“I need help,” I blurted out.
“I don’t know what I am doing wrong but I can’t carry on for much longer….” I indicated towards my breasts. I must have looked quite a sight, hair un-brushed, ill-fitting clothes over my so-recently pregnant body, bags the size of suitcases under my exhausted eyes. I clutched my newborn baby close, her shock of dark hair peeking out from under a winter warm hat. My husband hovered behind, wanting to be as supportive as possible but wary of intruding into a woman’s world.
The dark-haired, gentle eyed woman standing in front of me in the kitchen of the gloomy hall smiled.
She was already getting ready to leave, putting on her coat and finishing her coffee. I was late but luckily not too late. She steered me over to a sofa and we sat down together. Pulling up my top, ready to put my daughter’s tiny mouth to my breast, I winced in anticipation of the pain that I knew was about to come. A gentle hand to my shoulder stopped me and indicated I should wait. “Back further, sit up straighter, don’t rush it,” she murmured. There was no forcefulness, no judgment, no bossiness. I took a deep breath and paused.
Struggling in the early days.
It all started when I thought I would find breastfeeding easier the second time around. My first baby was already a toddler by this stage and memories of feeding her had faded into a haze of sleeplessness and cuddles and pain and fear and love that is the jumble of early motherhood. I knew it had been hard and remembered the visits of midwives and the nipple shield that had protected my breast from the worst of her vice-like suckling. But we had got there in the end and I assumed that this time I would find it all a lot easier.
Back at home though, after the birth, the pain came.
Unfortunately, the help didn’t – it was my second child, I was doing fine, the home visits were few and far between and tailed off quickly…I had to work this out alone.
I slouched on the sofa in our stuffy living room and curled my toes, counting down the seconds, the minutes, every time her little hungry mouth clamped on to my nipple. Sharp breath, tense, waiting for the feeling of needles being repeatedly stabbed into my skin to fade. Sitting there, I kept thinking about bottles and formula. But I fed my elder daughter for 4 months, I couldn’t do less for this one.
We struggled on.
I tried everything. Different positions, taking her off the breast, putting her on again. Attempting to get her to open her mouth wider. Different creams. A glass of wine. I got mastitis. The midwife came, a day or two before Christmas. “You need to get to the doctor as soon as possible before they close for the holidays,” she told me, looking at my red, swollen breast. I thought about asking for more help, not just for the mastitis, but I didn’t. She seemed in a rush to leave, probably had more calls to make before the end of her working day. We were alone again.
My nipples were bleeding now.
Out came the nipple shield again. I was trying to pump between feeds. It took 45 minutes, an hour to get enough out for one short feed, my toddler pulling at my leg for attention. I felt like everything was starting to tumble around me. I wanted to carry on but every hour, every feed was a struggle.
I knew I had to get help or I was going to give up.
So one chilly winter’s day my husband and I drove to the other side of town to try and get that support, so desperately needed. And this is where we found Elizabeth – a woman who had a reputation for helping women like me. I didn’t know what to expect but at this point, I would take anyone. I knew I was at the end of the line. If this didn’t work, I was done.
Turning a corner.
Elizabeth didn’t sit with me for long, probably no more than half an hour. As we had been late arriving she no doubt had other appointments to get to. But she stayed until she could be satisfied that I understood what she was telling me. “No, take her off the breast, start again,” she cautioned, seeing the pain in my gritted teeth. I slipped my little finger into my daughter’s mouth as instructed, breaking the suction that clamped her to my flesh.
“Now don’t lean forward, wait for her mouth to open….” Elizabeth encouraged.
It turned out all along that it was something very simple: my nipple wasn’t going far enough back into my baby’s mouth. Where the front pallet is rough, the back is smooth and this is where it should land. By showing me this one simple move, including how to hold my own body to help get it right, she turned things around for me completely. The pain didn’t go away immediately, my nipples weren’t healed instantly. But finally, I felt I had turned a corner.
All it took was one session and a bit of practice and I was able to carry on nursing until I was ready to stop.
Elizabeth, I am sure, had helped many other women and would go on to assist many more but I can never forget how she helped me.
A chance to say thank you
Years later I met Elizabeth again. By this time I had trained as an antenatal teacher and we were both at the same class – learning about why babies cry. I was a different person: gone was the unkempt hair and clothes, my body was back to its normal average self, my skin no longer held the shadows of countless sleepless night. It was no surprise that she didn’t recognize me. More of a surprise was that I didn’t recognize her – in the intervening years, her stature had grown in my mind. Before me was a very unprepossessing woman, quite normal-looking. We sat in a circle for the class.
In the break, I went over to introduce myself.
“You won’t remember me but you did something amazing a few years ago,” I told her. “If it wasn’t for you, I would have given up breastfeeding my daughter.” She smiled. “I’m glad,” she said, simply.
I know she didn’t remember me even when I filled her in on our meeting but it didn’t matter.
Early motherhood is hard, one of the hardest and most vulnerable times of our lives.
And breastfeeding is one of the most challenging things about that difficult time. Often alone and isolated, we struggle on. Sometimes we are lucky and find the right support, sometimes we are not. It happened for me that I was one of the lucky ones. When I most needed it, I found the right person at the right time to help me. It seems incredible that something so simple as one session with one expert can make so much difference but I doubt I would have been able to carry on without the support of Elizabeth that day.
If this is you, I hope you find your Elizabeth.