It was during a morning walk with a long time friend at the Penang Botanical Gardens when the topic of motherhood came up. I told my friend that one of the major parts of motherhood which I definitely do not miss is breastfeeding. 

Breastfeeding felt like a huge burden to me as a full time working mother. I had breastfed my older child until he was 1½ years old. I stopped only after being advised by my obstetrician to stop breastfeeding having fallen pregnant with my second child. 

My breastfeeding journey with my first child was fraught with various obstacles and difficulties. Being a first time mother, I had no experience – I had to rely on what I had read (extensively) and what I had learnt (briefly) from the breastfeeding talk held by the Klinik Kesihatan Ibu dan Anak. Even so, no amount of reading materials or talks could have prepared me for what I went on to face.

I was lucky to have had help from my family members. But a large part of my time during confinement was spent learning how to breastfeed my baby. And boy, it was tough. 

Within the first week of being discharged from the hospital I developed a cold sore. Within my baby’s first month, I developed mastitis (which to me was even more painful than delivery itself). 

In search of tips and advice (by the way, fenugreek which is supposed to help with milk production makes your pee smell like curry), I scoured countless blogs, websites and Facebook breastfeeding groups for tips and advice. I would marvel at (and was envious of) the Facebook pictures of freezers full of frozen breastmilk, while I struggled to keep up with my baby’s demand. It is this very point that I pointed out to my friend during that morning walk at the Penang Botanical Gardens – breastfeeding does not come easily or naturally to every woman as often portrayed in the media.

I do not dispute that there are so many wonderful benefits to breastfeeding. I do feel however the need for more discussion about the difficulties many women face in their breastfeeding journey, especially those of first time mothers. 

Breastfeeding is not easy, period. It takes a lot of grit, determination and dedication. And no mother should ever be shamed if she chooses not to breastfeed. Often, I come across vicious comments in breastfeeding groups directed at mothers who so much as dare to suggest that formula milk be given to babies when mothers struggle with their breast milk production. 

As I was preparing to go back to work during the second month of my maternity leave, I had to start pumping breast milk. Night after night, I agonised over the volume of milk that I was able to produce, questioning what I had done wrong or failed to do which led to me not producing enough breast milk to freeze up like those in the photographs I had seen online. 

I was stressed into thinking that if I did not express enough, my baby would go hungry in daycare the following day. I refused to give any formula milk as I was made to think that it was some kind of poison, no thanks to the views of overzealous women I had read online. This led me sometimes to express breastmilk until my nipples were raw, cracked and bled. 

Little did I know that those huge stashes of frozen breast milk I had seen online were not normal for everyone but potentially due to over-production of breastmilk through over-expressing. Whilst these pictures may serve to motivate some mothers, they also have the unfortunate effect of demotivating others while painting a very unrealistic picture of what the normal output of breastmilk ought to be. 

Photo is for illustration purposes only.

Around the time when my firstborn hit the six months mark, I finally gave in and fed him formula milk along with breastmilk. It was too tiring to do otherwise as I was sleeping past midnight to pump breast milk, and was waking up early in the morning to pump another time before going to work just to ensure that my baby had enough supply for the next day. I had not even stepped out during lunch hour as I spent that time pumping breast milk. Whenever I had a meeting outside of the office, I had to bring my cooler bag and breast pump along with all the necessary accessories to pump on the go. I had lost count of having to awkwardly explain and request for a separate room to express breastmilk and for space in the chiller to store my breast milk in various venues at which my meetings were held. Expressing breastmilk using breast pump was not a joyous task too – it was tedious and time consuming. 

Besides expressing breastmilk, my baby also latched on my breasts whenever I was home. Sometimes after the baby had finished latching, I simply did not have enough breastmilk to express anymore. 

Hence, it was a vicious and stressful cycle always having to ensure that there was enough breastmilk supply to meet the baby’s demands for the following day. I rarely had extra breastmilk to freeze. Even when I did, I tried not to give my baby frozen expressed breastmilk as it tasted/smelt horrible (no thanks to the enzyme called lipase).

Also, once you start expressing breastmilk, you have to express regularly at the right intervals in order to prevent breast engorgement and blocked ducts (which will lead to mastitis and that is not very fun!). 

And don’t even get me started on trying to breastfeed in public. I had been told to cover up once in a restaurant I was at although my breasts were not visible when breastfeeding. Also older babies will start to wrestle with nursing covers which will then lead to accidental flashes in public.

With my second child, I was able to successfully breastfeed her until she was aged 2½ years old. With her, I was a lot more experienced and adept at breastfeeding. Hence, my breastfeeding journey with her was a breeze in comparison to her brother. Even then, I did not particularly enjoy breastfeeding and felt greatly relieved once I was able to wean her off.

Despite all the difficulties I had faced in my breastfeeding journey, I am a firm believer in the benefits of breastfeeding and I highly encourage all mothers to try to breastfeed as long as they can. Many studies conducted have shown that breast milk benefits babies in so many ways. Probably anecdotal but I was informed by my children’s daycare carers that my children’s immune system appeared to be better than those of other children who were exclusively fed with formula milk as my children fell sick less often. 

No regret breastfeeding my children. However, much more needs to be done to prepare first-time mothers for the reality of breastfeeding so that they do not start their journey with unrealistic expectations of how breastfeeding may be like. While they need a lot of support and advice from other more experienced mothers, I believe that such advice must be offered cautiously. 

Most importantly, let us all remember that “fed is best”.

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