After I pushed an entire baby out of my poor, shocked vagina, I lay around feeling starving and relieved and stunned and abruptly motherly with my daughter Eden on my chest. She was attempting to wrench my nipple off with her tiny, adorable mouth.
I had this silly idea that breastfeeding was going to be really easy. It was the birth part that freaked me out. But the feeding part -- here's a boob, here's a baby, so we're basically already done.
"Good!" said the various helpful people who were there to make sure things went correctly. "She's latching on!"
Eden never had a problem getting milk, so everyone said, "You should be thankful. Some babies have a problem getting enough milk."
I tried diligently to be thankful for that. I was sitting there crying because it hurt so much, those first few weeks, and my nipples were bleeding. I never had a shirt on in those days. It was hard enough to coordinate my nipples without one. I always had to be in the same position for every feeding. The idea that women could go out into the world and sit in random places like on park benches and in restaurants and just casually breastfeed was ridiculous to me. The idea that women could sit around casually breastfeeding while talking and maybe even eating was insane. Those women were like Olympic athletes. They were like tenured professors. They were amazingly skilled.
"What would happen to you in the wild, baby?" I asked her accusingly. The wild, by the way, is a place where there are still wolves and also Neanderthal women expertly breastfeeding, I think. It is really far away from suburban NJ, where I grew up, and possibly even farther from Brooklyn, where I live now.
Before I had Eden, I used to get really annoyed by the whole breastfeeding campaign thing. You know, the enthusiastic pamphlets that exclaim, "Breast is best!!" And the chapter of whichever book about dealing with a baby that mentions bottles and quickly reiterates, "Of course, it is highly recommended that you breastfeed. By doctors and scientists and your neighbor and God. They all agree. The WHO recommends it for up to two years, for the best results! For the breast is best results!"
Alright, already, I grumbled to myself. We get it. Breastfeeding. It's great. OK. It fights disease, it instills superpowers, it cures cancer, it makes you a better person because of all the better person hormones you release while you're doing it. Whatever.
But I understand now why breastfeeding requires a campaign like that. Because at first, when your little vampire baby is trying to suck your boobs to death and you are actually bleeding, and you are also still bleeding from your poor, shocked uterus, and you need three people to help you sit up in bed, and you can't remember the last time you wore a shirt or what it felt like to have ankles, you need to believe in SOMETHING in order to keep trying.
Breastfeeding got easier about three weeks in, though it wasn't really reasonably good until maybe the second month. And these days, I'm a champ. I victoriously nurse my baby at restaurants, in the park and sometimes standing up. My milk erupts like a triumphant fountain, baptizing Eden's upturned face, the floor, my breakfast.
Actually, that part doesn't feel so victorious. I live in fear of spraying some guy sitting next to me on a park bench or something.
But I am not afraid of people seeing my breasts. That is one thing I'm not afraid of. And I know that maybe I'm supposed to be.
I know because other women are always apologizing. "I'm sorry, do you mind if I feed him? Is everyone here OK with me breastfeeding my baby right now?"
I've said things like that sometimes. At first, I said, "So you guys are gonna see my boobs now, I hope that's OK." And I laughed. And I paused.
But really, I don't care what you think.
I mean, that's not totally true. Once, a woman looked at me with disgusted eyes and a tight mouth, and I felt suddenly terrible, my face hot with hurt. I saw these guys on the steps of Borough Hall watching me nurse her once, and they were kind of nudging each other and gesturing at my exposed breast. I looked down the whole time I nursed Eden on the subway the other day, not wanting to see anyone's reaction. I don't want to know, I am just trying to feed my baby so she's full and doesn't throw her head furiously back and roar with all her baby might.
Sometimes people get embarrassed for me. I get a little embarrassed too, then. But I'm not embarrassed in a real, lasting way. Not ever embarrassed enough to deal with one of those nursing tent things -- that's too complicated.
I read about women whipping out their boobs as a lifestyle thing. Like they're doing it because they have something to prove. Like they are trying to make everyone around them feel awkward. Around these parts, people make snarky comments about Park Slope, the upscale Brooklyn hippie neighborhood, and how the mommy mafia has taken over and breastfeeding is strictly enforced and hordes of lactating women are constantly throwing their milky boobs around in coffee shops and even bars, when everyone else is just trying to have a goddamn muffin in fully-clothed peace. I read something like that in a New York Times article about Park Slope recently. And I want to call BS, now that I'm a lactating woman.
