I didn’t think I’d care so much about breastfeeding my son. I mean, I knew I wanted to try. But I also knew so many women (SO many) who struggled with breastfeeding for various reasons: inverted nipples, milk not coming in, too much milk coming in, babies who wouldn’t latch, babies whose latches were painful as hell – you name it, I knew at least one woman who dealt with it.
So my plan was to give it a go, but to do so with a realistic attitude about it. If the breastfeeding thing didn’t work out, it didn’t work out. No big deal.
It was important to me to set myself up for success as much I could – really stack the deck in my favor. So I read a lot of things about breastfeeding. I did a prenatal consult with Katie Madden, a local lactation consultant whose legions of adoring clients had nicknamed her “The Boob Whisperer.” Katie and I discussed my concerns and identified potential challenges. She made recommendations of tools to purchase in advance (two biggies: a My Brest Friend pillow and a nipple shield) and offered advice about what to do after I delivered (top of the list: make an appointment with her at the first sign of struggle). My husband and I took her breastfeeding workshop at The Birth Center, which was fun and inspiring in addition to being super informative.
I also ordered bottles of Fenugreek, a supplement that increases milk supply, and baked a huge batch of lactation cookies that I stored in the freezer. I put a four pack of pineapple juice in my hospital bag along with a box of Milkmaid Tea, a nursing bra, and my insurance-supplied breastpump.
In other words, I was prepared.
My son was delivered at 11:14 p.m. on a Saturday night in November, via an “emergency” c-section (converted from a failed induction that led to 28 hours of unproductive labor). It took them 45 minutes to carve through unexpected scar tissue left over from surgery I’d had in 2012, when a knife-happy surgeon went in to remove a dermoid cyst from my left ovary and decided to take the whole thing instead, and another 45 minutes to close me up afterward. During that time my husband held our infant son while I lay helpless on the operating table, my hands strapped down on either side of me, asking for the anesthesiologist to remove my oxygen mask so I could puke on myself no less than three times.
Toward the end of this ordeal, my son became hysterical. After all, it’s cold outside of the womb. He was hungry. He needed his momma.
Eventually, I got wheeled back to the recovery room. I was still wearing the oxygen mask. I had an IV in one arm, a blood pressure cuff on the another, and a pulsox monitor on a finger. There were wires everywhere. And this was when they finally handed me my baby. His whole body was beet red from screaming and crying, and it took me at least ten minutes to console him enough to offer him my breast.
But then I did, and surprisingly enough he latched immediately. I could feel gentle tugs as he nursed. They didn’t hurt. I remember thinking, “I can’t believe it doesn’t hurt!” I stared at this tiny human in awe, amazed that after four years of infertility, a hellish pregnancy, and a traumatic birth, this one thing was going to work out perfectly, against all odds. My husband took pictures of our son feeding from one breast and then the other. You can tell from the look on my face that I am both shocked and overwhelmingly, blissfully happy.
I thought, “I didn’t know it could be like this.”
After a while, nurses took our son away for the evening. I was headed for a high-risk recovery room and he couldn’t come with. They brought him to me every hour or two to nurse him and do skin to skin. One nurse helped me adjust his positioning to give him easier access. But his latch was good and his suck was strong.
“We got this, baby,” I whispered to him.
When my kid wasn’t even 12 hours old, he was circumcised. Afterward the nurse who brought him to me told me that he was likely to be really sleepy and/or a bit fussy from the procedure. If he didn’t want to eat, she said, I should do more skin to skin. That “counted.”
It was all downhill from there.
At first my son would start to nurse and then, after a few minutes, he’d simply fall asleep at the breast. Often he’d do this with my nipple still in his mouth. I was concerned, but newborn stomachs are really small – the size of a marble – and he’d had the appropriate number of wet and dirty diapers. So I wasn’t too concerned.
But the next day, when he got weighed by the pediatrician, we learned that he’d lost a decent amount of weight, around 7%. Within the threshold of acceptable loss but not by much. The day after that. he’d lost 11%, which was just over the threshold. He’d also had a touch of jaundice, but not enough to require treatment. Just enough to make the kid fall asleep whenever he was near me.
The pediatrician was concerned. The nurses were concerned. The hospital lactation consultants were concerned.
I was really concerned. I didn’t understand what happened, or even why it happened. Hadn’t it all been going so well?
