Who knew that one day, a naturally small-chested woman would be icing enormous throbbing mammary glands, so big that she'd resort to rubbing them with garlic, tamarind and peppermint?! Yep, you'll want to read on…
If you haven’t been keeping up with my series on “Everything that went wrong with my pregnancy”, I’ll give you a quick rundown. It started with an incompetent cervix, a nationwide lockdown and multiple months of bed rest – all before a very long and painful birth. And now, we’ve ended up here: the breastfeeding phase. Spoiler alert: this didn’t go exactly to plan, either.
I was told this would be a piece of cake.
Nourishing thy child from thy swollen heaving bosom that overfloweth with “liquid gold” sounded magical enough. But Lily had a really bad case of jaundice, as with most Asian babies. So, she had to stay in the hospital while I went home. It had been three days since her birth, and my bosom had not “overfloweth” with anything. I wasn’t fazed. My mother and almost all my aunties weren’t able to breastfeed. My mother-in-law didn’t breastfeed either – it just wasn’t the cult, I mean, it wasn’t the phenomenon it is today.
In America, breastfeeding was at an all-time low in the 1970s, and only started to become popular later in the 1980s. In Singapore, breastfeeding started to gain popularity again in the late 90s. According to Channel News Asia, a study conducted by Unicef in 2018 found that in high-income families, 1 in 5 babies was never breastfed. The total proportion varied in countries, however – for example, it was 55% in Ireland that went breast-free, but 98% in Oman and Sweden. Singapore stood at 96%! I, however, had my doubts.
Then, my boobs finally came in!
We went to the hospital to pick up Lily, who was finally well enough to be discharged. We were waiting outside the nursery, while paperwork was being filed. I began to have discomfort in my chest. By discomfort, I mean my bra wire was jabbing into my side. After about two hours of waiting next to a room where crying babies were being wheeled in and out, we left the hospital.
I got home and took off my bra. That’s when the real pain started. I’m naturally a very small-chested person (barely an A cup) and while I was pregnant, it went up to a modest B. But when I unhooked my bra, it felt like two hot boulders pulling my chest down. I went to the bathroom and took off my shirt. Staring back at me were the biggest, fullest, hardest breasts I had ever seen! The pain was worse than contractions. Naturally, I yelled for my husband to bring my phone so I could take a picture of my two lovely new friends.
The flood gates opened! Not quite.
I didn’t think I’d be able to breastfeed, so I didn’t do a drop of reading on the subject. My mother couldn’t help either. Thankfully, Google and my Instagram followers provided some tricks for me to try. While I iced my throbbing mammary glands, half sobbing wondering how this could have happened, and half wondering if these beautiful new friends would stay even after breastfeeding was over, I did think, this is how I would die. The pain was unbearable.
I got my Hegen breast pump out, (that I fully intended to just gift to a friend because by all accounts, I wasn’t going to be able to breastfeed), snapped it together and thus became the first of many, painful hand-expressing sessions. After about 20 minutes, the pain had subsided and I was left with almost 100ml of the much raved about “liquid gold”.
Purely expressing my misery.
Much to my husband’s delight, his wife could breastfeed! I wasn’t going to let him get off that easily. This was both our child and I was determined he help equally and I get to rest at some point. “Equally”. What a joke. I was just pumping whenever my breasts felt heavy, and that was often 20 minutes on each breast every hour. Could I be overstimulating my breasts? Was there such a thing? In no time, my freezer contained nothing but milk. This was a good problem, no?
The engorgements came in full force as well. If I did not pump when my breasts felt heavy, I was met with the feeling of my nipples ready to burst, and breasts so painful and hard that coming into contact with the gentle breeze from the air-conditioner would be excruciating. I did everything that the internet and everyone else advised me to do. Icing, warm showers, no wired bras, hand expressing. You name it – I even rubbed them with garlic, tamarind and peppermint! Absolutely nothing helped.
Lily, my angel, my world, my plunger.
One of the many tips I was offered was to get the baby to direct latch. How? I’d tried this many times before to no avail, and I was desperate and in mind-numbing pain. I contorted myself in ways I didn’t know I could move: my newborn would be precariously balanced on a pillow, while one hand supported my Gollum-like hunch, and the other kneaded my nipple into some sort of point that I could get into the baby’s mouth. My knees were busy supporting the pillow that then pushed the baby towards the life source. Unexpectedly, Lily finally turned her head to the boob, opened her mouth wide, and suckled for the first time! It took her long enough…
From then on, she was affectionately known as my glorified plunger. Mind you, though she brought me sweet relief from engorgement, the act of breastfeeding brought me a whole new world of pain. Many women experience cracked nipples, split nipples, and even bleeding nipples – something that Influencer Naomi Neo documented on her Instagram with very honest pictures. They say it’s a matter of baby getting a good latch. For some, everything could be done right, but breastfeeding just isn’t an easy fit.
My abrupt ending.
After only a month of latching and feeding, I couldn’t take it anymore. The constant bouts of mastitis, debilitating fevers, and being in so much pain that I couldn’t carry Lily or care for her, became too much. My mother sat me down and asked what exactly I was doing this for. It wasn’t for the good of my child, because for the last couple of days my parents had to step in to help take care of her, while I wailed from the pain and fever. Lily wouldn’t be going hungry because formula was always an option. I finally made the decision to stop breastfeeding. When you do so, the doctor gives you a pill that blocks the hormone that produces milk. It’s a tiny little pill, that you break in half and take over the course of a day. Your milk will slowly dry up. Mine didn’t.
Three days after the pill, my breasts were still large, lumpy, red, and my skin was puckering. There was also thick white fluid that wasn’t milk secreting from my nipples. My doctor said he’d give me another pill, but that was all he could prescribe because they were very strong and shouldn’t be taken often. If things still didn’t get better and the engorgement didn’t go down, he said there was a good chance it could be breast cancer.
Hang on: we all know if you breastfeed, you can’t get breast cancer, right?! What is this woman talking about? Well, Breast Cancer Awareness Month is right around the corner, and with that, it could be time for all of us to brush up on our knowledge of breast cancer, because quite frankly, it’s shocking how little we women know.