Breastfeeding is Hard – How We Finally Made it Work

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At eight weeks in, I realized we finally made it.  I was pouring a 4 oz bottle of breastmilk down the drain. Anyone who has endured the hardships of breastfeeding probably just gasped in horror at the thought.  But for me, this action was a celebration.  It marked a hard-won victory.

There are so many difficult things about getting pregnant,  growing a baby,  and giving birth it’s a wonder humanity has not only survived, but thrived. Then baby arrives and, for me, the hardest thing no one told me would be hard was yet to come.

Breastfeeding is REALLY hard. The most natural thing you can do for your baby isn’t actually all that easy or natural for many women. Breastfeeding advocates are busy proselytizing the well-established benefits and seem to gloss over the potential hardships – perhaps because they don’t want new moms to be afraid or turned off and decide not to breastfeed before even trying.

It was not easy for me…and I almost gave up completely. Meanwhile, I learned a lot about various ways to make sure baby is fed, and I want to share some of that with you.

Breast is Best? Correction: FED is best.

First thing’s first: you are not a failure if baby can’t get everything he needs from your breast. Don’t ever be afraid, ashamed, or so stuck on “breast is best” that you won’t consider doing whatever it takes to make sure baby is thriving. That might mean supplementing with formula…or switching to formula entirely.

We began supplementing when baby gained weight after his initial loss, and then lost weight again.  His health mattered more than anything else. We don’t always have to supplement, but we’re definitely not afraid to. Supplementing or switching makes you a great mom…you saw your child’s needs and you responded. Cheers to you.

Breastfeeding Shouldn’t Hurt

For me, the pain started only a few hours after baby arrived. Nurse after nurse guided me through latching and feeding my baby. It seemed to be going well. It hurt, but that was to be expected. The first night, when the nurse came in to remind me to feed him, the pain was so intense I cried…it took everything in me not to throw baby across the room. A few minutes in the nurse said “It shouldn’t keep hurting like this.”

We saw two lactation specialists in the hospital. They were amazing. They helped with positioning, latching, and various remedies for sore nipples (including lanolin, tea bags, and honey patches). We went home with a high mark for breastfeeding on our medical chart, armed with these tools, assuming the pain would diminish over time.

It didn’t.

Exclusively Pumping

Day 6. The pain was now so intense I dreaded feedings. I cried every time. My left nipple looked like it was separating from my breast. I began to be afraid of my tiny infant son. Labor pain was a cakewalk in comparison to this. I needed help.

My first call, to The Lactation Station, resulted in something that I had overlooked.

“You know, you can pump,” she said. “Pump for a day or two, let your nipples heal, come see me Monday.”

I pulled out my pump, sterilized all the parts and a few bottles, and cried in relief as the milk began to flow and it didn’t hurt. Then I felt an overwhelming flood of sadness as I watched my wife feed my baby with a bottle. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. But the relief was so immediate and so complete…this didn’t hurt anything but my heart, and that was secondary to making sure he was fed. And being able to feed him the “liquid gold” without pain? It was a win-win.

So began my journey with exclusively pumping, or “EPing.”  Turns out, there are a lot of women who EP…but it’s not something that’s commonly talked about and some breastfeeding advocates dismiss it as a viable option.  Don’t listen to them. If you find nursing hard, or can’t nurse for some reason (baby in NICU, flat/inverted nipples, etc.) this might be an option for you. I found a lot of great information, tips, and tricks on these websites:

It was working, and I felt like I had a plan that I could live with, but a few things really bothered me:

  • Pumping is really inconvenient…especially if it is the only way you’re feeding baby. It is a constant task. If no one else is around to help you either have to figure out how to bottle-feed and pump at the same time, or you spend all your waking hours (and several when you should be sleeping) feeding baby, settling baby, and then pumping to prepare to feed baby again. Not to mention washing bottles and pump parts!
  • With returning to work in the near future, I wasn’t sure how I would ever be able to build up a freezer supply if every pumped bottle went to baby. I got to the point where I might be 3 or 4 bottles ahead of him, but I couldn’t bring myself to be any less than that in order to freeze some of it.  After all, he was consuming everything I pumped within 24 hours.
  • Bottle feeding didn’t seem to sit well with him. He’s an adaptable baby and readily took a bottle. But he drank it so fast, even with slow-flow nipples, that inevitably what felt like half of it ended up as spit up. We quickly graduated from cute little burp cloths to using receiving blankets to catch the flow. We held the bottle at an angle to limit how much he could get at once, fed him and kept him upright for 5-10 minutes after every feeding, burped every 3-4 minutes, and switched out bottle and binkie so he was getting the sucking action he needed without slurping down far more than his little tummy could handle. The spit up didn’t slow much, if at all.

