When I was pregnant, there were so many things I was looking forward to. I remember holding my hands on my stomach, trying to touch the mystery that was my baby moving inside me. I couldn’t wait to see what he looked like, or breathe in his new baby smell. I couldn’t wait until I could hold him in my arms, touch his skin. I wanted to hear his cries and be there to comfort him.
Of all the things I was looking forward to, I can easily say that breastfeeding was not one of them.
I had made the choice to breastfeed because I knew it was the healthiest choice for both him and I. I had done some research, I had heard the “Breast is Best,” I knew finding gluten-free formula would be a pain. The decision was made, but it would be quite the stretch to say I “wanted” to breastfeed.
In fact, I was pretty sure I was going to hate breastfeeding. For one thing, I don’t enjoy being in shorts or a swimming suit, so the thought of having to expose myself multiple times a day in order to feed my child did not appeal to me. (And isn’t that what I always saw in the ads, women with their entire breast hanging out?) For another, all I heard about breastfeeding were negatives: you can’t drink, or have coffee, or eat certain things, and your. nipples. will. fall. off. Or at least, you’ll wish they had, because you are going to be in so much pain. And that’s before they have teeth. Engorgement. Chapped nipples. Plugged milk ducts. Mastitis. Sure, it’s healthy, but it’s going to feel like hell. Breastfeeding seemed like more than an inconvenience, it seemed like some horrible torture for women.
Even with all that, I was determined. I would provide my child with the best nutrition I could for one year, and then I would wean him promptly and my breasts would become my own again. To prepare myself, I read everything I could get my hands on. I studied every diagram for proper latch, read every tip for success. I was expecting it to be hard, but I had armed myself with knowledge.
I had no idea. With all my planning, I was completely unprepared.
I had planned on nursing him immediately (as I had read was imperative for successful breastfeeding), but because of the breathing issues he had at first, I wasn’t allowed. It was over three hours after he was born that I was finally given the nurse’s permission to breastfeed him. While trying to adjust myself more comfortably on the ice mountain I was sitting on and struggling to deal with the gigantic hospital gown, everyone watched me expectantly. I brought my tiny, exhausted newborn awkwardly towards my breast and… nothing. There was no latching, there was no instant recognition, there certainly was no amazing crawling towards my breast in search of food. There was just me, acutely aware of everyone in the room and trying to pretend I didn’t feel horribly awkward. I wanted everyone to just get out and let me figure it out on my own, but instead I had three nurses hovering over me and family standing just beyond them. All waiting for the miracle that I apparently was not going to be able to produce.
My concept of time may be a little fuzzy (after all, I had just given birth), but I don’t think I’d been trying for more than a few minutes before one of the nurses swooped in to test his blood sugar. (This, in case you’re wondering, is the moment we can all point to as the moment when it all started to unravel.) It came out a little low on their initial testing, which means they have to draw a bigger vial of blood and send it down to the lab to re-check it (since their quick little device is apparently a POS and completely inaccurate). In the meantime, we are already thrown into PanicMode. J must have x ml of food immediately, and sugar tests every hour.
The nurse whips out a little bottle of ready made formula. There’s arguments from me, there’s no way I’m going to give him a bottle already. I finally win and a pump is brought in. (Let me just say here that I was incredibly lucky and had an amazing supply of colostrum from the beginning.) In the meantime, the nurse is already pouring (gluten-filled) formula down J, topped off with pumped colostrum.
Right there, before I’d even left the delivery room, I felt like I had failed. I had promised myself, my unborn baby, that I would breastfeed. I had promised that I would not give him formula. I was trying not to show how incredibly disappointed I was, but the fact is I was heartbroken. This wasn’t something I had expected, not something I had prepared for. I certainly hadn’t expected to be so crushed by not being able to breastfeed as planned.
The results came back from the lab: his blood sugar was fine. It was completely understandable if it had been low–after all, he had not eaten for over three hours after birth, and the labor was a long and stressful one. However, the hospital had already put us in this emergency mode, so we were stuck in this cycle of forcing x mls into J every hour and blood tests and stress. (I can’t remember how much it was, but I know it was more than the average newborn would be getting from the breast.) Every initial blood test came back low, the results from the lab came back normal. He never actually had a blood sugar issue, but we were treated as if he did. He was monitored, poked, re-poked, force fed. And of course his vitals weren’t done at the same time, so there was a constant stream of nurses and undressing and poking and crying. I would no more get settled down to try to nurse him again, and another nurse would walk in. It was incredibly frustrating, although I know the nurses were just doing their job.
You see, because he was born pre-term, J did not have the fat stores that full-term babies are born with. He had nothing to fall back on for energy, which is why the nurses were so concerned with his blood sugar. Also, he had no suck reflex. Zero. You could gag the boy with your finger, and he still wouldn’t latch on. So instead, I fed him with a syringe. I fell into a cycle of pump and feed where I was constantly doing one or the other, determined to get enough colostrum that I wouldn’t need to give him any formula to meet the dictated amount for the hour. Following the nurses advice, in between all of this, I would try to get him to latch on. It was complete chaos.
