When I got pregnant there was no question of how we planned to feed our child. Breast feeding has far too many benefits for mom and baby to not breast feed. Not to mention its far more cost effective. I wasn’t judging formula-feeding mothers either. I just knew I wanted my child to have the best, and breast was best. Breast milk not only furnishes your child with antibodies to make a powerful immune system and lowers your baby’s risk for all kinds of diseases and infections, it allows you to forge a strong bond with your baby. That skin to skin contact is where it’s at.
We read all the pamphlets. We didn’t take a breastfeeding class, but we had a lot of support. My best friend breast fed both her children, my husband’s mother breastfed all of her kids, and his aunt was the head of a La Leche League in her area. Not to mention, the only La Leche League in Southeastern CT held it’s biweekly meeting at a public library in good old Ledyard, CT. Which just happened to be my town. We also weren’t naive to the difficult road ahead. I knew a host of people who struggled to breastfeed and quit. My own mother specifically. The poor woman brought me home from the hospital and tried her best to breastfeed. My weight began dropping drastically and that’s when they realized she wasn’t producing enough milk. Even if a new mom produces enough milk to let all the children of Papua New Guinea suckle at her teet, there are still a shit load of other things that can go wrong. Something that would seem to be so natural, actually isn’t at all. When your baby is born, within the first hour they will seek out food. They have to learn to latch to the nipple and then latch correctly. And for the first 3-5 days of their life, there is no milk. Only pre-milk, aka colostrum. Some babies just won’t goddamn latch. Some never learn to latch correctly. And some scream and cry and root constantly because they are too hungry to wait for milk. But I wasn’t going to let the struggle best me and my baby was going to muscle through it. Because breast was best.
We immediately encountered issues. Ellie struggled to latch for pretty much her entire first night. She’d root and seemingly get on the nipple and then release. Our first nurse at the hospital helped best she could by positioning my arms and the baby’s head. She also instructed me to let her nurse 15-20 minutes on each breast every two hours. Football hold, cradle, cross-cradle, side lying….nope. Still no latch. We finally got a half-assed latch at about 7:30, approximately two and a half hours after Elliot entered the world. And man did it fucking hurt. Our baby couldn’t successfully latch but her suck was impressive according to the nurses. The minute she got on my nipple it felt like someone was suctioning it with an industrial grade vacuum hose. My nipples started to crack and bleed that very night. Our delivery nurse ended her shift at 11 and so our overnight nurse was the next knight to enter the breastfeeding battle. This nurse carried different instructions: Ten-fifteen minutes on either breast every 2 hours, and the breast you end with feeding should be the breast you start feeding when she’s hungry again. So my internal struggle began. But wait…the nurse before you said 15-20 minutes on each boob and she never mentioned this left boob right boob first or second nonsense. I dutifully followed her instructions. And Elliot screamed that whole night. I hadn’t slept in over 24 hours and Matt hadn’t slept much either, but we spent the majority of the night awake and shoving my nipple in that baby’s mouth. I must have pressed that little call button 3 times for help latching. Our morning shift nurse carried different instructions. “Let her nurse on each breast, time is irrelevant. A feed is a feed.” So we operated under our new instructions. I kept Elliot to my chest for as long as she would stay awake and kept no track of time. By now you should be picking up a pattern. Every nurse we were assigned had different instructions on how to breastfeed a baby. This only complicated an already extremely complicated process. Spending time with a lactation consultant would have been helpful, however we were only informed of her presence on the unit on our very last day of our hospital stay. We met with her for 20 minutes. She was an overly pleasant woman who spoke a mile a minute. She walked in as I was nursing Elliot and immediately began pointing out issues with the way I was holding the baby, the position of her head, and her latch. I was lost in how fast she was speaking and in the amount of papers she was handing us on breastfeeding. We had information on support groups, different holds, logs to keep track of her wet and soiled diapers….but still, other than dissecting that current nursing session…she really wasn’t any help. I chalked this up as being the norm. I figured that breastfeeding is such a subjective experience that there were no hard and fast rules and thats why none of the nurses had the same information. I thought that the lactation consultant isn’t really there to physically help you latch your child, she’s just supposed to give you suggestions and information. I felt just as overwhelmed as when we first started, but again, I assumed this was natural. And so we blindly continued the breastfeeding at home.
