My initial worries and fears about breastfeeding were relatively normal. When I was pregnant I wondered if I would produce enough milk or how much it would hurt during those first weeks. I never worried about whether the baby or I would know how to breastfeed. How hard could it be? There’s a nipple and a mouth, put them together and ta-da! Totally natural, right?!
Boy, was I naive. I had no idea how many different forms of breastfeeding challenges could exist and with my first, Ellie, we faced a number of them, mainly related to her “weak latch.”
By the time we were discharged from the hospital after delivering Ellie, it was clear we were going to need further help with her latch. She was a master at sucking on our fingers but when it came to the boob, it was like she didn’t know what to do. It was anything but natural.
In the very beginning it was a series of terrible cycles. Ellie was born with some jaundice which made her super sleepy so she wouldn’t fully wake up to feed (and practice latching)…which meant she couldn’t get rid of the jaundice.
We had almost daily weigh-ins at the doctors office because she wasn’t gaining weight. Then we would walk to the lab to have her foot pricked to test her jaundice levels. I was encouraged to pump and give her a bottle, and even supplement with liquid formula to push the jaundice out and help her gain weight. I was so overwhelmed. I didn’t know how to use the pump and hadn’t planned on learning so soon. I didn’t want my baby to have formula when I had my own milk for her. And my main concern about breastfeeding and her latch was being pushed to the side because there were more serious concerns.
To practice and strengthen her latch, and to guarantee she was getting fed, we’d feed her via a syringe attached to our finger. A few times we attempted to thread the syringe through my nipple guard, but she seemed to prefer my husband, Chris’s, finger best. We would get so excited when she would finish one syringe, which was 3/4 of an ounce. It was a long process.
To help her gain weight, I was encouraged to make sure she was getting full feedings. We were weighing her before and after breastfeeding and she wasn’t consuming enough so our Occupational Therapist recommended that I nurse and then follow up with a bottle of breastmilk. I came home from that appointment feeling clear about what I needed to do. I nursed Ellie for an hour, and gave her two ounces of breastmilk in the bottle. She took a long nap, and when she woke up, she started choking on the regurgitated milk. I called 911 and we spent the night in the emergency room. They diagnosed her with reflux and the doctors at the hospital encouraged me to feed her more often and in much smaller amounts. I had literally been given opposite directives in the same day. More feedings meant more times at the breast, which gave me anxiety. Bigger feedings meant more time pumping and more bottle feeds, which also gave me anxiety.
Feeding was supposed to be a time of calm – for mom and especially for baby – and it was the opposite. I would grow anxious looking at the clock knowing it was nearing time to feed again. I would get set up on the rocking chair in the living room (we bought a second one for this purpose). I would click in my breast friend pillow. I would apply my nipple shield and cup my breast in my hand. And then I would wait as Chris carefully brought Ellie to me, laying on her side at the same level as my chest, as if to perfectly line up her mouth to my nipple. I’d take a deep breath, she’d open her mouth….and then the shit would hit the fan. It was like she didn’t know how to close her mouth around it. She’d violently shake her head back and forth, screaming, frustrated, and I’d start to sweat, panic, think sadly “here we go again” and eventually we were both in tears. And my baby was still not fed.
Sometimes she would latch after what felt like hours but even when she did, she didn’t extract enough, so I would give her a bottle and then I would pump. And then not too much later, it would be time to try nursing her again. Thankfully my supply was strong, though I still pumped 5-6x a day – and tried breastfeeding at least that many times as well. Because of her severe reflux, I didn’t feel like I could put her down so I’d often pump while holding her upright. It was impossible to leave the house and my world felt very small. It was centered around breastfeeding and breastfeeding was not something I was enjoying.
Everyone around me was super supportive but they also gave me plenty of outs. They wouldn’t judge me – or blame me – if I backed away from the effort. It was all-consuming and we all continually had to wonder if it was worth the torment.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel sorry for myself at times.I was dealt a difficult hand. I was physically exhausted – and in some pain – but nothing compared to the guilt I felt. Guilt at the dread I woke up with every morning because it meant a day of many potential “failed” attempts at feeding my child. Guilt over wanting to press fast forward and get through this stage as fast as possible and never look back. Guilt about often resenting my child for not knowing how to breastfeed from her Mama who so desperately wanted nothing more than to share this important experience with her.
Reaching out to other moms I learned just how common breastfeeding challenges are. I had no idea how many moms struggled in some way or another with this “natural” process. It was like a secret network of supportive moms who could relate first hand opened up to me as soon as I was experiencing it myself – it was like my ticket in. It truly helped to know I wasn’t alone. And I started to believe them when they all would tell me it would get better. I had a couple close friends encouraging me not to give up and if it hadn’t been for them, I don’t know if I would have stuck with it for as long as I did. Every day felt like a week so the fact that we made it over seven months is something I’m very very proud of.
Ellie never was a good breastfeeder. At two months I was able to get rid of the nipple shield but she never developed a strong enough latch. I would nurse her twice a day and pump and give her bottles the rest of the time. It wasn’t ideal but I (eventually!) found a peace with it.
I (eventually!) learned to give myself a break. I was doing my best. There’s a fine line between being so committed to a cause and driving yourself crazy over it. I’m proud of my strength but I’m just as proud that through this experience, I learned to be more compassionate with myself.
I now look back and see that this experience was an opportunity. An opportunity to give all I had to give. An opportunity to care so much about something to never give up, no matter how hard and desperate things seemed.And even though after 7 1/2 months of literal blood, sweat and tears (and lots of pumping) and it never really turning out how I hoped, I can look back and know that without a doubt, I fought for it. And I figured out a system that worked for both my baby and me. And you know what it made me? A Mom.
The hardship and my reaction to it is what made me a great Mom – not whether or not I breastfed my child exclusively and easily. And this will continue to the be the case as my journey as a Mom continues because not much in motherhood is easy or happens as planned. I have such appreciation and respect for Mothers – there is no one stronger and more selfless than we are and we should be so proud of ourselves every single day because we are doing our best.
Luckily, I have a much better breastfeeder this time around in my daughter Layla, who is two months old today. We’ve faced some different challenges – a fast let down, overproduction, reflux – but we’re doing well. I still find myself worrying that she’s not getting enough (she totally is!) and I’m still getting over the nerves of nursing in public. But every time I nurse her, I am so so grateful and I don’t ever take it for granted.
I would love to hear your thoughts about my journey and your own stories if you’d be open to sharing!!