I am not being defiant and proud and bold and political. And this is not about you, with the muffin.
Because breastfeeding is not political for me. It's not a statement. It's not a battle that I'm fighting in the mythic mommy wars. I don't even have to tell myself it will cure cancer and make my baby brilliant. I just do it because Eden needs to eat and I need to feed her. It's a basic thing. Like in the wild.
Actually, I sometimes for a moment can't remember why people get so awkward about my breasts being out when I'm nursing my baby. It's not really a big deal. The big deal is that I can do it now, without crippling pain and my one trustworthy position ("wear the baby like a bra!") and my shirt off. It's a big deal that I have most of my shirt on right now, people. My version of being considerate to you and your fellow muffin-purchasers is to keep most of my shirt on. I want you to see as little of my breasts as possible, I swear.
But maybe because it was so hard at first, and the hard part lasted so much longer than my labor that I eventually began to think that breastfeeding was actually harder than giving birth, I feel as though I've earned the right to pop a boob out randomly and spray a little milk. I feel as though I've earned the right to do it anywhere. Many times anywhere, since Eden, my very fat, mostly angry baby, requires a lot of milk.
Bodies serve so many purposes, it's nice to see my breasts in action in a way that doesn't involve anything about the way they look. I don't know if I can really go this far, but maybe I just will: I think it's probably good for the soul.
The soul, I suspect, likes to see a lot of boobs.
Or, you know, just the top, and a bit of nipple.
Kate's new book, Growing Eden, about being pregnant in her 20s in NYC, is now available. Click here to check it out and maybe even order a copy.
This piece was excerpted from Kate's blog, Eat the Damn Cake.
Get To Class
Dr. Ann Borders, an OB-GYN who works with NorthShore University HealthSystem, recommends that her patients and their partners go to a breastfeeding class before Baby is born. In class, they don't just focus on why breastfeeding matters, but what you can actually expect in those daunting first few days. And Borders doesn't just recommend this for newbie families, but also moms who may have tried breastfeeding before and found it difficult. "You're not going to know everything from taking the class, but it gives you a groundwork that you can build on at the hospital once you have the nurses helping you," Borders said. Most OB-GYNs will be able to give you a referral to a breastfeeding class nearby, but if for some reason yours doesn't have any suggestions, a quick online search should bring up options in your area.
Don't Leave Until You Get Help
When you're in the hospital or birthing center, or while you've still got your midwife with you after a home birth, make sure you speak up and ask for help getting started. "Every health care person should know the basic mechanics of breastfeeding," said Mary Ryngaert, a board certified lactation consultant with the University of Florida's Center for Breastfeeding and Newborns. "I joke that the person who empties the trash [in labor and delivery] should be able to help someone latch on." Even Borders, whose professional life and research centers around breastfeeding, said that when her first baby was born, she had to ask for guidance. Women should feel 100 percent empowered to ask their care provider to help them start breastfeeding within the first hour after a vaginal birth or two hours after a C-section if the circumstances allow for it, she said. Don't leave the hospital until you've gotten the help you need.
When In Doubt, Think Skin-To-Skin
There's a reason why hospitals hoping to earn the coveted "baby friendly"
designation for breastfeeding support stress the importance of skin-to-skin: It works. Research shows that essential contact helps relax both the mom and baby, stimulates feeding behaviors and triggers the release of certain hormones that spur breastfeeding. Experts say it's important to do it both early -- ideally right after birth -- and often. "Keeping the baby skin-to-skin as much as possible in the early days after birth is very important," Ryngaert said. "If the mother is 'touched out,' then the partner can hold the baby skin-to-skin. It still helps the baby move instinctually to what [he or she] is supposed to do." If you're not in a "baby friendly" hospital with policies in place to promote skin-to-skin, don't be discouraged. Tell your doctors and nurses that it's important to you, Borders said. As long as your baby is stable, there's no reason why they shouldn't let you hold him or her close.
Be Prepared For Engorgement
Engorgement, or a feeling of heavy fullness in the breasts that can be very painful, is common several days after delivery, but Borders said a lot of women don't know to expect it because no one talks to them about it. Having a game plan in place can help curb the pain and keep women from throwing in the towel when they're sore and freaked out. She suggests an over-the-counter pain medication, like Motrin, and ice. Two bags of frozen peas can also work, Borders said, and -- bonus! -- they tend to fit nicely into nursing bras. Some women may also want to take a hot shower to express some of their milk.
