Confessions of a breastfeeding failure.
I get the impression that a lot of people assume that because I am a passionate childbirth educator that I must have had orgasmic natural water births at home and that I was a breastfeeding pro, effortlessly feeding my babes until well into toddlerhood.
Well I am sorry to burst the illusion, but I am going to firmly quash those misconceptions.
On the one hand, I know I was truly blessed to have easy, uncomplicated pregnancies and (more or less) uncomplicated labours and births – more about them in another blog though.
To be honest, I was more worried about breastfeeding than I was about giving birth. You see, once upon a time I had humongous breasts. Enormous, heavy pendulous breasts that I hated more than life itself. They were the absolutely bane of my life and I could not wait until I could have breast reduction surgery.
I had my surgery the day before my 25th birthday. I will be forever grateful to my parents for footing the bill. Talk about an awesome birthday present! Even though it meant lying in bed the whole day, popping copious amounts of Endone and trying not to get grossed out by the drainage tubes coming out of each heavily bandaged breast.
About six weeks post-surgery I was finally able to go out and buy some new bras. I was like a kid in a lolly shop. I must have tried on 30 bras, ecstatic that I had so much choice and that I was finally able to wear a bra that didn’t look like it was designed for an octogenarian.
Hands down, getting my boob job was one of the best things I have ever done in my life. I remember going in to meet with the surgeon (one of Melbourne’s top cosmetic surgeons) prior to my surgery, so he could explain the procedure to me in detail. He discussed the risks of the surgery, what to expect in the early post-surgery period, possible complications etc.
But what he never mentioned to me were the possible implications for breastfeeding in the future. Not one mention. I look back now and I find it hard to believe that a surgeon as esteemed as he was could fail to mention probably THE most common negative side-effect of breast reduction surgery. Breasts, after all, were designed first and foremost to feed our babies. And not, despite what the mass culture would like us to believe, to titillate the male of the species (pun fully intended).
Breastfeeding was not even on my radar at that point in my life. Not even close. All I cared about was getting rid of the lead weights on my chest that had been the cause of ridicule and teasing in high school and then in my 20s, had become an open invitation for strange men to ogle and make suggestive comments. I wanted them gone.
Fast-forward a decade and I am pregnant with my first child. I was living in Israel at the time and had no idea where to find breastfeeding help. My husband and I attended a fantastic Lamaze childbirth class with Rachelle Oseran (the wonderful woman who ended up training me to be a Lamaze childbirth educator) and she was able to point me in the direction of some good resources. However, Israel does not have a great track record when it comes to breastfeeding. Many Israeli women return to work when their babies are about three months old and so they often feel that formula from very early on, if not right at the beginning, is the easiest way to go.
I made contact with a lactation consultant who lived in a city called Ra’anana, which was about a two hour bus trip for me from Jerusalem. Heavily pregnant, I made the uncomfortable journey on an unseasonably warm April day, in order to see her. I was hell bent on giving breastfeeding the best go I could, although I was not all that hopeful given the information I had read online about breastfeeding post breast augmentation surgery. The LC was a really nice woman. No nonsense, realistic, but optimistic given she was able to express colostrum from my breasts quite easily. Her main advice to me was to pump between every single feed in order to increase my breastmilk production. Armed with this nugget of information, I trekked home back to Jerusalem and asked my husband to find out where we could rent a breast pump.
After my son was born, I made the fatal error of telling the midwives on the postnatal ward that I had had breast surgery and could they please help me with breastfeeding. Immediately I was told that I would have to supplement with formula and before you could say Similac, BANG! She was back with a bottle of formula for my 12 hour old son.
That first bottle was really the beginning of the end to be honest. My miniscule amount of confidence was shot down in flames and it was all downhill after that. My husband reacted like any new father – anxious that his baby was getting enough food – so he was all for the formula feeding. Bottle, breast? It was all the same to him. He couldn’t understand why I was so upset.
I found a couple of photos recently that were both taken on the same day, when my son was four days old. They should make me feel happy and nostalgic, but instead I feel sad. Nearly seven years on, I still feel like an absolute breastfeeding failure. The first one is a photo of me and my son. I was trying to breastfeed him AND bottle feed him. Ugh. What a mess.
In the second photo, my husband is feeding him a bottle. It’s a beautiful photo of father and son bonding. And it breaks my heart even now to look at it.
