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LAce Posted Monday, August 25th, 2003
Biological Amnesia
Jessica O'Connell

So everyone prepares you for the big day! And it's true that preparation is futile. There is little anyone can do to help you predict what sort of labor you will have or how you will handle it. Yet birthing class instructors give you relaxation methods and tools to use in the hospital. Be ready for anything and focus on giving birth to a beautiful baby no matter what happens in between.

What they don't tell you is that you might have up to two months of excruciating pain breastfeeding. They mention the baby blues, post partum depression and dementia—but no one confronts breastfeeding hysteria. And just like your mother doesn't remember certain details of her labor, she also doesn't remember certain details about tears running down her cheeks while putting you up to her breast as a baby. They call this biological amnesia.

My baby was a sucker right off the bat. I breastfed her 15 minutes after her birth. She latched well and got her fill easily. She was a natural. Unfortunately I was not. This would become our pattern.

By the time I left the hospital, I had two nasty blood blisters on the tips of my nipples. These looked sort of gross and stung a little bit. Not a big deal. I figured that once they popped and healed it would be smooth sailing. The lactation consultant said I'd be enjoying nursing by week two.

Not so! The blood blisters disappeared and gave way to a nasty crack on one nipple and a fissure on the other. Then there was also this nagging deep breast and back pain that radiated like a contraction after every feeding. It hurt so badly that it often took me twenty minutes to get the courage to put my daughter up to my left breast. And when I finally did, I had to kick something so my foot would hurt and I'd get distracted.

I consulted friends, doctors, nurses, lactation consultants, and even the local representative of the La Leche League about my difficulty. Was I relaxed? they asked. Was the baby latching correctly? Did I have a fever or flu-like symptoms? Did I have red patches on my breasts that were hot to the touch? Did I detect yeast in my baby's mouth? Nope. But was I taking Percocet for the pain? Was I pulling out my hair in frustration? Was I afraid to be left alone with the baby, fearful of what I might do to her in my agony? You bet!

I wondered, does anyone know anything about breastfeeding? These were supposed to be professionals, right? Everyone had a different diagnosis. The La Leche League representative told me I had thrush (a yeast infection of the breast ducts) and overactive let-down. The lactation consultant said it was the crack and fissure causing the trouble and perhaps I should consider letting one breast dry up. The chiropractor said I had a misalignment of the spine!

I believed them all. What did I have to lose? I took antibiotics for mastitis, Diflucan for yeast, and pumped exclusively for a week to let the cracks heal. I tried hot and cold compresses on my back and swallowed primrose oil supplements to promote healthy breast tissue.

Things got worse before they got better. My baby refused the breast when I returned her to it after two weeks of pumping. She was accustomed to the bottle. I cried, but I persisted. I was determined to make it work.

She eventually accepted my newly healed nipples and the pain stopped. After eight weeks of agony, I could finally gaze down at my baby with joy. I could finally relish her. By now she was cooing and smiling, and luckily I had a month of maternity leave left.

Looking back, I'm not sure why I didn't turn to the quick fix in my despair. God knows the formula companies make it easy for you if you choose to go that route, stuffing your mailbox with coupons and free samples. But I didn't do it. Perhaps it was because my husband wasn't breastfed. Or because I wanted to continue eating like a pig. Or because I wanted to save money, since my husband was entering grad school in the fall, and we could hardly afford another twenty bucks at the grocery store every week. I'm glad I persisted, although it was the hardest thing I've ever done. Longer and more painful than labor, for sure.

Now nursing is second nature. I nurse in my car in parking lots. I nurse with friends in their living rooms (which is a little reminiscent of sharing a cigarette with your buddies in high school). I nurse in the locker room at the gym and in bed. My baby knocks on my breasts when she is hungry, and it makes me laugh.

When she finishes feeding she stretches her arms over her head, lips swollen with suck, milk dribbling from the side of her mouth, and she sleeps peacefully. She looks like that good-luck kitten you see in Chinese restaurants sometimes, with one paw raised and an impish grin spread across her face. I know it sounds crazy, but would you believe I'm starting to forget my pain? Chalk another one up to biological amnesia.

Related Links:

  • La Leche League

    Comments [post a comment]

    Posted by sarah freedman on Monday, August 25th, 2003 at 4:47 PM
    you go mama!! that little kitten is thriving thanks to your determination and dedication!! it's appalling how little support there is for breastfeeding even given all we know about the countless benefits!! it's one of the most important things you can do for your baby and yet when you run into trouble you are in this no mans land between your obstetrician and pediatrician...if you are lucky you find a good lactation consultant but even then the advice can be so conflicting...you are to be commended for your sticktoitiveness!! nurse on!!

    Posted by jocelyn johnson on Friday, August 29th, 2003 at 2:12 PM
    I really enjoyd reading this peice. I haven't spent enough time with babies or new mothers, it's all a mystery to me. A good friend, years back, who was the first to give birth of the girls I knew, said the same: You forget the physical pain, she said. There are other things you remember.



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