I made an appointment with The Boob Whisperer for the following Tuesday. I’d wanted to get in sooner but she was booked solid. They asked me if I wanted to meet with another lactation consultant, but I said no. I’d already worked with Katie. I felt comfortable with her.
A friend of mine who’d had a baby a few months before I did had added me to a secret Facebook support group devoted to breastfeeding. In it I posted about what was happening. I wrote about how everything was fine until my boy was circumcised, and about how after the procedure he was like a different baby. I asked for advice.
Only one person responded. You know what she said? Nothing. Instead, she pasted a link to an article about why you should never get your child circumcised.
Thanks, lady. I really needed that.
I asked the nurses about hand expressing colostrum and feeding it to him with a spoon. They gave me tiny collection cups and a dropper and showed me how to put my finger in his mouth while using the dropper to dispense the goods at the same time. Later I’d be told I wasn’t feeding him enough. Because guess what? That marble of a stomach becomes the size of an egg a lot quicker than you think. And since the kid didn’t come with an instruction manual, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, or how much he was supposed to be eating. Me = parenting idiot.
My husband had already taken my breast pump home, after one well-meaning nurse told me I shouldn’t use it until four weeks postpartum. This is true if you don’t have any problems, because you could end up creating an oversupply. This isn’t true if your kid isn’t feeding well.
So we used the hospital grade pump. The nurses were impressed by how much I was able to extract. I felt pleased by this. Must’ve been the pineapple juice and tea and Fenugreek, right?
I still tried to put my son to the breast. He never got past a few sucks before passing out. Momma is warm. Momma is safe. He was so tired. And he wasn’t eating enough, which made him even more tired.
On the day of our discharge, my son had lost more than 13% of his birth weight, and we had a particularly long session with the fourth hospital lactation consultant we’d worked with. This one set us up with a supplemental nursing system (SNS), which involved more finger feeding and a tiny tube that would deliver the milk. It took forever to do one feeding, and the kid wasn’t even four full days old, so we were still doing 8-10 feedings a day.
That night, my baby wouldn’t stop crying. He was hungry. My milk hadn’t come in fully. I was pumping frequently but not getting enough to sustain him. I broke into the formula samples all pregnant women are given by companies banking on breastfeeding going badly. My heart broke into a billion pieces, but I knew I needed to feed my little boy.
At our first appointment with our pediatrician the next day, we found out that he’d had lost nearly 20% of his birth weight in the first five days of life. The doctor was alarmed. This was a Thursday, and she told me we couldn’t wait until Tuesday to work with the Boob Whisperer. I had to get in with her immediately or else the pediatrician would need to see us again the next day. She handed my husband a lab slip and told him we had to get the blood work done as soon as we left.
This is when I kind of lost my shit.
I cried on the way to the hospital’s lab. I hadn’t slept in days. My kid never stopped crying. I was apparently starving him to death, even after I’d given him formula. I was failing at the one thing I couldn’t handle failing at.
I was falling apart.
So while my husband took our son in for the blood draw, I sat outside on a bench, sobbing to my therapist. I kept saying, “We started off so strong. Those first 12 hours were perfect. I don’t understand what happened. I never should have had him circumcised.” I was so overwhelmed. Nothing can prepare you for new parenthood, or how desperate you feel when you’ve had less than 24 hours sleep over a six-day span, or how helpless it makes you to listen to your child scream and cry so long and so hard that they only time he sleeps is when he wears himself out. Throughout this conversation my phone continued to ping with text messages from friends and loved ones wanting to know how I was doing. JUST GO AWAY, I wanted to write back. I LOVE YOU BUT I CAN’T HANDLE PEOPLE RIGHT NOW.
My therapist talked me down, because that is what she does. And then she helped me make a plan. Step one was to ask my best friend Wendy to email everyone and ask them to give me and my husband a little space while we adjusted to new parenthood. Step two was to find a lactation consultant I could meet with immediately. Step three was to get some fucking sleep: doctor’s orders.
Wendy took care of everything. She sent off the email. She contacted a lactation consultant I’d found who’d come to your home and work with you there and got her to agree to come out the following afternoon. She herself came to the house to spend the night, so that my husband and I could get some real rest. She made me skip a few pumping sessions so I could sleep 3-4 hours in a stretch.
