In my early 20s, I worked in PR in London. One major client was the National Childbirth Trust. They drummed the “breast is best” message hard. Then came the torturous stories from new mums: the worst pain they had ever experienced, 10 out of 10 pain. They could forget the pain of childbirth but not of breastfeeding.
Even with this knowledge, I underestimated how hard breastfeeding would be. When I was pregnant, the hospital offered breastfeeding classes, I didn’t bother signing up. I didn’t do any reading. Like most expecting first time mums, I was obsessed with the birth and I could not look beyond it. I figured I would learn to breastfeed when the time came.
In my first week of motherhood, I was quite good at breastfeeding. Under close supervision of the midwives in the postnatal ward, my daughter latched on like a dream. One midwife even described my technique as textbook.
Full of false confidence, I went home and continued feeding. I was also pumping so my partner and mum could experience the joy of feeding. I was chuffed. Breastfeeding was easy.
The hospital offered a free lactation consultation within eight weeks of birth. I nearly didn’t go because I thought I had it nailed. A bit of a perfectionist, I could always improve so I made the effort to go.
That was when the lactation specialist alerted me to the lump on my left breast. The lump, as I was told was a blocked milk duct, likely caused by poor drainage. She suggested I massage it to avoid mastitis.
I had never heard of mastitis, a painful breast infection believed to impact about 20 per cent of breastfeeding women. It is usually the result of uncleared blocked ducts. When milk spills into breast tissue, the tissue becomes inflamed. Flu-like symptoms present. Antibiotics are often required.
I went home and began to massage excessively but it was too late. Two days later, I had aches, chills and fever. I had mastitis. My left breast was rock hard, red and swollen.
With an engorged breast, my daughter couldn’t latch on. She was hungry and frustrated. My nipple was cracked and sore. The best thing for mastitis was to continue feeding. Shivering with a soaring temperature, I was in tears while my mum kneaded my breast and my daughter sucked on, causing the most harrowing of pain.
I was back on painkillers around the clock, having just come off them for my birth wounds.
After that, I read every website, called every hotline, watched every YouTube video. I was massaging and doing anything that could help: frequent feeds, heat packs, cabbage leaves on breast (cabbage allegedly had properties which lessened breast pain and swelling), going bra-less.
Why had I not heard of mastitis? Once I mentioned it, everyone knew of someone who had it. My best friend had two bouts of it when she had her first child six years ago. She didn’t mention it or if she did, I didn’t listen. I craved the gory details of the birth, not the info on breastfeeding.
Despite my best efforts, the blocked duct did not go away and I was on a second course of antibiotics. The lactation specialist suggested I see a physio. I had not thought to go to the physio; I had not dislocated my shoulder. But as I soon found out, physiotherapists can use ultrasound to unblock the duct.
It worked a treat. My physio also developed a prevention strategy. She didn’t believe in the kind of kneading I had been doing. Instead, she gave me gentle breast exercises to stimulate the lymphatic system. She showed me alternative feeding positions to drain different parts of the breast. She urged that I rest as much as a new mum could so my body could fight the infection.
The initial weeks of breastfeeding has since passed. My baby, my breasts and I have settled into a new normal. I know how to spot the signs of a blocked duct and how to manage it before it turns infectious. I continue my breast exercises obsessively so mastitis does not return.
On a recent hot summer day, I grew enough confidence to try feeding lying down. I stripped to my underwear, my baby to her diaper. I placed her by my side and watched as she wiggled towards me. She latched on without fuss and without pain. I felt her heartbeat and warm skin against mine. For the briefest of moment, I enjoyed breastfeeding.
Lucille Wong is a freelance writer. You can follow Lucille on Twitter @luci1307.