Breastfeeding…ugh. Even after three collective years of doing it, I’m still baffled by how difficult it can be. Breastfeeding is by far and large the most challenging thing I’ve done in my life. Period. And that’s saying a lot for someone who has rehabbed an injured back following getting hit by a car. I’ve run several grueling marathons too. Breastfeeding still takes the cake. Unmedicated labor (I shudder in memory) or breastfeeding? I can’t believe I’m about to say it but yes, breastfeeding. But here’s the thing, through all the self-sacrifice and uphill battles to exclusively breastfeed, I would do it again for the next baby, if possible. It’s one of the things in my life that I’m most proud of.
I’m sharing my stories and struggles today to shed light on how hard breastfeeding can be. It’s not always hard for every mom, but it was for me and I know it is for many. If it weren’t so complicated and if moms felt better supported then I imagine that the 4 out of 5 moms who start out nursing their newborns, presumably with the goal of breastfeeding, wouldn’t drop in numbers so drastically and quickly. By 3 months old only 50% of babies are still exclusively breastfed and by 6 months old only 25% still are. If you’re asking yourself,
“Why does it feel so hard, unnatural, exhausting, painful, time-consuming, emotional, lonely, etc. to feed my baby?”
…then you’re not alone. Many moms think this but shame themselves into keeping silent about it because they feel it’s a sign they are “bad moms.”
If you struggle with breastfeeding please hear me when I say:
You are NOT a bad mom.
We are all doing our best. End of story. I hope sharing my personal breastfeeding journey will help some tearful or tired mom out there to feel less lonely. There are many tips and tricks for successful nursing that you can read about on other websites such as KellyMom and United States Lactation Consultant Association, but that’s not my objective today. For now, we’re talking simply about you, mama, and the emotional experience of the whole boob and baby thing.
Breastfeeding Baby #1: Carter
My first son was born a full month early. As a new mom I was completely bewildered. He was so tiny – his fingers, toes, nose, and mouth. Mouth…mouth…if you’ve ever had pain from a full-term baby’s latch just imagine that pain with a smaller, preemie mouth. According to the Loire Infant Follow-up Team (LIFT) study, only 16% of premature babies were breastfeeding at the time of hospital discharge, an indication of how difficult it is to nurse them. Having a premature baby is overwhelming and taxing in more ways than I can list, and every mom is dealing with unique health challenges and concerns for their child. I got lucky that my son, Carter, didn’t have to spend any time in the NICU but not so lucky for the fact that he had jaundice that required returning to the hospital for a bilirubin treatment amid a colossal blizzard.
Despite everything, I was feeling very empowered about breastfeeding in the first few days of my son’s life…that is, until returning to the hospital and having to place Carter’s wet diapers in a plastic bin to be weighed throughout a sleepless night while snow stacked up over 10 feet high outside. Carter’s scrawny limbs flailed under the bilirubin lights and he wore nothing but a diaper. The urge to snuggle and swaddle him tore me apart. Carter was crying all night and trying to claw the protective eye wear off, despite multiple nurses’ attempts to change the fit and even tape it to his delicate skin. I was confused about how I was only supposed to take him out of the lights once every 2 hrs for 20 minutes when it took him about 40 minutes total to nurse at that point.
I started trying to pump for the first time (not recommended in the heat of stress and without proper support) so that I could bottle or syringe feed him under the lights. I proudly showed a nurse what I got from pumping for a few minutes and she shook her head and told me that it wasn’t much of anything and that “some moms will pump several ounces from each breast.” I will never forget how deflated I felt in that moment. I was trying my best in challenging circumstances and needed emotional support that was completely absent. In retrospect, I think I actually pumped a normal amount of milk for only a few days postpartum and a premature baby. That nurse should have boosted me up and encouraged me to keep honing my new craft. Instead, as can so often be the case, new moms are made to feel that their bodies are insufficient and can’t be trusted. This is so far from the truth that it brings me to tears.
