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The price of liquid gold —What we are not told about breastfeeding

Illustration by Alyssa Kiefer

I want to begin by thanking you for coming here. But, what exactly is “here”? It is a safe space (I am hoping) to share my experience with a very particular aspect of motherhood an aspect hidden by stoles, scarves, dupattas, and pallus all for the benefit of neither the bearer of these garments nor the new life it covers but the people around who interfere with our role, arguably an extremely important one.

As a first-time mother, I focused on having a safe pregnancy and delivering my baby full-term. Nine months can seem like a long time, especially when you are in the middle of a full-blown pandemic! Then, of course, there was already so much to do, things that required actual work. Amidst all of these, breastfeeding was the last thing on my mind because I assumed it was something that my body would take care of on its own. ‘I will follow my instincts,’ I told myself as I made my 20th toilet run of the day. I always planned to breastfeed. It was the natural course of things, but having a baby in your early 30s means that you already know people with children, people that you can talk intimately about their breastfeeding journey. For a first-time parent like me, this was a big deal. I had no idea what was in store for me. These were uncharted waters.

Towards the end of my pregnancy, questions like, “Have you started leaking a little yet?” became frequent. Completely surprised and fazed, I would reply, “Why? Am I supposed to already?”. Frantic Google searches revealed how women in their final lap of pregnancy showed signs of lactation. But I didn’t have them.

Naturally, I began asking around and encouraging my friends and family to share their experiences. I discovered one thing that they all had in common no two mothers have the same thing to say about breastfeeding. In fact, I learned that there was a good chance that I wouldn’t get to nurse my baby at all. Some mothers don’t produce enough milk to nurture their newborns and start using formula immediately to feed their babies.

To prepare better, I even took a class on breastfeeding and made copious amount of notes on the subject: the what and the how of it all. I realized for something that’s considered a natural process, breastfeeding is highly technical. Really! There are actual techniques involved in breastfeeding, including the different types of holds the cradle-hold, the cross-cradle hold, the football-hold; the latching and the unlatching; the type of food the mother should eat while breastfeeding; the minimum water intake for the mother no matter what; the position in which she should sleep in; etc. This information overload made my brain buzz. Still, I diligently went through it all. Read and memorized. And I thought, “Okay, I have covered everything there is to know about breastfeeding.”

But with time, I learned that my knowledge was grossly incomplete. As soon as I had my baby, my whole attention shifted from my womb to my breasts. As I lay on the hospital bed, with my baby sleeping off the birthing experience, I wondered what will happen once he wakes up? Will my milk come in? Will I be able to feed my newborn? Because once you have your baby, the clock starts ticking in your head and you keep looking down, waiting for those breasts to become milk-faucets. The pressure you put on yourself is immense. Anxiety levels are high which is unfortunate because anxiety and stress have an inverse relationship with milk production. The more you stress, the more cortisol you release which inhibits production of Oxytocin, a hormone that significantly influences milk let-down. I did mention that it is seriously technical, didn’t I? Taking a deep breath, I took my baby to my breast and waited. He sniffed around, moved his tiny head and opened his mouth with God-given instinct, and started suckling. The next thing I knew was not relief that my baby was breastfeeding, but excruciating pain. ‘What is happening?’ I wondered in shock. I looked at my baby’s face, still suckling utterly unaware of my pain, and I played the whole breastfeeding class in my head in fast-forward mode. Did they mention that it would hurt so much? Is this normal? Am I doing something wrong? I got my latch checked by a specialist, a lactation consultant. It was fine. My hold was fine. But the pain didn’t abate.

I kept on feeding my baby despite it. I went online for some answers. Vasospasm? No. Cracked nipples? No. Finally, after many tears-filled nursing sessions and self-doubt, I concluded that breastfeeding hurts in the first few weeks. I was sore all the time. It’s apparently the rough that you have to go through to get to the green. But why wasn’t I made aware of it before? I spent hours and hours crying, self-blaming, and eventually dreading the next session. My whole body would tense up as soon as the hour struck, and it was time to nurse again. I would listen to calming music, drink glasses and glasses of water to distract myself from the pain and pray for it to hurt less every time.