It was about this time that I began dreading feeding Ellie. My nipples were getting worse. They had already begun cracking and were turning black and blue and I would wince every time she’d put her little jaws of life on my boob. It didn’t help that after every feeding, no matter how long, she would scream and cry and root as if we had been withholding food from her for days. But I kept telling myself that my milk hadn’t come in yet, and when it did, everything would be fine.
Things were not fine. It was DEFCON 5 in our household. My milk finally came in on Friday night. My chest felt like the Mrs. Doubtfire dinner-making scene. My boobs were rock hard, hot to the touch, pulsing and I felt this burning sensation running across my chest and back. It was painful, but I was just elated that I was going to be able to give my baby girl some food. And then she refused to eat. For 8 hours to be exact. We spent our whole night on the phone with pediatricians on call nurse. It was midnight and the on call nurse was assaulting me with questions. Does she have a fever? No. Can you hand express milk? What the fuck does hand-express mean, and I don’t think so. Did you try and pump? Oh you mean use that thing in the box I haven’t even opened up or read the instruction manual? Nope lady, can’t say I have. We gave it a shot anyways and got nothing. I now know that I didn’t have the right phalanges for my breast size on the pump and that I also didn’t have the pump’s suction on a high enough level. And so our last hope was formula. I remember making the formula bottle and crying downstairs. I felt like a complete and utter failure. Less than a week of breastfeeding and I couldn’t hack it. Pathetic. I headed back upstairs with the bottle. Elliot slammed down two ounces and passed out for four hours. It was the first stretch of sleep longer than two hours we had gotten since being home, and it was the first time I saw her happy and satisfied. This only made me feel worse. To know that if I could feed her, this is how she would be. In the morning she woke up and latched to my breast with ease and I even felt some relief from the engorgment but she wouldn’t stay on the breast for long and I needed more relief. I pumped and only got an ounce and a half of milk between both breasts. But I was hopeful. After all, I bought all of the supplements. The fenugreek, the mothers milk tea, brewers yeast, oats, lactation cookies…you name it, I had it. I was positive I could up my supply.
My supply just never increased and things didn’t get better. Elliot was attached to my breast every minute of every day. No matter how long she was at my breast, she would root uncontrollably and do this pitiful whimper cry because she was starving. And my nipples were in worse shape than they were when we first got home. I actually began to resent Elliot and see feeding her as a chore. I didn’t want to hold, change, or comfort her because I was so angry with her and myself. She was a constant reminder of my failure and I wanted little to do with her other than my moral obligation to feed her. I thought breastfeeding was supposed to bond you to your child? So why did I feel more distant from her than ever? I wasn’t over the moon in love with her like most mothers were in those first few days. And I firmly believe breastfeeding struggles contributed to this.
And for days nothing changed. At our pediatrician appointment on Monday we asked to see a lactation consultant. I was still sort of scarred from the encounter with the lactation consultant at the hospital. I had already decided that this was a waste of time and she would not be helpful. I was wrong. Her name was Mary and Mary was a saint. I hadn’t know the lady but five minutes and I found myself hysterically crying and word-vomiting everything I felt inside about my child and breastfeeding. It was the first time I felt like someone was listening to me and the first time I didn’t feel like a monster. She hugged me and told me that I wasn’t a bad mom and that I was doing everything I could to succeed and that she would help. She took a look at my nipples and said they were so bad that I needed a compounded cream with a steroid to heal them. She also noticed that evidently I have what’s called “flat nipples” (whatever that means) and we needed a nipple shield to facilitate breastfeeding. The shield looks like the nipple you’d find on a bottle and its made of very thin pliable, plastic. She felt my breasts to see how engorged they were. Never in my life have I willingly let a stranger fondle my boobs for an uninterrupted five minutes. I did so without hesitation and out of desperation. I hadn’t fed Elliot in 4 hours and she said my breasts weren’t that full, and so we talked about upping my supply. She then spent an hour with us teaching us how to latch using a boppy and teaching me how to position Ellie’s head in the cross cradle position. And it was working. In fact, after we had nursed with Mary’s help Elliot pulled away from my breast glossy eyed and milk drunk. I thought all of our prayers had been answered and that we could finally move past all of the emotional carnage. I left that office feeling like a million dollars with newfound hope.
