Anna Byrne: The Very Breast of Me

Anna Byrne: The Very Breast of Me

By Alexandra Whiting   |  

From nicknaming her breastfeeding pillow to midnight feeds with Maggie Beer, Anna Byrne shares her breastfeeding journey.

From nicknaming her breastfeeding pillow to midnight feeds with Maggie Beer, Anna Byrne recounts what she learnt during her breastfeeding journey.

Whoever coined the old adage that, “there’s no use crying over spilt milk,” clearly never sat half-dressed in the half-light with rivulets of breast milk running Nile-like down their bosoms.

“I’m just so sick of feeling damp,” I wailed at my husband Nick as I sat there bleeding, drenched in oceans of sticky breast milk and having just sneezed (IYKYN).

Just as no two birth stories are the same, neither are two breastfeeding stories.

So to celebrate World Breastfeeding Week, these are the things I learnt during my own shirt-lifting, bra-soaking months with my daughter, Bessie— none of which were covered in any manual I read.

NIP IT IN THE BUD

Over the years I have felt twinges of insecurities over certain body parts, from my upper thighs to my upper arms, but the revelation I had “short nipples”, was not something I was expecting on my first day in the hospital’s lactation room. Thankfully, the midwife knew just the trick to help with this apparent shortcoming of my anatomy and introduced me to a nipple shield.

As a result, Bessie found it so much easier to latch, and I went home with confidence knowing that I knew I could feed my daughter. An added bonus is that the milk that pools inside the shield is the best natural healer for cracked nipples. And for anyone that has ever persisted with a feed through tearful eyes and clenched teeth, the nipple shield can make it a lot more comfortable. While they are generally not recommended for on-going use (as they can slow your milk supply) my maternal health care nurse and midwife agreed Bessie was thriving with it and I successfully fed with a shield for over three months and never second-guessed myself.

LUCK BE A BABY

Because Bessie was jaundice (a liver condition that causes yellowing of a newborn baby's skin), she spent her third and fourth days after birth in a humidicrib under lights and was only allowed out of it for feeding. Without a lot of skin-to-skin contact, I was encouraged to pump while watching her, to help my milk come in. A procession of midwives would take her out of the crib every three hours and stay in the room while I fed, showing me how best to hold her, passing on tips like taking her legs out of her growsuit and changing her nappy between sides to stop her falling asleep mid-feed, and closely inspecting her latch (as feeding also helps to improve jaundice). Their kind determination in bringing Bessie and breast together in perfect harmony was a masterclass in mother’s milk.

This not only grew my confidence in feeding, but the pumping probably worked harder for the milk than Bessie could at that stage of her life, bringing the milk in quicker while also establishing a solid feeding routine. As a result, Bessie continued to feed every three hours during the day and four to five hours overnight. While the jaundice was a small bump in the road, having the expert guidance was an absolute blessing and I explicitly acknowledge the role luck played in this, because just five weeks later my sister gave birth to twins. She tandem breastfed, tandem pumped, tandem bottle fed with EBM (expressed breast milk) and topped them up with formula to keep their tummies full. I was (and still am) in awe of her. 

MOTHER KNOWS BREAST

Another reason I was incredibly lucky is that my mum was a former mothercraft nurse, (a specialist nurse in Postnatal and Early Parenting care for newborns). She recommended that a few weeks before my due date I start to toughen up and draw out my nipples by rolling them in the shower (rubbing your nipple between your thumb and index finger) or by rubbing a bath towel over the nipple. Yes, it hurts. But so does breastfeeding. It also helped in painstakingly squeezing out tiny droplets of colostrum (the pre-milk fluid produced by mammary glands) into a miniscule syringe

Once Bessie was born, my mum also recommended introducing a dummy to increase Bessie’s sucking time and improve her tongue strength. Which it did.

MATTER OF TIME

There is a moment in the early days of parenthood where you feel like you are standing in a hotel lobby looking at a wall of clocks, all set to different time zones — and all of them apply to you. There’s feeding times, sleeping times (theirs and yours), mid feed times (has she had 20 minutes on this side yet?) and visitor times. Few things are more frustrating than starting a feed only to realise your phone is out of reach and you can’t check the time.

