This is not my tale of woe. I don’t want any sympathy. I cannot describe the pain breastfeeding brought me, and nor the joy it does either. I cannot recommend enough that every mother at least tries it. Not all will be able to get past the pain that I did, but for those who can, or who are lucky enough not to experience pain, it is worth it a million times over.
Breastfeeding was, for me, an absolute given. There was no way I wasn’t going to breastfeed my baby. I was breastfed until I was nearly three, and I knew from what I’d heard over the years, and from my own research while pregnant, that it is the best thing you can do for your child. People asked me when I was pregnant whether I was going to breastfeed or not, and my answer was always I hope so. Some said don’t beat yourself up if you can’t, or if it doesn’t work out, and I had heard horror stories from friends with new babies about their milk not coming in, or too low a supply, or tongue tie and latch problems, pressure from family to formula feed, ad nauseum. When you’re trying to gather information, it often seems like the tales of woe are the most forthcoming; the success stories don’t shout from the rooftops, they lurk in warm corners, not feeling the need to dance around their triumph and show the world how good they are at something so instinctively natural.
I hoped it would be thus for me – I took it for granted that it would be. My mum reported no problems whatsoever in breastfeeding me, apart from the fact I was reluctant to stop! She met adversity in the midwives, nurses, and health visitors of the time; the early eighties were all about formula and ‘progress’ for the working mother. However, my mother has been a bit of a renegade all her life, so the midwives telling her ‘it will only bring you trouble’ probably spurred her on to feed me the way she knew was best. She had no trouble, I thrived; surely I would be able to do the same for my baby?
So baby arrived one hazy late June morning. It was an easy, planned home birth (but that’s another story) and the only complication was a retained placenta and resulting loss of blood. We had to transfer to hospital to be sorted out, because despite almost instant breastfeeding, I was still losing blood and the placenta was still staying put. After we were ensconced in a high-dependency room on the delivery suite (somewhere I vowed I would not go, hey ho), and the flurry of the crisis(?) team had been and gone, a very kind midwife suggested the baby’s blood sugar might be getting a bit low. She said she could do a little blood test, or she could try helping me express colostrum to give him in a feeding syringe. I opted for the latter, of course, because I knew that the former involved pain for my new little human, and probably led to formula. The midwife asked permission to touch me, and began expressing colostrum, exclaiming at just how much I had when her syringe was overflowing after the first couple of squeezes. Once we’d got the syringe into baby, she helped me get him to latch, and he sucked like a little vacuum cleaner. And carried on sucking so hard that by day two, my nipples were very sore. My milk came in on day three with full force. My own midwife had warned me that because I’d lost so much blood (I was very anaemic, my haemoglobin was down to 8.1, just 0.1 away from a blood transfusion) my milk might take much longer, up to a week, to come in. However, when she visited me on the morning of day three, I showed her these great big watermelons stuck to my chest, and she said oh! feeling a bit full, are you?!
It was then that the real pain began. Full breasts are uncomfortable at the best of times, but combined with a baby whose suction felt like it had been turned up to eleven, I was in agony. Then, by day four, my nipples were raw and bleeding. From then for the next four or five weeks, I screamed or dug my fingernails into my thighs every time he latched. Every feed, up to 16 a day. Pain is an understatement: I wanted to know why everyone tells you about labour, and the books prepare you for that, when what I was experiencing while feeding my baby seemed infinitely worse than the four short hours I’d had to deal with contractions. I remember crying at the prospect of the baby waking up and needing to be fed again. Words cannot describe how awful it was. Cluster feeding at night time felt incessant; from 7pm til 10pm the Muppet was latched on, screaming if I took him off, and all the while I was gritting my teeth and praying he’d fall asleep. When he did, I’d have a couple of hours before it would start again, and we’d see midnight, then one o’clock, and often 3am, and 4am, and 5am.
My midwife suggested different holds to take the pressure off the ridge that forms diagonally across the nipple from the baby sucking in the same place: we tried and tried the rugby hold (baby beside you on a pillow, latching from under your arm) but I could only get it to work on one side. I was still engorged after a few days, and had to hand express a little bit before each feed so the areola was soft enough for the Muppet to latch. Once, only once, I collected what I expressed in a little plastic cup the midwife gave me, and in the wee small hours when sleep deprivation had really set in, and I could hardly keep my eyes open, we tried cup feeding. My husband held the Muppet upright, and I tipped the cup up at his lips. He howled. And howled. And looked at me with the saddest little face, as if to say, is this how you’re going to feed me now? It broke my heart. Yes, my hormones were all over the place, and I had probably spent most of that day crying, but even now at the memory I can feel my throat tighten and my eyes well up. So I howled along with him and pushed away the cup and husband, and dug my nails in for another latch.