It was short-lived. We went home and the struggles continued and got worse. I was doing everything Mary taught us and still Elliot would root in hunger. We started giving her formula after every feed. I hated myself. Why couldn’t my body fucking feed my baby? Why could I make a perfect baby but here I was starving her? I felt empty inside. Tuesday morning I sat on the couch and sobbed for three hours. Ugly cried in pajamas and soaked my T-Shirt. I didn’t want to breastfeed anymore. I didn’t want to resent Elliot anymore. I wanted to love her. I wanted to feed her and then be able to hold her to my chest and feel something other than impending doom.
We called the lactation consultant again and scheduled an appointment with her on Thursday. But in the mean time I decided to stop nursing and to only pump. I set an alarm every three hours through the day and night to get up and pump. I was getting only 3/4 of an ounce between both breasts each time. We would give Ellie my breast milk and then a bottle of formula. During these two days it was like we were completely different people. I was a different mom and she was a different baby. Its amazing how food and sleep can transform a baby. She went from screaming and crying at all hours to being pleasant and cooing when awake, and sleeping soundly for 3 hour stretches. And me? I started to feel connected to her a little. Not entirely because a lot of damage had been done, but something was growing. I was still in rough shape emotionally. I had already felt like a failure and a terrible mom for not being able to breast feed and for not bonding with my child. How relieved I felt when we stopped breastfeeding only exacerbated my guilt. It felt like a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders and how sick was that? I wanted to cancel the lactation consultant appointment. I didn’t want to look at St. Mary’s face when I told her I felt happier and more connected to my child when we weren’t breastfeeding. And I definitely didn’t want her to try and convince me otherwise.
But we kept the appointment and I’m glad I did. Mary walked in the room and the first thing she asked was, “How’s it going?” When a solemn “not good,” was the answer, her face softened and she pulled up a chair. She felt my breast and asked me when was the last time I pumped. I told her six hours ago. She felt my breasts. She told us that after meeting with us on Monday she had concerns about my milk production. Mary admitted that after feeling my breasts on Monday after not feeding Ellie for 3 hours, she noticed that my breasts were not engorged at all. After our appointment, she said she consulted with the other two lactation consultants on staff and given our experiences at home with Ellie clearly starving after feedings and with my lack of engorgement, together they discussed that I could have insufficient glandular tissue. Fancy way of saying “you only produce enough milk to keep a baby kitten alive.” She began asking about my family history, and I told her about my mother’s struggles. It’s all genetic apparently. And I had finally found catharsis. I sobbed because I had answers. I sobbed because I still felt like I was failing my baby because we could never exclusively breastfeed. I sobbed because I wasted so much time trying to breastfeed and felt so distant from her for nothing. Mary hugged me and listened, never interrupting or judging. And then she said this, “Even if you were producing plenty of milk, if this is how breastfeeding makes you feel, if you feel like the bond between you and your baby is suffering, if you’re suffering emotionally, it’s not worth it.”
Once again, I left the pediatrician’s office feeling light as a feather. But this time, it was real and long lasting. We left with answers. We left with a little bit more confidence. And I left with faith that things would get better.
For the most part, they have. Elliot is primarily formula fed. I still nurse her at every feeding using a nipple shield. I figure if I at least produce an ounce of breast milk between both boobs, she should have it. Some breastmilk is better than none. Now there is no stress or guilt because I know physiologically I’ll never be able to give her the 4 ounces she’s drinking at feedings. I almost feel a little spoiled because I get the best of both worlds. I have that bonding time with her at my breast, warm, and all cuddled up. It’s something sacred that only she and I can do together (sorry Dad). I also get the perks of a formula fed baby in that she sleeps much better and for longer stretches.
I still deal with the “mom-guilt.” I tell myself “Fed is best,” to ease my internal struggles and I am actually starting to believe it. What I have come to realize is that I cannot be the best mother to my baby if I am shaming and guilting myself to the point that I cannot bond with her. And if that means I don’t exclusively breastfeed, it means I don’t fucking exclusively breastfeed. Elliot needs me more than she needs my boob. And my mental and emotional health are far more important. What I also remind myself is that I am not an inadequate mother. Just the opposite. I am a good mother because I not only gave breastfeeding my all but I used every resource I had at my fingertips. And just because my body can’t solely feed her now, does not mean I didn’t feed her for over nine months. My breastfeeding ability will not dictate my future parenting abilities or if I will have a relationship with my baby. And I need to believe this with all my heart, for both of our sakes.