by Nichole Dobo
It’s 3:00 a.m. and I am standing in my kitchen mixing a glass of chocolate milk. I am topless, as is the norm these days.
My two-month-old infant is sound asleep upstairs with my husband. And as I take the first sip of my drink—which is best described as chocolate with a side of milk—I am happy. Until I feel something.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
My boobs are leaking. Again.
Nursing my baby has been one of the most bewildering, exhausting, and amazing experiences of my life. It’s also felt a bit like a high-profile, one-woman stage show with an audience of random strangers inquiring how the breastfeeding is going. And I never know what to say to these people other than telling them I make a lot of milk, enough milk for twins or maybe triplets.
I smile or say thanks. This conversation can feel like an invasion not unlike a cat leaving a dead mouse on the stoop—good intentions by the giver; kind of unpleasant for the receiver. But the real damage comes from the harm I inflict on myself when I seek advice from the Google machine, an activity that serves mostly to convince me that something is utterly, horribly wrong with the way I am feeding my baby.
You see, in order to feed my baby from the geysers that are otherwise known as my breasts, I need several tools.
First, I need to wear a contraption called a “nipple shield.” It’s a small piece of silicon that goes over my areola. I have attempted repeatedly to nurse without it, but my tiny daughter is faced with the nearly impossible task of latching on to slightly defective nipples (they are flat) that are also gushing milk faster than she can comfortably swallow.
Second, I place a half-cup-shaped thingie known by the somewhat silly name “Milkie Milk Saver” over the breast that I am not nursing on. This catches the gush of milk, saving me from having to change my shirt five or 10 times a day. And it serves as a release valve, letting extra milk out so I don’t get a second episode of a debilitating breast infection called mastitis.
Third, a pacifier. Yes, a pacifier is needed for my breastfeeding routine. After my daughter is done eating she still needs to suckle for comfort, and she can’t do that at my breast because my boob will drone on, delivering milk long after her belly is full. She’s always had a strong instinct to suckle. When my baby, my sweet Alexandra, was born the first thing she did was stick her fingers in her mouth. I put this perfect, tiny, delicate creature to my breast. And she sucked so hard she drew blood.
Fourth, a breast pump. Once or twice a day I get unusually full of milk, and it must be removed. I’ve started donating my extra milk to feed another baby. This makes me happy; all this milk is here for a reason.
You might look at my list of tools and say, “Oh that’s a lot of stuff, but I see nothing wrong. At least you can breastfeed.”
I spent the first few weeks of my daughter’s life resisting these tools and feeling bad about myself. Doing things completely naturally—typically a laudable goal—had morphed into an unhealthy fetish.
My desperate, 1:00 a.m. online search for information almost always brought me to webpages that told me nipple shields are bad and pacifiers are worse. Breasts can perfectly regulate, people wrote, and it’s impossible to overfeed a breastfed baby. If a baby wants to suckle she must go to the breast, not a pacifier, these online experts informed me. The best way to feed is free of any devices. Babies can figure it out, they said.
For a while, I followed this breastfeeding purist advice. I let my baby nurse a lot. Actually, that’s just about the only thing we’d do all day and night. She’d choke on the gush of milk without the nipple shield. And without the pacifier she suckled longer, and she’d vomit and spit all that extra milk on me and herself. This made it pretty much impossible for us to venture out into public.
I started to slide down a hole. I wanted to nurse her perfectly and naturally. And I could not. So I deemed myself a failure.
Here is my conclusion: I have a healthy, fat baby. I am not a failure. Yes, I make too much milk, and she likes to suckle a bit too often. That’s how we were delivered into this world, and we need tools to cope. It is our natural.
Nichole Dobo lives in Wilmington, Del. with her daughter and husband. She is a national news reporter at The Hechinger Report, a NYC-based nonprofit news outlet that focuses on innovation and inequality in education. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic.com, USA Today, Mind/Shift, WHYY NewsWorks, Slate and McClatchy newspapers.