That night, as my baby flailed under the bilirubin lights, I made a decision based solely on my maternal instinct, and which defied doctors’ orders. I let Carter nurse on/off all night long, with none of the called-for time restrictions, and I swaddled his arms to help him sleep, letting the light shine on his face and legs. I changed diapers under the lights too. Otherwise, and mostly, he was pulled to my breast as I fought off sleep with every weary muscle in my body. In the morning, Carter’s jaundice had improved enough to be discharged. In my most sincere opinion, it was because of the power of breastmilk, not the lights.
Did I mention that Carter was born with a tongue tie? Yes, well…this explains some of the difficulty nursing too, doesn’t it? A tongue tie makes it nearly impossible for a baby to latch and nurse properly, almost always causing severe pain and nipple bleeding for the mom. I can still recall how he would pull on and off, trying to find an effective latch. I had severe letdown pain each time that felt like someone stabbing a knife in my chest. I would practice deep breathing and wiggle my toes until he finally settled and the letdown pain subsided. I burned through so many tubes of nipple cream that first month while we waited for the procedure to resolve his tongue tie.
Those initial challenges were substantial and it was *very* tempting to quit. After the first month, my sore nipples healed and things settled a bit, but Carter being born early meant I needed to keep nursing him frequently through the night instead of letting him dictate the pace. By the time Carter weighed enough to go to on demand at night, he was so habituated to waking frequently that he never slept longer than a few hours until 6 months old when we did some sleep training. Sleep deprivation was and will continue to be the one thing that physically, mentally and emotionally wrecks me.
All the early struggles were followed by normal breastfeeding hurdles like teething, biting, feeding frenzies, pumping, etc. When I reached my 12-month goal for breastfeeding I was shocked that I wasn’t ready to wean. I kept counting down to Carter’s first birthday but then suddenly, weaning didn’t feel right. Nursing was finally snuggly, “easy,” and something I came to enjoy. Sitting down to rest after chasing a young toddler around and enjoying the sweet stillness together was absolutely lovely, even with toes dancing across my face and hands tangling my necklaces. I couldn’t believe how I had transformed: I turned into a mom who liked nursing and shed tears when the bond reached its conclusion when Carter was around 1.5 years old.
Breastfeeding Baby #2: Colby
When my second son arrived right on time at 40 weeks with a great latch from the start (unlike his older brother), I thought to myself: “I’ve got this. I’m a pro by now.” I really tried to boost my ego and relished in staying more laid back than the first time. We took our full-term baby home with no known health complications and celebrated that this time would be “easy.” Oh how wrong we were!
My second baby, Colby, was a content little guy. Except for 15-20 minutes of crying each night at 10 pm that first month, he was happy, slept well and nursed like a champ. Well, so I thought. Colby was gaining weight but not as quickly as the doctor wanted. He slipped a little from his growth curve but there was nothing of major concern. This confused me because I was very engorged at the time and felt I had an oversupply with a strong letdown. The pediatrician anticipated that the stress of traveling with my baby a month after his birth (I was matron of honor for my cousin’s wedding) had taken a toll on his feeding schedule and my milk supply. I worked hard to add nursing sessions when we got back home, even though my baby didn’t seem to demand them. In retrospect, this is when I needed to get with a private lactation consultant. The hospital-led lactation support group I attended was warm and fuzzy but not helpful enough.
Around the second month of Colby’s life we were told that he needed to be put in a rhino brace for clicking hips. This is protocol for hip dysplasia and although Colby didn’t have full-blown hip dysplasia he was at risk for it, ironically the result of his tight positioning in the womb (which hadn’t been fully stretched in my prior pregnancy due to pre-term labor). I could always tell that Colby’s latch majorly suffered once in the rhino brace, especially on one side due to torticolis that would be soon diagnosed, but I was so sleep deprived and the hip brace was such an ordeal to take on and off all day for diaper and outfit changes that the latch issue slipped to the back of my mind. To this day, I wish that it hadn’t.
