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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Breastfeeding is Not One Size Fits All

As Moms, things often don't go the way we envisioned. No matter how prepared we think we are, there are curveballs that we can't anticipate and for several Moms I know, breastfeeding was one of them. We're told it's the most natural thing in the world and that it's what is best for our babies ('breast is best'), but despite our best intentions, breastfeeding isn't always as simple (or even an option) as we thought it would be. One of my friends, Tanitha from Imaginary Sails, has kindly shared about her own journey with breastfeeding and I hope it helps bring light to challenges that often come with this territory. For so many women, this can be a heartbreaking experience and it's important to know that these challenges are more common than we are often lead to believe.

Breastfeeding is important, amazing, and all consuming at first, but it isn’t everything. It isn’t a measure of how good a mother you are. I don’t say this to take away from the Mamas out there labouring away breastfeeding or trying to breastfeed – and I know it is a labour indeed, I say this to encourage a realistic conversation about the trials and tribulations of breastfeeding and to acknowledge that everyone’s experience is different and it is often no walk in the park. At the end of the day if your baby is fed, that is what matters.

Like most women pregnant for the first time I read books, several books, paying great attention to the details and trying to absorb as much as I could so that when those sleepless nights came with our baby, I might still remember what to do. There was also a very confident side to me thinking that I would just know what to do and my baby would know what to do and it would all just fit together like a simple two-piece puzzle and we would breastfeed off into the sunset. Looking back over my year (and still counting) of breastfeeding there really are lots of tender moments, comfort, closeness, satisfaction and positivity – but honestly overall I would say it has been a struggle.

The problem is that although the most natural way to feed your baby, I would argue that for most women it doesn’t come naturally. For me, loving, holding, kissing, nurturing, burping, changing, and washing my baby felt so natural but breastfeeding did not. My expectation of this thing that would magically fall into place was far from reality even though I gave it my all – like drove myself (and my husband) half crazy all. I struggled with low milk supply which made me feel so inadequate as a Mom at first. Eventually I came to terms with supplementing with formula, but it took me about six months to truly make peace with it, while still pumping like mad every evening, nursing as much as possible, eating ‘the right’ foods, taking supplements and drinking teas still trying to improve my supply (… so I admit that ‘at peace’ may be a stretch, but I didn’t randomly cry about it anymore).

You see I am all for the promotion and normalization of breastfeeding because it does have so many benefits for Mom and of course baby, but I know I have felt the other side of that where I wondered if the ‘breast truly is best’, then I must not be doing or providing the best for my baby. I don’t think anyone should have to feel that way, just because they haven’t exclusively breastfed, for whatever reason. It can feel lonely, and even guilty and definitely judged whether the feeling is induced by self-judgement, perceived judgement, or actual judgement from others.

Supply issues aside, breastfeeding is hard! For me, first there was the “breaking-in” phase where your nipples may or may not be slightly reconstructed by your teeny tiny impossibly cute baby’s nursing. Everything I read warned you may feel ‘some discomfort’, my experience was more like toe-curling pain, raw skin, and an open wound that took a full three months to heal (hence the reconstruction). Some discomfort does not even begin to describe it, and talking to my other Mommy friends, I would say this is pretty normal. Even with nurses, a lactation consultant, and my doctor checking my baby’s latch repeatedly and saying it looked great it was still incredibly painful. That’s not to say you shouldn’t get help from those professionals, because they can give amazing little tweaks that help a lot, it just wasn’t game changing help for me.

