My daughter was born on her exact due date, just 5 lbs, 2 oz. in the bustling town of Gangnam in South Korea. She came into the world small, perfectly healthy, and with no appetite. It was as if both of us were exhausted and just wanted to sleep after our 13 hour unmedicated labor in the warmth of a birthing tub, surrounded by my husband, mother, mother in law, midwives and my doula. When I first tried to nurse her a few minutes after she came into the world, I brought her to my breast and was shocked to realize that even after reading multiple breastfeeding books and watching informative YouTube videos, I had no idea what I was doing. Her tiny mouth had trouble latching to my nipple and each time she did latch on, she would nurse for a minute, then fall fast asleep. The kind nurses told me she was a “sleepy eater” and showed me how to gently tickle her under her feet to wake her up each time she fell asleep during feedings. I worried she wasn’t eating enough, then was reminded by my midwife that her stomach was the size of a cherry right now and that the small amount of colostrum I was producing was just what she needed. Later that evening, I was visited by a lactation consultant, a Korean woman who spoke no English but somehow made me laugh and feel comforted despite my newfound insecurity about my ability to breastfeed my baby. With the help of an English-speaking nurse and a lot of miming, my lactation consultant taught me the secrets to getting the perfect latch for my tiny girl’s mouth and the most comfortable breastfeeding positions (side-lying position was a hit!). The first time I successfully latched and nursed my baby without the help of anyone else, I cried. I watched my sleepy girl nurse quietly and sniffed her sweet tiny head. There is no better feeling or sense of closeness – and that was when I knew that I would do everything I could to breastfeed my daughter for as long as possible.
I was fortunate that those first weeks breastfeeding came quite easily. I didn’t experience nipple pain or uterine cramps or any of the other postpartum breastfeeding things I expected to. Once we’d figured out the right latch and position, I found myself nursing without having to replay each step I learned from the lactation consultant that first day. I was relieved. As part of Korean postpartum care, at my birthing center I was fed 미역국 (miyeokguk soup), a seaweed soup that is full of fiber, iron, calcium, and iodine and which provides extra hydration to help increase milk production. I also received regular breast massages and the temperature in my birthing suite was kept very warm (another one of many Korean traditions which believes that warmth is necessary to promote the healing process after birth). Back at home, I kept a large jug of water by my side and drank it continuously, and enjoyed oatmeal-peanut butter lactation cookies my cousin had made me weeks before and kept frozen. Since my body was burning between 200 to 500 extra calories each day while breastfeeding, I was always hungry. I kept high calorie, healthy snacks by my side (nuts, fruits, granola, cheese and crackers, rice and seaweed balls), and ate and drank while I nursed.
After a couple of weeks home I started feeling more like a “mother” and less like someone who was pretending to be one. I was used to waking up at night completely soaked from breast milk as my breasts tried to regulate just how much milk they needed to produce for my little one as she began to sleep longer stretches throughout the night (sleeping with a towel under me and over my breasts really helped). It was now second nature for both of us – for me to pick my baby up, bring her to my breast and have her find her way to my nipple, even when both of our eyes were still closed from long nights of cluster feeding exhaustion. I began pumping so that my husband could feed her a bottle at night and enjoy some bonding time, and with the goal of having a supply of frozen milk for her bottles once I went back to work.
A few months into my breastfeeding journey I experienced my first clogged duct after accidentally falling asleep on my stomach on the couch. Instantly I doubted whether I would make my goal of two years of breastfeeding. The clogged duct was extremely painful, and it soon developed into mastitis, which felt like having a bad flu. I rested and tried everything to remove the clog and once I did, it still seemed to come back every few weeks. I started to feel anxious at the thought of another clog coming on and most times could feel the twinge of one starting to form. It really tested me and my ability to nurse my daughter, but with the support of friends and my online breastfeeding community, I felt comforted knowing that not only was I not alone in these thoughts and struggles, but there were also many natural ways for me to combat clogs and keep them away for good (shout out to daily lecithin pills!).
Despite the challenges, I preferred breastfeeding to bottle-feeding. The ease of being able to nurse my baby whenever she needed and wherever we were was wonderful. I ended up breastfeeding my baby for 17 beautiful months. During that time I nursed her in 5 different countries and time zones. Nursing her during take off and landing on our 13 hour flight from South Korea to Los Angeles, allowed her to feel comfortable and avoid ear pain from the altitude changes. In Singapore, I nursed her on the subway on our way to meet friends for lunch, helping her stay hydrated while she acclimated to the tropical weather we weren’t accustomed to coming from the snowy chill of Korea. In the Philippines I nursed her on a speed boat on our way to snorkel with turtles, which soothed her from the loud sound of the motor and distracted her from the life jacket she hated wearing. When we packed up our home, 2 dogs and 2 cats and moved to Japan, I nursed her throughout the whole transition, which comforted her when the world around her was unfamiliar and new. During flu season I knew my breast milk was supporting her immune system with protective antibodies and probiotics. It amazed me to think that whenever I came in contact with germs, my body developed antibodies to help me fight off an infection, and then those antibodies were passed on to my baby to protect her as well. When she began eating solids when she showed signs of readiness around 6 months old, I continued to breastfeed knowing that my milk would provide her with many of the necessary nutrients she needed as she started eating a variety of new foods.
When our breastfeeding journey came to an end when she was 17 months old, I felt we were both ready. However, I didn’t expect how emotional the experience of weaning would be. I cried often and immediately missed our closeness and knowing I could comfort her in an instant with that magic milk. The emotions I felt were completely normal and likely due to hormonal changes that occur during and after weaning which are connected to the drop in prolactin (required for milk production and brings calmness and relaxation) and oxytocin (known as the “love hormone” and required for milk ejection). It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that after 17 months of feeling calm, relaxed and flooded with love while breastfeeding, I would feel immense sadness once it was all over.
When I look at my two and a half year old daughter now I am amazed that I was able to nurture her and give her everything her body needed to thrive for those 17 months. I am amazed at my body, which after 9 months of growing a life, was able to produce life sustaining nourishment 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for over a year. I have experienced a lot of changes mentally and physically since starting my breastfeeding journey (all those jokes about post breastfeeding boobs are real ya’ll!). I wouldn’t change anything about my breastfeeding journey and if I am fortunate enough to breastfeed again, I look forward to the experience and learning more the second time around.
My advice to breastfeeding parents is to be patient and kind to yourself during your breastfeeding journey. Reach out for help from breastfeeding communities early and often, because the journey can be frustrating when we don’t feel supported or encouraged. As a mixed race woman of color, I saw how supportive my Indian family was of breastfeeding, and also conversely saw how the history of trauma, bias, and continued discrimination affected Black women in my family’s views and practice of breastfeeding. As a doula I hope to provide support to Black breastfeeding people and others who feel self-doubt. In my doula practice I’ll share cultural techniques and advice I’ve learned from my personal experiences and from others around the world. I am grateful to have breastfed in a country like South Korea that was supportive of nursing parents. Where quiet, comfortable, breastfeeding rooms with nursing pillows and comfy chairs could be found everywhere from airports to shopping malls and in bbq restaurants. I encourage others to advocate for this kind of social support. Advocate for yourself and other breastfeeding people. Normalize it. Support one another. Remember that breastfeeding is natural and beautiful, and just as our ancestors before us, we are capable of having beautiful breastfeeding journeys with the support of our community and each other.
Shanti Bond-Martinez is a MPH, wife, mother, animal lover, expat, mental health advocate, and Mama Glow Doula Trainee. She currently lives in Japan with her husband, daughter and 4 fur children, and is excited to support birthing people around the globe.
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