Yeah, yeah, I know. Breast is best. During my pre-natal classes, I received 44 handouts, including “50 reasons why you must breastfeed”, and a list of support groups for nursing moms, compared with one poorly-photocopied diagram showing how to sterilize a bottle. The touchy-feely videos we watched featured softly lit, three-month-old cherubs perfectly latched onto their well-rested mother’s breast, with spa-like music playing in the background.
But nobody ever talked about new mommies who “fail” Breastfeeding 101. I’m not talking about sore nipples here. I mean women who, like me, cannot nurse.
Up to 85 per cent of women start out breastfeeding their newborns. Yet, fewer than half still do so six months later. I have come to believe that a large percentage of mothers who “choose” not to continue breastfeeding probably didn’t have much of a choice at all. My son is three, and I’ve only just come to terms with the guilt and sense of loss about not being able to breastfeed.
After an emergency cesarean section in May 2005, the post-partum nurse tried coaxing my new baby to latch onto my breast. “Let’s try waking up your inverted nipples,” she suggested, rolling in the hospital’s industrial-strength breast pump. Pumping felt uncomfortable and weird, but I did what I was told.
The next day, I developed a severe allergic reaction to the surgical tape that had held the epidural tubing to my back. I added this burning pain to my list of problems: My milk had barely come in. My son was miserable, hungry and rapidly losing weight. My husband and I supplemented him with formula through a tiny syringe to avoid the dreaded “nipple confusion”. I nursed every 90 minutes and pumped every two hours to boost my milk supply. The pain from my allergic reaction made sleep impossible. I tearfully wondered how long I could continue. “Whatever you do,” said the discharge nurse, “Don’t stop breastfeeding.”
Three weeks later, I woke up at midnight with a 104-degree fever, and two massive, red, excruciating melons on my chest. I had mastitis, a painful, inflammatory infection of the breast. I called a health hotline, where a nurse suggested putting cold cabbage leaves on my throbbing boobs. “Whatever you do, don’t stop breastfeeding,” she added.
Within hours, I was readmitted to the hospital, where it took doctors nearly four days to get my fever down with IV antibiotics. I gamely continued pumping every two hours, sending home what little milk trickled out, so family members could add it to my boy’s formula.
At one point, I weakly whispered to one of the nurses that maybe I should stop breastfeeding so that I could get well. “You can’t give up!” I was told. “Whatever you do, don’t stop breastfeeding!”
Then a medical student mentioned that with severe mastitis, you’re more prone to blocked milk ducts and recurrences. I knew then that I was done. “Some decisions are made for us,” my husband said, trying to console me.
There are lots of mommies like me out there, desperately trying to breastfeed. But you know what? Sometimes, IT JUST DOESN’T WORK OUT. And that should be okay. But it isn’t. A 2005 study out of England’s University of Kent found that how women feed their babies has become a measure of motherhood. The thinking out there is that mothers have a responsibility to breastfeed, no matter what.
My son’s pediatrician certainly agreed. Even after hearing my tale of woe, he asked, “Are you sure you tried hard enough?”
Tried hard enough? The droning sound of that sickly-green breast pump that doubled as my night table for weeks had become the soundtrack of my life. Even the labels on my son’s cans of formula mocked me with their warnings: “Breast milk is the ideal method of feeding infant.” Which I interpreted as, “You must be a pretty lousy mother if you can’t breastfeed.”
Whenever I dared pull out a bottle at the park, I met with the raised eyebrows of complete strangers who felt compelled to ask me why I wasn’t breastfeeding. I felt utterly alone, a complete failure for the first time in my life. Where were the support groups for me?
At my six-week post-partum checkup, I was referred to Luisa Ciofani, a nurse and lactation consultant at Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital. When she met me and said, “It’s going to be okay,” I burst into tears. I had finally found someone who wasn’t treating me like a criminal.
“There’s a big difference between breastfeeding support and breastfeeding pressure,” explains Ciofani. “Support means enabling a woman to breastfeed. Pressure is making her breastfeed at all costs. I encourage women to breastfeed for as long as they can, and if that’s one day, it’s better than not trying at all. We need to take into consideration what’s going on in a mother’s life, and help her make the best decision she can.”
Ciofani says patients who decide to quit breastfeeding say, ‘You’re going to be so disappointed in me.’ “I reassure them, because it’s important that we respect each other’s decisions as women and as mothers, and we don’t do that enough,” notes Ciofani. “A mother is trying to do the best she can, and breastfeeding is just one of many good things she can do for her baby.”
Ciofani taught me how to wean safely, so I wouldn’t develop blocked milk ducts. But more importantly, she taught me that failing Breastfeeding 101 did not make me a failure. I became grateful for the tiny blessing in my arms, who thrived “despite” drinking formula. “This should be a joyous time for new parents,” says Ciofani, “but women become obsessed with breastfeeding successfully, and many experience frustration, disappointment, even depression. I wonder if we’re creating breastfeeding trauma by insisting women nurse for whatever time we’ve decided is normal.”
The good news is that once your baby starts eating solids, nobody cares what he used to drink. But in the meantime, if you see a mother bottle-feeding her baby in the park, do me a favor. Go give her a hug.