Sleep was a precious commodity. The pediatrician had put the fear of god into us and insisted we had to feed our kid every two hours around the clock, no exceptions. If he was sleeping, wake him up. We were still feeding him through the SNS and to give him two ounces took 30 minutes. I was pumping every two hours, too, trying to increase my milk supply, or at least make it come in faster. I’d forget to eat real meals but I was great about gnawing on three lactation cookies a day, drinking my Milkmaid tea and pineapple juice and water. After each session I wrote down how much milk my boobs had given up. It wasn’t a lot. If it hadn’t been for the formula, I don’t know what we would’ve done.
When the lactation consultant came out to the house, we worked on positioning the baby. He still wasn’t latching, mostly because he fell asleep any time he came in contact with my boob. The LC asked about how much I’d been pumping; at the time it was something like 7 ounces a day. Normal babies take in 20+ ounces a day. I’d only been pumping for a couple of days and my mature milk still hadn’t come in, but the LC was concerned. She told me that I’d need to produce roughly 30 ounces a day to be able to give my kid 100% breast milk. She wanted me to prepare myself for the fact that I might never make that much. Even so, she suggested I triple the amount of Fenugreek I was taking and add in an equal amount of Blessed Thistle. She also identified one of the medications I was on as a potential milk-wrecker and recommended I decrease it pending doctor’s approval.
The LC was convinced my son had a lip tie and maybe even a tongue tie and encouraged me to get him evaluated for these things. In the meantime, she told us we needed to start feeding our boy with bottles. The SNS was meant for short-term use, she said. It wasn’t sustainable. She also gave us permission to start using a pacifier. In fact, she recommended we use the Mam ones designed for kids six months or older, to help strengthen our son’s muscles. And she suggested we work with a chiropractor who specialized in kids. It just so happened that this was the same chiropractor I’d already been seeing throughout my rough pregnancy, and we’d already made an appointment to get our baby adjusted.
I followed all of her suggestions to a T, continuing to pump and feed my kid every two hours around the clock. When we went in for a weight check at the pediatrician’s office, our son had regained almost all of the weight he’d lost, coming in just a couple ounces shy of his birth weight. We got the go-head to move to on-demand feedings, especially at night.
With the starving child crisis now officially over, I got even more serious about breastfeeding. I was going to make this work, damn it.
But it was hard. The introduction of the bottle gave my kid an instant case of nipple confusion, though I didn’t know it then. Any time I tried to put mine in his mouth, he’d start to squirm or cry or scream. This got worse the longer he was on the bottle. And eventually, I stopped trying to get him back on the boob.
Instead, I focused on making as much milk as possible. I rented a hospital-grade pump to increase my supply. I researched galactagogue foods and made a rule that I had to eat a galactagogue-rich snack every time I pumped. I trolled forums looking for advice, insight, encouragement. I sent the LC many emails about how I wanted to quit. It had all taken such a toll on me, physically and emotionally.
While all of this was going on, I was dealing with what I thought was a very colicky baby. A baby that didn’t sleep very often and who cried out in pain after every feeding. At first we thought it was the formula that was making him feel sick. I bought expensive organic stuff. Then I bought even more expensive stuff made for kids with milk sensitivities. We only used it a couple of time before my milk production caught up to the baby’s demands.
This was huge and should have felt like a win, but it didn’t. Because now my exclusively breast milk-fed baby was still screaming in pain after every feeding. Everyone had an opinion about why this was. Popular theories focused on him having a dairy allergy or other allergy to something I was eating. Did I have caffeine? Eat chocolate? Eat spicy food? Eat things in the cabbage family? Beans? We gave him gas drops. We gave him gripe water. Nothing touched the pain.
Later we’d find out that our son had reflux, and a fairly bad case of it. Later we’d be given baby Zantac to help manage his reflux. Later we’d give our baby this medication and his pain would go away and he would be a happy normal-ish baby.
But before all this, I became convinced I was poisoning our son with my milk.
This is, after all, what I was hearing from all sides. It was something I was eating. I should give up dairy. I should give up caffeine. I should give up chocolate. I should give up nuts. I should give up eggs. I should give up everything but organic turkey, steamed zucchini, rice, and pears. No, I’m not making this up.
