One morning, earlier this summer, I was helping my almost two-year-old daughter, Tenley, get dressed and she kept pointing at me and saying “Hippo hippo.” Her brother, Bryson, my “three and three-quarters” year-old, and I looked at each other and giggled, “Hippo?!” Then she tugged at the neckline of my shirt and after a few seconds, it clicked. Bryson and I looked at each other and exclaimed “Ooohhh- nipple!” More laughing ensued.
My breastfeeding journey wasn’t always this lighthearted.
When I was pregnant with my first, I knew I was going to breastfeed. My sisters and I were all breastfed and it was just a given that that is what I was going to do. One of our favorite family memories is when my sister asked her little toddler friend, “Do you nurse?” in this sweet little serious voice. There just wasn’t another option for me. As someone experienced in newborn care and the postpartum time period, I expected breastfeeding to come somewhat easily for me as I had knowledge and a lot of experience helping others breastfeed.
Boy was I wrong.
The first few months of my son’s life and our breastfeeding journey together were trying and painful.
Our time in the hospital after he was born was one big blur of sleeplessness and trying to get him to latch. On the afternoon of day two, I vividly remember the October sunlight streaming into my hospital room, backlighting the flowers on the windowsill brought to me by excited family and friends. I finally had the baby I had wanted for so long in my arms. But instead of experiencing happiness and joy of new motherhood, I was in tears.
Sleeplessness and frustration caught up to me after 45 minutes of trying to get my son to latch. Through hand expressing into a spoon and pumping, we were able to feed him my colostrum via an SNS (supplemental nursing system) tube taped to a finger.
After we went home, I was able to get my son to latch, though painfully. All of the usual tricks to help with soreness didn’t even touch the pain I felt. When he would latch, my toes curled and my body arched off the couch. My lactation consultant was my lifeline. I was stuck in one long perpetual day that never ended. Day turned to night and night turned to day and I was still in the same place, rooted to the couch under a hungry baby. Even when we weren’t nursing, he wouldn’t sleep without being held. Even today, when you walk by our couch, I swear you can still see the shadow of the indent I made from sitting there for months on end.
11 days after birth, I was readmitted to the hospital with both mastitis (breast infection) and a uterine infection (endometritis). I advocated to be readmitted to the postpartum unit and for my baby to remain with me. Some of our family did not understand this and said, “Why don’t you leave him with us and we’ll just give him bottles of formula?” I adamantly refused.
They didn’t understand how important my breastfeeding journey was to me, regardless of how hard it was.
Because my baby was not a patient of the hospital, I needed a family member or friend with me 24/7 to help care for him. I was only able to nurse using one arm, as the other was always tethered by a delicate IV.
Over the course of the four days I spent in the hospital, I got support and felt taken care of. At home, I was isolated and alone. Everyone felt so sorry that I was readmitted, but for me, it was truly a blessing in disguise. Aside from the 10 different IVs I had to have over the course of my stay (they kept blowing out), it was what I needed to regain a bit of my sanity. I hadn’t realized what a truly dark place I was in prior to being admitted. I was at my breaking point and somehow life knew and I got three wonderful days of people caring for me and bringing me food at the hospital.
After we went home, my milk supply tanked.
The combination of my son’s poor latch (reportedly due to the combination of a recessed chin and high palate) and my illness significantly impacted my milk production. My son was not gaining weight as expected and began to appear skinny. My lactation consultant was finally the one to recommend “topping him off” with a bit of formula and pumping when I could with a hospital-grade pump. I remember sitting on my mother-in-law’s couch, surrounded by women 30-years my senior and letting it all hang out as I pumped. I knew many of them had little to no experience with breastfeeding, but I just didn’t care.
When my son was three months old, things finally started to get better. My nipple soreness abated and I was actually able to stop supplementing with formula, which I was incredibly proud of.
Looking back, I wish I had given myself a little grace and given myself permission to supplement him more, as now in retrospect I realize he was literally attached to my body for weeks on end because he wasn’t getting what he needed. I was unknowingly starving him. I was stubborn and did not see any other option other than to survive and just keep on breastfeeding.
To all of you moms/parents out there who need to hear it: it is OK to feed with formula or supplement if that is what works best for you and your family. Give yourself permission to do what you need to do. If that’s never breastfeeding, partially breastfeeding, using donor milk, etc… every family is different.
Don’t beat yourself up, as I did, about not “exclusively breastfeeding.” It is not worth it. I am a pediatric nurse and doula and I am telling you: your sanity and the health of your family depend on you taking care of yourself. Your breastfeeding journey is yours alone.
I am incredibly proud that my breastfeeding journey continues to this day. My son turns four this fall and I get a lot of pushback from almost everyone who finds out he still occasionally nurses- including my own husband and mother.
Do you have a similar breastfeeding journey to share?
*If you ever find yourself feeling like I did, unsupported or in a dark place postpartum, please don’t hesitate to reach out to someone. Asking for help is one of the hardest things we do as people/parents. Your care-provider, lactation consultant, friends or family members, or organizations such as PSI: Postpartum Support International Helpline 1-800-944-4773 are there for you. You are not alone in your breastfeeding journey or in motherhood in general.