Day seven, and my nipples were obviously healing but then being torn open again, so the midwife reluctantly suggested nipple shields. They were a real faff, but also a life saver. She said just use them for one day, and then perhaps just at night for a couple of nights. I used them almost every feed for a week, and then intermittently for another fortnight while my nipples healed. They worked, and my supply didn’t drop, and the Muppet knew exactly what to do either with or without them. I would have suffered much longer had it not been for them.
Now, by day 10, the Muppet should have regained his birthweight. He had only lost 3.5% at day three, so was doing ok. But his weight was static, and he didn’t regain those extra ounces until about three weeks. There was no panic, no formula pushing, (for which now looking back, I’m infinitely grateful), and the midwife spent longer with me, talking me through several feeds, and showing me how to rouse the Muppet gently when he fell asleep after a few sucks. Don’t let him use you as a dummy, she said – I did though, and still do, and we’ve never used a dummy. Cluster feeding continued, but I just trusted the Muppet and trusted my body to know what was right and really went with the flow. He never lost weight (bar the initial 3.5%) and slowly but surely gained. He did drop down to the 25th centile, but by four months was back up to the 50th.
The thing that was troubling me most now was the pain in my nipples between feeds, and if anything – clothing particularly – touched them. It was a good job it was a hot summer; I don’t know how I’d have coped in the winter time. I was still feeling very weak with anaemia, and wasn’t really up to much more than pottering around the house briefly between long stretches of rest or sleep in bed. Fortunately we didn’t have many visitors, so I was able to stay in my nighty or be topless most of the time. At night, I couldn’t even bear the weight or touch of a sheet over me, so slept on my side with one arm bent across my breasts for protection. I was still leaking gallons, but breast pads were out of the question, so I had to sleep on a towel or folded muslin. As for nursing bras, the four I’d bought from M&S were the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever worn in that department, sore nipples or not. They were duly eBayed, and a breastfeeding support group I went to sold me a Bravado Body Silk bra – overpriced compared to Amazon, but I didn’t care. Finally, a bra that was soft enough to wear. I can’t recommend these bras enough for beginning a breastfeeding journey.
Just as feeding started to become slightly more comfortable (latching was still excruciating), I noticed that immediately after a feed my nipples would blanch (turn white as the blood drained from them) and become tingly and painful. I endured a few days of this, wondering what it was and becoming more conscious that it was between feeds that most pain occurred now. Then it dawned on me that it was exactly like the symptoms of Raynaud’s disease I get in my hands in wintertime.
Several days of googling later, I knew that it was indeed Raynaud’s disease. Google also informed me that there is very little that can be done to fix this problem. There were various mentions of evening primrose oil, vitamin B, and warm compresses. The EPO I was reluctant to try, because I couldn’t find any source that could tell me whether it was safe for breastfeeding mums, whether it has any effect on milk supply, or whether it would affect a tender post-partum uterus. I did briefly try the vitamin B, but it didn’t seem to make much difference. That could be because I struggled to remember to take it though! I didn’t try warm compresses either, because it was fortunately very warm weather anyway, and I was usually snuggled up in bed while feeding anyway. I did discover silk breast pads, and while they were no good for use while I was actively feeding on one side (the other side leaked like a tap), they were much softer and more comfortable to wear in a bra than the disposable ones for between feeds. I also discovered merino wool ones which reviewers said were great for winter, though never actually bought any.
Happily, by about five months in, almost all symptoms of Raynaud’s had gone. My nipples still blanched after a feed (and still do now), but it didn’t hurt any more. From about three months, latching was almost instinctive, and while I still winced occasionally, feeding was not the ordeal it was to begin with. I could finally enjoy the bonding feeling without gritting my teeth or thinking of anything else to take my mind off the pain. Breastfeeding had become for us both a time of peace and healing; if anything upset either of us, it’s a lovely way to take a breather and regroup, as well as give your baby the best nutrition.
As we approach the Muppet’s first birthday (next Friday – I can’t believe it!!), I’m very proud to say we’re still breastfeeding, and I don’t see an end in sight. He’s still having at least eight feeds in 24 hours, though the past few nights he’s slept right through for 9-10 hours! Long may it last! It won’t, I’m sure, but he’s obviously getting enough in the daytime with the solid food he’s eating too. I didn’t start out with any breastfeeding goals and I’m not going to set any now, but if we’re still here in a year’s time, I will count myself very lucky. I’m quite comfortable with the idea of breastfeeding a toddler as and when he needs it, so long may our bliss continue!