I did find another lactation consultant who was much closer to home. I went to see her when my son was two weeks old and I was feeling pretty disheartened by this point. She was also lovely, but her advice completely contradicted the first LC I see. “Oh no!” she said. “You don’t want to be pumping at all! Just put him to the breast as often as possible. Many women who have had breast surgery find that pumping really doesn’t work at all.”
Supplement, don’t supplement. Pump, don’t pump. Stir in a good dose of baby blues and postpartum anxiety and what do you get? A really unhappy, stressed new mother and a really unhappy, stressed new baby. Not a great combo.
When my son was about three weeks old, I put him to my breast for the last time. Of course, at the time I didn’t know that it would be the last time, but I couldn’t handle his stiff arched back and the constant crying any more. When he rejected my breast, I felt like he was rejecting me.
I remember going along to my mums and bubs group when my son was a couple of months old. He was well and truly a bottle feeding pro by this point and I had the routine down pat. Our group was made up of the other women I met in our Lamaze class. We all got along famously and it was lovely to have a strong sense of support and community when I was so far away from my own family.
At one point all the babies seemed to want to feed in unison. Four of us whipped out a boob, while I got my little plastic container of formula that so cleverly divided into three separate feeds, and made up a bottle for my son. No one looked at me, or judged me or in fact, said anything. They didn’t need to. I was enough self-deprecating criticism for all of us.
Why was I so hard on myself? Wasn’t the fact that I had a beautiful, happy and healthy baby enough? I so desperately wanted to be like the other mothers, effortlessly breastfeeding.
You know what; I still have days when I am sad about my breastfeeding journey. But if it is of any comfort to a new mum reading this, who is also struggling with breastfeeding, please know that you are a wonderful mum and your baby will not love you any less because you are not able to breastfeed him or her. My son and I are so close. Not being able to feed him did not affect our bonding and attachment at all.
As a childbirth educator, I obviously teach basic breastfeeding in my classes. I don’t generally share my personal story because like my birth stories, it isn’t relevant. Every woman is different and every baby is different, and my personal circumstances made it particularly challenging for me from the outset.
My friend and colleague Rowena Gray has just published an absolutely wonderful book, Born to Breastfeed. Rowena is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and midwife based in Melbourne. Her book is thorough, evidence-based and most important for a new mum – practical. The format is logical and easy to reference, with great illustrations and comprehensive information covering the most common breastfeeding issues new mothers face.
I particularly love how Rowena has included important information about how labour and birth can affect early breastfeeding by discussing the impact of medications such as morphine and epidural anaesthesia. The book also features breastfeeding stories by real mothers. Born to Breastfeed is a must-read for all new mothers and a book I wish I had read when I was expecting.
Despite the fact that I didn’t enjoy breastfeeding success, the fact is that most women don’t have to overcome the difficulties I did. Most women can breastfeed. We know that the major factors that affect breastfeeding success are lack of support, education and early intervention when problems occur. Many women struggle along because they think that they are supposed to. There is this perception that breastfeeding SHOULD be difficult and painful – otherwise, you’re not doing it right.
Breastfeeding is such a loaded topic these days. If you are too pro-breastfeeding, you are a “lactivist” – or even a “breastfeeding Nazi”. If you are pro-formula, you are pandering to the formula companies and compromising your baby’s long term health. The truth is; breastfeeding – like the rest of life – is never black and white. As mothers, we instinctively do the very best for our children. All we can do is arm ourselves with the best information and the best support we can find and then make the best decisions for us and our family.
And yes, in case you were wondering, I am still glad I got the boob job.
We have a signed copy of Rowena Gray’s book, Born to Breastfeed for one lucky winner! To go in the draw, please send us an email and tell us why you would like to win this book. Competition closes May 31st, 2016.
Tanya Strusberg is a Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator (LCCE) and founder of birthwell birthright, an independent childbirth education practice based in Melbourne. In 2015, Tanya was inducted as an FACCE (Fellow of the Academy of Certified Childbirth Educators) in recognition of her significant contribution to childbirth education. Through her internationally-accredited Lamaze Educator Training program, she is very excited to be training a new generation of Australian Lamaze educators.
Last, but absolutely not least, she is also the mum of two beautiful children, her son Liev and daughter Amalia.