I took the breastfeeding classes at the hospital. I read the relevant sections of the pregnancy books. I even practiced positioning with a teddy bear. I was ready for breastfeeding. Or at least I thought I was.
As it turned out, I actually was – I managed to nurse both kids for an entire year. But all of the preparation in the world didn’t teach me some lessons that real life imparted. Much of the literature on breastfeeding goes one of three ways: technical “how to” descriptions, lyrical meditations on its beauty, or warnings about its difficulty. My experience didn’t match any of those. Both times, it was a mix of the painful and easy, the boring and beautiful.
Here are a few things I wish I had known from the beginning:
How proud it made me of my body
I don’t have the awful relationship with my body that many women do, but it’s also never been terribly positive. In particular, I’ve always felt rather ambivalent about my small breasts. But now, I can take pride in the fact that they were my son’s sole source of nutrition for more than five months! Some women say, “I make milk; what’s your superpower?” I wouldn’t go that far, but I still find it pretty amazing.
How isolating and lonely it can be
I love being with my sons, but neither of them were great company in the beginning. With my first, there were many long hours when we were by ourselves and he’d be suckling for the sake of doing so, long after he had stopped getting milk. I didn’t want to deny him that comfort or God forbid, wake him up. When people were over, I either used the cover or went in Sprout’s bedroom because I was too shy to feed him in front of anyone but my husband. Then there were the seemingly endless nights. I never let Chris feed Sprout overnight because I needed to keep up my supply and couldn’t spare any of my pumped milk.
It could be used as an excuse to spend alone time with the baby
Of course, this is the flip side of the isolation card. There were definitely times when family members were visiting and I used breastfeeding to get away from everyone.
Even when breastfeeding goes well, it’s not necessary blissful
I found a lot of nursing rather boring. Especially in the beginning, watching television and reading blogs on my iPhone provided a lot of relief.
It can become more meaningful as the baby gets older
I assumed that the most bonding over breastfeeding would occur when the babies were newborns. But it’s actually in the last months of nursing I enjoyed feeding the most. Sprout learned how to play with my hair without pulling and there’s something very meditative about it. When he gets a little antsy, I tickle him and he giggles instead of breaking off and crying.
How incredibly painful duct clogs are
Oh dear Lord, they are like pulling a thick metal wire that is on fire out of your nipple. Except you can’t yell or even twitch violently because you’ll disturb the baby. Almost as bad as contractions.
How much pumping milk sucks
People told me; oh yes, I read plenty about it. But I could never quite understand how obnoxious pumping is until I experienced it for myself. And I had it easy: I have an office with a solid door that closes, I could push a chair in front of it, and I never had anyone walk in on me. While I was physically uncomfortable, washing the pieces was a pain, and I was nervous about my coworkers waltzing in, the worst part of it was the constant presence of it in my day. I was constantly thinking about if I would get out of my meeting in time to sterilize my pumping equipment, if I would finish pumping before my next meeting, and how early I needed to start so I could go home on time. Pumping harassed my thoughts, constantly intruding into anything else I might be thinking about.
How I would never stop worrying about my supply
I assumed that once breastfeeding was well-established, I wouldn’t worry about producing enough milk for my baby. But that was before I went back to work and knew exactly how much I was pumping every day and how much he was eating every day. And the latter was almost always more than the former. As a result, I was constantly catching up by pumping at night and on weekends. It wasn’t until we finally started supplementing with formula near the very end that I relaxed a little.
It’s worth investing in the better breast pump
For really expensive pieces of equipment, breast pumps are cheaply made and not very sturdy. Because I pumped almost every night, I hauled my breast pump back and forth from work every single day. Because I ride public transit, it got pretty bumped up and I actually went through two separate breast pumps with Sprout. The motor crapped out on the first one – it slowly lost power over a couple of days, then came to a shuddering stop. As I was looking for a new one at Buy Buy Baby, I chose the $300 one instead of the $400 one because I wasn’t willing to pay an extra $100 for better portability. In hindsight, after the cheaper one had pieces break off of it, rendering it barely usable, I wish I had just spent the extra money. (Addendum – I did spend the extra money with Little Bird and it was worth every penny.)
Was it all worth it? For me, it was. For other women, it may not be worth it or may not even be a choice. Either way, it’s best to know what you’re getting into before you start!