Motherhood brings unique joys and pains to every mum, and we are better off acknowledging that. In this series called Mum Truths, mums reveal their secret successes, miseries and gripes about parenting in a no-holds-barred first-person recount.

If you are a mother or mother-to-be, you’re probably familiar with the many benefits of breastfeeding – for both you and your child. I thought breastfeeding was also a more cost-effective solution to feeding, given that a tin of formula retailing at about $30.80 (400g) and infants needing about 40 to 50 tins of formula in their first six months, the sums can really add up. If you are feeding your baby via direct latch without the need for an electric pump and bottles, feeding your baby in the first half year of their life can be completely free of charge. 

Or so I thought. 

Like many first-time mums, I pretty eager to get on with it. Within the first hour of my baby’s birth, the nurses at the hospital had already placed him on my chest to encourage breastfeeding. Even though I’d read up on it and attended antenatal classes, it was still difficult for me to get the hang of breastfeeding. I couldn’t quite get the positions right and my nipples quickly became sore and cracked due to a poor latch.  

When I got home, things were a little bit easier as I had a confinement nanny who helped me with each feed. She would help position the baby and massage my breast while I nursed, so as to get the milk flowing. In that first month, breastfeeding was challenging but still bearable. The only thing I had to grapple with was the many changes to my body and the tiredness from having to wake up every couple of hours in the night to feed.

However, one week after the nanny left, I got hit with a giant curveball. Just as I thought I’d gotten the hang of breastfeeding, I woke up one morning with my right breast feeling rock hard and it didn’t dissipate even after a feed. Immediately, I panicked as I’d read a lot about mastitis (a breast infection triggered by a build-up of milk and clogged ducts) and this seemed like one of the classic symptoms. It can cause the breast to be swollen and inflamed, and can also trigger flu-like symptoms. True enough, by the afternoon, I was running a fever of nearly 39 degrees Celsius and experiencing chills under three layers of blankets.

I went to see a GP ($40) to get a round of antibiotics and was told it would take some time for the infection to clear. In the meantime, I still had to unclog my milk ducts, but trying to get my baby to latch on to an inflamed breast was excruciating. In desperation, I paid a visit to the Lactation Clinic at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital ($116), where the nurse in charge attempted to unclog the milk ducts with a vigorous breast massage. 

A massage is a bit of a misnomer in this case. Far from being at all pleasant, massaging an inflamed breast is pure agony. Getting the ducts unclogged is also not a one-off affair; I had to keep up with the massages at home. I distinctly remember telling my husband – in between sobs – that this was way more painful than giving birth. I even tried using a lactation massager ($65) but no dice. Despite my best efforts, my breast remained stubbornly swollen and painful, so much so that I made an emergency trip in the middle of the night to the Urgent O&G Centre at KKH ($283).  

After those painful days, I was determined to never go through this again and aimed to correct my breastfeeding technique once and for all, so I engaged the services of a lactation consultant ($230). It was pricey but so worth it – in the two hours she spent at my house, she’d helped to massage out most of the clogs and taught me how to get my baby to latch correctly. She also correctly identified that the infection seemed to have caused an abscess in my breast, which needed to be treated by a specialist. I saw a breast specialist the next day and thankfully, the abscess was small enough that it didn’t need to be drained but the visit still cost me an eye-watering $327.

In the one week since I was hit with mastitis, I’d spent $1,061 just trying to deal with the problem – that’s almost 35 tins of formula! 

My breastfeeding journey up to that point had been taxing enough, what with the sleep deprivation and struggles with getting the right latch. Getting hit with mastitis very nearly made me want to give up the whole endeavour. But despite the pain, exhaustion, and the big dent in my wallet, I’m glad I persevered. There is also plenty of tenderness and sweetness, when I think about those quiet middle-of-the-night feeds where he’s smiling up at me, or when I’m rocking him gently to sleep after a feed, these precious moments fill my heart that it (almost) makes me forget the trauma that is mastitis, almost.  

Victoria Tan is a new mother-of-one navigating the weird and wonderful journey that is parenthood. Even amidst the sleep deprivation, breastfeeding woes and endless diaper changes, she’s finding joy in rediscovering the world through her son’s eyes.