“It’s the most natural thing in the world, right? How hard can it be? I don’t really need to take a class on how to make my breasts work, or how to teach a baby to suck. Isn’t that what instinct is all about?” Or so I thought.
How wrong I was. Although, I’m not sure any amount of classes, YouTube videos, or literature would have made those first few months of breastfeeding my first child any easier. It is something you have to actually do to learn, and, as with everything in raising children, they are all different. Every child has a different mouth, a different latch, a different suck…
So there we were learning together. My first baby was born a few days late - a beautiful, healthy boy.
He wasn’t very interested in eating for those first few days in the hospital. They kept telling me to wake him up to feed him, but he just wanted to sleep. We never quite got it right in the hospital and the lactation consultant was not all that helpful. By the second day it felt like someone was hacking at my nipples with a razor blade each time I shoved them in his tiny little mouth. I thought it would get better in a few days, but it didn’t. Instead, my nipples started to bleed. By now he had finally woken up and wanted to eat for what felt like ALL THE TIME. “This can’t be right, I thought. He just ate 45 minutes ago!” Oh, how I wished I had taken those classes.
Whoever said that newborns needed to eat every 2-3 hours didn’t ever have my little hungry hungry hippo. From about 5pm until 11pm he wanted to nurse. It was constant. My toes would curl every time he would latch.
I knew I had to feed this tiny little baby, but it was starting to feel like I also had to save my nipples from falling off!
I saw the lactation consultant two more times, but nothing she said or did helped. In hindsight, I should have found a new lactation consultant. I should have shopped around until someone could help. But when you are barely surviving the sleepless nights, the endless diaper changes and feedings, who has time to research, call and actually get out of the house to go see a variety of lactation consultants? I sure didn’t.
I kept reading that it was not supposed to hurt, and that if it did, I was doing it wrong. For the life of me, I could not figure out how to do it differently or better, and nobody was there to show me how. Most of my close girlfriends had not had babies yet. I didn’t have any family close by to help me, and although my husband was incredibly supportive, he didn’t have a clue.
At about a month I introduced the bottle and pumped milk so that my husband could share in the glory of feeding the baby. That felt like a big weight off my shoulders, but I also had constant guilt that I wasn’t “doing it right”. After a few weeks, it was clear that my son liked the bottle better than my breast. He would nurse, but get fussy quickly and pull off. It became a struggle to keep him on the breast. And each time he went on and off, my nipple felt like it was also coming off. He loved the bottles and would suck the milk down so quickly and easily. It made staying devoted to breastfeeding really really difficult. I continued to breastfeed until six months, but much of the milk he was getting was pumped into a bottle. He happily moved onto formula after six months, and I’m not going to lie, I was incredibly relieved when I was done. I was sad it had not worked out better, but I just didn’t know how else to help us. If only I knew then what I know now.
A better lactation consultant could have helped me get a better latch from the first days, rather than letting him latch with a small pucker. He created a habit of latching like that and by the time I realized it, I could not change his muscle memory. Oh well…today he is a healthy, vibrant, bright and gorgeous five year old. He doesn’t remember a thing, and he still loves to guzzle his milk from a cup!
Number two came along just about three years later. She was born a week late, but came out relatively small and scrawny. Turns out my placenta had stopped working and she was literally starving in there. She latched on the second they put her on my chest and sucked like her life depended on it (I guess it kind of did!).
I was going to get it right this time.
I had a phenomenal lactation consultant right in the hospital. She showed me several times how to get this baby to open her mouth as wide as her little jaw could and how to shove my ginormous engorged breast into her mouth. It worked! No pain! So, this is what they were talking about?! Just to look down and see her mouth stretched so wide sucking so hard on my breast and not feeling any pain was the most gratifying thing in the first few weeks after her birth. She loved breastfeeding, and so did I. I was better prepared for the time commitment this time too.
I learned the hard way after my first that I was not going anywhere or doing anything for at least a month after she was born. If anyone wanted to see me, they had to come to me. I tried to get out and about like it was no big deal after I had my first child. I thought, “Just because I had a baby, I’m not going to change my lifestyle!” Ha! No, not this time. My baby girl and I cocooned on my couch and in my bed for that first month. She fed constantly and I didn’t care.
BUT then it started. About two months in, she would latch on and suck vigorously, but then pull off screaming. I started seeing little red and brown flecks in her poop. According to the pediatrician, she had blood in her stool…she was allergic to my milk.
Again, this is supposed to be the most natural thing in the world. My body makes milk for my baby; she’s allergic to it?! So unfair.
I cut out soy and dairy for two months. No improvement. She was miserable and still had blood in her stool, and now I was miserable because I couldn’t eat the foods I loved, and I couldn’t feed my baby without her screaming. It gets better. This child hated the bottle. Wouldn’t even look at it. Never once in four months were we able to get her to take a bottle. She loved breastfeeding so much, even though it caused her pain.
After several trips to the pediatric gastroenterologist and restrictive diets for me, I had to throw in the towel. At five months (I can remember the date exactly), I breastfed her for the last time. I knew it would be the last time, which made it even sadder. The next four days were excruciating for both of us, as she would root at my breast and scream for my milk while I would attempt to get her to drink formula from the bottle. I cried about as much as she did. Finally, she was hungry enough that she started to take the bottle. I felt terrible. It took about a month for her to really drink well from the bottle. She hated it.
Once she got used to the formula, all the symptoms of the dairy allergy cleared up. It was a relief to know I had done the right thing. She outgrew her dairy allergy around ten months, fortunately.
She is doing great at two and a half years old, and just like my son, has no recollection of her love/hate relationship with my breasts. It sure did seem like the end of the world when I had to force the formula on her, but I see now that it was just a blip in our history.
The lessons I try to pass on to anyone who asks as they prepare for their first baby are:
Get help from the get-go. Don’t settle for pain.
Get comfortable and don’t plan to go anywhere for the first few weeks. Give in to feeding all the time because it is supposed to be that way. No, there isn’t something wrong with your baby or your milk. Yes, they are hungry all the time. Yes, they do want to use you as a pacifier. And, yes that is normal. Do not fight it!
However it does or does not work out for you, it won’t matter a few years down the road. You’ll be too busy worrying about the next phase of childhood to hang on to the breastfeeding woes.