People have asked me if it was hard going back to work when Evan was only ten weeks old, and the short answer is, undoubtedly: YES.
However, when I walked into that room on the 1st day of the spring semester I found myself feeling elated and mainly for one reason: no one there cared if I was breast feeding, or how well, or really, anything about what my baby was doing, much less eating. 18 year olds are refreshingly self-interested.
My students also reminded me that I was good at something. Which, if you’re a mom, you know that’s important because sometimes you feel like you’re failing at everything. Or at least I did, especially in those early days.
Much like a birth story, I think a breastfeeding story is important to tell. When I was knee-deep in doubts about myself and my choices, it was so comforting to find stories online from moms who were dealing with similar things. The original post I stumbled across on a blog that felt like a giant hug has since been made private, but this post is similar in nature. Moms who are brave enough to share how it all went down are the ones I find I respect the most, and I decided to write this post, after much hesitation, just in case I can be that mom for someone else.
Evan had a great latch, but I have “short” nipples. Evan is an impatient eater (as I’ve learned most babies are, especially boys) and my nipples made positioning him more difficult, which means it took longer to get him to latch, which means he was a screaming mess by the time he was “ready” to eat. I asked for help in the hospital, but not enough.
Within just a few hours of his life, the nurses in the nursery wanted me to supplement because his sugars were a few digits lower than they should have been. I asked to nurse him instead, and they let me sit in a room that was basically a closet with an uncomfortable chair and a door that was a curtain that didn’t close all the way. I fumbled around and fed him as best I could, but I could tell he wasn’t getting very much, probably because I was so tense. When the nurse took his sugar reading again he was still two digits too low, and I was scared (which I know now, I shouldn’t have been), so I said yes to supplementing. I didn’t know about SNS, nor did anyone tell me. I sat in that chair in that little “room,” just hours after birth in my hospital gown, my stomach growling, and watched the nurse carry Evan through that curtain, and away from me, so that she could feed him. It broke my heart. And of everything that happened throughout our journey, that situation is the only thing that still makes me angry, because with everything we know about breastmilk and breastfeeding, it just shouldn’t have happened in a hospital in 2013.
In a nutshell, out story is summed up by so many instances of how I didn’t know to ask, and no one told me. In hindsight it’s clear it’s not really my fault, and not really the nurses fault (although I do blame the hospital for not having better support, as they claimed they did in their tour). Despite having read The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, attending a breastfeeding class, and going to LLL meetings while pregnant, I didn’t know to ask, and no one told me.
We supplemented again later that day at the advice of another nurse, and we supplemented a little that night too. In the fog of about 2 hours of sleep over 3 days, everything I’d read went out the window. I didn’t think about my supply…I didn’t know to ask, and no one told me how much even just those little 20ml servings of formula could impact my milk production. We were given a nipple shield on second day in the hospital, and as nice as the lactation consultant was when I finally got to see her, again: I didn’t know to ask, and no one told me about what it would do to my already compromised supply. Not to mention that while the shield made it easier for him to latch, it added a whole other element to getting him ready to feed. And as it turned out, the consultant not only gave me one that was too big, but also didn’t put it on me right, or show me how to do it the correct way…all of which I learned after a FRUSTRATING first week at home until I was able to see another lactation consultant. Again, I didn’t know to ask, and no one told me.
Neither John nor I knew that babies just cry a LOT in those first few days. We thought he was broken, and we just wanted to fix him. I thought I was starving him with my faulty breasts (again, so not true), and I just wanted him to feel full and loved. We both agreed that if we needed to give him a bottle in the early morning hours (3am-ish) to make him stop screaming, it was okay, even long-term. Looking back, it was okay with me. And that was hard to accept in the weeks after when I had to come to term with those choices having impacted my supply. But it was okay. Maybe in some way, I sealed my fate right there. Or maybe that’s just the way it worked between my body, my mind, and my hungry son. We’ll never know, but those bottles did buy us both an hour or two of sleep at night, which at the time felt like life or death.
My milk “came in” around day four, I think. And then it seemed like maybe it came in fully again around the two week mark. We were supplementing multiple times a day by this point and feeding him with the shield was an exercise in patience, of which it turned out neither he nor I had a lot of. Most moms I’ve talked to have told me they cried during those early feedings out of physical pain. I cried too, but only because it hurt my heart. There was nothing – nothing – I thought I wanted to do more than breastfeed. But it just wasn’t working. He couldn’t get enough milk, and he knew it, so would scream when he felt the nipple shield because I think he knew he’d have to work really hard to get milk from it, and he was hungry! All I wanted to do, all I thought any MOM should be able to do is feed their baby. Not being able to do that in the way I had imagined was a loss like I’ve never experienced.