Lean Back And Put Your Feet Up!
Susan Burger, president of the New York Lactation Consultant Association, finds few things as irksome as telling women that they need to try specific holds. Moms hear those tips and get "all twisted up with finding the perfect position," she said. What matters most in her book is that breastfeeding mothers get comfortable, which often means leaning back a bit and putting their feet up. "If she's comfortable, it's so much easier to get the baby into a comfortable position," Burger explained. This is one area where partners can really step in, looking at moms to spot any ways in which they might be uncomfortable, then helping by giving them a pillow, a shoulder rub ... whatever.
Ask Your Partner To Sit With You
Your partner, or your mom or friend can also help by agreeing to sit with you while you breastfeed. Why? Since moms are often extremely relaxed and drowsy while they're breast-feeding, your partner can agree to be on "alert" -- maybe quietly reading a book or checking e-mails -- while you get some sleep. "Invite her to take a cat nap while breast-feeding," Ryngaert said. It may sound like a simple trick, but Ryngaert said it's such an easy, often-overlooked way for women to fully relax while breast-feeding, which only increases bonding and enjoyment, and also, possibly, catch up on some much-needed sleep.
Tilt Back, Open Wide
Drop your mouth down to your chest, then open your mouth. A bit tricky, no? Now tilt your head back slightly and open it again. See how much easier that is? Burger said that one of the biggest ways to help babies drink is to make sure their heads are tilted back a bit. You can help support them in that position by putting a forearm under the baby's neck, or even a rolled-up receiving blanket. "There are a lot of different ways to achieve it," she said.
Think Close, Close, Close
While experts may not poo-poo specific holds, at least ones a professional hasn't personally recommended for you and your baby, they do offer broader positioning advice: "I like to see the baby and mother have almost no space between them," Ryngaert said. "You're not just putting your breast in their mouth, you're really bringing your bodies together," she said. That helps babies bring a big, wide open mouth to the breast, giving them the deep attachment that they need. If you're not sure what that means, a good first place to look is the internet: There are videos online that demonstrate the concept, Ryngaert said, and places like La Leche League
have helpful illustrations as well.
Pump In Short, Frequent Bursts
Burger said that one of the mistakes women can make is to focus too much on duration and not enough on the frequency of pumping. Often they're too hard on themselves, sitting there for long stretches and pumping away in an attempt to produce more milk, when really, they'd be better served by just a few minutes here and there throughout the day. Burger likened it to training for a marathon: "You wouldn't just go out and run 13 miles," she said. "If you're just starting out, you'd try a mile or two and do that three or four times a week. That's a much better approach." In the same vein, if you can work it into your schedule, frequent, brief bouts of pumping help build milk supply better than sitting there, rather helplessly, and pumping for one long stretch.
Don't Just Deal With Sore Nipples
Borders said that women shouldn't just write off sore nipples -- which can sometimes become so bad they don't want to breast-feed at all. She recommends something called Newman's all-purpose ointment, which your pharmacist can mix for you. For women who don't have thrush (a generally harmless yeast infection) La Leche League also recommends
applying freshly expressed breast milk to your nipples, which can help them heal. The bottom line? If your nipples hurt, don't just accept it. Talk to your doctor about what might be causing it and what you can do.
Know When To Call
"Make sure you leave the hospital with the number for someone you can call with questions," Borders said. Many pediatricians offices now have lactation consultants on staff, which makes it easier for women to find someone who can offer guidance when you're they're in for one of those many new baby visits that happen after birth. In many cases, lactation consultants are covered by insurance, Ryngaert said, but places like La Leche League also have a call system where you can speak to someone for free
. Many nurses and pediatricians are also board certified lactation consultants, which can help with insurance coverage. Women shouldn't feel pressure to figure everything out in the first week, Ryngaert said. "If a baby needs to go on formula for a time while the mother's milk supply is being established, that doesn't mean the baby's not going to be breastfed," she added. "I've seen babies that didn't latch on until eight weeks." But new moms should never, ever hesitate to ask for help. "If a mother is having more than a little tenderness, she should not just tough it out. She should get some help" Burger said. "And if that person says, 'Oh, it's normal, suck it up,' that's not a good person to get help from, and they should see someone else."