Meanwhile, two of the people closest to me were encouraging me to let go of the breastfeeding thing. “It’s okay,” they kept telling me. “It doesn’t matter how the kid gets fed. What matters is that you’re not miserable all of the time. That you bond with him. My kid grew up on formula and he/she turned out just fine.”
Only, formula wasn’t really the issue by then. At times my milk production outpaced our son’s consumption, and I even got a little freezer stash going. The LC I was still working with was trying to get me to use the nipple shield, since bottle-fed babies make an easier transition to the breast using them. But nipple shields aren’t easy to use even if you have perfect boobs. Mine, on the other hand. were large and droopy from years of gaining and losing weight; when my boobs are freed from the confines of a bra, my nipples quite literally point south. (I always joke that they’re itching to make out with my knees.)
Anyway, loose boobs make using the shield almost impossible. I think the words I used over and over again were “unmitigated disaster.”
And still I plugged away it. Right before Christmas, a few days before our kid got diagnosed with reflux, we had his very pronounced lip tie lasered. This was going to be the magic bullet! (It wasn’t.) Prior to this, I’d tried taking a nursing vacation, which basically means spending time with your kid naked in bed, offering him the breast often. The only thing that came of that was me crying hysterically after yet another failure. Right after the new year, a family friend came to visit to help out with the baby. She was there for the very last session I had with the LC, in which she prescribed a 48-hour breastfeeding boot camp (“boob camp,” my friend dubbed it). She was determined to help me achieve my goal, but after four dismal attempts to get my son to nurse – all of which devolved into him crying and screaming his head off – she got a little PTSD and actually started to encouraging me to sit some sessions out.
“Go get some sleep,” she told me. “You need it.”
By mid-January, I was pretty much done. And I was almost okay with being done. I would be an exclusive pumper. This is still considered breastfeeding; it’s just doing with a bottle and not the boob. One of my closest friends had gone this route. I was ready to board that train.
But of course, this is when my son started exhibiting strange behavior. Sometimes I’d bottle feed him without my top on, to get more skin to skin time in. After these feedings, he’d start crawling across my body, rooting at my breast. If I was wearing a bra, I’d pop out a boob and offer it to him. He’d take a tentative lick or suck and then start crying. Not just a little – a lot. He’d thrash around angrily, but he’d keep trying, over and over again, to take the breast. Each time only seemed to make him angrier. At points he’d quite literally push me away.
Every time, it broke my fucking heart.
Every. Single. Time.
And then the Boob Whisperer came back into my life. I’d subscribed to her blog, and a post was delivered to my inbox: The Confusion About Nipple Confusion. In it, she wrote:
When a baby is given anything other than a soft mama nipple to suck on, a pacifier or a bottle, it stimulates a reflex on the roof of the baby’s mouth that makes him suck. This sweet spot is right at the juncture of the hard and soft palate in the baby’s mouth. This is not however, the same reflex that babies use to suck at the breast. The root reflex (like when baby tries to eat his own shoulder) is the reflex that gets a baby latched on and sucking. The problem comes when a baby becomes used to using the suck reflex instead of the root reflex to suck.
Anyone who has put her nipple in her baby’s mouth and had that baby refuse to suck, then put a bottle in the baby’s mouth and he instantly sucks, knows what I am talking about. He doesn’t like the bottle better than you; he is simply a reflex-driven animal. When your baby is frantically thrashing around at the breast with the nipple in his mouth like an angry trout on a fishing line but will not suck, he is nipple confused. He is waiting for that “super stimuli” to make him suck, but he simply won’t get it at the breast.
Can you see the light bulb sparking above my head? THIS IS WHY MY BABY CRIED EVERY TIME HE TRIED TO TAKE MY BREAST. It wasn’t because I tasted funny or smelled weird or because he had developed breast aversion. IT WAS BECAUSE HE WAS NIPPLE CONFUSED.
I sent the Boob Whisperer (Katie) an email. I filled her in on my journey and how after reading her post I finally understood what was going on with my kid. I told her what a relief it was to realize that he wasn’t rejecting me, he was just frustrated beyond belief. I told her about how, after nine weeks, I didn’t seem to be any closer to my goal of getting my son back on the boob. I asked her if she thought I was a hopeless case.
She did not.
In fact, she called me that afternoon. “Your email broke my heart, lady,” she said. “I’d like to work with you. Would you like to work with me?”
“Yes, please,” I replied.
