Monday, October 5, 2009

Nipples and Ninny: An African-American Mom's Breastfeeding Journey

It was a no-brainer for me: All the books said I should breastfeed my baby because it was best for her—that she would be stronger, faster, smarter, better for it. And so I rushed out and bought myself a fancy Medella breast pump and stocked up on breast milk storage bags and got all giddy when I started filling out my nursing bras. (Um, yeah—I was the president of the Itty Bitty Titty Committee and so the prospect of having boobies was a huge plus on my “Reasons Why I Should Breastfeed” list.) And I proudly told anyone who would listen that I planned to feed my child the natural way—the way my mother’s generation and all the generations before hers did, too. The way God intended.

Um, yeah. The nurses at the hospital where I gave birth to my beautiful Mari had other intentions. I mean, in theory, breastfeeding made all the sense in the world for me and my baby. But in the real world, a.k.a. a hospital in the middle of Harlem, where the environment made doctors and staff more prone to assume that a young black woman pushing out a baby was single, poor, uneducated, and alone, breastfeeding just didn’t fit into the equation.

And so the nurse put my Mari in my arms and disappeared, leaving me for 12 hours with nothing more than my baby and a “goodie” bag full of coupons for baby lotion and soap, useless pamphlets, and two bottles of baby formula. I was absolutely terrified, overwhelmed, exhausted and clueless; I simply didn’t know how to feed my newborn child. No manner of picture/conversation/book chapter prepared me for The Show—the actual breastfeeding of my baby. Was I supposed to be sitting any particular way? Pop in my boob any kind of way? Squeeze it to help get the milk into her mouth? Where was the milk anyway?!

I mean, I was convinced the baby would starve to death. And that she would die with a piece of my nipple in her mouth (those little gums were killer, especially when I unwittingly pulled my breast out of her mouth).

When a nurse finally made her way back into my room, she seemed surprised to find me breastfeeding. (She was also surprised that I had a husband, insurance, a good job, and that Mari was my first child—more on this ignorance in another post.) Still, she made quick work of showing me how to get the baby to latch on, how to get her to stop sucking, and, most importantly, she gave me a number to La Leche League so that I could ask an expert questions on how to feed my baby the right way.

Getting the breastfeeding right wasn’t easy or natural; for the first two weeks, the skin on my nipple was literally shredded and my breasts were raw—it was like a toothless little man was sucking on an open, achy wound. I’d smooth Lasinoh on my skin between feedings and sit shirtless with ice packs on my nipples, and literally cry out when Mari latched on.

But I didn’t give up.

Through the pain.

Through the doubts.

Through the pumping in the bathroom at work.

Through the ridicule from my more old school friends and family members who wondered loudly and unabashedly when I’d stop letting my baby “suck on my ninny.”

I breastfed my baby for 10 months, and pumped and fed her my milk for two more months after that, even after she stopped taking my breast. I was proud of myself for hanging in there. And proud of my daughter, too, for being patient with me. I know that it would have been just as easy for her to reject my breast. But she didn’t. And for this, I’m grateful.

There are plenty of moms who aren’t as fortunate—who don’t have the benefit of expensive breast pumps and copious amounts of time to recuperate from the painful beginning stages of breastfeeding or halfway understanding bosses who give them time to pump or even a pamphlet’s worth of information telling them how it’s done or extolling its benefits. These are things that some of us breastfeeding moms simply take for granted.

Of course, there are plenty of moms who forgo breastfeeding to formula feed—and this is their right. No judgment here. To each her own.

But I thank goodness that there are plenty of resources available for moms who do want to successfully breastfeed—much
more than was available when I had Mari more than 10 years ago.

And for this, we should all be grateful.

For more information on breastfeeding—from how to do it successfully to how to dress to what breast pumps to buy—check out the March of Dimes website, which is rich with great information on this and many other helpful "bringing home baby" tips.

This blog post was donated by MyBrownBaby to the March of Dimes as part of its March of Dimes Moms initiative.

post signature


  1. I love this post. I also breastfeed my daughter, who is now 5 months old. We're so lucky to be in a day and age where more and more moms are encouraged to breastfeed - and the support from organizations like LLL is available. I was fortunate to have her in a hospital where breastfeeding was a priority - they don't even give babies pacifiers! - and have lacatation consultants for the new moms.

    My only issue now is that there are still people in my family who wonder "when I’ll stop letting my baby suck on my ninny". I am still determined to keep going.

    ~ humps

  2. dope post. i remember having our first daughter in a hospital in Chesapeake, Virginia where we were assumed to be unmarried and uninsured and uneducated. NOT!

    we decided to go the midwife route after that and it was a totally new and wonderful experience. To this day, we still keep in contact with the midwives and encourage other parents to do the same.

  3. You'll be happy to know that Harlem Hospital was recently certified Baby Friendly by Unicef/WHO. For those of you who don't know, it's extremely difficult to be certified as Baby Friendly. It means a hospital unequivocally supports breastfeeding, does not give out formula swag bags, helps mothers initiate breastfeeding within 1 hour of birth and gives no food other than breast milk to babies.

  4. Funny (and not in a good way) that they assumed you were poor but even funnier - if they did in fact think that you were poor, why wouldn't they encourage you to breast feed?! Formula feeding a baby is frackin' expensive!

  5. Excellent post!

    I love that you shared that it wasn't easy in the beginning because I often think that moms get discouraged early on when breastfeeding can be challenging. Women need to know that having difficulty early on is completely normal!

    It was hard for me, too, but so worth it!

    Winks & Smiles,

  6. @humpsandabump: I'm proud of you, my love, for hanging in there, despite the discouragement from the fam. This was even harder to me than the pain and frustrating hospital experience, because you never want to be ridiculed by people you love for feeding your child. Keep it up and remember that you're doing this for that beautiful daughter of yours!

    @BrotherOmi: Thank you for sharing your story. The only good thing about giving birth to my daughter in that particular hospital was my OB-GYN, Hilda Hutcherson, who actually came in to the hospital in the middle of the night on HER VACATION to deliver my baby. She and the nurse who assisted were angels. The rest of the folks in the hospital didn't get the memo, though. And that sucked.

    @Elita: WOW! Go Harlem Hospital—that's WONDERFUL news for the moms delivering there. (for the record, I did NOT have my baby there.)

    @Anonymous: True. True. But hardly anyone ever makes the connection . It's a shame!

    @AskWifey: You're SO right! Every book I was reading said that it wasn't supposed to hurt, and if it did, I wasn't doing it right. And so I assumed that I wasn't doing it right and that the baby was going to starve. Thank goodness for La Leche League explaining that this was NORMAL. And one day, the pain and the open wounds just disappeared. Amazing!

  7. Lovely post Denene! Oh, you take my mind back to the time I had my twin boys...6 weeks too early. I had plans to breastfeed them for as long as I could, I just wasn't as prepared with all the information I needed to make it happen because the babies came sooner than I expected. Even though I was at the ripe age of 25, nothing, I mean nothing, prepared me for the shock of motherhood, let alone breastfeeding. I did not know there will be any pain involved, that when the milk comes in, the breast becomes rock hard, and when they suck on it, the pains are worse than contractions?!?! I thought contractions were the most painful thing in the world; try two hungry boys (at the same time) sucking on your rock hard breasts and your nipples are sore red. That was PAINFUL! But yes, I persevered too, and continued for a few months. A little more information from the hospital would have made that trauma a lot easier to handle and I am grateful that mothers today have more information and resources available.

  8. @Eli: OMG—I totally blocked out the rock hard boobage! And whenever the baby cried (or anybody's baby, for that matter), I'd literally leak like a fountain. Small as I was, I had enough milk to feed a small nation. I remember it being SUCH a relief, though, when my breasts were SUPER full and my babies drank... Yes, all too many hospitals back then were definitely falling down on the job.

  9. Great post. Breastfeeding my first daughter wasn't too bad except she never took a bottle. It was strictly boobie. I guess I wasted money on a pump. My second daughter was a little more painful. I think I started her the way I ended with my oldest so she wasn't latching on correctly. I definitely enjoyed the nursing experience. It's kinda like you forget about the difficulty once it is over and done with sorta like childbirth.

  10. So inspiring! You deserve MOY for preserving, especially with the odds stacked against you. I wish there was more being done to make it possible for more moms to choose breastfeeding (fewer Cesarean rates, longer maternity leaves to get the hang of it, pumping rooms at work, more federal laws protecting breastfeeding).

  11. It just angers me so much when people make assumptions like that. Especially at such an important moment. I was very conscious of the fact that we weren't married when I was in the hospital having my son. I felt like people would make all kinds of assumptions. Luckily, no one made those assumptions about whether or not I was going to breastfeed. Or maybe I just made it clear.

    I did so much reading about breastfeeding before my son was born, I was mentally prepared. I did know what to do. So I'm so glad things have changed because I think I was prepared for most of the challenges. Although I do think the books could talk more or just be more honest about the mental/emotional challenges of breastfeeding. They are so afraid women will opt out, that they sugarcoat it.

  12. I don't even know what to say in response. Let me just ramble a little bit - you'll forgive me, won't you? LOL.

    1. I had no idea breastfeeding would hurt and make my nipples resemble two pieces of chewing gum (already chewed, of course). Ouch!

    2. I had no idea my own grandmother (the wisest woman I know) would chastise me for "still" breastfeeding my 5-month-old baby because she was "getting too chunky."

    3. I had no idea I could produce so much milk. The nurses and lactation consultants dubbed me the "Milk Goddess" and asked if I would be interesting in donating some of my breastmilk because I just had so much that I was engorged all the time. Nurses would come in for a new shift, talking about, "Oh, I heard about you. You're the Milk Goddess....given any thought to donating?" LOL.

    Great, great post! :)

  13. Beautiful story, loved reading it. My baby just weaned himself, so this was an especially tender read.

  14. Excellent post!

    Why do people assume so much? When you assume you make an ASS out of yourself each time...

    Glad to see you stuck it out and didn't let them deter you from your original plans.

  15. I'm so glad you and Mari were successful. I breastfed all four of my brown babies, and I'm still nursing my new one-year-old. She's getting ready to reject me soon because she's becoming less and less interested. :-(

    Let me ask, did anyone have to deal with the one inactive breast that wouldn't produce as much milk as the other? That's was a new one on me this time around. What an experience to be out running errands longer than planned without my baby or Medela, allowing The One to get engorged. Looks real interesting.

  16. I didn't know whether or not breastfeeding was for me. But I said to myself I was going to try. My baby was born with Jaundice so in addition to nursing I had to formula feed. I stuck to this because my husband was able to feed him while I get some sleep at night. I wasn't able to get the expensive breast pump but I made it work the best way I could with my manual one.

    I was only able to nurse until he was 5 months because I went back to work and my supply decreased, using a manual pump is just not conducive to working moms, and he caught a cold so he would nurse because he couldn't breath so I tried up. At that point I realized how much I missed it and loved.

    It was unfortunate for me to dry up so early, but I also have been fortunate to not experience the pain that others experience during nursing.

    To all I say give it a try. You never know.

    It's me DateNight from the chatterbox show your stalker, I mean blog reader (lol).

  17. I don't have much to add to all of the on point comments except to say that this is a great post! I am nursing my daughter who is almost 6 months and I completely relate to having to push through the pain and difficulty. This is a great blog and I am glad to find it!

  18. Great post and very inspirational to me as I sit her contemplating giving up! My daughter is three weeks old and it is really tough, but she is gaining weight beautifully and now I know there is light at the end of the tunnel! Thank you! Alicia

  19. Thank you for the post, you have been doing a great job just keep it.

  20. I enjoyed this immensly, I breastfed my little one and no amount of negative talk was going to make me do otherwise. I went to LLL meeting before I even had her and seeing women do it in front of me was so encouraging and the support I received from other moms who were BF was a God send. I would do it again in a heartbeat. I kept some of the milk that was left over that she did not drink, I feel there was a bond created that I could not have gotten it any other way.

  21. So glad to hear you hung in there despite little encouragement from the hospital staff. It was extremely hard in the beginning even with people encouraging me but we got the hang of it by the time we left the maternity floor. I don't know if breastfeeding is any better or just as good as formula for my daughter that has yet to be proven. But like the other mothers mentioned it created an immediate bond.

  22. I am so happy you had a successful breastfeeding experience. yes it is hard but so worth it! I am so proud of you! Peace sis....

  23. i'm a little late reading..but awesome blog. i just came across it while browsing on line. i too decided to breastfeed my son (who will soon turn a year old!). Well maybe i should say that HE wanted to breastfeed---i hadn't thought about it alot prior to his birth. But after he was removed from me via C-section...after about 5 mins in the operating recovery room, I laid on the table full of anesthesia and numb from neck to toe--but even through all that i felt this little head bobbing on my chest. I asked the nurse was he hungry and she said yes. I used the little energy i had to just move my hospital gown over just enough to expose my breast. OMG! my son immediately latched on and fed from both breast--i was really hungry! It was awesome...he actually taught me something before i even had a chance to teach him anything. We have a bond like no other. Thanks for posting!

  24. i'm so glad i found this post. we were talking about breastfeeding and black women on twitter just the other day. i'm a father of two and my latina (ex)wife breastfed our babies. I'd never seen anyone do it because no one in my family had ever breastfed. my wife quickly educated me on how healthy breast milk is, the colestrum that comes in before the milk contains all the mothers antibodies and is rich with essentials that formula doesn't provide. i loved watching her breastfeed my daughters...what an incredible bonding experience. but i can also attest to the pain...the uterus contracts when baby starts wife would have to grab me and grit her teeth. it got so bad she had to take motrin for relief. we were told the contractions are worse with every successive child because the uterus has to contract to shrink to its normal size. bummer.

    great post! i remember your work from the daily news. you've done quite well for yourself! :) congrats on the marriage and motherhood; you wear it well.



Speak Your Mind Here

Related Posts Widget for Blogs by LinkWithin

wibiya widget