Reading this fantastic blog post recently inspired meย to (finally) write my breastfeeding story. So many write their birth stories (and so will I, eventually), but I feel a much stronger need to share how Sugarpie and I came to have such a successful nursing relationship. Partly because it is just such a wonderful thing, and partly because of the difficulty we had in arriving at the place where we find ourselves now. I hope that someone out there reading this who might be struggling too can find some comfort in our story. It is long and peppered with references to my nipples. You are forewarned.
While pregnant, I always knew that we would do our best to breastfeed. I say “do our best” because I had heard so many horror stories of bleeding nipples, mastitis, searing pain, and switching to formula. Who was I to think that I could actually succeed? I am small-breasted, with what I always thought of as weird boobies. So why would mine work when so many I know didn’t breastfeed?
I was already a victim of the idea that our society perpetuates of “breastfeeding if you can.” It isn’t the norm, and isn’t supported and embraced WHOLEHEARTEDLY by most hospitals. We all know what a grip big business (and formula is big business) has on our health care industry — but I digress. (Read this article from Best for Babes about nursing “booby traps.“)
I think it is important for new mothers to expect a little challenge, a little pain. No one wants to be blind-sided with obstacles while trying to do something that seems like it should be magical and natural and automatic. This creates frustration and feelings of failure. So I am glad that I knew to expect that it would be hard work. But the moral of the story was, more often than not, that breastfeeding didn’t happen, that it wasn’t possible.
My first mistake was that I didn’t take a breastfeeding class. I thought that the lactation consultant in the hospital would be enough. I was wrong.
The moment my Georgia was born, we had skin-to-skin contact. We were making our first attempt at nursing within a half hour. She latched on and started nursing. Seemed like a good start.
Through that night, the pain started (and so did the hormonal depression) and she would nurse either for 30 seconds before falling asleep, or she would nurse for 90 minutes. The next day, as I was experiencing more pain and wondering if anything at all was being transferred, I anxiously awaited the help of the staff lactation consultant. I waited about 5 hours for her. It was busy, and she was only one woman.
When she finally arrived, she inspected my blistered nipples, declared that Sugarpie’s latch wasn’t good, and gave me a nipple shield. She showed me a couple of techniques to get more boob in baby’s mouth, and told me to get The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding (that was, after all, how she learned 30 years ago). She told me to try some more skin to skin contact, then she hurried off to the other desperate new mothers in the ward. She spent about 10 minutes with us.
I was reeling. She left me alone with my baby. We had no idea what we were doing! So much depended on these first hours and I felt like I was already failing my new baby. My husband asked everyone to give us some time alone, and Sugarpie and I napped with our chests bare, snuggling together. Something happened chemically as a response to this contact with her because at this point, I became overwhelmed with emotion, overwhelmed with love for her, overwhelmed with the responsibility of this tiny life, overwhelmed with fear that something would happen to her, overwhelmed with missing having her in my body.
But mostly, it was the love.
I wanted so desperately to provide her with her mother’s milk. We kept at it. I was amazed when I saw a bit of colostrum on the nipple shield. There was hope, but there was still pain.
My milk came in on the third night, our first night home from the hospital. Georgia was inconsolable and I was engorged. She tried to nurse and seemed unsatisfied. Looking back, I’ve heard that the first night home is usually pretty horrendous. I’ve heard that when your milk comes in, babies sometimes react this way. I’ve heard that newborns are gassy beyond rational expectations. But I didn’t know that night.
The nurse in the hospital mentioned that if Sugarpie’s latch wasn’t right, I should pump so that my supply wouldn’t be affected. Thank GOODNESS she told me that. But no one told me to get a hospital grade pump. I wish I had known from the beginning. I had a beautiful Medela Pump-n-Style Advanced that a family member generously handed down to me, but I didn’t know that these were great for a supply that is already established. I needed to establish mine.
