Breastfeeding is best for babies and mothers. It is how nature intended infants to be nourished. It is natural, and it used to be instinctive among communities where women breastfed in public without shame. However, with the advent of overt sexualization of breasts in media, breastfeeding became something that many women began to do discreetly. Women started to experience difficulty breastfeeding because they no longer saw it being done by fellow women. Breastfeeding shouldn’t have to be complicated, but it has sadly become so for many women because of society’s sexual objectification of the female body. Many mothers give up on breastfeeding because of lack of awareness and guidance. Many babies suffer because mothers are inadequately supported when learning to breastfeed. My own son was one such baby, and although we are breastfeeding well now, I look back on our rocky start with sadness and guilt.
I gave birth to my son in St. Luke’s Global, which is touted as one of the best (and most expensive) hospitals in the country. St. Luke’s strictly enforces the Milk Code. They do not allow bottle or formula feeding in the hospital, they follow Unang Yakap protocol (skin-to-skin contact of mom and baby right after birth), and they always room in baby with mom if the baby comes out healthy. On the surface, they appear to be highly supportive of breastfeeding. But they failed me and my son. They were not able to provide adequate breastfeeding guidance in the critical first days.
From day one, I followed the nurses’ instructions to breastfeed on demand. They would come in throughout the day to check on my baby’s latch, and they always said that he had a good latch. Despite that, my nipples were getting extremely sore (something that shouldn’t happen if the latch is correct). By the third day, the pain was so bad that I tried using a nipple shield. Before leaving St. Luke’s, my husband and I asked several hospital staff if it were okay to use a nipple shield. We asked two nurses, the lactation specialist who gave us a mini lecture on breastfeeding, and the pediatrician present at Wolf’s birth. They all said without hesitation that I can use it while breastfeeding.
We spent the first week in distress and pain as my nipples became cracked and bled even with constant use of the shield. Eventually, they healed, but by that time, Wolf had gotten used to the shield and did not know how to nurse without it. At his ninth day check-up in St. Luke’s, I asked the pediatrician if I could still continue nursing with the shield, because Wolf wouldn’t latch without it. She said it was not a problem. At that check-up, Wolf’s weight gain was satisfactory.
We switched pediatricians after that, transferring to a relative of Casey who held clinic in Asian Hospital. Continuing to track Wolf’s weight, she noted that he was slow to gain.
When Wolf was 1.5 months, I fell ill with a horrible dry cough that kept me awake all night for two weeks. I noticed at this time that Wolf became very fussy and would often suckle very lightly. I seldom heard him swallowing milk. I felt something was horribly amiss. At his two-month check-up, my fears were confirmed. His weight plummeted from 4.1 kg to 3.8 kg, placing him in the severely underweight bracket of the WHO weight chart. I suspected use of the shield coupled with my falling ill resulted in his weight loss. I tried weaning him from it but failed.
I sought help from my dad, an ENT surgeon at Philippine General Hospital. He referred me to a breastfeeding advocate pediatrician, Dr. Au Libadia, with whom I consulted over the phone. She recommended that I schedule a home visit with Ms. Lita Neri, a well-known lactation specialist. The first thing Ms. Lita said when she saw Wolf nursing was to take off the shield. She said that the shield interfered with milk flow and caused a shallow latch, resulting in Wolf’s slow weight gain. The shield was supposed to help with breastfeeding, but all it did, actually, was add more problems! She showed me how to wean him from the shield. The very next day, Wolf was successfully nursing without it. From then on, he began to gain weight more quickly. And on his fourth month, he was no longer underweight for his age.
It was such a relief to overcome all the initial obstacles I encountered, but while I was relieved, I was also frustrated at the lack of guidance I received from the medical practitioners I depended on when I was learning how to breastfeed. To think that I had access to care from one of the top hospitals! I shudder to think of how much worse the miseducation is in smaller health centers.
Going back to the beginning of this post, the root cause of many breastfeeding problems is that breastfeeding is, for the most part, hidden from plain sight. Women don’t know what a good latch is because they’ve never seen an infant latch. I would love to nurse Wolf in public without a cover, but I don’t know yet how I will react if others tell me to cover up. I don’t want to cause a scene, but at the same time, I know that nursing without a cover will definitely help normalize breastfeeding again. I hope one day I’ll be brave enough to do it. Though if we go to the beach, I’d do it without batting an eyelash, because I can always retort that there are many around me more scantily clad. Haha!
So consider this post as fair warning. If in the future, you run into me breastfeeding without a cover, you better not tell me off, because you’d be wasting your time. I do not want other new moms to have to experience the extreme anxiety and guilt that I experienced. I do not want other babies to go through the distress Wolf had to endure. If I muster up the courage to breastfeed without a nursing cover, I will be doing so not to be indecent, but to help new moms and babies breastfeed well. There is nothing sexual about that! Look away if you’re uncomfortable, but please don’t tell me to cover up. Let’s help normalize breastfeeding! ❤️