Breastfeeding was difficult for me at first, each feeding a challenge, sometimes painful, sometimes a lengthy and drawn-out ordeal. We made progress in fits and spurts, tackling problems along the way, often with duct-tape solutions or trying things that had failed before. After we had wired up a complicated hack for a problem, and then gotten used to it, it was hard to imagine any other way to do it, like when you're sick and can't remember what it's like to feel well. Then, the problem would suddenly, randomly disappear. (Or some unintended consequence would appear that then needed its own solution. Next post.)
An example of a "magically disappearing breastfeeding problem" was our stop-gap solution to nipple damage from sub-optimal latch: the widely dreaded or widely admired "nipple shield." This is a very thin silicone cover that separates you from the baby and encourages the wide-open mouth necessary for a good latch. Many people warn against their use because there is some evidence that it can reduce milk supply, but they are lifesavers for people facing serious breastfeeding hurdles like me.
After about 3 days of nursing a newborn, I had a lot of soreness, so we tried the nipple shield, which seemed to help with the pain and create a better latch. The shield had to be washed and dried between uses, made pliable by a hot-water bath before use, positioned and applied carefully and correctly, and not knocked away or manually removed by a clawing baby or one of the many hands attempting to wrangle him onto my breast. But it worked, and my nipples got less sore, so we went through this crazy dance at each feeding, make OK by the fact that it was better than pumping and syringe feeding, the next best option.
Eventually it became a kind of mental crutch--I could not envision being brave enough to nurse skin to skin. The "crutch" then attained a mental permanency and I resigned myself to the ritual. And then, trying to start a feeding one day, with the baby clawing at my breast and writhing wildly in my arms, the shield was propelled to the floor. Out of what could almost be described as anger, or at the very least, extreme frustration, I ditched our crutch and stuck him on my breast with fortitude and he nursed, painlessly, just like we were old pros.
Why? Did the shield "train" him how to latch? Does the newborn need a week's training before muscle memory kicks in? Did he just get bigger? I will never know.
We go from struggling, struggling, making our way slowly up the stairwell, until someone points out there's an elevator and we're suddenly whisked upward by a dozen flights all at once.