Most of the stories I had heard about breastfeeding made it sound like hard work but I knew I wanted to do it. Being a control freak and intent on not succeeding at something I put my mind to, I used my 9 months of pregnancy to plan, plan, and plan some more.
I read every book I could get my hands on about breastfeeding. I joined every online forum and pored over the stories and problems others had faced in the hope that I could ‘learn’ how to not repeat their mistakes. I fretted about my flat nipples, even flashing them at my midwife who assured me that they were fine for breastfeeding. I wasn’t convinced. Even though I was giving birth in a large acute hospital, I decided that I would book myself into a small midwife-led unit as soon as possible after the birth, just in case I found breastfeeding difficult. Thank God that I did.
The NHS ante-natal class on breastfeeding made it look easy, but breastfeeding did not come easy to me. My ideal of a ‘natural’ birth went out of the window. My 72 hour labour ended in an emergency c-section under general anaesthetic. My son was wiped out from the drugs and barely woke for two days. I spent those two days and nights on a hospital ward surrounded by other new mums, exhausted, in pain from my surgery, and unable to sleep for their babies crying, even when mine was quiet. I tried to feed him. He seemed to be latching. He was quiet at least. All was well (or so I thought). On day 3, I left hospital to go to the small midwife-led unit. All I wanted to do was go home but I had read that days 3 and 4 can be difficult so I thought I had better move onto the unit just in case. That turned out to be one of the best decisions of our lives.
As soon as we moved hospitals, my son became a different baby. He ‘woke up’ from the drugs during the 15-mile journey and started screaming constantly for milk. When we arrived at the unit, the midwives realised straight away that his latch wasn’t great and started trying to help us improve it. My son was screaming. I was distraught and exhausted. Every feed started with us latching and unlatching 20-30 times until we got it right. It felt like it would never happen but they refused to let me feed him with a bad latch (thank goodness as I never had pain or soreness as a result of their doggedness about that). I had my own private en-suite room. We had a midwife by our side almost every feed for the 5 days we spent in the unit. Each woman brought something different to the mix – a new feeding position, some kind, encouraging words, a cup of tea. Some offered silent, gentle support whilst others shared their own tips and feeding stories.
Looking back on it now, I think that was my first taster of what La Leche Leage refers to as the “Womanly Art” of breastfeeding. I realised that I was not alone; I was learning a new skill just as millions of women had done before me, and that those same women were there to help me and show me the way. I saw the love in the midwives’ faces when they talked about feeding their own little babies, and the obvious joy and pride that such memories brought them. I yearned for that too, and it was that thought that kept me going through the difficult times in those long, bleak, early days.
I encountered many problems along the way. My flat nipples were a nightmare – I wore nipple formers day and night to draw them out enough for feeding. I needed a barrage of cushions wherever I went to get my position right, which made leaving the house really difficult (until I discovered inflatable camping pillows!). I did get sore a couple of times after I left hospital as my son got bigger and heavier and his latch got lazy but I was always quick to ask for help, and to keep asking until whatever problem there was got resolved.
And that, to me, is the key to successful breastfeeding. My son is 15 months old now and we’re still breastfeeding, but even we face problems from time to time. The latest one being that his lazy latch is causing his teeth to scrape me sometimes when he feeds. But because I make a point of surrounding myself with people who are positive about breastfeeding, especially other breastfeeding mothers, I don’t worry about these things because I know that someone out there always has the answer. Breastfeeding is a primal skill that millions of women have practised through the ages. It stands to reason that you just have to ask enough people and you’ll find a solution in the end. But you do have to ask – no one comes knocking on your door, even though you desperately need and want them to in those early days.
I don’t know when my breastfeeding relationship with my son will end. But I do know that I am now the one who, eyes full of love and tears, tells stories about feeding my tiny baby and how amazing our journey to this point has been. I am part of that special club now and I never want to leave.