I was not a breastfed baby. For most of my life I believed that this was because I was allergic to my mom’s milk, which made me jaundiced and that she just couldn’t because of that. The doctor told her, “Feed her formula,” and so she did. It wasn’t until I had my own child in 2006, and my mom watched me struggle with breastfeeding, persevere and then ultimately succeed, that she told me the real reason she didn’t breastfeed me: It was too hard. It hurt too much.
I know what she meant. It was really hard for me, too. It hurt. A lot. Oh mama, did it hurt. Lactation educators and books on breastfeeding say that breastfeeding shouldn’t hurt, and they’re right for the most part. Once you and the baby figure out how to get her latched onto your breast and everything’s working the right way, it shouldn’t hurt. But the first of my many breastfeeding hurdles was Breastfeeding trouble #1: inverted nipples. That means they point in instead of out. Yay! They weren’t hopelessly inverted, but they wouldn’t come out on their own, so that skin had basically never really been exposed to any touch whatsoever. Many new nursing moms have some pain when their babies are learning to latch on to their breast in those early days. Having a hungry, eager newborn suck ravenously on skin that is essentially seeing the light of day for the first time was an excruciating experience (and I had just gone through a drug-free labor and delivery). Not only was it painful, but my daughter was having a terrible time getting a good latch because of those damn inverted nipples. Tons of pain, no milk, frustrated baby and mother. Quadruple whammy.
After my daughter’s birth, we stayed in the hospital for two days. By the time we were ready to leave, I hadn’t had much success getting her to latch (and the hospital’s lactation consultant had called in sick. (Argh!) and had been coaxed by some well-meaning nurses in the middle of the first sleep-deprived-what-the-hell-am-I-doing-why-is-she-screaming night to give her formula. Enter breastfeeding problem #2: Nipple confusion.
Thankfully, my husband was on the case. Before we were discharged, he was on the phone with a local lactation consultant (the fantastic Wendy Haldeman, co-founder of the Pump Station, who agreed to meet us at our house to help. Wendy worked with us for a while that day trying to get the latch to work, but eventually it was clear to her that my daughter wasn’t able to get anything out of my breasts. She suggested I pump my breasts every three hours (to preserve my milk supply and draw my nipples out), feed the baby anything I was able to pump in a bottle (to preserve my baby), supplement that with formula as necessary (to make sure she was getting enough) and keep trying to get her to latch as often as I could (to preserve the possibility that we could be a nursing team). And so that’s what I did.
For six weeks, every three hours without fail I dragged myself into our living room to the rented hospital-grade breast pump that Wendy had brought with her and hooked myself up like a prize dairy cow. For six weeks, I yelped in pain when my nipple-confused infant tried to latch on, then gave up in frustration and fed her from a bottle. The good news was that I was great at pumping my breasts and my daughter was gaining weight from all the milk I was pumping. But we weren’t breastfeeding. I woke up one morning at the end of those six weeks in a frustrated, defeated, sleep-deprived stupor and thought to myself, “I can’t do this anymore. If she doesn’t get it today, I’m just going to give up.” And I meant it. But that day, to my delight and surprise, she figured it out. She latched on properly, she sucked the right way, and she drank. It was glorious. We were a nursing pair until she was more than 2 years old.
More Adventures in Extreme Breastfeeding
Those first six weeks were the hardest for me, but my boobular struggles didn’t end there. Some highlights:
Blisters and bleeding: In the early weeks, because of my daughter’s difficulty in getting a good latch and my inexperience at fixing her latch, she was sucking wrong at the beginning and I developed a few blisters on my nipples. Youch! Also because of the bad latch and the corrosive power of human saliva, my nipples got cracked in places and bled. Ew and ow! My advice to you: nipple cream, nipple cream, nipple cream, applied early and often. And then applied again. Just make sure it’s one that’s safe for the baby to eat, because you’re not going to want to have to clean it off all the time. I used one with lanolin for repairing the damage and then switched to an olive oil-based product for maintenance.
Reverse nipple confusion: Once we had become successful at breastfeeding, I gleefully put the bottles away. Unfortunately, once it was time for me to go back to work when she was 4 months old, my daughter had forgotten how to suck from a bottle and refused to do so for a while. Thankfully, she was hungry and smart enough to figure out that if she didn’t make do with the bottle, it was gonna be a long wait before dinner and she gave in. Tip: If you’re going to want anyone else to feed your kid eventually, once you’ve established that she’s a good nurser, introduce the bottle occasionally well before you’ll need to be away.
Chronic plugged ducts: A couple months into my breastfeeding career, I developed some pain and redness in one area on the side of my breast. It was hot to the touch and was really sore with a cluster of hard lumps under the skin. I also noticed a little white dot on the tip of the nipple of that breast. Diagnosis: a plugged milk duct. Hot compresses, rest, soy lecithin supplements (the lactation consultant said, “It makes everything all slippery in there!”) and frequent nursing eventually cleared it. Over the rest of my time breastfeeding my daughter, I got countless plugged ducts in both breasts, but thankfully they never developed into mastitis or breast infections of any kind. I’m not sure why, but I do have fibrocystic breast change (also known as “lumpy breasts,” whee!). All those benign lumps in my breasts perhaps put pressure on the milk-making parts occasionally, causing the clogs. Seasoned plugged duct veteran advice: Don’t have fibrocystic breasts, but if you do or don’t but you suspect a plugged milk duct, take care of yourself, get some professional help and nurse like crazy. Baby suction power to the rescue!
Why Go Through All This?
Why did I bother? If it was so hard for so long, why do it? To be honest, I’m not really sure. I guess I really wanted my kid to be breastfed. I also didn’t want to have to buy formula and carry it around with me. And I’m super stubborn.
And there’s a silver lining to all those stormy boob-clouds: my new bucket of resources to help other new moms who are having trouble breastfeeding. When I was ready to go out into public after the kid was born, some other new mom friends and I started attending weekly breastfeeding support groups at the Pump Station. A bunch of moms with babies close in age to ours sat around in a circle on the floor, nursing or bouncing or diapering or just holding our babies, and talked about our problems and successes, asked questions and became friends, all under the guidance of a lactation consultant who moderated. So many times, there’d be a mom with a baby younger than mine who would timidly mention a problem she was struggling with, and I was so happy to be able to say, “I know exactly what you’re going through. That was me four weeks ago. It’s so hard. I remember. But look at us now. Stick with it. You can do this. But if you get to a point where you feel like you just can’t, that’s OK too.”
I absolutely do not judge any mom who doesn’t breastfeed (including my own stupendous mother), for whatever reason. New moms (hell, all moms) have it hard enough without the unnecessary judgment of their peers. All I’m saying is, if you think you want to breastfeed (and I HIGHLY encourage you to give it a go), I believe you can do it. Make sure you’ve got the support you need, whether it’s from your partner, a family member or friend who has successfully breastfed, your local chapter of La Leche League, a professional lactation consultant, online forums, books, talking to random breastfeeding moms in the park, get help wherever you can find it. It wasn’t easy for my daughter and me, but we did it, and I’m really happy we did.
-- Bryn MacKinnon
For Further Reading: Over-Planned Parenthood, Going Natural: A Doubter Discovers Drug-Free Labor
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