November 11, 2010

A Little Breastfeeding Story

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about breastfeeding. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about why I kept breastfeeding when things were pretty bleak for me. I’m not sure that I really have answers, and I’m certainly not in this to tell you how awesome of a mom I am because I stuck with it. Breastfeeding is one of the most challenging and rewarding things I’ve ever done in my life—not just in my mom life (all 17 months of it).

Time to get personal and lay the bad on you. I have flat nipples. I didn’t know that was even a thing before I got pregnant. Even though I had read about them in The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, I didn’t think it applied to me. But it did. To make a long and painful story shorter but no less painful, we had a very shallow latch that wore the skin off both nipples in a matter of maybe a week. We’re talking raw, bleeding craters the size of a fingernail on both nipples. I could barely stand to have a t-shirt against them, let alone have a baby suck on them.

Medela’s Hydrogel pads saved my breasts. I used them religiously and cleaned out the hospital gift store—the only place in town I could buy them. But it still took three months for my nipples to heal completely. I have scars. In the meantime there was a lot of work and a lot of tears.

When the damage first occurred, my very concerned husband suggested we try a bottle of breast milk to give my breasts a chance to heal. Terrible idea. He didn’t know, and I didn’t know, and it was all we could do at the time. That one bottle led to three days of H refusing me. Three days. She was only a week or so old at the time. We finger fed her for three days. It took three people. I would pump while two people managed the bottle, dropper, finger, and baby.

Finally I ended up with nipple shields both to protect my breasts and give her something to latch on to. It still hurt to breastfeed. It hurt every time. For weeks. Sometimes I would still bleed. Nothing is as horrifying as when I first looked down at my beautiful nursing infant to see bright red blood beading at the corner of her mouth.

I spent a lot of time wincing, crying, and occasionally sobbing hysterically. H spent a lot of time yelling at me.

But it did get better eventually. For me it took a good 12 weeks. Standard wisdom tells women to wait six weeks before they decide to quit or stick with it. At six weeks I thought that anyone who said that breastfeeding was a wonderful bonding time and so relaxing was full of shit. I felt like breastfeeding for one year was a prison sentence. I also felt like a pretty crappy mom. It wasn’t until I got to 12 weeks that I felt somewhat competent and ready to ditch the shields (a painful process in and of itself).

Now we’re nursing at 17 months, and I’m so thankful that we made it. I am now one of those moms who can gush about how nursing is a precious time. She falls asleep nursing almost every night and almost every night I nearly risk waking her up because she’s just so beautiful that I want to kiss her and squeeze her.

But how did I get from there to here? What actually made it possible?

A lot of it has to do with the fact that I’m obstinate. I had decided I was going to breastfeed and by God I was going to do it. I also have a mom who breastfed both her kids—me for two years. I have a very supportive husband. And we had a lot of help.

The actual breastfeeding part is really something between you and the baby. You absolutely should have emotional support from your family and husband. You absolutely should get help from a lactation consultant or Le Leche League leader/group. I got a lot of help both from the hospital lactation consultant and a LLL leader. But the real work is between you and the baby. The ultimate deciding factor will more than likely be your willingness to continue in the face of whatever challenges arise.

That nursing relationship in those first few weeks can take up to 99% of your time and resources. Newborns eat all the time. If you’re nursing every two hours and it’s painful every two hours, you’re going to be rather tired. The last thing you need to do is anything that is not directly connected to caring for your child.

Bring on the grandparents! When you’re getting ready to be a new parent some people will tell you to wait and have grandma and grandpa come two or three days in to give you some one-on-one bonding time. Pardon me as I call bullshit. This is some modern idea someone came up with and is a terrible idea. Even if you have a short and easy labor (and I did), you are exhausted afterward and so is your husband who was up with you the whole time. My parents arrived two hours after H was born. Those two hours were plenty of time for one-on-one bonding with our new little one. (Initial bonding, people! I have my entire life to have one-on-one time with my daughter.) Getting to shower and sleep in my own bed while Nana and Nonno watched H and made dinner was great.

