Breast-feeding is hell

I don't care what the lactation consultants and baby books say. Trying to nurse my child was an exercise in failure

Published May 27, 2013 1:00AM (EDT)

        (<a href=''>staticnak</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(staticnak via Shutterstock)

Excerpted from "The Sh!t No One Tells You."

Breast-feeding is the most natural thing on the planet. A connection between a mother and her offspring. The gift of food and life and love and -- holy hell, is that a blister ON THE TIP OF MY NIPPLE???!!!

Actually, as it turns out, breast-feeding is really f’n hard -- despite the claims of every baby book, blog, doctor, midwife, woman and some men (who always seem to be fans of anything having to do with boobs). Is there a chance that your baby will pop out and land square on your boob, latch perfectly and nourish itself with no problems whatsoever? Yes, of course (and yes, of course, I will want to slap you as a result), but I believe there needs to be a very real shift in expectations among pregnant women when it comes to their breast-feeding capabilities.

As it stands now, we are all told that breast-feeding is the ONLY option for feeding your child if you actually love that child and want them to ever have more than a third-grade-level reading ability. If you don’t breast-feed your baby, you might as well just immediately drop it off at your local prison because that is where it’s going to end up anyway after such a horrible start to its life. Breast-feeding is beautiful and natural and the best and only socially acceptable way to nourish your baby. It is the most natural thing on the planet, you see.

Fast-forward to a severely sleep-deprived, hormone-riddled new mom whose baby is not latching on correctly. If maybe perhaps she had been warned that breast-feeding would not necessarily be easy-peasy, then maybe perhaps she wouldn’t have to add “severe guilt” and “feelings of extreme failure as a woman and mother” to her already long list of postpartum difficulties.

So say it with me now: “Breast-feeding is really f’n hard.”

Repeat it to yourself, even as you attend classes and read books. Go into your feeding attempts knowing that it might not click right away, it might hurt like hell, your nipples may stretch to lengths that seem Guinness World Record-ish. But don’t worry! That’s all normal! Nature is a cruel, cruel bitch.

When my daughter first came out, I had her on my boob within a couple of minutes. A nice nurse came over and grabbed the baby, grabbed my boob and forced the two together. Unfortunately, that nurse was unable to do this for me every time I fed the baby (I know, because I asked her if she could), so I began to have trouble. I thought I was latching the baby correctly and she was sucking like crazy. My nipples hurt LIKE HELL, but I thought that was just how this motherhood thing was going to go. After all, I burst into motherhood with an unwanted drug-free delivery. (The drug-free part was unwanted, not the delivery.) The nurses would ask me if everything was going fine with the breast-feeding, and I would say yes. And they would just take my word for it.

Because, of course, I knew what I was talking about, right?

Shockingly, despite my very educated and experienced proclamations, the baby wasn’t actually feeding on me correctly, which was made apparent by her drastic weight loss in her first hours of life. This meant quite a few more nurses grabbing my boob and the baby and putting the two together.

It also warranted a visit from the Lactation Consultants/Nazis. These women are all boob all the time. When you say the words “bottle” or “pacifier” to these women, they look at you like you just said “light the baby on fire.” When my Lactation Consultant/Nazi arrived in the room, I asked her to please teach me how to feed my baby in a way that (1) actually fed my baby, and (2) helped my aching nipples remain on my body for at least another 48 to 72 hours. Lactation Lady said she could help and quickly reclined my hospital bed. Then she opened my shirt and placed the baby facedown on my belly.

“It’s totally natural. She will crawl right up and find your breast and eat.”

Seeing as the child was only a day old, I had my doubts about her climbing abilities, but this setup was just random enough for me to remain interested. And what do you know, that little baby slowly started making her way up my belly to my breast. I had to guide her a bit so she didn’t fall off onto the bed, but together we got her up there. The Lactation Consultant smiled widely, as if her work here was done.

“Um, yeah, so that was super interesting in a National Geographic sort of way, but I’m not thinking it’s going to be all that practical for me to disrobe and lie down on my back every time I need to feed the baby. First of all, it might get awkward when I’m out at a restaurant, and second, I feel like making the baby run a little baby marathon before she gets to eat is sorta mean.”

Hmph. My Lactation Consultant didn’t really enjoy my lack of enthusiasm for her “Climb Every Mammary” technique, but she did eventually move on to teaching me some other backup options, should I not be able to find a nice place to lie on the floor every time the child needed to eat.

While her other techniques were a little more practical, they weren’t without their challenges. For instance, they actually required the assistance of a very awkwardly positioned assistant.

Even after I got a handle on the latching, my baby was still a little underweight because -- oh, didn’t anyone mention? -- your milk can take a while to actually come in. Nature is fun like that. The poor kid can be sucking like crazy and getting colostrum (premilk healthy goodness), but they’re not getting the milk yet, and maybe not even getting a ton of colostrum. So after I fed her, I also had to pump and try to get some milk to use for supplementing her. The nurses wanted to supplement her with formula, but the Lactation Nazis made it very clear that if I were to allow my baby to (1) drink from a bottle or (2) drink formula, the world would come crashing down -- and I was barely holding on to it as it was.

So I would pump for an hour and get juuuust enough to fill a needleless syringe with milk. How do you know that you haven’t pumped a lot? When an eyedropper can pick up all the milk you’ve just expressed. Shockingly, even after that feast, the baby was still hungry. So, through hysterical tears (again), I allowed Viv to be supplemented with a little formula between breast-feeding sessions, to get her weight up. I felt like a complete maternal failure, and she wasn’t even 48 hours old. I was really hoping to put off that feeling until she made an unfortunate piercing choice in her teen years.

