Wrote something for Kidspot on the horrors of breastfeeding.
I am not a natural-born breast feeder – not one of those women you see with a scarf artfully draped over her upper body while a compliant baby suckles at her bosom. No, I’m more the Quasimodo of breast feeders, hidden high up in an apartment block, hunched over my baby, fevered with mastitis and howling in pain from my nipples being shredded six-to-eight times a day.
Prior to entering the mother club, I thought that breastfeeding was a piece of cake. It looked easy enough – simply usher baby towards nipple, baby attaches to nipple and away it glugs. Surely breastfeeding would be just like the pictures: serene, with me bathed in natural sunlight and dressed in taupe and sage Country Road leisure wear. Er, no. I soon understood what the nurses meant by breastfeeding being a ‘learned skill’, which is code for fricking hard.
When my milk came in, it came in like a tsunami. One nurse, upon seeing my nipples splurting away like the Las Vegas Fountains of Bellagio, tipped her head back with an ecstatic ‘isn’t Mother Nature wonderful’ groan. While her eyes were rolling heavenward, I was feeling horribly wet across my newly inflated bosom. For someone who usually makes Keira Knightly look voluptuous, suddenly developing a Pamela Anderson chest was intensely uncomfortable.
Breastfeeding seemed to be disturbingly hands-on. By hands-on, I mean for the multiple nurses who poked, squeezed and milked me to the point where I wondered if what I was experiencing was assault. The set of instructions they gave me on how to feed was comprehensive, though to my sleep-deprived and holy-shit-I-just-gave-birth brain, incomprehensible. It seemed that I required a protractor and sextant just to get started. My posture was to be upright; baby’s head, neck and spine had to be aligned, her chin up and my nipple level with their nose… Heck, I even needed a civil engineering degree just to get the pillow configuration right.
Baby’s mouth also needed to be wide open to ensure that she took a huge mouthful, her embouchure encompassing not just the nipple but the whole areola (I had to Google where that was too). That’s the theory; in practice, the nurses would wait like coiled springs for the rare moment when baby’s jaw would unlock and then ram my newborn’s head onto my nipple.
I figured that by the time I’d gotten home baby and I would be feeding in perfect harmony, like seasoned tango partners. As things turned out, we remained like two out-of-synch teenagers doing the lawn mower dance at a school disco.
Of the many unexpected issues presented by breastfeeding, pain was the most surprising. I thought squeezing a baby out of a small hole hurt – but with a team of health professionals and opiates to spur me on, labour was, in comparison with breastfeeding, a doddle. As baby thrashed her head around, her razor-sharp gums clamped to my nipples, there was no one to shout you’ve got this! or pain is temporary! I tried to remember the practical advice the nurses did offer up – wiggle your toes or count to ten. Funnily enough, these didn’t offer much in the way of pain relief.
Then there was the issue of engorgement. My knockers were no longer soft orbs of fatty tissue; no, they felt like titanium wrecking balls that had been pumped full of concrete. The cutting-edge, 21st Century remedy suggested by the nurses was popping cabbage leaves in my bra, though all my vegetable drawer offered up at that point in time was bok choi. Was this as efficacious?
It didn’t help that the birth of baby signalled visitors, lovely, well-meaning friends and relatives who wanted to press my heaving and wincingly sensitive concrete bosom tightly to theirs. It’s not often you need to pop some Fentanyl before going in for a hug. Not to mention I was permanently sporting two huge soggy milk patches down my front, leading those visitors, the post man and Coles delivery personnel to assume I was abnormally pleased to see them.
Then the cruellest of potential complications occurred: mastitis. While websites describe it as presenting ‘flu-like’ symptoms, the reality is that the most unspeakably vile symptom is that it feels like you’re breastfeeding naked in the middle of Antarctica with nothing but a fig leaf for warmth. And you also have the flu. Nothing ‘flu-like’ about it – just the flu in all its savage glory. The shivering was violent, the headaches besieged my brain and there didn’t seem to be enough thermal attire in the southern hemisphere to keep me warm. And the cruellest twist? Rest is one of the recommended remedies. Yep, rest with a newborn.
Breastfeeding is seen as one of the great mother and child bonding activities. In my experience, I think we’ve bonded marvellously despite breastfeeding. Thankfully, it has become easier with time and practice. Or maybe my little poppet has simply chewed her way through my nerve endings so that I now feel no pain. My chest has also deflated a few notches so that I’m now a more manageable Peggy from Mad Men than Pamela from Baywatch. Though one cannot get complacent – come six months, baby develops teeth and at that point breastfeeding will be like a Jaws reboot.