By the time Colby’s hip brace was no longer needed he had dropped precipitously in weight and had reached the 3rd percentile, perhaps in part due to increasing reflux that was made worse by the brace. Even still, I couldn’t understand – I know what I’m doing, right? I successfully breastfed another child for 1.5 years already! My dilemma just goes to show how every baby is wildly different, even for veteran moms, and that breastfeeding must be flexible and responsive. I was very grateful that the pediatrician never guilt-tripped or shamed me for Colby’s weight struggles, and she never threw out that ugly term “failure to thrive.” Except for his weight, Colby was thriving beyond my expectations. The feisty little guy was rolling BOTH directions by 8 weeks old and started social smiling at a month old when he first heard “Canon in D” by Pachelbel. His curiosity and energy felt unsurpassed for such a little man.
At the 3 month postpartum mark a talented LC finally came to my home and gave me the rundown of what it would take to get my milk supply and Colby’s weight back up. Let me tell you this: It was NOT easy. Her plan was for me to breastfeed 10x/day, supplementing with donor breastmilk after 6 of the feedings. I was to pump to empty any time my breasts didn’t feel drained and I had to pump after nighttime feedings. Basically, I had zero time for anything except breastfeeding, bottle feeding and pumping. In addition, I took fenugreek and did breast compressions for every feeding. There were times I wasn’t convinced I could do it. It was insanely hard, especially at that point when most moms have the luxury of longer nights of sleep and less rigorous nursing schedules. I felt exhausted and guilty that it was difficult to tend to my older son.
Gradually, I was able to drop the bottle feedings and my son still gained weight (.75-1 oz/day) on my milk alone, even though he didn’t drop from 10 to 8 feedings/day until 7 months old, probably thanks to the introduction of solids. Right as I finally took a big sigh of relief, Colby began teething like crazy, waging nursing strikes, and pulling off the breast any time his big brother was around, eager to play instead of eat. I felt like I might go mad! All my hard work was in jeopardy. We pulled through the rough patch but the exhaustion and emotional toll finally set in. I began seeing a therapist for postpartum anxiety and I’m so glad that I got support. Frankly, I wish I had gotten it sooner.
Colby is now 17 months old and still nursing twice a day, morning and night. It’s mostly comfort nursing, not nutritional, but it’s a snuggly time that we both enjoy. I’m proud that we weathered the storm and can’t believe that I actually went from under supply to over supply around the 1-year mark. Small pumping sessions, getting just a few ounces each time, added up to roughly 150 ounces of breastmilk for my freezer stash. I could scarcely believe it! I have never been one of those moms who pumps a ton so for me, this was a true accomplishment and the result of my tireless efforts.
It was such an honor to be able to donate 100 ounces of *my breastmilk* this summer to a mom who had to leave her 6-month old to go serve our country. I couldn’t think of a more important thing to do with it than pay it forward. Once upon a time, a mom donated to me and now, I get to return that kindness to another mom who needs support. How amazing is that? (Not to mention, free!)
Breastfeeding is a two-way relationship between mom and baby. Sometimes you do everything “right” and it’s still hard. Some moms have milk that is very fatty and caloric while other moms have milk more like skim milk, packing fewer calories per ounce. Some moms have difficult babies with violent reflux like Colby developed and others have babies that are ravenous eaters like my Carter was, making even congenital obstacles less insurmountable.
Every mom’s set of circumstances is completely different. We have different birth stories, goals, careers, emotional needs, spouses, levels of support, babies of various temperaments, and more. I can’t argue that breastfeeding is going to work out for every mom’s life circumstances, but I can say with some measure of oomph that breastfeeding is a great way to set a child up for wellness which is why, despite every obstacle and setback, I committed to breastfeeding/breastmilk, even when that took another mom helping me out.
I think most women would be surprised to find that casual milk sharing and donations are relatively common. Support does exist but it seldom walks through our front door. Moms and their loved ones must collectively bond and work to support the breastfeeding relationship and the mom’s breastfeeding goals, whatever they may be. Without this support, many women will only know the experience of nursing a newborn and not the complex bond that forms from nursing an older baby throughout its first year (or more) of life.
Even with ample support, there is no one secret answer for making breastfeeding work. It takes grit, perseverance and a lot of self sacrifice.
Y’all…breastfeeding is hard. End of story. Anyone who commits to it, even for a very short while, deserves a damn medal.
Yours in health & wellness,