On top of this, Vivian had tummy issues from day one -- issues that I realized were alleviated when I stopped eating ALL dairy. And beans. And anything spicy. So in addition to the caffeine I had given up as soon as I found out I was pregnant, I was now living a dairy-free (and nacho-free) life. And oh what a sad, sad life that is. Do you have any idea how much stuff has dairy in it??? I’ll simplify it for you: Pretty much anything that tastes good has dairy in it. The end.

Then, once I thought I had breast-feeding figured out, my milk would still occasionally dip in production. For no real reason, my boobs would slow down, and I was convinced this meant I was drying up. Images of ice cream would start dancing in my head, but then I would read online that sometimes this happens and that I shouldn’t give up. Dammit, I had to cancel my large pizza.

I would pump after every feeding, trying to convince my boobs that I suddenly had twins who were very, very hungry. This usually got us back on track pretty quickly. But even after I learned how to weather the ups and downs in my production -- after cheese had become a distant memory in my pizza-topping past -- I still found the whole thing to be a lot of responsibility. I had to think twice about every single thing I consumed. I had to plan my days around feeding, pumping and storing. Going out of town without the kid for even a night was difficult for me and the baby. Overall, it is a very weird and somewhat overwhelming concept to know that your body is responsible for another life.

When Vivian was around 10 months old, she caught a violent flu bug that was spread to several kids at a playdate from hell.

The result was that she would feed on me, sit up and promptly projectile vomit her meal all over both of us. I tried to feed her for less time to limit the projected amount, but then she was losing out on the snuggling that she loved so much and would be in hysterics when I cut her off. This went on for a few days, and I finally hit my breaking point. I moved her over to bottles full-time so that I could gauge how much she was actually eating and not traumatize both of us post–nipple removal. Could I have weathered that storm and kept feeding? Probably. But for some reason, that moment was my final straw. (It’s a possibility that the reason might have had something to do with the plate of nachos and extra large Mountain Dew I consumed for my first post-breast-feeding meal. Sorry Viv, Mommy was hungry.)

I felt so guilty when I stopped breast-feeding, as if I had failed my daughter by not making it to my goal of a year. I was also a little sad that I no longer had that special time with her, those calm minutes with just the two of us holding each other close. I missed it. But my boobs missed it even more. Unaware that the milk train had been taken off the tracks, my champion breasts continued to produce with vigor. They looked like two water balloons that could burst at any second, the idea of which seemed very gross to me but also seemed like it might feel very good, because the pressure was awful. I called the advice nurse, because I was pretty sure no one had ever experienced anything like this before, and if they had, surely the medical community had devised a way to alleviate it. Helpful Advice Nurse said, “Yeah, that really hurts. It’ll eventually go away, though.” Thanks, so helpful.

I was told that if I relieved the pressure by pumping, the boobs would take that to mean I was still feeding and would continue making the milk I was trying to dry up. So I would let my boobs get full enough — to the point where I honestly thought an explosion was a possibility — and then I would pump a little tiny bit to relieve the pain and pressure.

When I look back on it now, the entire breast-feeding saga didn’t actually last that long, and the struggles were a small price to pay to feel like I was giving my kid the best nourishment possible. But, like everything else having to do with the first year of parenting, breast-feeding and its difficulties seemed endless, as though it were a possibility that I would be whipping a boob out in restaurants for years to come. When I had blisters on my nipples but still had to let the baby suck on them, when I had to pump and dump because I accidently ate some ranch dressing at a party, when I would have to watch my boobs being violently and unnaturally sucked into the breast pump — all these things were intense and came with the inevitable feeling that there was no end in sight.

Despite how hard it is, I am not trying to talk anyone out of breast-feeding. (I believe a gaggle of angry Lactation Consultants would violently swarm my house if I were to suggest such a thing — and they are unnaturally strong from having to wrestle unwilling boobs all day.) What I’m trying to do is prepare you for the fact that it might not be easy-peasy. As one of my mother friends said, “The breast-feeding class I took failed to mention cracked nipples, excruciating pain, clogged ducts, and mastitis.” If you go into breast-feeding knowing that it could be difficult, then you may be less likely to quit in a fit of shame/frustration/inferiority when you hit those really common speed bumps.

So ladies, breast-feed your babies, and don’t stop if it gets a little tough. And don’t be afraid to talk about the fact that it’s tough. There is no shame whatsoever in struggling with absolutely anything having to do with your efforts to keep your little person alive. But also, if it gets way too tough or things don’t work out or you just don’t want to do it — don’t beat yourself up about it. Your kid will be fine. Some of the smartest people I know were formula-fed.

Just because breast-feeding is natural doesn’t mean it will come naturally to you right off the bat. Find someone supportive (a friend, a mom, a doctor) you can talk to if you are having trouble or doubts. Go to the lactation clinic every damn day if you need to. You are not a failure as a woman or mother if breast-feeding is hard. What you are is a sleep-deprived, overwhelmed, hormone-riddled woman who, for some reason, has been trusted with caring for a newborn. Nature needs to get that timing thing worked out a little better, if you ask me.

By Dawn Dais

Dawn Dais is the author of "The Sh!t No One Tells You: A Guide to Surviving Your Baby’s First Year" (Seal Press, June 4, 2013), from which this piece is excerpted.