Bless my dear, dear parents and in-laws. We had grandparents on duty for a whole month after H was born. I did not cook. I did not clean. I barely shopped. I took care of H.

Now, all things being equal, that would have been the end of it. But the Air Force being what it is, our carefully planned pregnancy ended right before our new unit deployed. When H was a month old, Josh deployed for two months. While I am headstrong and stubborn, the idea of being a single parent for two months with a one-month-old was terrifying. I fled back home.

In practice, I had someone at home with me during the day for two and half months after H was born (my Nana lives with my parents). In a nutshell, that is why we are breastfeeding today. That is why we made it. Because I could go and take a shower. Because when I got mastitis (twice) I had someone to take me to the doctor and watch H all day while I slept it off. Because someone was there at 3am when I couldn’t walk the floors anymore.

The idea that we can do it alone is ludicrous. We need help and not just from our husbands, no matter how wonderful they are.

My advice to you if you’re getting ready to have a little one is to get help. Line up the grandparents for visits. These should not overlap. They should also last for as long as possible given everyone’s circumstances. When the grandparents are there, they are there to work. New moms are not to do a damn thing except take care of baby and answer questions about where pots and pans are. And no sightseeing. This isn’t that sort of visit.

If your family can’t spend a great deal of time, cast a wide net. Enroll aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins, and best friends. Accept local help as well. If you have a neighbor who offers a meal or to run to the store, let her. If your work or church group offers meals, accept them. Budget for Merry Maids to come clean the house for at least the first three months. Make and freeze as many meals as will fit in your freezer before the baby arrives. Let your husband cook if he can/is willing to learn. Stock up on delivery menus. There are even post-partum doulas you can hire to help you out after the baby is born.

Bottom line: In all but a very few rare cases, if you have boobs and a new baby, you can physically nurse. You do have milk. The baby does want you. You can overcome bad latch, flat nipples, mastitis, thrush, or whatever, but you have to have the emotional reserves to do it. If you have to clean the house, shop, make the food, comfort the baby, take out the trash, do the dishes, pay the bills, and breastfeed, life will be much much much harder. Be easy on yourself.

You can breastfeed and do all those things. Just not right away. Remember, even if you end up spending some money in the beginning, the cheap formula will run you $1,200 a year, not including buying bottles and all the stuff that goes with them. If you spend any less than that, you’re saving money. Plus, I barely even need to mention that breast milk is the ideal food for baby and gives your little one the best possible start in life.

I now relinquish my soapbox. If you’re still pregnant, I wish you a wonderful birth and easy breastfeeding. If you’re struggling right now, there is hope. More importantly, there is help. You just have to ask.


  1. We already met with a lactation consultant . . . i am trying the breast shields. . . E is tongue-tied, so her latch is a little rough and it was EXCRUCIATING when she'd latch on. Shields are amazing, but she won't always take them. Even using it every other time has done wonders for the pain, and will get us through until we see the ped about snipping her little skin (which COMPLETELY breaks my post-partum heart!) Good to read about powering through and know we will get through this :)

  2. To alikojak- I know it sounds awful to snip her tongue-tie, but it's very quick and relatively painless (all things considered) and if it means saving your nursing relationship, then do what you feel you are most comfortable with. As a LLL leader myself, I've met plenty of women who had a hard time nursing with a tongue-tied baby. It is heart-breaking to think you may be doing her harm in cutting the tie, but at the same time, think of how you both will benefit from this relatively quick procedure. Hang in there, mama.

    To J- have you ever thought about trying to get this published in New Beginnings, the LLL magazine? I think it would be a fabulous entry to be published for other moms to know that while breastfeeding may not be as easy in the beginning for everyone, if you stick it with it the benefits quickly outweigh the hardships. Helen is so lucky to have such a giving and loving mama!!


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