Before I became pregnant, I had always assumed, like so many of my friends and family members, it would take months (or even years) to conceive – if we were able to at all. My husband and I have always planned to adopt regardless of whether we had a physiological birth or not. So, when I found out I was pregnant on my 29th birthday, I was overwhelmed with the blessing that there was a poppy seed sized baby for me love and grow over nine months. I assumed without a doubt that I would breastfeed exclusively for a minimum of six months; it is natural after all, and according to Elizabeth Banks’ character in What to Expect, “breast is best,” right?
Well, maybe! …if you are able to, that is.
So I prepared by researching. The main message that came out of the numerous antenatal workshops and courses I had attended, the dozen books I had read, and experts I had listened to was this: if you are doing it right, breastfeeding does not hurt.
For a few lucky ladies with blessed bosoms, this is true and that is awesome. But for myself (and as I have learned, most of my friends), we encountered obstacles. One funny and honest account can be found here.
After 27 hours of labor (22 hours unmedicated labor, two hours of pushing with Entonox then a further three hours of medicated pushing and intervention as my baby was not making sufficient progress), I was eager to see my beautiful baby’s face and start breastfeeding within his first hour of birth.
I mean I was really committed to this whole breastfeeding thing. I had already pre-sorted my entire wardrobe to be breastfeeding friendly. I had even hand-sewn clips onto all my tank tops so I could breastfeed conveniently for crying out loud. I packed my Boppy with my hospital bag and I was set to go to town.
Within 30 minutes of delivery, I asked for help from my midwife to begin breastfeeding. She, along with a band of other midwives over the next 36 hours, attempted to help me breastfeed… but this did not come easily for my newborn son or me. It hurt! Everyone said the latch looked fine but it definitely did not feel fine.
Think about it: you have a tiny savage creature (who is experiencing hunger for the first time) gnawing on your poor, sensitive nipples (which were formerly playing a part in sex!) for 45 minutes every two or three hours around the clock! It seems bound to be uncomfortable!
One of the midwives in the hospital tried to “milk” my breasts to spoon-feed colostrum my son. Ouch! This hurt too but I trusted the trained staff to know what I needed to do. This did not seem to be working very well; still, I persevered.
We were home from the hospital just in time to enjoy Christmas Eve with my new family. Just three days postpartum, I had started bleeding with each nursing session and was in increasing pain.
Over the following six days my toes were beginning to curl with the incredible immensity of the stinging at my breasts. I began to cry whenever my baby starting to display signs of hunger. And I dreaded when my husband would hold up our little baby and declare: he is hungry!
Day eight postpartum was the worst. All night my son was not able to latch and I could not comfort him. After what seemed to be an endless night, he finally fell asleep and in the morning I tried again for 45 minutes to help him latch on. Finally I was feeding him but shortly after, he spit up bright red blood! I was horrified and rang the midwife who was due to come visit us that morning. She took one look at my nipples and said they looked like jelly candy. Thanks. She assured us that my baby was spitting up my blood (not his, thank goodness) and that I should pump breast milk to allow my severely cracked nipples to heal. I later found out that my son had a tiny tongue-tie so small that no doctor in the country would clip it (we live in Northern Ireland) and he also had a small ridge on the roof of his mouth that grated against my nipples. This made breastfeeding even more challenging but I figured that I could at least try to pump for a while.
Pumping exclusively for three days gave me a rest. I was able to see a breastfeeding counselor who helped me have my first ever pain-free feed. She taught me a simple technique to help my baby latch deeper by holding my breast in a c-shape and using my index finger to gently push his chin down opening his mouth wider.
But three days later, my nipples looked even worse. They hadn’t healed properly and we suspected thrush. We began a two-week treatment and meanwhile I went back to pumping.
