It had never crossed my mind that I might have trouble breastfeeding my child. I knew a lot of people who chose not to do so or who had tried and either been unable or gotten truly frustrated and given up, but I somehow thought that that simply wouldn’t be something that happened to me. My mother nursed four babies. Surely, I could and would do this with no problem.
Enter into the world—and my life—my newborn son.
Thomas was born nine days early (which did not surprise me). He was a little peanut at 6 lb, 4 oz (as I expected). I had a natural labor (as I had hoped and planned), and all in all, he showed up about fourteen hours after labor began—not bad at all! But then…oh, but THEN. We just absolutely could not master nursing. And I was absolutely undone.
We spent hours upon hours trying. He cried. I cried. He screamed. I cried some more. I’m pretty sure my husband cried. If it hadn’t been for my sister bringing along her double pump and showing me how to use it, I’m pretty sure I would have given up on breastmilk within the first three days home from the hospital. As it was, my wonderful husband insisted on going out for a top of the line double pump and the hands-free pumping bra (Oh, you can laugh, but that thing was lifesaving! And no, I did not look nearly so pseudo-professional while it was in use…). I could not have asked for a man more supportive of my insistence upon nursing (read: I was far too stubborn to give up).
We saw four—count them: one, two, three, FOUR lactation specialists in the course of Thomas’s first week of life. Two of those were while I was still in the hospital. One was a return trip specifically for nursing help—and it was a horror story for another time. Suffice it to say that no one should talk to a new mama about an autopsy on a baby—in any setting. Oh, yes. She DID. The fourth woman came recommended by our amazing pediatrician and is the lead nurse for another doctor in her practice. Not technically a lactation specialist, she was still the first (and only) to diagnose our actual problem. Instead of sucking, my little man was chomping—HARD. He was, in fact, cutting off the milk flow. Now THIS made sense! I now understood the bruised feeling of my nipples and the hungry, screaming baby who seemed so unsatisfied with what I had to offer. Unfortunately, immediately after clarifying the nature of the issue, my new favorite nurse on the planet told me that this was a behavior that she had seen the least success in correcting. She did assure me that it was not impossible though and proceeded to show me how to stimulate sucking action from my wee one (by gently rubbing the roof of his mouth with my forefinger) and how to discourage the chomping (by removing him from the nipple and gently tapping him on the forehead).
For the next week, we continued to struggle. I pumped. We “practiced” nursing. He cried. I cried. My husband or I fed him a bottle of expressed milk. We stored away breast milk in tiny, neatly labeled freezer bags. We washed bottles. We started over. I felt like my life was an endless cycle of someone crying, milk juggling, and small snatches of sleep in between.
And then I got a plugged duct. It turned out that I only thought I’d been in pain from nursing before. FOR THE LOVE! This was TORTURE. I was engorged. Pumping hurt. Nursing hurt. Standing in the shower under hot water (which was supposed to help) hurt. I didn’t know it could get worse, but it did. Because then I got a milk blister. DYING. I was so sure of it. I only wanted someone else to fix all of this and to feed this little tyrant who would try to eat only to push away and scream at me.
Then—wonder of wonders—one day, he got it. HE GOT IT! I was so beyond tired at this point that I’m sure I couldn’t tell you what day or hour it happened, but I remember the bliss of it. I remember the relief and the joy and the gratefulness I felt toward all the women who had contributed to our getting there. I was so very thankful for the work friend of my husband’s who taught me how to get Thomas to open his mouth just so, for my sister who was a never-ending source of encouragement, for a running friend from Twitter who insisted that one day it would be so easy that he would practically do it all himself (and we did get to that point eventually), and for my mom who had been through the same disasters (less the milk blister but plus mastitis—TWICE) with me and lived to tell the tales.
If I were to offer up three pieces of advice from all that I learned during that time, they would be this:
(1) You have to do what is best for you and your baby. That will never look exactly like what is best for anyone else. And phooey on anyone who can’t see that. They can step off.
(2) Glean all the positive and encouraging input you can from a variety of sources. Realize that some things will work for you and your little one and some will not. Even the “experts” differ in their advice, and even the wisest and most seasoned lactation specialist may not have experience with your unique situation.
(3) Know that your best is all that you can give. Your baby needs you and your love—whether breastfed, bottle-fed, or some combination thereof—it doesn’t matter. Take care of yourself. Love on your little one. You are doing your best, and that is enough.