When I decided to start a blog, I knew I didn’t want to write a “mommy blog.” Don’t get me wrong, I love to read mommy blogs, but I needed to remind myself that there are other aspects of who I am. Today, however, I am going to tackle a topic common among mommy bloggers: breastfeeding.
When I was expecting Kathleen, I took a breastfeeding class and read up on the topic. Yet, when the nurse helped me latch her on the first time, I was completely unprepared for how hard it was going to be. For the next two days in the hospital I needed assistance every time my baby needed to eat. I was bruised and blistered from the struggle, and the kicker was that although it was difficult to get Kathleen to sleep at any other time, as soon as I latched her on, she would be out cold, and I couldn’t wake her up.
At home I kept plugging away. Every couple of hours I would spend about 45 minutes pumping her arms and legs and blowing on her as the nurses had taught me to do to keep her awake and suckling. At that point I would assume she had had plenty to eat, and I would release her. Then the screaming began. It must be gas pains, I thought. I would pat her back and cycle her legs to help her work out the gas.
When she was a week old, her doctor had me start supplementing the breast milk with an ounce of formula after each feeding. Still she would cry after eating, and still I thought it was gas pains.
I went back to the hospital for an appointment with a lactation consultant. She gave me so many suggestions that I was overwhelmed and decided to follow the much simpler directions from our family doctor. Gradually, supplementing with formula turned into giving her bottles and then letting her nurse if she seemed hungry or fussy. By the time she was two months old, I was nursing only as a strategy to get my fussy girl to sleep. I gave that up at three months, afraid that I was creating a bad habit.
Interestingly, it was only after I had my own struggles that my friends started to open up to me about how difficult breastfeeding had been for them too. Some of them had ultimately overcome their difficulties and gone on to nurse for months or even a full year or more. Others had switched to formula within the first couple of months. Why hadn’t they shared any of this with me when I was pregnant? I suspect that they were feeling embarrassed or guilty or even ashamed that something that’s supposed to be so natural was so difficult. What if I turned out to be one of the lucky women who had no trouble? They needed to see what would happen to me before they admitted their “secret.”
When I was expecting Daniel, I was determined to fix all the mistakes I had made with Kathleen. I was going to ace breastfeeding this time. First, I set up a rocking chair in a private corner so I wouldn’t have to ask visitors to wait on the porch while I fed my baby. I bought a nursing cover up, something I hadn’t even known about until I saw Pam use one on The Office.
In the hospital after he was born, I found nursing to be incredibly painful again. A nurse told me that it does tend to be more painful for women with fair skin and that I would just have to “power through it” until it got better. She did, however, also tell me that I “could be the poster girl for the perfect latch.” We had that down, but our first doctor visit revealed that Daniel’s weight was dropping enough to be of concern, and we had to stop in every couple of days to have him weighed.
One of the lactation consultants from the hospital developed a plan for me when she called to check in. Every two to three hours around the clock I would hear Daniel start to wake up. While my husband changed his diaper, I applied diapers soaked in warm water as compresses to my breasts to get my milk flowing. Then I latched him onto each side for a minute or two to keep practicing that skill. My husband took him at that point and gave him a bottle of either breast milk, if we had enough, or of formula, if we didn’t. Then I pumped. I had a single electric pump, and I was supposed to pump for 15-20 minutes on each side. I would get about half an ounce of milk from each of these 30-40 minute pumping sessions. By now, Daniel had been awake for almost an hour and was just about ready to go to sleep again. Dan was the one bonding with Daniel and the one taking care of two-year-old Kathleen. After nine days of that, I broke down in tears and quit. I realized it was the best decision for my family to give Daniel formula and my attention, to help share child care with Dan, and to reassure Kathleen that her Mommy was still there.
It was only after my experience with baby Daniel that I understood what had actually gone wrong with Kathleen. Why did she fall asleep on the breast? Because she was comforted and snuggly, but there was nothing much worth staying awake for. Why did she cry after a “feeding”? Because she was hungry! I felt so guilty after I put it all together. My poor baby girl was getting just enough to provide nutrition thanks to the “supplemental” formula, but her tummy was never really full.
Two years after Daniel, Rose was on the way. I didn’t have much hope, but I thought I would at least give breastfeeding a shot in the hospital. At least she’d get a little colostrum from me, and maybe, just maybe, God would send me a special blessing, and I would miraculously have milk.
It didn’t happen that way. I saw no evidence that she was getting anything from me. When I pumped, I didn’t get a single drop. After 24 hours, even the lactation consultant was ready to bring me formula. We called it supplementing in the hospital, but on the drive home Dan and I agreed to give up the attempt. Kathleen and Daniel had done fine on formula, and we knew Rose would too. I was sad, but my first few weeks with Rose became my most peaceful experience bonding with my new child.
When Rose was about six weeks old, I came across this article. The author, Nancy Mohrbacher, presents research that demonstrates that instead of urging women to try harder to breastfeed, we can actually make it easier for them. In fact, nature intended the baby to participate actively in breastfeeding. We’ve all seen puppies, kittens, and piglets snuggling up with their moms and suckling. Guess what! Human babies are meant to feed on their tummies just like piglets. You can read the article for the scientific information on how lying tummy to tummy with their mommies triggers pressure points and activates reflexes that help baby latch on while mom relaxes.
Apparently, the reason “92% of nursing mothers reported significant breastfeeding challenges” during the first week is that we as a culture have forgotten how to do it. Even many lactation consultants seem to be unfamiliar with “laid back breastfeeding.” A century ago girls grew up watching their moms, aunts, and neighbors breastfeed. When they became mothers themselves, they knew that women who had just given birth could rest in bed while baby suckled. Today’s moms, for the most part, didn’t see anyone breastfeeding – at least not without a cover. The image in our heads is a mother sitting upright in a rocking chair, holding her baby in her arms. This position is sore for a woman who has just given birth and strains her arms, neck, and back. She has to fight gravity to hold her baby that way. “Natural Breastfeeding” puts gravity to work for her.
According to Mohrbacher, this approach can prevent latching difficulties and sore nipples. I’m not sure if it would help with milk supply, but at the very least a woman who knows her baby is latching well and doesn’t experience pain is likely to stick with breastfeeding longer, giving her body a chance to increase milk production.
When I first read this article, I wanted to share it with the world in the hope that I could help other women avoid struggles similar to mine, but I didn’t share it with anyone. Why not? I was too afraid to admit publicly that I had failed at breastfeeding three times. I was afraid of the judgment I would receive, of people telling me I should have tried harder, stayed with it longer. If you read the comments following Mohrbacher’s article, you will understand my fear. Some of the commenters refer to formula as “poison.” Finally, I shared it privately with two of my Facebook friends who were expecting their first babies. One of them let me know that this approach helped her.
Now I’ve decided that writing about my experiences with breastfeeding will be a way to set myself free from the shame I have felt. It’s out in the open now, and maybe I can help a new mother who reads this. Please be kind in your comments and refrain from telling me what I “should have done.” The past cannot be changed. We all do the best we can.