Breastfeeding is great but please don’t tell me it’s easy

Illustration by Emily Jenkinson
Illustration by Emily Jenkinson

Jamie Oliver welcomed little River Rocket into his brood last month, his fifth “easily” breastfed babe, after pretty much dubbing the whole process a walk in the park. Meanwhile ‘brelfies’ of billionaire heiresses are taking Twitter by storm.

But what about the difficult bits?

The bits about nursing the books don’t tell you?

That’s if transferring lifeblood from your breasts actually gets off the starting blocks in the first place.

I would be the first to warn women that it can bloody hurt at first.

“Toe-curling for the first few sucks,” was the diplomatic way a breastfeeding counsellor described it over the phone. This is until the latching manoeuvre gets a little more seamless and your nipples toughen up I presume.

My doctor told me to rub my areola with a rough flannel in the shower when I was first pregnant to make them more feeding resistant. I don’t think I ever found time for this. Would it have helped? Who knows.

Bit like when the night midwife queried my third degree tear after baby number two with, “didn’t you do perineum massage?”

Erm, well no, but is that really a requisite? Are we really all supposed to actually do that as we gear up for the big day?

Back to the law of the latch. No, they don’t always latch – at all, to the mystery of breast is best mentors. One asked if I’d had augmentation that may have interfered with things. But no, and I only found two other women who this had happened to. Two!

One I read about in a magazine. And one was my GP.

Yes, my GP, also sans augmentation, and I both tried fruitlessly, for six weeks. Can you imagine, a GP for gawd sake!

Someone who has studied this stuff for over a decade, passed exams in how nutritionally priceless breast milk is, has the expertise to reel off from the top of her head every god damn disease it’s supposed to lower your child’s chances of contracting, and how it cures a dozen other ailments in the process.

“Liquid gold,” cry the boffins. “The most natural thing in the world,” lament the lactivists in their droves. Frustrating doesn’t begin to cover it.

When nursing did actually work out well for me and my second son, I felt lucky. Incredibly fortunate, because I knew how damn impossible it can be before the blocked ducts and mastitis set in. And this was something I really wanted to do.

Some women don’t. They can take it or leave it, but I really really did. I now think this was due to some deep primal urge that reared its head again recently when I read about a woman in China rescuing an abandoned newborn and saving the foundling with her breastmilk.

We continued with the feeding for six months and it was perfect, every bit of it. Tiring, but perfect.

Maybe I appreciated it even more than a first timer because I’d pined to do it for so long and mulled over why it was such a miserable failure previously. If my son had an unidentified gripe I put him on the boob and it was solved in seconds. Oh, and it cured my back pain. I could go on.

So then, yes, I did empathise with Jamie’s statement, and his frustration that feeding rates aren’t higher, his passion for the good of a mother’s milk rammed with antibodies and healing properties for baby eye infections and sore nipples, not to mention the other umpteen and one benefits. But new mums deserve a bit of a disclaimer.

Like birth, feeding is most definitely not always a natural process.

For the women that wish to do it and can’t, please be rest assured my eldest son is thriving, no different health wise to his brother and we have equally strong bonds. I now realise that for a few of us, with the best will in the world, it’s just not to be.

Just as the woman who craves a natural birth but is rushed off for a C-section often feeds without obstacle, a babe who has travelled through the birth canal may need a plastic teat.

Sometimes temporarily, but sometimes permanently, and this is fine. Some premature babies lap donated breast milk, some mothers know breastfeeding is not for them, and some children are in the clutches of their mother’s bosom for years.

Convenient, comforting and calming, yes. But easy?

It’s rarely easy.

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