I am passionate about breastfeeding and feel strongly that breastmilk matters – no matter how long or how much – it matters and is important for both mother and baby.
I am not an advocate of breast is best – but nor am I an advocate for fed is best (I dislike the term immensely, actually). Informed is best.
Since reaching this point in my journey, I’ve realised that I’ve soldiered through many ailments. And I never decide to give up on living because I have the common cold nor does anyone suggest it – so why should I give up on breastfeeding if I suffer a breastfeeding related complaint? It is my hope that people reading this do not feel sympathy but empathy – and see that strength can be found within. Your breastfeeding goals matter, your journey matters and the support you receive matters.
When I fell pregnant with Cadence, it was my desire to breastfeed until she was two years old as per the World Health Organisation guidelines. I was told by many that this would never occur and nor should I want it to. I didn’t actually know anyone who had breastfed for that length of time – yet I had this primal urge to do so.
I educated myself about latch, milk supply, importance of night feeds, whether my prescription meds were compatible… I felt really in control of my future breastfeeding relationship. I bought a breast pump and was able to express some colostrum - although it hurt like hell but I didn’t think much of that fact.
When Cadence was born, obviously like any form of control in your life when you have a baby, I lost control of my breastfeeding plan.
I was in absolute agony. Every breastfeed was torturous and a combination of falling into the trap of formula top ups, scheduling feeds and shortening feeds due to the pain led to low milk supply.
My nipples were absolutely shredded, my refluxy baby was regurgitating my blood and I felt intense anxiety before and in between breastfeeds (so, all the time with a newborn!) I spoke with many professionals who advised me that it was normal to be in pain but to rethink my plan and set smaller goals. I set the goal of making it to when Cadence was four weeks old. And it was a bloody marathon to get there – but I did.
In between all this, I was also pumping after every breastfeed – even during the night – to increase my milk supply. I remember passing Cadence to Brad and pumping with my eyes closed sitting up against the cold, hard headrest of our bed. I wasn’t sleeping much and when I finally settled for sleep, Cadence was awake again or my thoughts were ruminating.
I was also diagnosed with vasospasm – and having a winter baby made this worse (I don’t notice it so much in the summer). A lactation consultant booked us in to have Cadence’s lip and tongue tie revised. This is something I feel conflicted about as it was so traumatic for all of us.
Finally, after nearly six months, the cracks healed, summer came and the pain eased slightly. I was still not in a good place mentally or emotionally. The pain was definitely contributing. And it was most frustrating at a time where solids are commonly introduced - suddenly, breastfeeding is valued even less and support just isn’t there to continue.
I spent the next year or so fumbling along. Breastfeeding for one whole year was a massive milestone for me. But it also found me at a point where I wasn’t willing to put up with the pain any longer. However, I felt very alone as the support and advice from professionals and people around me was to wean or that the pain was a result of postnatal anxiety. Cadence was and still is very connected with and attached to me and breastfeeding played an important role in this. She was not ready to wean and nor was I willing to force this upon her given the health benefits.
It took lots of Googling, talking, writing, experimenting and poking and prodding (will never do that again!), but I finally found the source of my pain – tiny little lumps on the surface of my areola.
I moved to a different clinic (the third that I’d been to in town) in an attempt to seek answers as I heard from friends that they may have the staff with the expertise to support me. The doctor that I saw ordered an ultrasound which showed the lumps – but nothing diagnosable. I then had a punch biopsy and due to the location of the stitches and the pain, I couldn’t breastfeed from that breast. And I haven’t breastfed from that breast to this day. It feels tight, sore at the incision site and the milk has diminished completely. This was really hard for my daughter and it is my hope that when my second child is born, it will have healed enough for me to feed normally.
I breastfed for two years. The last few days were from one breast and recovering from the biopsy – but I had done it!
The biopsy came back and the results showed that I had a rare condition resulting in small, thankfully benign tumours in my breast which cause extreme pain upon touching, friction or cold. It was so rare, that you cannot even Google it with much success. It was a surreal feeling – to have gone from being dismissed repeatedly to finally having an answer - after two years of seeking medical support to no avail. I felt validated and the depression and anxiety that I experienced suddenly felt very real. But I also felt let down by a system that does not support women in their breastfeeding goals.
I thought I was out of the woods until I noticed pain in my other breast. More of the same tiny lumps. I felt a lot of pressure being pregnant with my second child. I had one breast that seemed useless to me due to the biopsy and another that had severe pain and no hope of removing that pain without introducing a new type of pain. It was horrendous and I fell into a hole of self pity that no one seemed to understand.
I finally requested a referral to the end of the line. Just last week, I visited a breast specialist and surgeon in Adelaide. I had high hopes for the visit. Thankfully, there was definitely no cancer, but the moment I was told there was nothing that could be done for the stabbing pain – I absolutely broke. I still have no idea how I didn’t fall into a puddle of tears on the floor. My strength amazes me as I remained composed and connected to the conversation – nodding politely as if the doctor hadn’t just given me a terrible outcome. An outcome that I hadn’t expected – surely, I could breastfeed at some point in my life without pain? But it just wasn’t to be.
Even as I write this, I feel the same tightness in the back of my throat as I was told nipple shields may be an option (which I tried and it didn’t help with the pain). “When you stop breastfeeding, we can look at having them removed as there is no treatment that is breastfeeding compatible”. I held on tight to my growing, 30 week bump and asked what I should do in the interim. Cope.
Even with the information that my breastfeeding journey will be painful, I still plan to feed my second child until they are two years of age. I feel a calling to do this. I have and I will find a way to dig deeper and embrace my journey as the norm for me. Comparison will no longer be an aspect of my breastfeeding relationship. It is important that I focus solely on what’s happening for myself and my child – not what other women may be doing or experiencing - either with ease or with challenges.
Chronic pain is a complicated thing. I wouldn’t wish my journey upon anyone. I wish it wasn’t happening to me. But I’ve realised just how strong I am. Sharing my story in such detail leaves me open to judgement and potentially even disagreements around feeding choices (which I won’t be entering into) – but I believe that it is important that women’s breastfeeding goals are acknowledged, honoured and supported. A woman can either be broken or built based on the support around her.
If you know a breastfeeding mother, ask her about her goals. And support them. No matter what.