For three weeks I pumped every three hours day and night – that is how long it took to stop feeling a constant and uncomfortable pain. My husband went back to work so it was hard to pump when my son was awake as we were cuddling or playing, bottle-feeding and burping. Plus sterilizing! It was stressful and time consuming to keep pumping but I refused to give up. Props to mommies who exclusively pump; you are doing an amazing job! This particular mommy deserves a medal:
Unfortunately, since I had been exclusively pumping for about five weeks, my milk supply was not increasing though my son’s needs were. He was not gaining very much weight, which left me feeling extremely discouraged. How could I feed my baby? Was I a failure? Was I doing what was right for him? If your baby’s weight is in danger, persevering with breastfeeding might not be a safe option for you. In my case, we struggled but my son was never at a dangerous weight so I felt I could continue experimenting.
I was willing to try anything and everything before I could allow myself to stop nourishing my little baby the way I wanted to. I tried nipple shields but he could not draw out enough milk. I attended breastfeeding support groups and even saw an expensive lactation consultant. The consultant told me to allow the baby to latch on his own without any support but this left me bleeding and sore. She looked at my nipples and concurred: “Oh, yeah, that looks pretty bad” and still took my money! I began personal research and took fenugreek and brewer’s yeast for about four weeks as galactagogue supplements to promote lactation. I was also making sure I was hydrated, eating iron rich foods, lots of oatmeal (and chocolate too… that has good stuff in it, right?). Mama Natural helped me find a few more tips.
Over the next month I was able to increase what I was producing from 50 milliliters (about 2 ounces) to 100 milliliters (3.5 ounces) but my little son was still hungry.
We decided (with tears) that we should supplement with formula as a short-term remedy. The first time we gave him a bottle of formula, I stood outside of the room, peeking around the corner while my husband fed our baby. I felt ashamed that I could not feed my son myself.
The formula gave him a full belly but he was not content like he was when I breastfed him. Instead of relaxing his limbs and falling into a happy milk-induced coma, he went rigid and posseted, coughing and choking on the fast flow of strange tasting milk. I found an encouraging website for formula feeding mothers that helped me see the positives of formula feeding and combination feeding but I still felt in my heart that I was not ready to stop without trying just once more.
I decided to give him just one meal each day at the breast while pumping and supplementing with formula the remaining meals. It was grueling! I was tethered to the house every three hours to resume my pumping regime. I was very careful to ensure his latch was good and slathered on nipple cream.
Finally, at church, I asked for prayer for a breakthrough – and it came!
After one week of only managing one meal at the breast per day, I fed him twice while I kept on pumping and supplementing for a second week. I was still in pain a little bit, but nothing like it was before. A victory!
I was talking to everyone I could about breastfeeding. I learned that even adoptive mothers could learn to breastfeed. I was amazed to learn that under Islamic Sharia‘a law in some countries, breastfeeding gives an adopted child birth rights. If women who did not give birth can relactate, so can I!
Armed with a supportive husband who encouraged me to do whatever I felt was right, my mother-in-law who listened endlessly to my woes, unceasing prayer, and a barrel of nipple cream, slowly, my supply started to increase and I was healing. Yes! I was doing it!
My son was growing, thriving even! His mouth was also a little bit bigger now and this helped him latch a little deeper. To claim back breastfeeding at night we gave him half bottles of formula and I would breastfeed the rest. This allowed me to further increase my supply and ease back in to routine I was fighting for.
Now at twelve weeks postpartum, I am breastfeeding exclusively and I am so glad that I persevered through the seeming overwhelming pain and stress. The journey has been hard but I refused to give up and now I see how content my son is. We have a special bond that has been worth it! Looking back at the first eight weeks, they were relentless – but I focused on one feed at a time, which was all that was manageable. My nipples may not look the same ever again but when I see my happy boy content and growing, I am happy knowing I trusted my mothering instinct to provide for him in the best way that I could.
Some women are unable to breastfeed and choose formula or have great success with pumping; they are providing the best that they can for their babies too.
I want to encourage mothers who are struggling and questioning if they should give up. If you want to breastfeed, keep trying new things to see if they will work for you. If you decide to feed your baby another way or combination feed, your baby will be nourished and loved that way too.
Good luck mommas in helping your babies grow!