Images and text by Erin Bohn.
I remember the first time I heard that breastfeeding was kind of important. I was probably 18ish and the mom of a child I babysat was complaining about sore nipples. Why doesn’t she just use formula? I asked a friend a few days later. My friend (who was an aspiring doula) filled me in that breastfeeding was better. She started talking about antibodies and bonding while I went ahead and zoned out. Being 18 and not really interested I forgot most of it.
A few short years later my then boyfriend and I decided it might be fun to become foster parents. I remember being at the playground one day and having another mother come over and ask me if I was doing adoptive breastfeeding. I had been cradling my daughter in my lap and she had fallen asleep that way. This mom was doing adoptive breastfeeding, and was hoping that maybe I was too. From far away my pose had looked like I might have been. I hadn’t even heard of adoptive breastfeeding until that day. She filled me in that she took supplements to induce lactation as well as using donated milk. I think I was polite enough in my response. But I still feel guilty about my initial shock over the donated milk aspect of it.
When we welcomed our third child home through birth last year I had finally learned enough about breastfeeding to know that it was important to me. What I hadn’t learned was that sometimes breastfeeding is a little bit hard.
I was lucky enough to give birth to Hazel in a hospital with a great lactation consultant on hand. Whenever a mom was planning on breastfeeding they sent the LC over an hour after birth. When she couldn’t get my baby to latch, she assured us we needn’t worry and should just try again in another hour or two. So we did. And it still didn’t work. The lactation consultant came to check on us the next day and mentioned the baby may have a tongue tie. She said that most babies with tongue ties learn to work around them. After that we were discharged. At this point our baby hadn’t ever latched or consumed more than a few drops of colostrum on a spoon.
I thought I just needed to try harder. But no luck. Apparently all those attempts to get her to latch were just causing her frustration and nipple aversion. It got to the point where if I lifted my shirt she started screaming. Have you ever seen someone do that trick where they lift their hand up to reveal a frowning face and bring their hand down to reveal a smiling face? That was my baby and my boob. Bring the shirt down she’s smiling. Bring the shirt up she’s screaming. It was hilarious and heartbreaking.
After a few days of hand expressing milk onto a spoon I broke down and pulled out the pump. I had been saving it for my return to work. I pumped for 20 minutes and was amazed by my body’s ability to fill bottle after bottle. I attempted to bottle feed her the pumped milk, but she still seemed to be having trouble. She couldn’t really suck and just clamped down with her gums to get milk out. She also wasn’t able to make a seal around the bottle and was sucking in air on the sides, which caused her to spit up everything she ate.
I called in the expert (the LC from the hospital), who said we should go ahead and get her to an otolaryngologist for a frenulectomy. Or in layman’s terms, an ear nose and throat doctor to get her tongue tie clipped. She advised me to pump every 3 hours to make sure I maintained my supply.
We took her to the very best E.N.T. around. Her office staff boasted about her experience with newborns and her high rate of latching babies immediately after the procedure. Great! This is it! I thought.
My daughter cried for less than 30 seconds after the actual procedure. It was a soft cry, not a screaming traumatized cry. Although I closed my eyes during the snip, the gauze they removed from her mouth had a spot of blood about the size a marker would make if you touched it to paper. Basically, it was quick and nearly painless.
Now to get her to latch. The expert E.N.T. spent the next 10 minutes trying while my baby worked herself into a screaming frenzy. Finally the doctor declared my baby too stubborn and we were sent on our way. A mom in the waiting room had clearly heard my baby’s screams and looked very nervous for her child to go next. “Don’t worry, she’s not screaming from the pain, she’s screaming from the sight of my nipple.” I assured the worried mother.
After surgery Hazel still didn’t seem to know how to suck and thus wasn’t getting a ton of milk even with the bottle, though she was now able to make a seal which cut down on swallowed air. I continued to pump every 3 hours for fear of losing my supply. I usually got around 10-12 ounces per session, which was way more than my baby could eat.
I got in touch with the LC again who this time recommended an occupational therapist for suck training. Seriously? Suck training? I remember thinking. But at that point I felt like I had invested so much in breastfeeding that I needed to try everything. Plus Hazel was still losing weight and the pediatrician was concerned. The suck training would help her with the bottle as well.
I could see a difference after the very first session. Hazel began actually sucking on her bottle, and swallowing the milk! It was amazing to watch. I still badly wanted to breastfeed, but I was happy knowing that the milk my body was making was nourishing her. At 2 months old she finally returned to her birth weight of 8 and a half pounds.
Once Hazel learned to suck properly the occupational therapist started helping her learn to breastfeed. It was a long process which involved a lot of stress and failure. The occupational therapist would start with Hazel on the bottle, and then quickly pull her off and on to the boob. The trickery worked to an extent in the office, but was hard to emulate at home. Plus if Hazel realized she had been tricked she would stop nursing and cry. I felt sure I would never be able to get her to breastfeed, but the occupational therapist kept telling me I would. Slowly over the next two months the bait and switch got easier. She started to not mind the transfer from bottle to breast. Finally at almost four months old she went straight to the breast with no bottle before hand. I cried and called my husband at work to fill him in. I had one week left of maternity leave and she spent that last week nursing like a champ. I was overjoyed.
Because of all that time pumping, my supply was much higher than needed. We had two entire freezers filled with milk. At first I was unsure of what to do with all of it, I knew we would never need that much, but the thought of throwing it out pained me. I remembered the mom at the park a few years earlier and started seeking out a way to donate most of it. I ended up finding a group where I was able to give the milk to mom’s who needed it, mostly those with supply issues or adoptive moms. I couldn’t believe how extensive the network was.
Hazel is now 9 months old and nursing like a champ. When I think about the stress of those early months I can’t believe we made it this far, but it was definitely worth the struggle. I look forward to continuing to nurse her as long as she needs it.