terrified of having to do it myself. I just couldn’t even begin to wrap my brain around having to go through labor. I was so focused on the labor part, that comparatively speaking, I didn’t think too much about the baby-having part at the end of it.

After fourteen hours of labor and three hours of pushing, my child finally arrived with the assistance of vacuum extraction. And, as the nurse laid the child upon my chest, I literally gasped and exclaimed, “There’s a baby on me!!” as if I didn’t realize the purpose of my visit to the hospital until that very moment.

One of the childbirth classes offered at the hospital was on infant feeding. I paid close attention as I did with all the other classes I took. I felt prepared as I could possibly be. When my mom asked me if I was going to breastfeed I answered her with hesitation, “Um, If I can. I’ll try….” I wasn’t confident about it. Like many women, I started out never having seen a woman breastfeed before, and I’d only heard stories of how inconvenient and problematic it could be. At the hospital I remember my experience with the Lactation Consultant consisting of her watching me struggle in vain to get my baby latched correctly for fifteen minutes and then leaving. My daughter was getting milk, however, so I felt like everything was OK. Unfortunately in the coming weeks and months I ran into a long list of difficulties feeding my daughter. I overproduced, my milk ejection reflex was too strong, my daughter was very “colicky” and was extremely fussy when I tried to feed her. She was so rough on my nipples that they felt like they were on fire. I could go on and on. My health insurance didn’t cover the cost of a lactation consultant. None of my internet reasearch helped me. I felt like a failure as a mother.

Now, as a second time mom who is still nursing a two-and-a-half year old, these are the things I wish I had known back when I was struggling and miserable.

1. La Leche League meetings are free, you have no obligation to join, and the people are there to help you.

I am not the kind of person that joins a club in the first place. I had the assumption that to attend a LLL meeting you had to make a commitment and pay dues. Also (and what turned me off the most) was that I thought that the meetings would simply consist of a bunch of cliquey women effortlessly nursing together, congratulating each other, and complimenting eachother’s nursing bras (or something to that effect). That kind of enviroment was the last place on earth I wanted to be. I couldn’t bring myself to go to a meeting until after all my breastfeeding problems resolved on their own, when my daughter was almost a year old. I remember listening to the story of a new mother who was sitting across from me. She was having a terrible time making enough milk to feed her son. After the meeting I approached her and I touched her hand and I think all I got out was, “I’m sorry you’re going through this, I had a hard time too…” and I began to cry, and then we cried together. The leaders at the meetings are educated and helpful but the support of other nursing women is invaluable. And yes, becoming a member is probably a good idea afterall.

2. Don’t believe all the pro-breastfeeding propaganda 

OK I’m exaggerating a little bit here. Before I had a child I got the idea that breastfeeding was hard and not for eveybody. After I had a baby and was having so much trouble nursing her I ran to the library to try and diagnose myself (or my child, whichever of us was the problem, I had no idea). I read a lot of books about how beautiful and perfect breastfeeding is and got very little information on resolving problems that many women must have (right?) when breastfeeding. I read about how breastfeeding makes you lose weight. That wasn’t true for me, it made me gain weight because I was hungry alllll the time. I read about how convenient it was. It wasn’t convenient for me to feed a newborn that wouldn’t let me cover her* when I went anywhere because she was on and off the breast so much because of my “issues.” It was hard to have to be the only one who fed my daughter for the first six weeks because I didn’t want to use an artificial nipple for fear of her getting “nipple confusion.” I longed for a break. I couldn’t wait until I could pump a little and sleep for four hours straight. Sometimes in the breastfeeding community, legitimate issues can get glossed over because they (rightly) want more people to breastfeed and see it in a positive light. However this tactic for promoting the cause can backfire and make a woman struggling feel alienated (see #1).

3.  “Post Partum Depression” doesn’t mean that you are weak or that you are a bad mom.

The maternal experience in our culture is so often oversimplified and idealized to the point that discussing PPD is almost taboo. Additionally so much of the focus in the post partum period is on the baby, that the postpartum experience on the new mother can be severely downplayed or even ignored. When it was suggested to me that I might have it I felt ashamed, and immediately rejected the idea. PPD is caused by many factors, which differ depending on the mother, but I thought that I couldn’t have PPD because I was sad for a “real” reason: my life legitimately sucked.

My baby was so “colicky” that she wouldn’t let me hold her at all when I wasn’t feeding her or she wasn’t alseep, for the first eight or so weeks of her life. She would arch her back and freak out, even when I fed her. When she was awake I couldn’t stop her from crying, only my husband could do it using a certain specific movement that my arms weren’t strong enough to do continually. Because of my crazy overproduction I had huge milk stains down my stretched out shirts and I smelled like cheese 24 hours a day. It wasn’t pretty, and neither was I. I believe my breastfeeding issues largely contributed to my PPD, but giving up would have made me feel even more like a failure. I was a total wreck. Regardless, any reason for a postpartum mother to be depressed is “real” enough, and should be taken seriously. Thankfully there are many resources out there, you just have to ask for help.

4. So breastfeeding can suck, and that’s ok.

After all the toubles I had, my daughter slowly became less colicky and miserable and my milk production became more reasonable. Eventually my nipples healed. It took a long time but I emerged from that terrible period of my life proud of myself for persevering. My point is that breastfeeding isn’t all sunshine and happy cuddles. Its not effortless. It can be a huge pain in the ass. But I’m telling you, as hard as it can be, in most cases the pros still outweight the cons. I’m not going to say “breast is best” because that makes formula seem like the neutral thing and breastmilk as an extra special step above it. Its not. Breastmilk from a human is what human babies are supposed to eat. That’s not a radical thing to say.