At our first session, Katie identified some major problems. Getting my son into a good position was a big one. Normal nursing pillows weren’t working so well for me, in part because they were too small. There were more pillow towers to be built. And there was the floppy boob issue, including no side boob support. So we created some complicated structures for my boobs using blankets and burp cloths – basically shoving shit underneath each breast until it was firm enough to take the nipple shield. I (finally!) learned how to use the dreaded shield. And guess what? My kid latched on. HE LATCHED ON. And then he nursed for a twenty-minute stretch – the most he’d done since the hospital.
I may have cried; I don’t remember.
I celebrated my 40th birthday by breastfeeding my son for 40 solid minutes. It was epic, truly epic. The best gift anyone could have given me.
At our next session, Katie had an inspired idea: what if I ditched the normal nursing pillows and tried out a twin one? She strapped me into the double Brest Friend pillow, which was so big we started calling it “the kitchen table.” But it was genius, absolutely genius. One of the biggest challenges I’d had was instantly solve.
Our son started to nurse with the shield. Halfway through, Katie took it off and worked with me until he’d take the bare nipple. Which he did. It didn’t take much wrestling, and before we knew it, the kid was breastfeeding shield-free.
“I’m going to give you two a moment,” Katie told us. “You’ve earned it.”
When she left the room, I turned to my husband and said, “Two sessions. That’s all it took.”
“She really is the Boob Whisperer,” he agreed.
Of course, in the 10 days since, I’ve only gotten my kid to latch without the shield once, for like five minutes. But now he latches with the shield 100% of the time. And I keep experimenting with new tools that I hope will be as genius as the twin pillow thing.
We had our third session with Katie today. I walked in and joked, “Why am I trying to do this breastfeeding thing again?”
“Good question,” she said. “Why are you?”
It’s a question I’ve been asked by many people, many times, in many different ways. And to be honest, I don’t have a great answer. I mean, I pump enough milk now, and that milk can be given through a bottle. What’s the difference between that and him getting it straight from the tap?
I could talk about the bond it creates between us, but you can create an equally strong bond with a bottle. I could talk about the convenience of not having to pump, but between my ginormous pillow, rolled blankets, etc., it’s not like I can nurse the kid any time, anywhere anyway.
The real answer is that I am stubborn. I am not used to failing. When I have a goal, I do whatever I have to in order to achieve it. I almost never give up. It’s just not who I am.
But in Katie’s office, as we talked through things, I realized that it was more than me being stubborn. My kid smiles every time he drinks from my breast. Literally smiles while he feeds. He calms down when he’s tucked under my arm and next to my boob. He makes these little sighs of contentment that are priceless. His eyes roll back in his head like the milk-drunk little booger he is.
He’s also kind of ornery, often popping off and using his little hands to move my boob into a better position before relatching himself. So what if it’s on the shield? I know in my heart that if we eventually get him back onto bare boob he’s going to nurse like a champ. He’ll just reach up, grab on, and drink away. And I want to have that relationship with him.
“You can have that relationship,” Katie told me. “This will happen for you. And I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t believe it.”
So we will keep at it, because I am not ready to give up. Not yet. Not when we’ve come so far. Not when we’re so close.
A week ago, my husband and I were talking, and I had a revelation. I told him, “I’ve hated my body my entire life. As long as I can remember, I’ve hated it, even when I was, like, four years old. But this body grew our baby. This body makes the food that feeds our baby. How can I hate my body when my body makes miracles?”
And this, ultimately, is what breastfeeding means to me, and why I’m so determined to have that relationship with my son, even if I’ve struggled to articulate it. The mere fact of his being has healed so many things that were broken inside of me. Loving him has taught me so much about loving myself. And yes, I understand how hippy dippy bullshitty that sounds, but it’s 100% genuine emotion.
You may wonder why I am going into such excruciating detail here, especially about such a deeply personal issue. But after all of the Googling I’ve done the past three months, how could I not share my story? How could I not talk about what worked and what didn’t and how I felt the whole time? If even one person stumbles across this post and has the light bulb moment I had after reading Katie’s blog, then something really wonderful could come out of an incredibly painful journey. (I mean, besides the part where my kid finally gets back on the boob.)
So, yeah. That’s my story. It’s still unfolding, and I’m okay with that. The Boob Whisperer believes in me. But even more than that, I’m starting to believe in myself.