Next week I will have been exclusively breastfeeding my daughter for four whole months, which is probably right up there with some of the biggest achievements of my life… if not THE biggest one. I was in no way prepared for how hard breastfeeding was going to be and, to be honest, it was so difficult and so painful that it had me in tears almost every single day for the first six weeks of Imogen’s life. I look back at her newborn days now and pretty much all I remember is the agony of breastfeeding; dreading her three hourly feeds, hoping she wouldn’t be hungry so I could get a longer break, and avoiding going out to places because a crying AND breastfeeding mama in public is probably a bit too much for people to handle.
I was in no way prepared for breastfeeding. Of course I had heard that it may be a little tender and sore in the beginning, but I had no idea of what was waiting for me. I had read every book on natural childbirth I could get my hands on and watched countless home birth stories, but I completely neglected doing any research into breastfeeding, thinking it would just come naturally and be a wonderful bonding time for me and baby. Even when my midwife saw my little pink, sensitive-skinned nipples and said “you may have a problem with breastfeeding”, I didn’t take notice. Well. It proved to be way more painful than the birth I had so meticulously prepared for – even with the painkillers I took every day. And the worst thing about breastfeeding is that, unlike birth, you have to repeat she same painful process, every three hours, all day long! It weighed heavily on my emotions too as I become consumed with the guilt that came hand in hand with not wanting to feed or nourish my baby simply because it was sore for me – and how selfish is that? Good lord, looking back, it’s a wonder I didn’t jump off the nearest cliff!
Here are a few things I wish I’d known before having a baby and what worked for ME in the end:
- Breastfeeding doesn’t come easily for everyone. If you are very fair, with very pink light nipples and a history of sensitive skin issues, you might encounter problems; mentally prepare for that and do some research into breastfeeding and latching. Perhaps even see a lactation consultant before you give birth to learn the correct way to hold and feed your newborn. Purchase and get familiar with nipple shields and breast pumps in case you may need them. My fear of breast pumps prolonged my healing by a good few weeks.
- Consult a lactation consultant sooner rather than later. As soon as I could feel (and see) that my nipples were getting worse and not better, I went to see a lactation consultant who helped me to correct our latch. This brought some immediate relief. It was not to be the end of my pain though, and in the end I saw my consultant three times before breastfeeding became manageable.
- Laser, laser, laser. I went for three sessions of laser therapy with a physiotherapist in the beginning and then went for another five sessions when Immy was four or five weeks old and it had become clear that things were still not getting better (this was prompted by looking down after a particularly painful latch and watching my blood foam out from the side of her little mouth). If you do go for laser, they say that you can feed straight afterwards. I did not find this to be the case and that is why I did not heal properly the first time round. I only healed my right nipple completely when I removed Immy from said nipple entirely, expressed that breast and went for a laser session every day for five days. I bottle fed her the expressed milk and kept her on the less painful left nipple so that she wouldn’t forget what a real nipple felt like or how to suckle. This was the busiest week of my life as I spent so much time expressing, sterilising and feeding that I barely had time to do anything else. It certainly made me see that breastfeeding was much easier and helped me decide that I definitely wanted to stick to it. After a week’s break, I latched Immy onto the right nipple again and it had healed! It was amazing and I felt very little pain from then on.
- Be aware of other factors that might cause nipple/breast pain and educate yourself on their symptoms. Just as I had got over the pain of my cracked nipples, I was hit by a double whammy of both thrush and Raynauds, both of which were excruciatingly painful. There I was airing out my nipples, allowing them to dry naturally as so many had advised me to do, and I was actually causing Raynauds to develop. Raynauds is a constriction of the blood vessels brought on by the cold and usually only occurs in extremities like hands and feet. Nipples are also an extremity and if you leave them out and about to dry after a bath or a feed, they’re going to get cold and the blood vessels are going to constrict! It took another visit to the lactation consultant, and loads of late night googling, to cure these two conditions (I still have to be careful with the Raynauds and make sure my nips are covered up immediately after bathing and feeding. Gotta keep them babies warm! Some women even cut out fleece circles to keep in their bras.) Thrush is luckily very curable with over the counter medication. I think I brought thrush on by feeding Immy straight after walking and running – so make sure you wipe your nipples clean with a warm facecloth before feeding if you have been sweating. This all sounds so obvious now, but at the time, I had no clue.
- Nipple creams don’t work. Ok, ok. Perhaps my cracks were too far gone for creams to help. In the end, I think I used them more as a placebo than anything else; honestly, I tried the vegan and the non-vegan lanolin ones (I was desperate), and I even drove all the way to Somerset West to get an all purpose homemade concoction made and it didn’t heal nothing! As soon as baby latches or you put on clothing, it comes right off anyway. I reckon the whole reason I got Raynauds in the first place, was because I was waltzing around topless, waiting for nipple creams to sink into my skin! As soon as I stopped using the creams, my nipples healed. If you really want to use something on your nipples, I’d recommend good old coconut oil.
- Lastly, don’t listen to everything that everyone says (says me, telling you what to do lol) – find what works for you and most of all, trust your gut. I knew deep down that when I went for my first laser sessions they were pretty pointless, because as soon as baby latched again she would reopen the wounds. But I listened to everyone and continued to feed on that nipple. The next time around I knew that in order for my nipple to heal and for me to continue breastfeeding, I had to give that nipple time to heal. And so, against everyone’s advice, I introduced Imogen to the bottle and let the deep crack on that nipple heal free of her little piranha mouth for a week. Bugger nipple confusion* – at that stage I was so ready to throw in the towel that it was either going to be a little bottle-feeding for a week or formula.
In the end, looking back, I wish three things had happened before I began breastfeeding: that I had done my research into breastfeeding, that I had seen a lactation consultant before giving birth, and that I had trusted myself from the beginning. It is of course much easier to say this all now, in hind sight. And obviously, what works for some, may not work for others. But hopefully my story will help or inspire you if you are pregnant or are currently experiencing painful breastfeeding. It took me six weeks to not wince in pain at every feed, and now I am so grateful that I listened to my gut and sought help and medication, despite everyone telling me to “just push through”. If I had just continued to push through, I would have mentally cracked and put her on formula. Even now, I still have the occasional painful latch or wake up with one painful, massive boob in the middle of the night. Breastfeeding is definitely no walk in the park. But when my baby girl looks up at me whilst feeding, nipple in the corner of her mouth, my self-made milky nourishment shining on her chin, and cracks me a gum-less grin, I know that all the pain, tears and late night pumping has been so worth it.
Post note: As a vegan mom, all of the above has cemented my deep knowing in the fact that humans are not supposed to consume dairy products. Dairy cows are forcibly impregnated, carry and then give birth to their calves, who are then taken away from them with hours or days of labour ending. The mamas are then subjected to their most sensitive bits being strapped up to machines twice a day to extract the milk meant for their babies. I have seen the blood and pus entering those machines and trust me, dairy cows get mastitis, and feel the same horrible pain from pumping and feeding that us human mamas do. At least we have our babies to help comfort us though the pain. They have nothing but heartbreak. Please consider cutting down on your consumption of dairy products.
*Nipple Confusion is when babies confuse the nipple with dummies and/or bottle teats and are unable to feed off the breast again. Imogen did not suffer from this – there is no confusion when it comes to her and her food!
** A great source of information for me (and where I spent many a late night google search) was this awesome breastfeeding and parenting site: https://kellymom.com