I was at a cafe when my newborn started to grizzle. I snapped off my nursing singlet with my left hand and pulled the breastfeeding cover over my head with my right. Within seconds, the baby was on my breast.
I continued eating my lunch with one hand, chatting away without dropping a beat. My friend noted what a pro I was – a natural, even – and I was taken aback by her words from her.
Even though I had been breastfeeding for 15 months (12 months with my firstborn and three months and counting with my second), I had never considered myself to be good at breastfeeding, nor had breastfeeding ever felt natural to me.
I started breastfeeding three years ago when my first child was born. Until that point, my breasts were largely covered, cleavage controlled and nipples never shown. So I felt very exposed when every midwife in the maternity ward would come in and (wo) manhandle my breasts, jamming my nipple into my daughter’s tiny mouth.
When the baby was off my chest, the midwife suggested that I work on stimulating the supply. I had no idea what that meant. If breastfeeding was so natural, shouldn’t it just happen? Apparently not.
To encourage my milk to “come in” (it can take a few days for the body to produce milk after birth), the midwife massaged my breasts like it was the most normal thing in the world. I didn’t want to be that (immature) person, so I rolled with it. After the massage, she moved on to squeezing my nipples until it produced tiny drops of milk, which I later learned to be colostrum.
The midwife applauded my efforts when we filled half of a 1ml syringe. She assured me that it was excellent progress and I was showing signs of great supply, but when there was no breast milk after four days, she wheeled in the hospital-grade breast pump.
The machine tugged on my nipples, generating a rhythmic sucking noise which made me feel like a cow. I was defeated when I collected next to nothing, but was again reassured that it was normal and the breast stimulation was still a worthwhile exercise.
By the time I was discharged from hospital, my breasts had ballooned to three times its usual size. It was warm and heavy. My milk had finally “come in” and my daughter wanted to feed all the time. My nipples became cracked and sore from being sucked on day and night.
In my third week of breastfeeding, I developed mastitis, a common breast infection caused by blocked ducts. I was such a breastfeeding novice that I had never heard of mastitis; but soon enough, my life would be consumed by it.
My breast was rock melon-hard and I was massaging it obsessively to release the blockages. I went to see a lactation consultant who said I had to feed in different positions to empty the breast.
Kneeling on all fours, hovering over the baby was apparently the best way to do this. If I felt like a cow with a breast pump, this was next-level.
I was ready to stop, but weaning with mastitis could lead to an abscess, so I had to continue, taking antibiotics and painkillers to help me do so.
With persistence and support, breastfeeding was eventually easier, but it was never easy. I never liked the full and engorged feeling of the breast before a feed. I lived in fear of mastitis, even though I was mastitis-free for months.
When I was pregnant with my second, I considered formula feeding so I didn’t have to relieve the pain. But the pragmatist in me decided to give it another go because I already knew so much about latching and mastitis management.
When my son was born, the massaging, pumping and feeding felt less foreign. I wasn’t immune to blocked ducts and infection, but I knew how to get on top of it quickly, so it was far less taxing physically and mentally.
Perhaps my friend was right.
Looking back on my first months of breastfeeding, I really had no idea how to breastfeed and what it meant to breastfeed, both physically and psychologically. But I learned while sleep-deprived and recovering from birth.
The version of breastfeeding me so effortlessly in public was only possible after months of hidden struggle.
Back at lunch, I thanked my friend for her compliment. Finally, I can say, yes: breastfeeding feels natural, and I’m pretty good at it, too.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism