During a visit to the Louvre Museum in my pre-child life, I distinctly remember being drawn to Andrea Solari’s painting, “Madonna with the Green Cushion.” A classic work of the Italian Renaissance era, it depicted a tender image: The Virgin Mary nursing baby Jesus. It rejoiced in the primitive nature of breastfeeding, and it was maternal in every sense of the word—a feeling that I, too, hoped to experience one day.
When my partner and I became pregnant a few years after that trip to Paris, Solari’s painting came to mind. Much like the Renaissance paintings at the Louvre, I naïvely thought that breastfeeding was a biological part of becoming a mother and would happen naturally, so I didn’t invest much time thinking about it during my pregnancy. I assumed it would be a relatively linear path: my little one would emerge from the womb, latch instinctively to my breasts and the rest would be smooth sailing. Although we were overjoyed when our daughter was born, our feeding journey had more bumps in the road than we’d ever anticipated.
In the hospital, I had a rough couple of days as my body grappled with the rollercoaster of postpartum hormones. Within minutes of my daughter’s birth, she was brought to my chest for skin-to-skin contact followed by the first attempts at breastfeeding. In the hours that followed, I experienced issues with low milk supply and was told that my daughter had a weak latch, which ultimately led to us supplementing with formula after two days of trying. I remember how relieved I felt that she was getting enough nourishment and that I live in a time where formula is available for that very reason.
Almost like a broken record, the nurses kept repeating: “Keep trying. Don’t give up.” I persevered—determined that my fierce little warrior and I would fall into a rhythm. We practiced over and over and over again. If something didn’t work, we’d switch gears and keep trying. Over the next few weeks, my milk came in—in abundance. I remember being ecstatic, thinking that this would be the solution to our problems. But, unfortunately, we still had our challenges.
Since giving birth, I’d met with over a dozen lactation consultants and I learned about different breastfeeding positions and techniques that could help my daughter latch better so my breasts would transfer more milk. I took copious notes, watched countless YouTube videos and went down an Instagram rabbit hole, convinced that we would, one day, be like the mums and babes who could breastfeed so effortlessly. I remember being shocked when they said I needed to pump 10 to 12 times per day to keep my milk supply up and increase our odds for success. Each time we met with a lactation consultant, our feeding protocol would change based on our daughter’s weight and other factors. Generally speaking, it went like this: I would start by feeding my daughter on-demand at each breast. When my daughter stopped feeding, I would pump and then my partner and I would top her up with a bottle filled with the pumped milk.
“At times, it was painful and frustrating, and I felt like I couldn’t continue at this pace.”
Everything was a blur in these early few weeks because my reality was trying to breastfeed every two hours, pumping, then bottle feeding—a shared responsibility with my partner. When my husband and I weren’t feeding our daughter, we were washing all the pumping parts just to do it all over again. At times, it was painful and frustrating, and I felt like I just couldn’t continue at this pace. I remember sobbing uncontrollably in the shower in those early weeks and fighting to keep my shell-of-a-human self together.
Being a first-time mother is a whirlwind of emotions—something that no friend, no book nor any amount of research can truly prepare you for. Add the feeding aspect on top of everything else, and the early months of motherhood are a sleep-deprived haze of high highs and low lows. And, anyone who has ever breastfed a baby knows what a taxing and emotionally-charged experience it can be. Being a 24/7 all-you-can-eat buffet for a tiny human can really take a toll.
Experts in the field typically say the first four to six weeks of breastfeeding are the most challenging because the learning curve is steep for both mum and babe. That’s definitely been the case for me and my daughter, and it was something I wasn’t fully aware of until giving birth. Our feeding journey has required a lot of time and patience, and it’s been mentally, physically and emotionally challenging on top of everything else.
As days went on, slowly but surely, my breastfeeding journey improved. About a month in, my daughter began to get the hang of it and started to gain weight. After speaking with experts in the field, experienced mothers and doing some of my own research, I learned that it’s rare that babies latch perfectly. It takes a bit of time to adapt to each other, like it did for us. Breastfeeding comes easily for some, but it also may not happen until days or weeks later. This is completely normal. I’m grateful for the expertise we received along the way from our doctors, nurses and lactation consultants.
Today, our feeding routine continues to be a mix of breastfeeding, pumping and bottle feeding with breast milk. I’ve come to appreciate the bond of breastfeeding my daughter—those precious moments where I look down at her and feel an indescribable rush of emotions. It’s hard to believe that I’ve birthed this tiny human, and I’m providing nourishment to her every single day. At the same time, I value the independence that comes with bottle feeding and sharing feeding responsibilities with my partner. At the end of the day, this is what works for us and we’re ready to adapt as needed.
What I’ve taken away from my experience as a new mama is that fed is best. Society doesn’t emphasize this enough. It’s okay to give breastfeeding a try and then decide it’s not for you and/or your baby for whatever reason. It’s okay to exclusively formula feed. It’s okay to pump and bottle feed. It’s okay to do a combination of methods. Whatever the situation, I’m proud of every mama who chooses to do whatever works best for herself and her baby.
I can’t help but imagine what a contemporary depiction of those mother and child paintings from the past would look like. We might see mothers nursing their little ones. We might see mothers bottle feeding their babies. Or, we might see a mother pumping while her partner bottle feeds. Either way, we would still see a tender image of a baby being fed, loved and cared for—and that’s the most important thing of all.
Joanna Marie Nicholson is a proud mama, a passionate movement instructor, and a writer. She resides in Toronto, Canada.