food for thought – breast feeding crisis

Breastfeeding… I won’t hide it. I had a very tough, miserable, agonizing time with it… My imagination for a blissful motherhood collapsed at the moment my baby sucked my breasts for the first time a couple of hours after she was born.

Prior to giving birth, I took breastfeeding for granted. I have a younger sister who had her first child at the age of 25 and the second one two years after, all the while I was still searching for my better half. She breast-fed her kids entirely, saying she was grateful because it was much more economical than buying formula (she was quite indifferent about the method of feeding – whatever worked, worked for her). I remember being literally stunned at the sight of my sister’s super engorged breasts (they looked like a couple of gigantic grapefruits), and her babies going into breastmilk coma after voraciously sucking their mommy’s breasts for (only) a few minutes. Her breasts were the best tools (or sometimes in Japan we refer them as “weapons”) for her kids’ development and their well-being. I thought it was totally normal for mothers to produce breastmilk like my sister. And she was MY sister. We have the same parents, grew up together eating the same food, and have the most similar genetic characteristic in the whole wide world. During my IVF treatment, it even came to my mind that I’d ask her for her eggs if mine were not good enough (but the thought quickly dismissed because of the restrictions under the current Japanese law). So when I gave birth to our little bundle of joy almost a decade later, it was only natural to me that I would expect the free flow of breastmilk. How could I not?

The hospital where I delivered my baby was pro-breastfeeding (later my husband called them “breastfeeding nazis”), and offered me handful advices on what to do. They taught me how to let the baby suck my breasts by tightly holding her delicate newborn head and fiercely pushing her face onto my breasts. They told me to have the baby suck my breasts as much as possible, whenever she cried, wherever there was a chance. No routine, just let the baby guide you. For the next few days I strictly followed their instructions and did all my best… but the milk didn’t come, maybe a teeny-tiny bit but not enough at all. As a result she not only lost more than 15% of her birth weight, but had a high fever due to dehydration. By the fourth day after the baby was born I was exhausted and was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. With my tearful and my husband’s angry protest, the hospital finally agreed to give her a bit of sugar water. The next day, after another round of emotional protest from the distressed first-timer parents, they decided to let us feed her some supplementing formula, but not from a bottle but a glass, in order to avoid nipple confusion. I never forget the sight of my newborn baby girl crying tirelessly for milk with her excruciating voice with her face so red and wrinkly, while i was helpless, pathetic and completely at a loss. It was utterly different from my earlier image of happy motherhood. By the sixth day and the last day at the hospital (I stayed there longer because of my C-section), the baby regained her birth weight with the help of supplementing formula, and to my relief we were finally discharged. With the memorable kick start of my breastfeeding experience, the agony continued. By the time we settled back home I was totally brainwashed, with the thought that I was a complete failure being unable to feed my baby entirely with my own breastmilk. I was sad, lonely, angry and exhausted. Thinking back, I was on the edge of postpartum depression, and it took me a while to truly connect with my baby girl.

Knowing my frustration, my family and close friends gave me many tips in order to boost my supply. My mom. She advised me to eat white rice, especially the sticky one, as well as root vegetables, because her mother, my dear grandmother, did so, and believed this helped her fully breastfeed six children including my mom and on top of that wet-nursed some babies in the neighbourhood. My sister. Her advice was to drink a lot of mixed vegetable juice (like a 1000ml everyday), which she learned from the hospital where she gave birth to her two children. My best friend. She said it had worked for her to pump her breasts every time after feeding, because the body thinks it needs to produce more, and hence more milk production. As gullible as I was, I even bought (check this) an “electrical” pump to do so. With the level of my supply it was a total waste of money, but I tried desperately. To me all of these suggestions seemed convincing at that point of time, because after all these women succeeded in breastfeeding their babies. I followed the advices, ever so painstakingly, for my baby girl. The only thing I could do was to give it a try. If you try hard, you usually get a (good) result, which I had learned while growing up. As such, I forced myself to eat, drink, rest, breastfeed, supplement with formula and pump. The outcome? No difference whatsoever in my breastmilk supply, but an increase in my weight and waist line (wait, was I not supposed to loose them after childbirth?), my face turning embarrassingly orange due to the mixed juice I drank everyday (one of its main ingredients was carrots), and the not-at-all-useful electrical pump tacked away in the cupboard. When I noticed what had actually happened, I was disappointed, furious, and most of all, unhappy.

Even so, as brainwashed as I was, I kept combo-feeding my baby for the next five months and went through all the other possible ways for improvement, including frequent visits to a lactation consultant. She kept saying my supply would improve so no need to increase the amount of supplementing formula, but my poor baby girl was not gaining her weight. Her weight was always around the bottom or out of the lower percentile. Whenever I met up with my fellow glorious breastfeeding mothers I felt inferior. They innocently commented on my baby girl that she was so small, most likely thinking it had something to do with the baby’s inability to eat well. No, that wasn’t it. The fact was I wasn’t giving her enough food, either breast or bottle. It hurt me and made me feel discouraged and shameful. I should have stopped that nonsense and just switched to fully bottle feeding, but with my brainwashed state of mind, I stubbornly kept trying in vain.

It was when she turned six months, one day, all of a sudden, my little girl refused my breasts. She screamed her head out by arching her small body up and down, kicking and wriggling vigorously whenever I tried to let her suck my breasts. She had enough of it and was righteously fed up. It was just ridiculous, especially to her. So this time, I gave up. Sticky rice, veggie juice, electric pump and lactation consultant. Dumped them all. A hint of sentiment passed my mind to give up something I’d committed for months, but I was relieved. I felt emancipated, somehow triumphant and strong. I felt so powerful that I stopped breastfeeding all at once, even pumping also. It was high time I was released from the six months of misery, and now things were supposed to turn into the start of a new, happy phase of my motherhood. And what did I get? I got mastitis! Had no idea one could get mastitis even without enough supply. No one ever told me that…

OK, time to move on… there are other great things out there you know… like… solids!

1 Comment

  1. […] ago, I posted my traumatic experience of breastfeeding. Thinking back, I couldn’t wait to get away from the feeling of guilt for feeding my baby […]

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