WARNING: reading this is almost as excruciating as living through it. Seriously.
I always planned to breastfeed if I ever had a baby. Long before I ever considered getting pregnant a reality I would face, I was already a budding advocate of nursing. When family members had babies, I would eagerly ask if they were planning to do it. When they didn’t want to or quit very early, I silently judged them.
When I was pregnant and had a reason to actually read more about it, I learned that it wasn’t such an easy thing to do. I amended my plan from “definitely breastfeeding” to “breastfeeding if it works out”.
Of course, reading that something is hard to do and actually experiencing how hard it is are very different.
I never experienced such guilt and pressure as when I faced a particularly difficult time attempting to nurse. Never. Not for sex and drugs, not for material things like clothes and shoes.
The worst thing about it was that it was almost entirely guilt and pressure from ME.
Like everything else about pregnancy and giving birth, I was very anxious about nursing. I particularly worried that it would hurt. I tried for 2 weeks before my induction to go into labor naturally and one of the methods suggested to me was nipple stimulation. I felt so strongly that I was going to nurse and was so anxious to do whatever it took to get labor started naturally that I ran out and got an expensive electric breast pump. I tried it, and while I was relieved to discover it didn’t hurt, it also didn’t help me go into labor.
As I wrote in my birth story, I didn’t get to hold baby until 3 hours after his birth and he was fed formula during that time due to low blood sugar. I consented to this- they didn’t do it without asking- and I knew it could affect our chances at successfully nursing. But obviously, I was exhausted and in pain and wasn’t about to tell them to leave my baby alone with his low sugar. It didn’t even occur to me to ask them to bring him to me to nurse. And I didn’t yet know that there were different kinds of nipples
for bottles, that some were meant to mimic a human nipple and that the one they use in hospital nurseries (the little Similac 2 oz bottles with nipple attachments) were the worst possible nipples for a baby who was hopefully going to breastfeed. Those little Similac bottle nipples practically pour the formula into baby’s mouth so when he is confronted with a human nipple, he has a much harder time latching because he has to work so hard to get anything out of it.
But I didn’t know.
When I finally got to try to nurse baby, I was very optimistic. The nurse from the nursery helped a bit with positioning him at first, but he latched on a tiny bit. It was so exciting! It was indescribable.
The rest of my time in the hospital is a blur of confused memories. It was very hard finding a comfortable sitting position with my episiotomy stitches. The nurses were helpful with positioning and they told me the baby’s diapers had been full of mustard-y breastmilk poop. It was working so far.
After our 2-day stay in the hospital we went home with our sweet, calm little baby. We were alone. My milk hadn’t come in yet but I faithfully kept trying to nurse. But it was so painful to sit down that it was excruciating. When he fussed and frantically tried to root, we panicked and gave him formula. My husband ran out and got the same little Similac bottles they had in the hospital. Baby’s birth weight was 7 lbs 13 oz. His discharge weight was 7 lbs 8 oz. Weight loss is of course normal. We were told that babies have 2 weeks to get back to their birth weight.
Two days after coming home we saw the pediatrician for the first time and baby weighed 7 lbs 12 oz! He was impressed. We discussed my plans to nurse. My milk hadn’t come in yet but I suspected it was happening that very day because my breasts suddenly felt heavy and tender. The pediatrician dismissed my suspicion because I didn’t think I was leaking. And he warned me it would take at least 2 weeks to start feeling comfortable with nursing.
By the end of that day my milk had undoubtedly arrived. I was engorged and in agony. We called our doula (the lady who helped me while giving birth). She was also a lactation consultant and she came over within an hour, armed with cabbage and a formula supplementing kit.
Huh? The cabbage is to help ease engorgement. You put cold cabbage leaves in your bra and your body heat cooks it and releases a chemical that somehow helps ease the swelling of milk-filled breasts. A formula supplementation kit is a contraption that you strap on that has an empty chamber connected to little tubes. You fill the chamber with formula and tape the connected tubes to your breasts so that the ends are right at your nipple. The idea is that when the baby latches onto your nipple, he’ll get a mixture of breastmilk and formula.
Our doula, my husband and I spent an agonizing and mortifying evening on the living room couch. I sat, topless, while the doula and my husband vigorously massaged my breasts to loosen the clogged milk ducts so they would deflate enough for baby to be able to latch. Massaging the clogged milk ducts hurt, my stitches hurt; it was not a good time. We also tried out the supplementing system and it was frustrating having to constantly re-tape the tubes to my skin. She said it looked like baby might have a tongue tie which was affecting his ability to latch.