It took around three weeks for the nursing sessions to feel less self-inflicted torture and more nature’s wonder, as I had anticipated.

Both mama and baby had finally synchronized their bodies with each other. We were like two peas in a pod. There were affectionate exchanges of glances, playful teasings, sometimes even napping on the nipple after taking a full feed. We were making beautiful memories together, and all was well in our little world.

Then suddenly, I started experiencing high fever and feeling full all the time no matter how frequently or long I nursed. As any lactating woman would tell you, engorged breasts are highly uncomfortable, but I was suffering. I checked in with my doctors and lactation consultants, even went for a scan. It was concluded that there were blocked ducts. I started taking lecithin capsules, did warm compressions and massages, but my suffering only increased. I didn’t just have a high fever reaching 102 and 103 degrees Fahrenheit; I was having chills, where a fan on a warm late-May afternoon felt too much to bear for me.

We knew that this was something serious. It was challenging to have doctors see us as it was also the time when the second-wave of COVID-19 wreaked havoc. Finally, my husband managed to find someone who personally examined me. It was determined that I had an acute infection in my breast. I had a breast abscess and needed surgery immediately. I was almost admitted to the hospital too and since I was already feeling too sick to make any decision, we would have gone through it there and then. But both my husband and I decided to suffer for another day, went home and spent the remainder of it researching what the surgery would mean for us my baby and me. Throughout this time, I was still breastfeeding him.

In case of a breast abscess, surgery was the first line of treatment. WAS. It is called Incision and drainage. It requires admission into a hospital, cutting open the breasts, and draining the infected tissue out. Further, it necessitates a 2-month long regular hospital visit to get the dressings changed, which is an excruciatingly painful ordeal in itself. In short, as my doctor put it, ‘frankly, say goodbye to enjoying motherhood for a while.’

But then we stumbled upon another procedure, less invasive and outpatient. Ultrasound-guided needle aspiration. This was a game-changer and we met a breast-surgeon who was determined to give it a try. This made all the difference in the world. I didn’t have to stop nursing and I didn’t have to get admitted to the hospital either. The journey was still long and painful but it was one I was happy to take, considering the alternative.

While I was going to the hospital repeatedly and getting treated, I wondered why I wasn’t warned about all this before? Everyone always had opinions to share about everything around nursing Whether I should nurse or not; For how long I should keep doing it; how I should get over my pain and focus on the baby; and much more. Who set these rules in the first place anyway? Breastfeeding is one of the most dynamic phases of life. And if all of this was so important for everyone, why send me on this journey with limited tools in my toolbox?

There are so many complications associated with breastfeeding, but the discourse has wholly skipped over them, perhaps not to scare away the new mothers or those who are already discouraged at the start. After all, successful breastfeeding is based upon a demand and supply relationship between the mother and the baby. If the mother keeps worrying about various complications, it could affect the milk supply. But not knowing about the possibility that you could be affected by any of them keeps you at a major disadvantage. Because more often than not, they will cause early and abrupt termination of breastfeeding. Increasing awareness amongst pregnant women doesn’t have to mean decreasing the rate of breastfeeding. In fact, by opening an honest dialogue on breastfeeding issues, we could avoid their occurrence and thereby make longer and healthier lactation and nursing a definite eventuality.

Finally, after I had my last session of aspiration, my doctor and I decided that to avoid any recurrence of blockage and inflammation, I should slowly wean off my little one from my milk. I was not happy at first, switching to formula, but as I regained my health, both physical and mental, I started enjoying motherhood even more and both mama and baby are filling each day with love and gratitude. Mother’s milk may be referred to as “liquid gold” but the true treasure is a happy, healthy baby who is loved unconditionally.

(This blog is submitted by our Guest Author, Mansi Jain. Mansi is a full-time mother to a four-month-old and a part time advocate in Supreme Court of India. She also helps look after the residents of old-age home ‘Gharaunda’, run by her family, near Mehrauli, New Delhi.)


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