Having a baby is full of surprises. Who knew just how much you would love your baby? Just how tired you could be? How difficult it would be to complete simple tasks with a new baby? (Getting dressed in the morning – tricky. Getting dressed, making the bed and clearing up – difficult. All the above with crying baby – completely impossible.) And of course, breastfeeding is no different; there are surprises galore.
It can be difficult…
Ruth, 43, thought she knew all about breastfeeding – before she actually tried it herself. “I had worked for a parenting magazine and had even written articles about breastfeeding, so I really thought I had it sorted,” she explains. “How wrong could I have been? My first baby wouldn’t latch on. I’d seen videos of newborns almost crawling up their mother’s tummies to feed, whereas my baby seemed to be completely clueless. Once I’d got him vaguely interested, he wouldn’t latch on and reduced my nipples to shreds within days. Every time I tried to feed him, the pain brought tears to my eyes, and when he brought up milk containing blood from my nipples it scared me. He also fed for hours on and off, which didn’t help the soreness.”
…but it gets easier
Many mothers find that breastfeeding is a skill that needs to be learnt. For Ruth there was no Eureka moment, but rather a gradual improvement. “A breastfeeding counsellor and various visiting midwives showed me the exact position to hold my baby in, and explained that he wasn’t getting enough of my nipple in his mouth, and so had been tugging at the end, which was what had caused the soreness. After a couple of months and lots of care, my nipples healed, and I went on to feed him and my subsequent three children for around a year and a half each and loved it.”
‘I attracted a small crowd!’
Helen, 43, has breastfed four children and remembers a holiday experience with a difference. “My husband and I had taken our first baby to Florence and really enjoyed having lots of Italians cooing over our baby,” explains Helen. “One afternoon we went to the Uffizi art museum and after just a few rooms, Bertie, who was 10 months old, was hot, grumpy and hungry. I sat down on one of the seats in front of the paintings and started to feed him. I hadn’t noticed that I was actually sitting in front of a picture of Mary feeding the baby Jesus, but the first tour guide who walked past did, and pointed me out to his group. I was quickly surrounded by several dozen people, all pointing at the picture and me. It sounds rather embarrassing, but as everyone was so enthusiastic and positive, admiring my baby and saying what a beautiful scene it was, I actually ended up feeling very special.”
“The whole room smelt of cheese.”
Thirty-three-year-old Sophie has just had her second baby. “I had no engorgement at all after my first baby, but with Isabelle, after my milk came in on about day three, I swelled till my breasts throbbed and felt very uncomfortable. I was still in hospital in Zurich, so the midwives kindly offered me various remedies, one of which was a quark wrap. I happily agreed and then found that minutes later I was being wrapped in lengths of bandage which had been dipped in quark yoghurt straight from the fridge. Initally it felt very soothing, but soon the bandages got warmer. By the time my husband came in half an hour later, I was sitting in a pool of yoghurt, sticky all over and looking very silly with my nipples poking out from the dripping wrappings. It wasn’t at all the romantic image I’d had of my baby’s first few days, but at least it gave us something to laugh about!”
People often seem to feel that breastfeeding requires a huge amount of self denial from mothers. Certainly there are some sacrifices, especially as far as being careful with what you eat and drink, and often being the only person able to feed your child. But for many mothers, breastfeeding is surprisingly practical. Emma, 45, explains, “I’ve breastfed all my children – it meant I didn’t have to worry about bottles, water at the correct temperature, sterilising equipment and powder.” Sarah, 40, agrees: “On several social occasions with my baby I ended up spontaneously staying out for longer than planned because we had all the food she needed on tap!”
For other mothers, the surprise comes with the physical sensations that accompany breastfeeding. Initially, many are surprised by the incredible strength of their newborns suck – this tiny helpless baby feels like a vacuum cleaner (or piranha if you are unlucky enough to have cracked nipples!). Engorgement can lead to throbbing and heat, and the let down reflex takes lots of mums by surprise. “If I don’t latch my baby on fast, milk can spurt right across the room,” explains Susan, 30. Then there’s the comfortable, rhythmic kicking of a happy baby as he sucks, or the comical but rather painful pulling away of an inquisitive older baby who suddenly hears something rather interesting as he feeds.
But perhaps the greatest surprise is just how enjoyable breastfeeding can be. For some mothers, the enjoyment is instant. For others it might come after weeks or months of problems. But for many, breastfeeding is one of the most enjoyable, tender parts of becoming a mother. Sarah explains, “I loved the feeling of intimacy I had when I breastfed my babies. The feeling that time had stopped, and it was just me and the baby, and nothing else mattered. The excuse to sit down, stop doing the housework, and spend time cuddling and stroking my baby.”
By Ruth Beattie
Ruth lives in Küsnacht near Zürich with her husband and four children. In a previous (calmer!) existence, she was a magazine editor and journalist.
Illustration by Lemady Rochard
Lemady is an artist who also runs Storycraft classes for children aged one-and-a-half to eight years in Ruschlikon, ZH. She is currently studying a masters in fine arts and also has a background in theatre arts and children’s literature. Lemady lives in Thalwil with her two young children. Contact her: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article previously appeared in the print version of Mothering Matters.
Some names have been changed.