I went to support group meetings. I went to see my lactation consultant multiple times, and worked with another one (a friend of hers) in the support group. I obsessively searched the web for stories like mine. And every few days we tried something new: biological nursing, different holds, more skin-to-skin naps, more pacifier, less pacifier, dark beer, tea, cookies, fenugreek, more cookies, dark rooms, three different pillows, no pillows, after bath, after half of a bottle, warm cloths, pumping after a shower, feeding him when both of us were just about asleep, putting formula in the shield, putting breastmilk in the shield, pumping on one side while nursing on the other (HA HA HA HA), pumping 8 times a day (the most I ever got to was 6, and that was CRAZY hard), pumping to get my nipples bigger and then feeding him, me feeding him formula in the bottle, anyone else feeding him his bottle, etc. I mean, we WORKED.
And nothing consistently made any difference for more than a few hours, or days. I cried nightly, collapsing emotionally to John (who, by the way, was AMAZING during it all). Our moms were very supportive too, and no one made me feel bad about formula, except for me. I made myself feel terrible. Looking back, I know it’s normal to feel intense emotions during those first few postpartum weeks, and maybe my “baby blues” just all centralized about the negative feelings I had about my ability or lack thereof to feed Evan. But man…those were, to quote a friend of mine, “dark days.” I am 100% sure all the stress I put on myself didn’t help any aspect of any of this at all.
Around the 3 week mark, offering the breast as dessert seemed to be what worked best to get him to consistently feed. At our best, he was latching during about 5 feedings a day, and drinking at best, for 15 minutes on each side. Those were the times that both buoyed me to keep going and broke my heart to say goodbye to when they were over.
Dealing With a Low Supply
My mom had oversupply, so I’d gone into breastfeeding thinking it was going to be challenging, yes, but I NEVER thought I’d deal with not being able to feed my child because I wasn’t making enough milk. I knew that happened to like, 5% of the population, and all I could think was, “why me?” Everyone has suggestions, but it seems the truth is that reasons for low-supply are as varied and individual as moms and babies are, and thus, are incredibly difficult to diagnose.
As a mom I could drown in “what-ifs” but when it came down to it, I listened to my little voice about what other lengths I was willing to go to. I don’t doubt Domperidone is effective for some moms. I believe the lack of FDA approval is indeed political. But despite knowing people who have used it and have healthy children, I also just couldn’t get past my gut feeling that it wasn’t right for us. Maybe that was partly because I knew I didn’t want to just pump. I deeply admire the moms who make that work. I also knew I was not one of them.
Maybe it was stubborn of me, but my thought was that if I was going to take medicine I’d have to order from New Zealand to make enough milk to feed Evan, I was going to feed him the way nature intended, dammit! And with his preference for the bottle over the nipple shield, I knew that even with something like Dom, I wouldn’t get the supply I wanted, and we’d likely still be supplementing, especially with my going back to work in just a few weeks.
The only other option was to force him to quit the shield cold-turkey. I almost did this. Almost. I even told my mom about it, and she was willing to come and help me during the 24-48 hours it could take. In the end though, I couldn’t do it. I watched YouTube videos of all these little babies doing exactly what Evan was doing at the boob, and I just couldn’t imagine making him cry until he was literally so hungry, starved, that he would HAVE latch on to my nipple. I think it was in that decision that I got to know more about myself, and where my lines were drawn: I didn’t want any more tears cried over how he’d eat. I didn’t want to force him. And maybe that makes me a weak parent to some people, but I actually felt like that decision was what made me feel stronger.
I remember telling a friend who also had supply issues that I just “didn’t want to have regrets.” I figured the only way to do that would be to try everything. And yet, as it turned out, that wasn’t true. I’ll never know if Dom would have worked for me, but I know without a doubt I made the best decision for my sanity, my bond with my baby, and our lifestyle. And in the end, I don’t have regrets about not going further. I have lots of things I will do differently if there is a next time, but I don’t have regrets.
Our Best Week
The week of Christmas was awesome. Evan was six weeks old, and I was feeling more “myself.” I’d stopped going to the breastfeeding support group meetings. I hadn’t seen our pediatrician in two weeks. I wasn’t reading as many breastfeeding stories online. I was spending more time on my own with Evan and feeling more confident as a mama; we’d gotten through some ROUGH nights together and I made him happier each time, which I think made me feel more bonded with him. That week we had a lot of skin-to-skin naps, beautifully lazy days, no agenda, no emails to check, etc. He was sleeping more, which meant I was sleeping more, and the holidays gave our days this sort of magical quality.
