Prior to pregnancy, I had limited exposure to breastfeeding. I knew I’d try to do it for a year, because I'd heard you should, but it never occurred to me it would be hard. Then suddenly I was pregnant and everyone started offering advice.
“You just have to make it through the first couple weeks, and then you’ll be fine,” a friend told me.
“I stopped breastfeeding after I started hallucinating my pump was talking to me in the middle of the night,” another confided.
“Don’t use the cream, it will just make your nipples crack and bleed faster.”
Cracking, bleeding, hallucinating?
If this is the first time you’re reading about these things, please don’t stop here. I don’t want those to be the only images you keep. It turns out, just like childbirth, the range of experience is wide, and even between my two babies, the journey unfolded differently.
After an intense labor, my first daughter was placed on my chest and I admittedly had no idea what I was doing. My doula and the nurses attempted to help her latch during that first "golden hour," but it took time for both of us to really get the hang of things.
Lactation consultant after lactation consultant visited my hospital room and really, I felt pretty overwhelmed. Everyone was talking about whether my milk had come in. I was asked to pump every time I finished feeding, even in the middle of the night. My doula doused me in oils. My mom kept bringing me tea. One lactation consultant said my left nipple was too flat, starting an argument about whether I should use a nipple shield.
To make it all the more stressful, the hospital had a scoring system in order to be discharged, and all the anxiety of test taking in school flooded back as nurses studied my clumsy attempts to feed my tiny baby. Add a rising jaundice level, falling weight, and even more questions about my supply, and I was beginning to panic.
Her latch seemed okay, but something wasn’t working. She needed more milk to flush out the jaundice and to stop losing weight. By the time we left the hospital, she’d dropped nearly a pound to just 5 lbs 4 oz. The hospital staff started to freak out, so I freaked out, too.
The day after we left the hospital we were scheduled for an appointment to check her weight and jaundice levels. As I waited in the crowded lobby, I nursed my three-day-old baby as I paced like a crazy woman, desperate for the scale to show some result. She was finally sucking with vigor and I didn’t want to miss the chance for a single ounce to go unregistered. It was also my first taste of breastfeeding in public.
I will never forget the reaction of a woman sitting with her tween son a few seats away from us. My sweet baby was draped under a nursing cover, feeding as I held back the tears of a postpartum, first-time mom. As soon as the woman spotted what I was doing, she huffed loudly, gave me the nastiest look, and shooed her son to sit on the other side of the waiting room. Apparently, my attempt to keep my child from needing to be readmitted to the hospital was disgusting to that woman, even with a cover.
Nonetheless, there were more important things to worry about. While my daughter’s weight loss had stabilized, her jaundice levels had risen to the highest our pediatrician had treated. We were sent back to the hospital to spend the night under blue lights and I was confronted with the need to supplement with formula because I wasn’t producing enough milk to help her shed the bilirubin as quickly as her body needed. I didn’t want to supplement because I worried it would ruin my ability to breastfeed, but I felt like I had no choice.
Thankfully, using formula didn’t ruin anything. She got rid of the jaundice, I kept pumping after every feeding, (despite my intense exhaustion), and eventually my milk supply increased enough to sustain a happy, healthy breastfeeding relationship for just over two years. While the pumping sucked, both literally and figuratively, I didn’t deal with so many of the other challenges moms often share, like damaged nipples or mastitis. I counted myself lucky because minus the bumps of the first two weeks, I found breastfeeding to be pretty easy.
By the time I made it twelve months, I vowed to keep going until one of us felt done. While I'd never expected to breastfeed a toddler, it ended up feeling natural, so we kept going until she was twenty-seven months old. When I became pregnant with her sister, we were both done simultaneously. Weaning was simple, which I know was lucky. So when my second daughter was born, I expected everything to be even easier.
Ha, ha, ha.
After a comparatively gentle birth, my second baby was placed on my chest and I figured I was a pro. I immediately tried to breastfeed and one of the nurses joked I didn’t need to worry about getting her latched so quickly. Still, I’d heard the stories about babies nursing right away and figured I knew what I was doing so it should be easy. What I didn’t account for was that breastfeeding really involves two people and as it turned out, my second daughter struggled to latch.
While the hospital scorecards and the observers were annoying, I didn’t stress in the beginning like I had the first time. I trusted we’d figure it out, although I was frustrated we couldn’t seem to score well on that stupid sheet of paper. They released us after just one night, cautious but optimistic because I’d successfully breastfed before. At that point, I had no idea what was in store for me.
Once we got home, nursing became increasingly painful and soon my nipples were cracked and bleeding, just like the horror stories. I knew she was getting milk, which was a relief, but I dreaded each time I had to bring her to my breast. The pain was intense and I'd been warned to avoid infection like the plague. Desperate, I paid a lactation consultant to visit me in my home because I couldn’t wait for the next in-office appointment. The woman who showed up was kind and identified the likely culprit, a tongue-tie.
There were two options. Either we cut the tie during a quick, in-office procedure, or we wait to see if things got better. A friend talked me through it, as she’d experienced the same thing, and assured me the procedure would be over in just seconds. The small area of skin between the tongue and palate would be clipped with scissors and the baby would be able to nurse immediately. Not a big deal, just not fun to cut anything in a baby’s mouth.
Two additional lactation consultants confirmed the tongue-tie assessment and made the same recommendation to cut it. Still, her pediatrician felt it was better to wait. A second pediatrician said the same. My husband didn’t want to cut it, either. Although I was tempted to clip it on account of my pain, I decided to give it more time.
Despite the agony and two bouts of flu-like mastitis, I hung in there for six weeks. Through tears and all kinds of homemade nipple creams, I persisted. Some feedings were harder than others, and suddenly I understood why women ended up pumping exclusively or not breastfeeding at all. If I hadn't learned about tongue ties or been encouraged to wait it out, I'm sure I would've stopped breastfeeding altogether. The calm reassurance from other women kept me going.
And, thankfully, it got easier. The frenulum under her tongue stretched and nursing stopped hurting. My nipples healed, (yes, it feels funny to type that). We’re now on month six and it has already become a distant memory. Maybe cutting the tie would’ve fixed everything faster, but it doesn’t matter now.
In my case, the ability to provide my daughters with the magic of breast milk is worth the challenges we've faced. I know not all moms are as lucky for all kinds of reasons out of their control. To think I may have missed out on breastfeeding without the guidance of other women motivates me to share such personal stories. All those stolen moments with my daughters, skin-to-skin, have created a life-long glue between us. I’m sure the same degree of bonding can be achieved in other ways, and I agree fed is best, but for me, breastfeeding has been an intensely meaningful connection to my children.