I exclusively pumped for 2 solid weeks, but those things weighed on me…so I thought I would give breastfeeding another try. I called my 4th lactation specialist, one of two recommended by our amazing doula, Beth Hardy, and set up an appointment for the day he turned  4 weeks old. I wasn’t sure baby would or could even take a breast after 2+ weeks of bottle-feeding…but it was worth a try.

Lactation Specialists

I suppose if I had spent more time on our 4th lactation specialist’s website, I would have known what was coming: she is all about tongue tie. In our consultation, it honestly felt like she thinks everyone in the  world is tongue tied – she even fixed her own tongue tie as an adult! Ultimately, along with some advice on best positions for each breast, she pronounced my baby tongue tied, and suggested some pediatric dentists to fix that and his slight lip tie. She also told me that fixing his tongue tie would fix everything, wouldn’t hurt him, and otherwise gave me very little information on the downsides of the procedure.

I spent time on her website after that, felt she was a little too biased, and decided I wanted a second opinion. I began adding one or two nursing sessions back into our day with her advice on positions, and called our 5th lactation specialist.

Here is where we found our match. I can’t say enough about how great it was to work with Christy Van Orman. If you have any breastfeeding issues, a certified lactation specialist is invaluable – and Christy is downright incredible. In addition to in-home consultations, she consistently followed up via text and e-mail. And she sent her notes to our pediatrician – which is where the great debate comes in.

The Great Debate: Tongue Tie, Lip Tie

Ultimately, Christy also diagnosed our baby as tongue and lip tied, although she was much more real-world about the diagnosis, and the pros and cons of fixing it. She was honest about the pain, the cost, the potential downsides, and the potential, but not guaranteed, benefits. She sent her prognosis to our pediatrician, and also suggested several pediatric dentists, who are equipped with lasers and can quickly and easily revise the ties.

I had asked our pediatrician about tongue tie at our two week appointment, and she said he wasn’t – ultimately because some tongue-tied babies do not have an obvious (or anterior) tie, which usually presents as a frenulum that comes all the way or near the tip of the tongue, causing it to take on a heart shape. Our baby had a posterior tongue tie, which basically is a short or thick frenulum that firmly attaches baby’s tongue to the floor of his mouth, limiting movement and resulting in all the symptoms we were experiencing: sore nipples, clicking, excessive spit up, etc.

Our pediatrician called me almost immediately, and suggested we visit an Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor in her clinic for an evaluation and revision if necessary. We jumped on that because insurance might cover it, whereas a pediatric dentist wouldn’t be covered (because we didn’t add baby to our dental insurance, assuming he wouldn’t need any dental care in the first 6 months – oops).

Lactation specialists that suggest tongue tie revision almost always warn against trying to get a pediatrician or other MD to fix it. This is because, unless it is obvious, many MD’s either don’t believe tongue tie is an issue, or don’t have enough knowledge to diagnose and fix it – and they usually only have scissors. It is, at best, a fairly new diagnosis (therefore any doc trained more than 5 years ago may not know about it) and, at worst, thought of as an old wives’ tale and outright looked down on as myth.

Not surprisingly, the ENT said he wasn’t tongue tied – or that there was nothing he could clip. We left, and I broke down into tears as we walked around the clinic, ready to give up breastfeeding entirely, switch to formula, and be done with it all.

We left, went home, I resumed pumping and began researching formula options. Our pediatrician called and proclaimed “Well, you’ve got two MD’s saying he’s not tongue tied – so there you have it.” It is the classic “education” vs. “expertise” dilemma – do you trust the medical school trained doctor, or the expert who has literally examined the sucking patterns of thousands of babies?

Christy came over for a follow up. We talked about all the pros and cons of various paths forward. She was kind and supportive, and gave me tips and ideas for maximizing occasional breastfeeding, pumping, formula, or whatever path we decided on. She didn’t push the tongue tie procedure, and I really appreciate that she didn’t.