There are many many studies that on the surface appear to show all the extra special fancy things that breastmilk does for a child and breastfeeding does for a mother, but what those studies really show is that formula just doesn’t quite cut it when compared to breastmilk. Those “fancy” things about breastmilk and breastfeeding are things you are supposed to have as a human. And while my breastfeeding troubles may have contributed to my PPD, the oxytocin release I got from breastfeeding and bonding with my child probably saved me in the end. And I can’t even tell you how much my kids (eventually) appreciated their relationship to my boobs. The comfort and fulfillment that boobs give babies is mind boggling.

My daughters both called me, “Boobie” (or more accurately, “Buh-Buh”) long before they called me, “Mama”. That’s what I was, a walking set of breasts. I came in a room and they wouldn’t look me in the eye. It actually started to make me feel rather objectified. But I digress…That emotional benefit* shouldn’t be underestimated. If you ask, me the “feeding” part of breastfeeding is only half of it.  (*Yes, I know you can cuddle and feed a kid formula – or breastmilk – from a bottle and make them feel loved. As an adoptee I was only fed formula as a baby and I am an emotionally and physically healthy adult…but…sometimes I wonder how much smarter I would be now if I had been breastfed… 😉

Some women simply cannot breastfeed, no matter what they do or how hard they try and they should not feel guilty for it. Of course, I know it can be easier said than done. If a caretaker doesn’t have access to human milk, formula, relatively speaking, is an AMAZING substitute to have. I am very thankful to live in a society where formula exists and is safe. For one reason, without it I wouldn’t be alive.

5. You do NOT have to cover up or hide when you feed your child in public! 

Some people find it really easy to cover up with they breastfeed. I was not one of those women. I tried and tried, even after my second child was born. I was also very afraid of being harassed in public so I never wanted to do it. So I’d try to bring pumped milk in a bottle, but it was a pain. I’d have to put aside an extra 20 minutes to pump before we left, but I couldn’t pump any milk if my baby had just eaten. In that case I’d get milk from the freezer and defrost it, but I’d worry about the milk not staying cold enough the entire time we were out.

Then when we were out my breasts would become uncomfortably full with milk, or I’d let down and get soaked if my baby fussed. It seemed ridiculous to feed the child from a bottle when I had perfectly good milk in my own uncomfortably full breasts right then and there. I’d try to hide in my car in the heat of the summer to nurse, but people would see me if they walked near my car in the parking lot. Also after my second baby it seemed ridiculous and cruel to strap my older child into her car seat for 20 minutes in a hot idling car just so I could feed her little sister.

I’ve heard about people suggesting using public bathrooms to nurse. Besides the gross factor, the flushing toilets and hand dryers going off startled my baby so much that she wouldn’t eat at all. They still startle my kids and make them uncomfortable, and they are 2 and 4 years old now. Also, from my experience people usually don’t like when someone hogs public bathroom stalls (especially single person bathrooms) for 20 minutes at a time. And again, what do I do with the second kid?!?!

Then one day I was talking to my friend who worked with nursing women at WIC and she explained to me that she doesn’t advise women to cover because breastfeeding is nothing to be ashamed of. She told me that when more women see other women nursing it will make those women more comfortable nursing their children in public too. And that day I realized that the expectation for mothers to cover is a problem with society, not a problem with me or my child. If women can wear cleavage revealing tops (not to even mention all the butt and boob on display at the beach, on magazine covers, in the media, etc.) then why can’t I simply feed my poor little hungry baby? You know you can look away, right? Just as I’d expect you to look away from gratuitous boobie cleavage hanging out of a shirt or bathing suit if it made you uncomfortable.

Also it should be mentioned that it is not “immodest” to nurse uncovered by definition, since being immodest means to be indecent and shameless. Breastfeeding does not apply here whatsoever. This mindset that women should be ashamed to breastfeed comes from a culture whose priorities and values are all out of whack. It doesn’t reflect well on how we value women, or children for that matter, because they are the ones that suffer the most. When it is super inconvenient (and often mortifying) for a women to feed her child anywhere outside her home, that is a HUGE disincentive to keep breastfeeding. Considering the importance of breastfeeding, (see #4) you can see how this messed up perspective is failing the mothers and babies of our society. By the way, you do realize that mothers + babies = everybody, right?!

So if you want to and you’re feeling brave, go ahead, do it for all of us. Now I’m not saying you won’t get harassed, you might, but covering up doesn’t prevent you from getting harrassed either. For proof of that just join one of the many Facebook pages on the topic of Breastfeeding to read personal stories of other women. HOWEVER, some good news…

6. There are laws to protect you from harassment if you ever decide to leave your home! 

Check your state’s laws on public breastfeeding. When my first child was still nursing we only had a law here in Virginia to protect us from being arrested for indecent exposure. Yet if, for example, a store owner wanted to kick me out of their establishment for feeding my child and I refused to leave they could still have me arrested.

Thankfully this year a law was passed here in my state that protects women who nurse their children wherever they are allowed to be. Many states, while they have laws, don’t have any way for the law to actually be enforced. Its more like declaration of support and strong suggestion to business owners. This is obviously NOT good enough. We need more protection, we need more laws that support us in the workplace, and we need better parental leave. These are issues that advocates for parents and children are working on every day, and I have the honor of personally knowing some of these amazing people. Just know that things are changing, however slowly.

So, while you may come up against negativity as you embark on your amazing, beautiful, and complex nursing relationship, you may also get an unsolicited high-five from someone like me. And, I’m sure your baby will appreciate your perseverance and commitment to breastfeeding more than you know.

You can see Megan’s artwork on her website:

Editor’s note: The Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare,” now requires all health insurance plans to provide breastfeeding support including lactation consultants, counseling, and equipment for the duration of breastfeeding.