Another fairly common issue is blocked ducts, which can turn into mastitis if it isn’t curbed (I thankfully didn’t have any develop into mastitis so I won’t speak to that, I will leave that to google the professionals). A blocked duct can be quite common at first when your supply is sorting itself out, and also when you start to wean or even just lessen the amount you are nursing. I experienced this a few times in the first few weeks and a few times since (ironically, including as I write this). It is similar to the feeling of a bad headache – but in your boob. I know, weird analogy, but the tenderness really is similar to a headache and it will also be red and warm or hot. I had the most success with soaking in a hot bath and some massaging to loosen things up. A couple of months ago I had a stubborn one that hung around for several days and so I tried my old bath routine, at first it didn’t seem to help but I woke up in the night covered in weird smelling milk so I guess it had worked after all. And yes, the milk smelled gross, a lovely thing to wake up covered in, but at least it wasn’t poop right?!

Another almost-made-me-quit experience was biting. Cringe. Even without teeth it really hurts, so when those little razor sharp pearly whites show up it can be awful, who wants puncture wounds on their nipples, no thanks! This seemed to be a phase that came and went a few times with teething but eventually it stopped. I used the method where you try not to have any verbal reaction (ha!), and simply place baby on the floor or bed, breaking all physical contact to send the message that it isn’t okay. That sounds so simple but it did make for an upset/hurt Mom, and usually a screaming baby on the floor/bed/couch until I picked him back up and resumed nursing, but eventually he got the picture and hasn’t bitten me in months.

Teeth seemed to be a problem again as his two top center ones were coming up further. I had about a month of open sores again but it wasn’t biting, it seemed to just be friction. Just as I was about to call it quits things got better, I think it was just a matter of him figuring out his new teeth and me trying lots of different angles to try to avoid the sores – really who knew how many scars you could get just from breastfeeding? Not me, not from any of the books I read, or pros I talked to Moms and otherwise.

I don’t think I am unique in my struggles, and I know there are many others difficulties too. For some just the sheer amount of time it takes (especially at first) can be completely overwhelming and is just too much. For some the initial pain is just too much, and so the alternative can be to pump and that is a massive commitment too. Some people can just sit down and pump a whole bottle in a matter of minutes, some people can’t even get a drop with a pump, I could spend up to an hour and rarely pumped more than two ounces – everyone is different. Everyone has a different tolerance for the various discomforts and there can be many. I was and still often am bad for falling asleep nursing with my neck in a crunched up position which causes lots of aches and pains and sometimes headaches. I recommend looking up counter-stretches for nursing Moms, they can really help!

Don’t worry though, there are Moms who take to it easily and it feels so natural and perfect that it is a no brainer for them and that is so great. Even with all the rough patches we’ve had, it can be super handy to have a snack literally on you wherever you go without having to bring it, it can also be a quick little time-out and help the mood of your little one with a little bit of snuggles and quiet time – so it definitely has its perks. As someone who has breast and bottle fed since the beginning I will also say the bonding can be very much the same as well, if you hold your baby close and feed them whichever way works for you, you are bonding – the physical contact is the same just the vessel providing the food is slightly different.

So however you have chosen to feed your baby, feel good about it! It is a struggle, and a super hot topic these days and it sometimes it feels like everyone has an opinion and wants to weigh in on your choices. Be confident that you are the only one that can make the best choice for you and your baby – a balanced feeling Mom goes a long way and can give a lot more to her baby and family. Whatever keeping your baby nourished and yourself sane means, breastfeeding, pumping, formula or any
combination just know that a fed baby is best and try to go easy on yourself if reality is different from your hopes!

A big thank you to Tanitha for sharing about her journey with breastfeeding, I hope you'll check out her blog, Imaginary Sails, for more great posts. 

You can also find Imaginary Sails on social media:
Facebook | Insatgram | Twitter

About Tanitha
Tanitha lives on the Sunshine Coast of BC with her husband and son. She is the founder of the blog Imaginary Sails and is enjoying her new venture into the blogging community and loves the positivity she has found. She loves making connections with people and finding a story to tell whether it is about day to day life, parenthood, over all well being, and travel. You will usually find her with a coffee in hand and heading to the beach whenever possible. 

Image Sources:
Photos courtesy of Tanitha, Imaginary Sails
Mom quote- Pinterest

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