By Peg Johnston • January 08, 2008•Myths & Truths
Okay, so way back on November 30th, I committed to tell you about the fifth myth on my list of seven myths: 5. Breastfeeding is Easy and Natural. This was sort of the inspiration for the entire series. I was sparked to write the series when I realized that some of my girlfriends had no idea about what breastfeeding and being a working mom entailed. This realization also made me remember how clueless I was about the same subject before giving it a try myself.
Here are the truths: It is complicated, time-consuming, often painful, and anything but easy. I suppose calling it "natural" isn't a myth but just because something is in our nature doesn't mean that it is easy to juggle in our modern daily lives of raising a family and working.
So why is it complicated?
Well, the first thing is the politics of breastfeeding. There is a lot of debate among women about whether or not it is important to breastfeed. When my mother had me (in the 70s) breastfeeding was not a popular choice. She didn't and I turned out just fine -- great, even . In the 90s, breastfeeding was lauded as the best thing a mother can do for her child. It seemed that everyone was going to at least try to do it. The debate sparked a lot of judging between women who felt strongly that it was the best thing to do for your child and not doing it was selfish and those women that, for a large number of reasons, decided not to breastfeed or couldn't breastfeed.
Second, it is complicated because it is deeply personal. Decisions about how to mother are personal family decisions. I, for one, was never willing to discuss my breastfeeding choices outside of the confines of my own home and even there I never discussed it with my dad or my brother. I rarely talked about it with my husband. Afterall, there is a viable alternative - baby formula. Therefore, I felt like the decision (and the struggle) to breastfeed was mine alone. I took control of how it was done and how long I would fight to keep doing it.
So why is it time-consuming?
Well, this may be obvious but you're the only one that can do it. That means that everytime the baby needs to eat, you are there feeding it. It is nearly impossible to multi-task during feeding especially when the baby is young, small, and not that good at it himself/herself. One caveat, however. I breastfed my kids before having a blackberry. I am now pretty good at operating the blackberry with one hand so, today, I could see myself checking emails or textmessaging while feeding. (Is that progress? hmmm)
It is also time-consuming because if you ever want or need to break away from the need for you to personally deliver nutrition to your baby, you'll have to express (i.e. pump) milk. This process requires some sort of machinery, time to sterilize equipment, packaging, labeling, and refridgerating containers of milk. Also, a lot of the time, expressing milk can take longer than it would to just feed the baby. More about pumping below.
It is also time consuming because your body requires you to keep to a schedule. When your baby is small you can feed the baby when it is hungry and this will be just right to keep you body able to produce the milk the baby needs. However, if you want to store up milk in the freezer for when you go back to work, you'll need to express milk regularly in small amounts so as to not interfere with your baby's nutrition and so that you slowly build up your body's milk production. Once you are back to work or expressing frequently, you'll have to keep on a schedule. If you start skipping pumping sessions, you body will slow down production. Committing to doing something every 3 or 4 hours is time consuming. It requires planning and scheduling and interferes with other daily tasks that don't always come in 3 hour blocks of time committment.
Finally, it is time consuming because breastfeeding takes over many of the other choices in your daily life. You have to think about what you eat, how much you exercise, what you wear, etc. Oh, one thing about what you wear.... I was shocked when I discovered the problem of leakage. Ahhhhh, you will need absorbant padding for when you go back to work so that everyone in the office doesn't see your milk all over the front of your shirt.
Why is it painful?
I will leave out many of the details here. Let's just say that there is bleeding involved in the begining for many women. Also, engorgement from missing feedings or choosing not to breastfeed hurts, like really bad heartburn or chest pains. Some women also describe "let down" as being painful. Let down can best be described as when the ducts open to allow milk to flow. It happens whenever you feed the baby or express milk.
Why is it "anything but easy"?
With my children I was committed to breastfeeding them as long as I could keep it up. I completely understand the decision to not breastfeed that many of my friends and family have made. For me, I didn't have a good reason not to try to do it so I did. The first surprise was that the baby wasn't all that good at it. I could tell that he was hungry and he could tell that I had food but the two of us just couldn't make it work all that easily. At first, I had to be in a certain uncomfortable physical position and had to hold him in a certain muscle-tiring way just to get him to eat. Overtime (a few weeks), he (and I) got better at it and he could eat in any position and any place in the house. Before that however, it seemed like the two of us were fighting with each other just to make it work.
I had about 10 weeks of vacation with the first baby so after 6 weeks, I started to pump milk to store for the times that I wouldn't be available to feed him once I went back to work. I didn't want to get a huge electronic machine that required a large carrying case and batteries or an outlet to operate. So, I used a hand-operated pump system that actually worked pretty well for me. I was fortunate because my body cooperated with the pump from the beginning. This may be because I didn't expect too much from the start and slowly built up the pumping sessions a little at a time. In any case, pumping is not easy for most women. The trick is the "let down". Your body has to let down the milk or nothing will come out. I know women who have to be in a quiet dark place and looking at a picture of their baby to achieve let down in order to express milk. I know women who have recorded their baby's crys on their IPOD in order to achieve let down at the office. In any case, let down is as much mental as it is physical. You have to find the right circumstances for you personally to acheive let down and I would say that being rushed, frazzeled and uncomfortable won't do it for most women. This makes pumping at work harder than it could be.
Even with my relative success at pumping, breastfeeding my first only lasted 4.5 months total and with my second only about 3 months. I was in a career that was even less friendly to breastfeeding mothers than the law. I had an office with a door (but no windows) but a bunch of people that worked for me that were used to having access to me at all times. I also had the sort of job where I was out of the office frequently for long stretches of time. I started to miss pumping sessions and each time I missed a pumping session (scheduled for every four hours or so) it seemed that my milk supply decreased from there on out. Eventually, my body just stopped producing milk. This happened when the first baby was about 4 months old and I had about 2 weeks of milk stored in the freezer. We stretched that milk out by alternating feedings with breastmilk and formula over the next month or so and then the baby was on formula full time.
What's the takeaway from this post? I chose to try to breastfeed as a working mother. I made it work for as long as I could and I would do the same over again. I didn't breastfeed for one year or even six months but I feel good about the effort I gave it. In the end, it was too hard for me to juggle it. My career would not allow me to dedicate the constant attention required to the effort. It isn't easy to do and it can be time consuming. It is harder for some women and impossible for some. I guess I just wanted to let everyone know that breastfeeding and working is an undertaking. You will likely be surprised at how unnatural it seems at times.