At the last advice of the lactation consultant, I’d started trying to get him to latch to my breast without the shield here and there. No stress, no pressure, just here and there. Sometimes he would – only for 5 or 10 seconds, but he did it, which meant I knew he could! I was so proud. John was incredibly encouraging and told me time and time again how much he loved seeing me breastfeed Evan, which made me feel less crazy for feeling so emotional about all of it. In that wonderful week I learned something so essential in parenting: when I let all the noise fall away and just focus on being with my son, things are so much easier.
On Christmas day, I unwrapped a new camera lens from John, and as I fed Evan before we went over to his parents house, I asked him to take some pictures of Evan breastfeeding. Little did I know that was the last time he’d ever latch. And I can honestly say those pictures mean more to me than almost any other material thing in this world. They are the proof of our hard-earned six weeks, and also, proof that it was never me, or him and me, it was just a lot of circumstances that made for a lot of trouble for us both. He loved breastfeeding as much as I did, but he loved not being hungry even more.
I pumped for a few weeks after Evan stopped latching, but I quit two weeks after going back to work. Without him latching my supply was getting lower by the day and between working and being home alone with him I just couldn’t pump as many times a day as I would have needed to in order to keep what little supply I had up. I was getting 1/2 an ounce a day, a “vitamin” of breastmilk as our pediatrician called it. I thought I’d feel super emotional about quitting, but honestly, I didn’t. I was glad to have the hours of time back (yes, that 1/2 ounce was hard earned) to spend with Evan and John, and I was glad to have one less bag to drag out of the house. I think I’d cried all my tears over it all in the weeks prior, and by the time I packed away the pump, I was at peace.
A friend who is a mom of three wrote to me that “any mom who judges another mom for not breastfeeding has never really, really struggled.” And I believe her.
I judged before I knew. Even well into pregnancy, I just couldn’t understand how or why any mom would use formula. I mean, why? I just didn’t get it. Thinking back about how strongly, arrogantly, I went into the idea of breastfeeding makes me wonder if there really is such a thing as karma… And it also makes me positive that if I’d had a more open mind I wouldn’t have been so incredibly hard on myself, which would have saved everyone a lot of trouble.
Of course I wish breastfeeding would have worked for us for longer than it did, but when I pull back and I look at the big picture, and I read studies like this, I know even scientifically, it’s all relative. Yes, I miss parts of it. I think all moms miss something from those early, early days. But overall, E is thriving and we have made the most of the hand we’ve been dealt.
Up until just a few weeks ago (around 3 1/2 months), we used Tommee Tippee bottles with the slowest nipple, and I fed him as close to my bare breast as possible. John and I both did skin-to-skin with him frequently, which started just seconds after he was born. I also cuddled him as much as I could when he wasn’t eating, in part because I needed to have time with him in my arms that wasn’t stressful and frustrating. These things, more than anything in those trying weeks, are what I credit to his desire to still be next to my breasts for comfort, just like a breastfed baby.
I focused on making his bottle feedings as intimate as his breastfeeding was; I didn’t touch my phone, I focused on him, stroked his face, stared into his eyes, etc. I still do this more often than not. As my pediatrician/lactation consultant has said to me more than once, studies show many of the “benefits of breastfeeding” are not just about the milk, but are also very much about the closeness. Once I knew for sure he was done latching, I put all my energy into making every feeding as positive and as special as possible, and for me, that was huge. While I haven’t felt that same “love drunk” feeling I did when he would latch, I do get something similar, and I know there is no place he feels more at home than against my chest. And that couldn’t be more mutual.
In sum, if we ever have another child, I will do things differently starting in the hospital. First off, I will ask for help again and again and again until I can get a latch without a shield. I will be the most annoying person on that recovery floor because as I’ve since learned, my mom has the same nipples as I do! And she had zero issues getting me to latch. I think if I’d asked for more help I could have never had to use that shield, which would have cut down on a lot of the chaos.
For good measure, I also plan to weigh less, and have a specialist see if they can determine if I do or do not have a thyroid issue or IGT. I’d like to cross off any medical reasons for low-supply, and then just work on not using formula, and getting a good latch down in the hospital.
I’ve found wearing him (in the Ergo or a ring sling) has been so healing. Being so close to him as we go about our day gives me a new kind of magical feeling, and he is so content to sleep when being carried – he looks up at me from his carrier like I put the stars in the sky, and that is just beyond words special. I would suggest if you’re struggling with breastfeeding, or anything really, wear that baby as much as possible! I didn’t do this in those early weeks and I will if we have another child.
In the end, I know that all of the struggle made me a better person, and all of it has made me a more confident mom. I don’t wish it on anyone, but if you’ve found yourself in this story, my biggest piece of advice would be to try to find the lesson in it all, because it’s there. You may not see it right now, but it’s there. Give yourself permission to feel the loss, then focus on those lessons. Eventually it will be less painful, I promise.