On not being discouraged
Welcome, October Carnival of Breastfeeding readers!
Before I had Leo, I imagined us having an easy time breastfeeding. I imagined us, in soft focus, staring lovingly into each other’s eyes, knowing exactly what to do, bonding in a nearly tangible aura of joy.
That is NOT how it worked out. In fact, I would wager that it is rarely how it works out for normal moms and babies. Breastfeeding may be natural, but it doesn’t always come naturally. Furthermore, things that are natural aren’t by definition easy. Granted, I think that we had more than an average number of challenges: his intestinal problem, the c-section, the bottle, the prematurity. I would like moms everywhere to know, however, that each of these things, individually or all-piled-up-at-once, can be overcome with persistence, humility, and teamwork.
My water broke at 35 weeks, but I didn’t go into labor, so they ended up inducing me due to a fear of infection, which, given what we suspected about Leo’s condition at the time, was even more of a risk than normal. I labored on pitocin all day with no pain relief except for some narcotics; it was a fast labor, and I progressed rapidly. Nonetheless, after 4 hours of mother-directed pushing, Leo just was not any closer to coming out. I was exhausted. We went with a c-section after a lot of discussion with the OB. Even though it wasn’t what I had planned, I was ok with it, given the circumstances. Bye-bye, dream of nursing skin-to-skin after his birth.
Because of his intestinal problem, Leo had parenteral nutrition (IV nutrients) from birth. After his surgery, he also had an OG and later an NG tube that sucked the digestive fluids produced in the mouth and stomach out, so that they wouldn’t build up in his stomach and cause him to vomit. Thus, from the first, we were set back because he couldn’t breastfeed. He couldn’t even take a bottle at this time. See ya, dream of letting Leo start nursing on his own right away.
Thankfully, EVERYONE we met at the University of Maryland Medical Center was 100% supportive of breastfeeding. The NICU staff set me up with the lactation consultants (who ROCKED) and encouraged me to bring even the smallest drops of colostrum to them to store for when he would be able to eat normally. I started pumping for him six hours after I got to my room in the Mother-Baby unit. I was very hopeful and determined.
But pumping was hard. They told me that it can take a while for your milk to come in, but I thought they were just being nice and that really I was failing. In fact, I had no good idea how much was enough, and I was too proud to ask. Was 3 mL normal? 10? Then why were the bottles so big? I started to obsess about my pumping log – I even created a graph so that I could see the peaks and valleys of my milk production. People frequently say that they feel like a dairy cow when they go back to work, but I was a dairy cow. Mine was a serious endeavor – my pumping station was my own private Wawa Dairy Farm. I pumped every two hours. I was exhausted and starting to lose my mind due to sleep deprivation and stress. The feeling that I wasn’t making enough milk for Leo and that maybe I never would started me down a black hole of self blame: I was defective because it was hard for me to get pregnant. I was defective because he had the intestinal problem and I secretly thought it was my fault. I was defective because I had to be induced. I was defective because I had a c-section. Finally, I was defective because I couldn’t make food for my baby. OF COURSE this was RIDICULOUS. But, as those of you who have been down that rabbit hole know, it all seemed REAL.
I really struggled with asking for help. I always have: in my family, asking for help meant that you were failing. Finally, I gave in and asked for another consult with the lactation consultant. I forced myself to believe her when she said that I was doing well. She suggested mother’s milk tea, only waking up once in the night to pump so I could get more sleep, breast massage, and looking at pictures of the baby when I pumped. Slowly, my supply began to increase. I started to nearly fill the 35 mL bottles from the NICU! I was on a ROLL.
Then, at the end of June, we got word that the NG tube was coming out and we could give Leo his first 5 mL bottle of breastmilk. It was a huge victory when he finished that little bottle, and an even bigger one when he didn’t vomit. I kept pumping while every day or so we increased the amount of his feedings, eventually up to 3 ounces. Every day, I asked when I would be able to try breastfeeding him. “Soon.”
Finally, the day came. July 4. When we arrived at the hospital that day, the nurse told us that we could try breastfeeding at any time that day, and then she left. I was thrilled, but worried: I had no idea how to start or what to do. We had been measuring his food to make sure that he was digesting everything ok – how would we know that with the breastfeeding? How did I make sure he had a good latch? How should I hold him? It was a holiday, so the lactation consultants were not available. I decided to try by myself.
I held Leo in a cradle hold, and put him to my breast. He seemed to know what to do. I made sure that his lips looked like the picture in the Dr. Sears book. He sucked a little and seemed to swallow. I felt my milk let down. He tried for about 7-10 minutes, and then got tired. I realized that I had no idea how long was a normal amount of time for the baby to feed, or if he needed to do both sides or not, and there was no one to help me. So, worried about how much he was eating, I quit for the day and decided to wait until the LCs were back. I was discouraged – I hadn’t known how much there was to know about this. So much for the “it comes naturally” part.
The LC came the next day and helped me. Basically, I was doing everything just fine. We alternated between measured bottle feedings and the breast, and Leo got better at it, as did I. Eventually, he was discharged and we went home.
For several days, we just breastfed. He didn’t stay on very long, got tired fast, and always seemed hungry. His weight plateaued. We were worried. The pediatrician recommended pumping after he ate and feeding him the rest of the milk from a bottle. So I did. It was annoying. It felt like we were never going to make it work. I was so worried that he would end up preferring the bottle and that we would never be able to breastfeed normally. I cried, often. Leo started to grow again, but I stayed worried and discouraged and frustrated. On and on like this for weeks.
Then, just as I was almost about to give up and just give him bottles all the time, he started to get stronger. He nursed longer and more vigorously. I had to pump less afterward, and eventually not at all. We did it! We made it happen. Things were clumsy for a little while longer, but we were getting it. It was such a relief. And he was growing.
Now, we are pretty good at breastfeeding – not pros, by any stretch of the imagination, but pretty good. Good enough to do it in public without too much fumbling. Good enough to be flexible on positions, depending on what works wherever we are.
My message is that it wasn’t easy. I still don’t love breastfeeding, and there is no soft-focus aura of romantic mother-baby perfection around us, but we can do it. We overcame every challenge along the way with persistence and hard work.
If you don’t love breastfeeding as much as everyone seems to say you will, that’s ok. You love your baby, and that’s what counts.
If you have challenges, don’t just assume that you can’t do it. Take a dose of humility and ask for help. If one person says they don’t know, keep asking until someone does know.
If you despair, and start falling down the rabbit hole, get some sleep, and keep trying. Kiss your baby, and keep trying.
Enjoy the other Carnival posts (updated throughout the day):
- Leslie @ Confessions and Observations: How to Start Breastfeeding and Why the Birth You Have Matters
- Suchada @ Mama Eve: Birth & Breastfeeding
- Christina @ Massachusetts Friends of Midwives: Early Intervention Lactation Help
- Jenny @ Chronicles of a nursing mom: Birth Experiences and Its Effect on Breastfeeding
- Jenny @ Baby Fingers: My Breastfeeding Relationships: Hospital vs Homebirth
- Michelle @ Mama Bear: The long, wide shadow of a bad birth
- Sarah @ Reproductive Rites: Fighting for Breastfeeding
- Terry @ Mother Mirth: Breastfeeding: We CAN Change Our Culture
- Tanya @ Motherwear Blog: The Birth-Breastfeeding Continuum
- Elita @ Blacktating: Did my birth experience set me up to fail at breastfeeding?
- Kate @ Tumbling Boobs: Nursing after surrogacy or adoption
- Andi @ Mama Knows Breast