by Kirsty O'Sullivan
Hong Kong Island Group
My breastfeeding story starts in a small village in southern Italy, in 1950, when my mother was born and was breastfed by my Nonna (grandmother).
Nonna didn’t have access to formula, and even if she did, the people in her village were too poor to afford it. While she was nursing my mother, Nonna simultaneously breastfed a baby boy from her village, as that baby’s mother had passed away.
That’s just one of many breastfeeding stories that I heard growing up. Another is that while my mother was breastfeeding me, she produced so much milk that she pumped her excess milk and stored it in the freezer. Every fortnight, the local hospital sent a van to collect the milk, which they gave to women in the hospital who were unable to breastfeed.
Unfortunately, when I was only six months old, my mother thought that her milk had suddenly dried up. It was the late 1970s, and doctors advised her to give me bottles of cows’ milk instead. Stopping breastfeeding at six months was something that she has always regretted, as she felt she let me down as a mother; she had hoped to breastfeed me for at least one year.
Since breastfeeding is such an important part of my maternal family’s history, I always knew that if I ever had a baby, I would breastfeed.
Fast-forward to 2012, when I found myself pregnant and living in Hong Kong with my husband, Luke. I read The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding by La Leche League and took one of their breastfeeding classes. I already knew about the nutritional benefits of breastfeeding, but I learned a lot about the importance of breastfeeding for bonding with your newborn, feeding for comfort, and how important it is for social development too. I also learned that any drugs taken during labour can greatly increase the risk of cascading medical interventions, which in turn can interfere with the baby’s ability to nurse. I achieved my wish to give birth naturally, without an epidural, the same way my mother, Nonna, paternal grandmother and aunty all did.
Every new mother has her challenges. For some, it’s lack of sleep. For others, it’s spitting up, unexplained crying, or medical conditions such as jaundice or colic. I was very fortunate that I never experienced any of those things – my baby was a happy, healthy little girl, who slept like a champion. My challenge was breastfeeding.
Despite Ivy’s relatively easy natural birth (just five hours in total) and my preparation, it felt like everything that could go wrong did go wrong. My nipples were cracked and bleeding before I even left the hospital. Ivy preferred sleeping over nursing, and I regularly had to wake her to feed. I was massively engorged – I was a B cup before my pregnancy, and increased to an F cup after Ivy was born. Luckily, after a couple of months, I settled down to ‘only’ a DD cup. I also had lumps and blockages, which fortunately never progressed to mastitis, but wow they were painful. Additionally, Ivy had a mild tongue tie which we had snipped.
But the worst of all was thrush. I didn’t realise it at the time but I must have picked up a yeast infection in the hospital. Ivy never had any white spots in her mouth which is the most obvious sign of thrush. The midwives who visited me at home told me I didn’t have thrush, so my pain must be due to bad latching or Ivy’s tongue tie. But my nipples hurt so badly! They stung and itched, and I couldn’t stand anything touching them. I had to shower with my back to the shower head, as having water touch them felt like I was being stabbed with pins. Clothing against my nipples stung like crazy, so I cut holes in my crop tops and walked around the house with my nipples sticking out. I only left the house if I absolutely had to, and I needed to use special plastic breast shields in my bras to keep the fabric from touching my nipples. Worst of all, I couldn’t cuddle Ivy on my chest, because if she moved and touched one of my nipples it was excruciatingly painful. It was so bad that I wanted to give up breastfeeding after just three days. So much for my plan to breastfed for at least one year.
But it didn’t actually hurt to feed at all, so I told myself to try just three more days of feeding. Then, when six days had passed, I told myself to do just six more. This pattern of promising myself I would do a few more days and weeks continued until Ivy was six weeks old, when I went to my first La Leche League meeting. I remember bursting into tears while telling the wonderful leaders Pauline and Caroline how much pain I was constantly in, yet it didn’t hurt to feed at all. They looked at my latch (which was fine) and suggested that I see a doctor because I might have an infection. My doctor turned out to be wonderfully supportive. She gave me suitable medication and within three days the itching had stopped. Then within ten days the pain stopped, and I found that I could shower and wear a bra. Hurrah!
Over the following weeks, I learned that the books were right about breastfeeding being a wonderful way to bond with your baby. I loved cuddling Ivy while she was feeding, and knowing that she was growing because of me and my milk. When she was about 10 months old I started to experience what breastfeeding for comfort was. I think this is because she was such a happy baby who hardly cried, so it wasn’t until she started standing up and “cruising” around our furniture that she needed comfort after little tumbles. Breastfeeding became a magical instant fix-it which stopped tears almost instantly!
Breastfeeding also helped when we travelled. In her first year, Ivy visited five countries. Passengers and hostesses would comment to me at the end of every flight that Ivy was the best-behaved baby they had flown with, as she never made a sound. This was because I nursed her during take-off and landings, plus whenever she looked like she might become fussy on the plane. I also think breastfeeding and co- sleeping helped with preventing jet lag. When Ivy would wake in the middle of the night, I would breastfeed her in bed, and she would fall asleep. Breastfeeding made traveling with her so easy.
I ended up breastfeeding Ivy for just over two years. I weaned her from daytime feeding when I returned to work at 14 months. Then after 18 months, when I became pregnant with her little brother, I started to slowly wean her from overnight nursing. By the time she was two years old, Ivy was just nursing at night to go to bed, only a few times a week – although if we were out and she was super-grumpy or tired, I would also give her a quick feed which would instantly calm her down. Sadly, I don’t actually remember the last time Ivy nursed; it just dawned on me one day that she hadn’t nursed since we returned to Hong Kong from a holiday in Australia several weeks earlier.
Just two months after I stopped breastfeeding Ivy, my son Heath was born, and I began round two of my breastfeeding story. The first week was challenging. My milk came in less than 24 hours after he was born, I was massively engorged again, my nipples were sore, and he also had a mild tongue tie. I love this photo of him nursing when he was just 48 hours old – you can see him with his little mouth open as wide as it can go, latching onto my enormous nipple! Heath was born much bigger than Ivy, and he had such a strong desire to eat that he regained his birth weight before we even left the hospital. By the start of the second week, he’d learned how to latch properly, and my engorgement went away (thanks to refreshingly cold cabbage
leaves that I stuffed in my bra for three days).
I feel so grateful that our breastfeeding issues were all sorted out so quickly and breastfeeding became so easy. Heath is now four months old and is a breastfeeding champion. I’m planning to continue breastfeeding him until he is at least two years old – and longer if he wants to.
Close to the Heart Vol. 16, No. 3 (Late-Year 2015)
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