One More Try

For some reason I can’t quite explain, I decided to exclusively breastfeed that weekend, which we hadn’t done for more than a month. I guess I wanted to see if we could do a weekend, which is the longest stretch of breastfeeding we could go when I went back to work.

It was amazing – so much easier and smoother than pumping, and even formula feeding. I didn’t have to worry about timing feeding and pumping and whether wearing him in the Moby wrap would get in the way of pumping if he fell asleep and washing bottles and, and, and. Until about halfway through Sunday, when it hurt again.

That was when I decided I wanted to do the revision. It was worth the potential downsides and out-of-pocket cost to be able to breastfeed normally, give him all the benefits of breastmilk, and simplify life for both of us. I presented my wife with my decision when she got home, and, thankfully, she agreed. I called one of the pediatric dentists Monday morning, and we were set up for the procedure Tuesday.

Finding Nirvana

The procedure wasn’t easy. In fact, it was probably the most difficult thing I’ve endured yet. I’m so grateful we got the real-world warnings from Christy, because if we’d gone in thinking it wouldn’t hurt him, I would have killed someone. Let’s just say, it hurt him – it was obvious by the nightmarish screams that sent me to the corner sobbing uncontrollably. Many moms stay in the lobby while baby’s tongue tie is fixed. I chose not to, but it was truly awful to hear my baby hurt.

When I latched him on there in the dentist’s office after it was done, there were moments when I could see he was sucking, but I couldn’t feel it. Had it worked?

The next 24 hours were rough. He wouldn’t breastfeed, so we still had to bottle-feed him. He was fussy, his mouth was swollen, it seemed like his face had changed permanently. We almost regretted doing the procedure (and realized just how lucky we are to have a sweet, normally easy-to-calm baby) as we rocked him, fed him bottles of cold milk and breastmilk ice chips to help with the pain and swelling. We couldn’t give him anything else for the pain.

But then, he breastfed, and it felt different. Then he smiled, and he cooed, and he started to be his normal self again.

A week later, I poured that unused bottle of breastmilk from the fridge down the drain because it had simply been in there too long. I also had stocked up a supply of 7 or 8 bags of frozen breastmilk. It worked for us, and in our follow-up consultation with Christy, she measured that he was taking in more milk than he had at any measured feeding before the tongue and lip were released.

We’re at nearly ten weeks and we’ve found nirvana. I’m not afraid to latch him on in the dark, in a car, under a (stupid) nursing cover…it’s truly magical.

When I was pregnant I took a prenatal yoga class that I loved. Alicia Poldino, the incredible and inspirational instructor, often ended class with a practice called “kriya.” Basically you hold up your arms and do a slow, repetitive movement until they feel like they are falling off – for what feels like half an hour, but is really 8 or so minutes. Then you tap into some deep coping mechanism, learn something about yourself, and either give up or keep going. I always thought it was preparation for labor. Now I know it is much more than that.

Motherhood will be full of “kriya” moments. Sometimes I’m sure I’ll give in and give up on whatever it is I think I need to do (e.g., I got that damn epidural). Sometimes, I’ll make it through and it will feel like it wasn’t all that hard.

This time, however, I tapped into something deep, learned a lot about myself, and kept going. We made it together.

Namaste.

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6 thoughts on “Breastfeeding is Hard – How We Finally Made it Work

  1. I’m so proud of you dearest sister. Motherhood is full of doubts, understanding and then more questioning everything. I’m so glad you have figures out this little hurtle at such a young age. I love you

  2. Heidi, this is raw, real, amazing and beautiful! I hope many parents will read this and gain inspiration from your journey. Breastfeeding IS a challenge for so many new mothers, and you have persisted when others would have given up. I wholeheartedly join you in celebrating this great victory. Here’s to many more beautiful moments of success as you continue to parent your son!

  3. Heidi, as your mother, i knew about most of this story but i still cried reading it. You are a brave and courageous woman and i love you dearly.

  4. Wow! I love your story! Not everybody could do what you did. I’m so glad you were able to gain insight, understanding, and compassion through your experience. Motherhood is full of such experiences and they can either make you or break you. Good for you! I’m so glad that you and your sweet baby are able to have this bond. Beautiful!

  5. Heidi, what a powerful and lovely story! Thank you for sharing your experience… I cried too, hearing about your journey. Amazing work 🙏🏽 Way to go, mama

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