My friend Tricia gave birth to her daughter a few days before I had Milo. She and her husband chose the Bradley Method of childbirth, a 12-week program that teaches couples how to have a baby without drugs (and, I assume, deal with the ensuing psychotic break). Tricia sent me a brief Facebook message a couple weeks after Milo was born to ask how things were going. We exchanged birth stories, and she told me that she didn’t go to the hospital until she was in transition. Transition being the part of labor where the baby’s head corkscrews through the pelvis and gets ready to come out. The woman has my total respect.
She asked if I was breastfeeding and said that, if I was, she felt for me. Two weeks into her daughter’s life, she said that breastfeeding was turning out to be more difficult than having a baby without any drugs whatsoever. And I totally knew what she meant.
As much as breastfeeding seems to be trending in our Western society, I think most of us still have only the weakest grasp on the mechanics of it. Before attending a 2-hour “Breastfeeding Basics” class in my third trimester, I thought breastfeeding went like this: bring baby to boob. Baby drinks milk. Happy baby! So, after attending the class and learning things like, breastfeeding passes on the mother’s antibodies to her baby (the one thing that formula still doesn’t do, as close as it’s come to the real thing), and nursing releases oxytocin into your system that helps your uterus firm up again, and breastfed babies tend to have higher IQs (the reasons for that are debatable, though — is it just the frequent contact with Mom? Is it the socioeconomic status of the family that the breastfed baby is born into?) — after learning all those things, I genuinely didn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t breastfeed. I started resenting my mom all over again for giving me formula, which was probably the cause of my colic (not to mention the reason for my always feeling slightly too dumb, amiright?) because she just didn’t like the idea of breastfeeding. (To be fair, it was barely becoming fashionable again when I was born in 1980.)
Back to mechanics. Did you know there’s a whole nursing lexicon out there? For example, the “latch.” The latch is what happens between the “bring baby to boob” step and the “baby drinks milk” step. So many people fail at breastfeeding because their babies just won’t latch. Then there’s the “suck.” We watched a whole video in class about this, and I squirmed uncomfortably as a lactation consultant complimented a new mother on her baby’s “good suck.” But without a good suck, you’re screwed! Tricia’s problem is that her baby is a “lazy suck.” She just won’t suck hard enough to get enough milk. She was having to get up every single hour around the clock to nurse the baby, then pump milk with a breast pump after each feeding, then feed the expressed milk to the baby. She got so exhausted that her milk supply started to drop. Also she got mastitis.
A picture that has nothing to do with breastfeeding, but breaks up all this crazy text! (This is Milo at 3 months.)
Anyway, breastfeeding seemed like a no-brainer. In the hospital, I was proud, probably even a little smug, to tell the nursing staff that yes, I would be breastfeeding. I remembered from the class that babies usually nurse for the first time about 45 minutes after they’re born, and this is a really critical feeding for them because they’re recovering from the shock of being born, but alert enough to eat. After about an hour, they fall asleep for basically a few days. So when Milo came out quiet and blue, and I started to hemorrhage, my mind was fixed on that closing window of opportunity. And then I didn’t see Milo for almost three hours.
Finally they brought him in and handed his little seven-pound body to doped-up, puffy, numb-from-the-waist-down me. I felt like a monster shoving my big ol’ boob in his tiny, perfect little face. And I do mean shove. Getting the latch right is kind of like lining up the chute to drop a quarter in Zoltar’s mouth. You must wait until the baby really opens wide, then quickly insert the boob and hope he sucks. If you don’t wait until the baby opens wide, or if you don’t stick the boob in far enough, then the baby doesn’t take enough of the boob in his mouth, which is very very painful for your nipple and eventually leads to cracking and bleeding. And what happened to me (I’m sure this is common) was, I would get him lined up, “make a sandwich” (I’m not going to explain that one; ask your lactation consultant!), shove the boob in, and he wouldn’t suck. Or he’d fall asleep. Or he’d suck once and then lose it. And then finally he’d latch, hooray! and five sucks later…asleep.
The real challenge with breastfeeding is that you have to establish it when you’re at your most mentally and emotionally fragile. Here’s this tiny new baby who needs you to feed him in order to survive, and if you can’t figure out the latch/suck puzzle, he’s going to be hungry, and that’s going to make him cry a lot. And, worse, he’s going to start losing weight, and if he loses too much or doesn’t start to gain it back, then the doctor will probably suggest supplementing with formula, and you’re so exhausted and desperate to feed your baby that you say okay. And you feel like an absolute failure.
But. Three months later and a few hundred dollars’ worth of nursing products with ridiculous names — Bamboobies! Majamas! — I’m here to tell you: nursing the baby is the highlight of my day. The oxytocin that helps your uterus contract? What they don’t tell you is, it also completely relaxes you. It is why, when I’m nursing the baby, it is the one time of my day when I feel like I’m exactly where I need to be and doing exactly what I need to do. I’m kind of addicted to the oxytocin high, to be honest. And looking down and seeing my sleepy little baby all snuggly and warm and sated? What could be nicer and more reassuring?
Maybe that’s why I still can’t bring myself to breastfeed in public: not just because I don’t want strangers to see my boobs, but because I am so totally enjoying myself while this exposure’s going on, and that feels…self-indulgent? I know that it seems like I can overcome this embarrassment by just covering up, and that’s true to some extent, but covering up when it’s 105 degrees outside is hot as hell, and it makes both me and the baby miserably sweaty almost immediately, even when we’re inside. Plus, I need both of my hands: one hand to hold the baby, the other hand to facilitate the latch. And unless a bathroom is truly clean enough to eat in, I’m not feeding my baby in a toilet stall. So, I don’t know the answer. Never leave the house? Get over it?
And that’s all I have to say about breastfeeding. It’s been two days since I started this post and the baby’s waking up and I gotta go okay bye!