Breastfeeding Was Harder Than I Could Ever Have Imagined, But I’m Still Glad I Did It

Emma Jane Williams read the books, went to the classes and went into motherhood totally prepared. But she was still shocked by how hard breastfeeding can be, even when it's going 'right'.

Breastfeeding Was Harder Than I Could Ever Have Imagined, But I'm Still Glad I Did It

by Grazia |

Five days after my daughter, Erin, was born - the day after I got home from hospital - I arrived at my local breastfeeding support group, desperate for help. I almost cried telling Amy, a wonderful lactation consultant, my problem. ‘She just won't stop feeding, it's constant and it hurts.’

I was convinced something was wrong: a bad latch or a tongue tie. Or even worse, having no milk and my poor baby sucking away in vain, starving.

Amy was calm and comforting. She and asked could she observe me feeding. I fumbled to get my breast out, still unused to the faff of breastfeeding attire, and tried to look like I knew what I was doing. (The irony of wanting to be seen as perfect despite being there looking for help was completely lost on me at the time!)

After a few minutes quietly watching she told me that Erin had an excellent latch, explained that it hurt because she had a very strong suck but my nipples would toughen up, and assured me what I was experiencing was normal. It even had a name: cluster feeding. It might feel wrong to me, but actually its a key part of getting breastfeeding established. She had some tips on how to hold Erin so I’d be more comfortable but otherwise I’d just have to get through it.

It was the first of many identical conversations I'd have in those early weeks: on every online group I joined; with every breastfeeding mother I met; at every support group I went to. I even had the same conversation again with Amy herself, when I went back to the group two weeks later. I couldn’t believe breastfeeding was this hard and I wanted a solution.

Now, I understand why 4 in 5 mothers in England start breastfeeding at birth but only 1 in 5 is still exclusively doing so at 6 weeks.

I had expected it to be difficult. Many of my friends had wanted to and it hadn't worked out. I knew how hard they'd found it having to stop. So, I armed myself with books and videos and lists of support groups and lactation consultants. Surely, I thought to myself, it couldn’t be that difficult?

It was a 100 times more difficult than I could have imagined. The first 3 weeks were hell. She fed constantly, often five, six or seven hours in a row. Some days I fed 20 hours. My nipples were in agony and I was tortured from lack of sleep.

The lowest point came two weeks in: Erin had fed constantly for seven hours. It was 3AM and I hadn’t had more than an hour’s sleep in the past 24. I swore that in the morning I was going out and buying formula. But when the morning came my sleep-deprived, hormonal mess self couldn't make the decision. I was torn by my expectations jarring so horribly with the reality.

Everyone says breastfeeding is so great for your baby, that it's the most natural thing in the world, so why was I finding it so difficult and why was I even thinking about stopping?

I talked it over with my husband and with friends and family. I had to bite my tongue at those who suggested I give up, telling me that I had taken too much on, even implying that I was being a bit of a martyr, or hinting that I was excluding my husband from bonding with his baby because of my selfish need to feed her myself. The suggestion seemed to be that if I gave up on breastfeeding things would magically get easier - as if giving your baby formula means you’re going to sail through the newborn phase.

I didn’t have the energy or brain power to argue, so instead I surrounded myself with supportive empathetic people. I drew comfort from experienced mums who’d been there already, who assured me it would get easier and passed on useful survival tips; and, the other new mums who were also struggling through.

The latter were as blindsided as I was. We had done our homework, bought lovely breastfeeding bras and even attended breastfeeding school. Nose to nipple and tummy to mummy was our mantra. We thought we knew all the theory backwards, but when it came to the reality of breastfeeding a fractious newborn, we hadn't a clue.

Before I had Erin, I thought that breastfeeding was black and white. Either it worked, or it didn't. If it worked, I would breastfeed and if not I would use formula. But in the end, it was so much more complicated than that - a grey area. I was capable of breastfeeding my baby, and I'm glad that I did, but I was shocked by how hard something so natural can be, when everything is going right.

In the end I got there. By the time Erin was six weeks old it was a completely different experience. My nipples had toughened up so much you could hang bricks off them. My supply was beautifully regulated, a perfect amount of milk but never leaking or spraying at unfortunate moments. Erin no longer lingered over her feeds, but efficiently sucked the milk out in quick bursts.

All I can tell other new mums wrestling with breastfeeding is this: I survived thanks to partner who did literally all the laundry, cooking, cleaning while I fed, my friends who entertained me over WhatsApp and Instagram, and Michelle Obama’s Becoming which, I listened to on audiobook throughout the never-ending nights. And in the end, it was worth it.

I love the convenience of being able to feed Erin wherever and whenever I need to, of the lovely cuddles we have when she’s doing so and I admit, I have a certain pride that for 6 months everything she ate was created especially for her, by me. But six months in, with feeding down pat I haven't forgotten those nights filled with exhaustion and pain.

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