She was born on a Monday. By that Friday Sugarpie had lost almost 20% of her birth weight (down to 5 lbs 15 oz). The doctor was concerned and told us to pump and supplement her feedings with what we pumped because she wasn’t getting the milk out of my breast (again with the latch!). The lactation consultant that we saw gave me some techniques for holding, latching, keeping her awake, etc. She told me that her mouth was so small that she would have to grow into a good latch. What? How long would I have to wait?
Would we make it?
That night I broke down. Hubs went to bed and I was left alone to do my turn. The Christmas tree was lit and I was facing a long, lonely night. I hated it. I was depressed, I was sleep deprived, and I felt like I couldn’t feed my baby. I wasn’t making enough milk and even if I were, she couldn’t get it effectively. Waking her was nearly as impossible as keeping myself awake. I was nodding off while attempting to nurse and it scared me.
I was suffering, I was frustrated, I was in extreme physical and emotional pain and I was failing her.
After 5 days of continuous nursing-pumping-supplementing breast milk, we proudly presented Georgia for her weigh-in, expecting big results. She had gained one ounce. She should have gained 5. I was crushed and broke down in the exam room.
The doctor, who is very pro-breastfeeding, gravely said that we needed to start supplementing with formula. Sugarpie needed 2 oz of milk one way or another, every 2 hours, around the clock. We did this for a week, it was terribly difficult. We had to wake her, which took forever, nurse her for 20 minutes, pump for 12, then bottle-fed her with what I pumped plus formula to equal two ounces. By the time one cycle was finished, it was time to start another.
No, I did not sleep.
Our goal was to gain 7 oz in 7 days. Sugarpie threw up the formula, she had such a hard time digesting it. It made me feel so bad for her little tummy. But we stuck to the program out of sheer desperation. At the time I was grateful that we had formula, but now I think that having been able to boost my supply sooner (again, wish I had known to get a hospital-grade pump) would have helped me avoid it.
I would see that some of my peers were nursing successfully and though I was happy for them, I kept thinking, “What’s wrong with me?!”
At our next weigh-in, she gained 13 oz!! Whoa, too much? Hubs looked at the scale and thought it was wrong. We were so proud of our little baby! She had surpassed her birth weight, and we could go back to 8 feedings a day.
I kept working on my supply. There were many moments where everyone was telling me that it was ok to switch to formula. I know they meant well, but to me, it felt like I was being told to give up, that I had gone too far and my daughter was suffering for my stubborness.
As much pressure as many women say they feel TO breastfeed, there is just as much out there to give in to formula feeding. We just can’t win.
I was taking fenugreek, blessed thistle, eating lactation cookies, drinking lactation tea and pumping, pumping, pumping. I was forging ahead with a blind tenacity fueled by sleep-deprived delirium. Every day I was producing almost ONE MORE OUNCE. That tiny bit of improvement was enough to keep me going.
I was running on fumes, but I was running.
As determined as I was, I still thought in the back of my mind, that it would not happen for me and my baby. I really didn’t think it would.
But I was running. And I kept running. Pump by pump, hour by hour, ounce by ounce. I kept going.
My nipples were cracked and bleeding and every latch caused toe-curling pain. But I kept going.
The bottles were calling, the temptation to sleep was great. But I kept going.
“You don’t have to do this. It’s ok.” But I kept going.
We slowly phased out the formula, and I kept going.
Sugarpie seemed insatiable. Was she getting enough? But I kept going.
I was in pain, but I decided to toss the shield, forget the bottles, and JUST NURSE. We needed practice, and we kept going.
And then I got the best advice that made the biggest difference from a family member who is a semi-retired lactation consultant, Debbie Aaronson. She gave me an hour on the phone, even though she was on vacation.
She said, “Try to enjoy this time with your baby. Lay in bed with her and try nursing in different ways. Forget sitting up straight and how her body should be angled just right. If you are uncomfortable, your milk won’t flow. ENJOY HER. Let her find her way. Nursing shouldn’t be a chore. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t look perfect.”
That was my lightbulb moment. Soon we were side-nursing in bed. We kept going.
Soon I was able to stop pumping as much. We kept going.
We were enjoying each other! She would break her latch smiling, and it was ok! It was magic. I was a blessing and a miracle. We made it.
And we keep on going.