After what seemed an eternity of massaging and squeezing and using the breast pump and nursing with the supplemental kit, she finally left. I put my bra back on and stuffed it with cabbage.
I carried on with trying to nurse. My husband had to massage the clogs out for me because I couldn’t do it firmly enough to make a difference. This brought a new level of mortification that I didn’t think existed past screaming through an episiotomy.
But when we went back to the pediatrician after almost a week of only breastmilk, baby had gone back down to his discharge weight. The doctor had his own lactation consultant he liked to use and he wanted her opinion on baby’s tongue.
We spent another uncomfortable evening; me topless with a strange woman all over my breasts. She said baby definitely had a tongue tie that was affecting his ability to latch.
She gave me a nipple shield to use while nursing to help baby latch and put me on a strict schedule of at least 8 feedings a day and at least 2 pumping sessions with no more than one 4 hour break between feedings. I was to keep track of all feedings, pumpings and diaper contents on a chart she provided.
The next morning I got the referral for the pediatric surgeon to clip baby’s too-short frenulum and made the appointment.
And I proceeded to work my ass off. My husband was back at work and I was on my own. The stitches had finally dissolved so I could sit without pain. And sit I did. Nursing, nursing, nursing. And pumping. Baby was already a pretty good sleeper so I had to set the alarm to get him every 3 hours in the night. He pooped at every single feeding. Usually right in the middle of it. Each feeding would take about an hour, leaving my breasts and I 1-2 hours of freedom before starting all over again.
After a week of this strict regimen I brought baby back to the doctor up check his weight. He gained! Not as much as he should’ve, but it was something. The pediatrician hugged me, exclaiming “See? You’ve got good stuff there!”
I kept it up for another week and had to bring baby back for another weigh-in just in case. He gained again but only a tiny bit. It was time to think about making a decision. Baby was having his tongue clipped soon and everything I’d read said that it made an instant difference. I was getting very annoyed with constantly using the nipple shield. A thin piece of clear silicone designed to fit over your nipple, the nipple shield was supposed to be used to protect you if you were sore. It helped baby to latch but every feeding was still a struggle. And it slid around a lot so I had to keep making sure it was in place all the time or baby would be frantically sucking on regular skin.
We had the frenectomy done. It took 5 minutes and sadly didn’t make a bit of difference. The lactation consultant told me to make the transition from nipple shield to skin slow. I tried, but baby wanted nothing whatsoever so do with my skin. He was now trained to nurse only with the nipple shield. And he was fussing all the time like he was hungry even though I fed him every 2-3 hours.
I took baby back for yet another weigh-in. Again, he gained a bit but not enough. I wasn’t ready to quit but I couldn’t work harder than I already was.
My husband kept telling me it was ok. That whatever I decided to do was ok with him. I tried to explain that nothing was good enough. If I was nursing 8 times a day and drinking the lactation tea twice, I should nurse 10 times a day and drink the tea 4 times. That’s what the lactation consultant (who was now taking longer and longer to reply to my texts) would say. That’s what all the nursing people would say. Try harder! Pump more!
Throughout this struggle I obsessively re-read the chapter about breastfeeding in Tina Fey’s hilarious book. She also had a very hard time and her book made me feel better. One day I googled “Tina Fey breastfeeding”, hoping to find an article or interview where she discussed her struggle in more detail.
I found a blog where the author analyzed the chapter in Fey’s book and criticized what she did wrong.
It was almost time to make a decision. I had brought baby in for 4 weigh-ins in 4 weeks. He was fussing all the time. I already had a milk blister and shooting pains in my left breast. I wanted to breastfeed for a year but it wasn’t working!
The pediatrician had said to give it 1 more week and make a decision. Again, baby gained a bit but not as much as he should’ve. It was enough. We alternated pumped breastmilk with formula for 2 days but baby was spitting up a lot. Was it something in my diet? Should I give up dairy? I didn’t care anymore, I was done. I wasn’t about to attempt to eat soy cheese while monitoring how miserable my baby was. I quit cold turkey.
Two months later, baby’s weight is back on track. He is able to go 3-4 hours between feedings and he smiles a lot. I’m still mad at all the money I’m spending on formula and I’m still sad it didn’t work. If I have another baby I will try again. But for now, we’re doing fine.