Go and buy a large clock and stick it on a wall where you can always see it when you feed.

IT’S A PAIN IN THE NECK

I tried so many feeding pillow options, rolled towels, chairs, holding positions and in the end, I settled for an old boomerang pillow from my parents’ linen closet, still in it’s frilly red slip circa 1996. This pillow became such a strong presence in our house, we nicknamed it ‘Big Red’. It clashed with everything on our couch and was always in the way when it wasn’t in use. When it comes to breastfeeding, chiropractors might just be the real winners.

EXPRESS YOURSELF!

Comfort over decorum was my motto to dress by, with maternity tanks a must for bed (no-one wants a cold belly up feeding at 4am), while hours were spent stalking retailers for feeding-friendly attire (seriously, is there an international shortage of buttons?) I will admit that despite adjusting to a new body and a new lifestyle, sometimes the hardest part was adjusting to a new wardrobe —feeling like you were being forced into fashions that were not your style, just to conveniently feed or pump. If you see anything during your pregnancy that might work, start stocking up.

Of all the things I wore however, there was no better investment than my Bamboo Basix reusable breast pads.

Motherhood is messy and rarely stays within the lines — neither does breast milk. Because my milk supply never really settled (my nipple regularly resembling a shower head spraying milk into my bra) a week of disposable breast pads left me feeling like I was wearing sanitary pads on my boobs. Bamboo Basix felt like clouds by comparison. I used them every day and night for nine months straight, washing them multiple times a week and they are still good as new.

GET IT OFF YOUR CHEST

I indulged in the most luxurious body wash that I would never normally buy myself, and when Nick finished work every day, I would shower. Not only did it encourage me to lather up and massage my mammaries to avoid mastitis (blocked milk ducts), but that shower acted like a twenty-minute, me-time marker that signalled the end of the day shift, and the start of the night shift. I would then put on some clean, cosy pjs (and a fresh set of breast pads), tuck into some Pad Thai and settle in for the night. I’m getting nostalgic just writing about it!

LETDOWN BY THE LETDOWN

At nine months, my milk supply started to slow at the end of the day and Bessie suddenly stopped working for the letdown, getting increasingly distracted and restless during feeds, with zero desire to self-serve at the boob buffet. Having always been of the opinion that fed is best, and that when, despite my best efforts, things in life really aren’t working out (relationships, jobs, winged eyeliner) I should stop forcing them. And so, I closed the milk bar, snapped the clip of my maternity bra back in place for the final time, zapped a bottle of formula in the microwave and Bessie happily guzzled the whole darn thing. 

It was a great lesson in trusting myself and tuning out the rest. I mean, there was some serious separation anxiety (from us both) but that’s a story for another day. I was grateful for the experience, convenience and practicality of being able to breastfeed for as long as I did and cherished (almost) every moment.

BOOBY TRAPPED

In motherhood as in life, you can’t always control the situation, and going into our first lockdown of the global pandemic when Bessie was just three weeks old, established a bond I’m not sure I ever anticipated. In all honesty, I do believe that not rushing a feed to get out the front door or timing feeds around visitors, meant our routine was like clockwork. Despite my initial grief of our days looking nothing like the picture I had in my mind before she was born, my mum reminded me often how good it was for Bessie, and that she was not missing out, but instead getting everything she needed (me), in abundance. But a mother does need a support network to help her, and for that I will always feel incredibly grateful for my husband’s bottomless pit of kindness as he rode every bleary eyed, hormonal and Covid-19 wave with me.

But if it takes a village to raise a child, in my experience it also took one to breastfeed and I will forever hold a place in my heart for David Brent, Connell and Marianne and Maggie Beer. Because while most breastfeeding books recommend doing dream and night feeds in a dark room, unstimulated by light and sound, I happily indulged in 4am viewings of The Office, Normal People and my favourite guilty pleasure, SBS Food’s The Cook & the Chef. And honestly, with how big and scary the world seemed at that time, there was nothing more comforting than holding my entire world in my arms, while watching Maggie scramble eggs.

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