My Breastfeeding Journey: Crazy Hard, Crazy Worth It

IMakeMilk

Did you know that August is National Breastfeeding Month?  Sure is.  And did you know that August 1-7 is World Breastfeeding Week?  Yep, true story.  So I’m sneaking in a breastfeeding post just in the nick of time, because I’m a master procrastinator.  I’m also going to write a breastfeeding post every week for all of August, because if I tell you now that I am, I’ll be more likely to follow through.  You may have noticed that I’ve sucked at keeping up with this blog lately, and I’m sorry about that.  I’l try harder, dear readers.  Starting now.  I’d like to tell you a bit about my breastfeeding journey.

I love nursing my little guy.  Love it.  I cannot even imagine what it would be like to not be able to, it makes my heart sink a bit to think about.  I can’t even figure out why I love it so much – it probably has something to do with the oodles of oxytocin (happy hormone) released while nursing.  Of course, it’s terribly easy.  I love feeding my baby without getting out of bed, snuggle-nursing with him, nursing in my baby carrier while I read, socialize, stand in line, cook dinner, whatever.  I love never having to worry about preparing bottles or bringing food when we leave the house.  I love being able to soothe him in an instant, and feed him on demand.  I love giving my baby the best possible start, boosting his immune system and brainpower, and decreasing his chances of getting all sorts of diseases and conditions later in life.  I love decreasing my chances of getting breast cancer.  I love watching him grow, all from my body’s milk.  But most of all, I just love those moments together.  It feels so tender and nurturing, like we’re sharing my body, like I’m hugging him as close as when he was in my belly.

And I knew it was gonna be great.  People told me all that.  But they didn’t tell me that it would be so hard.  Sure, they said it might hurt a little at first, or I might have trouble with latch or supply.  I read up on all those things.  But those books all told me that it shouldn’t hurt, that if it hurts, you’re doing it wrong.  And that’s some bullshit.

After my unfortunate cesarean, I was obsessed with nursing my baby.  One of my biggest heartaches of the cesarean was not getting immediate skin-to-skin, but I was under the assumption that we would be reunited within an hour to nurse.  But they had to take him to the NICU, for what I thought was a few hours.  I kept asking where he was and when I would get to nurse.  Wasn’t I supposed to nurse within an hour or so?  Didn’t he need my milk?  It quickly became apparent that he would be in the NICU longer, potentially for days, and that I wouldn’t get to see him until I could walk, so about eight hours after surgery.  Those were the most helpless eight hours, knowing logically that I’m a mother, having only seen my baby for a few seconds, and most of all, feeling panicked about the fact that my breasts were sitting there ignored, not being signalled to make milk.  Wasn’t I supposed to be pumping?  When could I start pumping?  They said a nurse would bring me a pump, but only after I could move around, which would be about 3am, and I had my baby before 7pm.  I was more than a little panicky, as every “boobie trap” story came to my mind.

When I saw my baby, he was hooked up to too many wires to be held.  I couldn’t believe I couldn’t hold him.  Babies need to be held!  My mind was screaming.  But at least they brought me a pump and showed me how to use it.  I pumped and I pumped, but nothing came out.  I thought for sure I had missed my window, that my boobs would never learn to make milk, not with my baby across the hospital.  But eventually I got a few drops.  I can’t remember how long it took, I wish I’d kept a log, but those drops made me cry tears of joy.  They weren’t even enough to gather, but still, I did it!  I made milk!  And eventually, I made a couple tenths of a mililiter, enough to gather in a little syringe.  I was so excited to give it to him, even though the NICU nurse made me feel like it was nothing.  He drank it and I cried, of course.

Sometime the day after his birth, I was able to hold him, and I immediately put him to the breast.  No one helped me, but I had read a lot of books (ha!)  I couldn’t get my huge nipple into his tiny mouth, couldn’t get him to latch on well, had no idea if he was getting milk, and it hurt, but he did suck a bit, when we could get him to stay awake for more than 10 seconds at a time.  Eventually a nurse helped, and suggested a nipple shield, a plastic cover for my nipple that’s easier for him to latch onto.  It worked like a charm, hurt less, and I was ecstatic.

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I nursed him every three hours, per the NICU’s rules.  Every three hours, we showed up and nursed him, changed him, took his temperature.  Overnight, my husband slept through one or two feeds, but I made every one.  Sometimes I could find a wheelchair, sometimes I couldn’t, so I hobbled, swollen, sore and stitched up, my insides rearranged and struggling to operate as accustomed.  And then I would return to my room to pump, wash the pump parts, and store the milk.  I was sure I would be getting more sleep at home.

When his bilirubins came back great, and fears of jaundice dissipated, I was sure we’d get to take him home, that was what they kept promising.  But suddenly, they started talking about his blood sugar levels.  They were too low, they said, he wasn’t getting enough from my milk.  They had taken out his IV because breastfeeding had been going well, but now they were worried it wasn’t enough.  Of course it wasn’t enough!  He had to live in a box half a mile from his mom!  Nevermind that the hospital lactation consultant (love her!) told me those numbers were FINE and that we shouldn’t be concerned about his sugars.