Some time in the middle of the night, when it was quiet and the interruptions were fewer, J started to actually suck a little bit. I wouldn’t say he was getting a whole lot, but he was trying, and that was an improvement. . I held him in that darkened room, and for the first time it really connected with me that he was mine. It was in that moment that breastfeeding became something I passionately wanted to do, not just because it was healthy for my baby, but because I had this fierce desire to keep him close and protected.
I knew the hospital provided a meeting with a lactation consultant, and I could not wait until my turn came. I just needed someone to help me figure out how to latch him properly, and we would be fine. I knew it.
The lady that blew into my room was not what I was expecting at all. She was curt, impatient, and more than a little condescending. I had nurses and family watching (once again) while the consultant informed me loudly that I was doing it WRONG and then proceeded to manhandle my baby and my body. I was using the wrong hand to bring him to the breast, I was holding him wrong, I was sitting wrong, no not like that! The other hand the other hand!! Then she was shaking her head and talking to the nurse about how my baby had no suck reflex and oh my god look at her nipples they’re huge and then a nipple shield was slapped over my nipple and my baby shoved back into place. I was mortified. I was in shock. I don’t know how I managed not to cry.
There was quite a debate about whether or not I was going to be allowed to go home. They threatened to put J in the NICU repeatedly (although once again I point out that his blood sugar was never actually low). The consultant informed my doctor that she was not happy with how J was feeding. She would really like to see me stay in the hospital another day to get breastfeeding right. I wanted to go home where everyone would leave me alone so I could feed him in peace. I won.
At home, things went a little better. He still didn’t latch on, but he made efforts. I continued to pump and feed him with a syringe and a tube to make sure he was getting what he needed. I hated using the nipple shield they gave me, but they told me it was the only way I’d get him to suck. I was pumping enough within the first day home that I no longer had to supplement with formula. We can do this, I thought. We’ll make it.
The following day was our appointment with the pediatrician. Before I even knew what was happening, I was ushered into a room with my (ex)partner, six year old stepson, and another lactation consultant and ordered to remove my shirt. She was going to show me a trick. She then pulled out a Similac bottle nipple and stuck it over mine (totally not making this up) and took my baby from me. She pushed J onto the bottle nipple repeatedly while he screamed and gagged (“No, don’t touch him!”). Over his cries, she told me how sometimes you have to use unconventional methods, it’s all about whatever gets the food into the baby. She completely ignored my protests that he was actually improving, that I already didn’t like using the nipple shield, that I wanted my baby back. I was so completely exhausted, upset, and confused by that point that I couldn’t find the words to tell her to back off. I left the room with a bag full of Similac bottle nipples.
And then the pediatrician gave me bad news: J had already lost over 10% of his birth weight. I had five days to get his weight up or we would go back into the hospital. (Unless, of course, there were complications, and then we would go immediately.) The order was two ounces, every two hours, whatever it took to get it in him.
I went home and cried. And then pumped, and force fed him, and shook him awake, and repeated. Pumping took twenty minutes, feeding him took at least an hour. With cleaning, I had at most thirty minutes in between feedings that I could go to the bathroom, eat, or sleep. Feedings meant syringes and a tube and a nipple shield and constant efforts keep him awake enough to swallow. I refused any visitors. I didn’t shower. It was a horrendous week. To say that I was exhausted would be complete understatement. And through it all, there was a constant paralyzing fear that I was not going to ever be able to breastfeed my baby.
The next trip to the pediatrician ended with a beaming doctor and the declaration that he was “incredibly pleased with this baby!” J had gained enough that he not only would stay out of the hospital, but I could ease off the schedule. Yes, I thought, I’ll finally be able to just feed him.
Well, not quite. It took another week before tube feedings were out, and another week before he could latch on for more than a minute at a time. I had so much milk that I had to pump a little every feeding in order to keep from being so engorged that he couldn’t latch at all. Even after he could manage to latch fairly decently during the day, during the night he was too tired to manage. He still wanted to feed every two hours, and often because of the latching problems the night feedings lasted for hours at a time. It was a constant struggle to get him latched and keep him latched, with long stretches of him crying and struggling in between. The only position I could get him to nurse in was the football hold, which was not in any way comfortable for me. It seemed my life was consumed with simply trying to feed this child.
But I persisted, and it got easier. He figured out how to latch on by three months, and night time feedings (although still every two hours) were shorter and much more relaxing. Eventually he gave up the two hour schedule I had forced upon him (which was a happy day for me). And somewhere in there I fell completely in love with breastfeeding. It’s a part of my day that I look forward to, not only for the nourishment that it brings my child but also the relaxation it brings to me. I wouldn’t trade the quiet moments I’ve spent nursing him for the world. The one year mark has come and gone, and I have no intention of weaning him any time soon. I am surprised to say that it is something I will miss terribly when the time comes to end that part of my relationship with my baby.
Looking back, I am incredibly angry at the people who made things harder than they had to be. If the lactation consultant at the hospital had been kinder or more informative, I would not have had all the problems I did. If the nurses hadn’t insisted on measuring and cleaning J before handing him to me to breastfeed for the first time, things may have been easier. And we won’t even go into the consultant at the pediatrician’s office–that was beyond unhelpful, that was a little crazy. What I needed was a little support, a little compassion, and a little kindness. Not to mention correct information. We overcame the hard times in spite of the people who were supposed to help us get started, not because of them.
My story had a happy ending. What about yours?