I was convinced that he would do better with me, but they weren’t giving him up without a fight.  They asked if I would prefer them to place another IV or give him formula, and my heart fell.  NEITHER!  I asked about donor milk, and they said that might be possible, and were able to get approval for it.  I still don’t think he needed it, and it was maddening to watch the nurse pick him up and give him a bottle.  I should’ve asked for it to be syringe fed.  I should have asked to do it myself.  She didn’t give us the choice, just picked him up and did it, and I stood there, feeling useless and broken and trying to find my voice.

After a pep talk from our placenta encapsulator lady, my husband found his voice and fought for our baby, three days after his birth.  He said the baby should be in our room, that if sugar levels were their only concern, they could come to us to check them.  And it worked.  They brought out a doctor, a new doctor (they rotate), and this one said that sounded fine.  We were able to room in.  Hallelujah!

That first night was hard.  We were so scared his sugars wouldn’t be high enough, scared we’d forget to take his temperature at the right time and they’d take him away, and we couldn’t get him to stop freaking crying.  But his sugars did great with us, and they said we could take him home the next day!  Leaving the hospital with him felt like being released from prison, and I wanted to run, before someone told us it was a mistake and held him hostage again.

We got home when he was four days old, and he slept all the time.  We struggled to wake him every three hours to feed, spent 40 minutes tickling his feet and poking him to get him to wake, while he turned his head, mouth clenched, determined to sleep longer.  I pumped a few times a day, and we used that milk in a syringe to entice him, put it on my nipple or in the corner of his mouth.  We were still using the shield.

And it hurt like nothing else, man.  I cried through most feeding sessions.  It felt like he was biting my nipples.

And then my midwives came over, on day six, and said he was losing too much weight.  If I wanted to continue to breastfeed exclusively, I needed to feed him every TWO hours, and pump after EVERY feed.  ”Do you think you can do that?” they asked.

“Yes, sure, of course I can.”  But my heart fell.  How could I do it all every two hours?  I was losing my mother loving mind as it was.  I was so tired.  I cried all the time.  Nursing hurt so bad.  They said his latch looked fine, but it still felt like he was cutting into my nipples with nonexistent teeth.  But we did it.

It was at this point that I started dreaming of formula, or even of exclusively pumping and giving bottles.  It had to be easier than this.  Why was I killing myself over this?  Didn’t my sanity matter?  I didn’t even feel like a person anymore.  I couldn’t imagine ever being happy again.

But a part of me knew deep down that breastfeeding mattered to me, that it was so important, that I was a fierce advocate for it, and that these were all hurdles I could get past.  Part of it was shame.  I couldn’t face my friends, myself, the world, and motherhood if I failed at this.  Silly, I know, and no one should feel ashamed of doing what they have to do, but it kept me going.  I understood now why people quit, and no longer judged them.  That shit is hard like nothing you could ever imagine.  Putting yourself in toe curling pain every two hours and getting no more than an hour or sleep at a time, waking to an alarm to have to wake a baby that just wants to sleep, to force him to eat when he doesn’t want to….  It’s not for the weak of heart.

It was two and a half weeks of that shit.  We did start extending one nighttime break to three to four hours, and I did start skipping one pumping session a day.  Every feed was an ordeal that took two people.  My patient husband squirted pumped milk in the corner of his mouth and tried to keep him awake while I fed, and helped me clean the pump parts and put away milk after I pumped.  I had lactation consultants, midwives and doulas help with his latch, and texted them one horrific picture of a broken, bleeding, blistered nipple that made me sick to look at.  They said I had to keep nursing on it anyway.  I blamed the nipple shield, since I was wearing it when it happened, but I was also scared to let the shields go.

But then, at two and a half weeks, he regained his birthweight, and suddenly we were able to nurse on demand and stop pumping.  I could let him sleep as long as he wanted!  It still hurt, and it took a while longer to wean off the nipple shields, but it was a light at the end of the tunnel.  The first time he latched without the shield was glorious.  That damn thing made nursing in public awful, and it was a pain to constantly clean.  Sometimes I’d use it, when they were particularly sore, or he had a hard time latching, but sometimes he wouldn’t need it, and by three or so weeks, we got off of it completely.

Oh yeah, and around three and a half weeks, I discovered that I had vasospasm, which was causing the burning, stinging pain between sessions.  I was able to ease the pain with a heating pad after nursing, so that was another thing to lug around and a barrier to leaving the house.

It was around that time that I had my first consistently pain free nursing sessions.  Sometimes it still hurt, but sometimes it didn’t, and that was HUGE.  By four weeks, pain was rare, and I was really enjoying nursing, and feeling happy, not all the time, but often enough.

For several months, not a day went by that I didn’t feel crazy gratitude to myself for sticking with it.  I shudder when I think of how close I came to quitting.  It was only four weeks, but four weeks of unimaginable hell.  I wanted to quit so many times.  And now I treasure our nursing relationship so much.

When I asked my friends how long it hurt, I found out that this is normal, that the majority of women go through a lot of pain, for a week or three or seven.  It’s different for everyone.  Some people have no pain.  Sometimes it’s for a correctable reason, so you should always talk to an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), but sometimes, baby’s mouth just needs to get bigger, your nipples need to toughen up, and you both need to learn this dance together.  It’s not easy, but it’s so freaking amazingly, unbelievably, unequivocally worth it.

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