This month I received an email from The Honest Company asking me to share about my feeding experience as a new mother in partnership with their Honest Feeding Stories series. They have set out to encourage conversation and end stigmas surrounding parent’s feeding choices. Seeing as we are coming up on six months of breastfeeding I thought it was a great opportunity to share about our journey:
Becoming a mother comes with so many decisions. From the day you first see those two pink lines you begin the journey of learning to listen to your motherly instincts and advocating for your child. You must decide which prenatal vitamins to take, which tests to have done, what to eat – and once you have made your decisions about pregnancy you begin making decisions about your labor, and then how to care for you child once they are in your arms. You find yourself agonizing over product reviews of what seems like hundred of baby items you didn’t know you’d need, trying to decide which one is right for you. You are spending your evenings reading about swaddles and bassinets and your weekends deciding between shades of grey for your nursery walls. One of the biggest decisions I was faced with when preparing for my life as a new mom was how I would feed my baby.
I’ve always known I wanted to breastfeed. I was breastfed. My husband was breastfed. I did the research and read about all the benefits. However, throughout pregnancy I found myself worried about breastfeeding my baby – mainly because I found the concept kind of off-putting. (did I just admit that?) I mean, the idea of creating milk from my body and having a baby drink it from my breast just seemed so odd. I made the decision that I would give breastfeeding the best effort I could and then evaluate as we went – one day at a time. I took a breastfeeding class with my doctor’s office and was surprised by how much I learned. Who knew that breastfeeding could be so complicated? I remember feeling overwhelmed watching the tiny babies try to latch, but I figured it had to be easier than they were making it out to be. I mean, it’s nature, right?
Fast forward to the delivery room, they handed my sweet little baby boy and he snuggled up on to my chest -it really is miraculous to watch such a tiny baby instinctually try to breast feed. He latched well and I was surprised that I did not find it to be as weird as I thought I might. It felt natural to me that after 9 months of growing this little creature that I would continue to sustain him. Unfortunately, that was the last moment breastfeeding would feel easy for us for quite some time.
While we were in the hospital, my son Coen had trouble keeping his blood sugar at a normal level so we ended up supplementing with formula for the first day in order to keep his blood sugar stabilized. We were fortunate to receive visits from a lactation consultant early and often throughout our hospital stay and she suggested that we start pumping right away to try to help my milk come in as quickly as possible. I was pretty intimidated by the large hospital-grade pump that was wheeled to my bedside, but having my tiny little newborn get his heel pricked every hour for blood tests had me feeling very motivated to get my milk flowing. We started on a pumping schedule every few hours, but when we left a hospital a few days later I still hadn’t seen any milk.
We ended up renting the pump from the hospital to bring home with us and I continued to pump and breastfeed on demand until his first appointment with his pediatrician. When we arrived at his appointment we were surprised to see that he had lost 15% of his birth weight. Seeing as his weight loss was higher than what is considered normal, our pediatrician started us on a pretty aggressive feeding schedule: breastfeed every two hours, offer both breasts, and then pump while my husband offers him two ounces of formula. The whole process took about an hour, so that left us with an hour to try and sleep in between feedings. I was still recovering from a fairly painful labor, so my phone alarm app was a crazy schedule of feedings every two hours combined with alarms for all of my medications. Considering we hadn’t gotten any sleep since we’d checked into the hospital almost a week ago, we were running on nothing but fumes and adrenaline.
We headed back to the pediatrician for his weight check 24 hours later and were so relieved to see that he gained a few ounces, but we continued to take him for weight checks periodically for the next couple of weeks. My milk finally came in and ended up stabilizing to a good supply, but we still decided to schedule another appointment with a lactation consultant – just to make sure we were on the right track. The lactation consultant gave us a few pointers and checked him for tongue tie before sending us home. He was an otherwise happy baby so we tried not to let the weight gain stress us out too much, but it still had us worried – we are first time parents after all! He gained enough that supplementing with formula was no longer necessary, but it took several weeks for him to get back to his birth weight.
This is the point when breastfeeding started to become increasingly painful for me. I bought three different types of nipple creams and applied them generously as I worked on powering through the pain. As the weeks went on I was in pain all the time – even when I wasn’t breastfeeding- and found myself dreading every feeding. I would cry out in pain, clutching pillows as tears streamed from my eyes every time I fed him. I wondered where the ‘beautiful breastfeeding experience’ was that I had read so many mother’s write about? I had been told so many times that breastfeeding hurts at first, but I started to wonder when pain stopped being normal. It’s amazing what kind of pain a new mother is willing to endure when she feels that it is benefitting her baby. Finally, when he was 5 weeks old, I called up my lactation consultant again and showed up in her office in desperation mode. She was so kind and understanding as she helped us with a feeding. She immediately noticed that his latch was too shallow, but after a half hour of a joint effort we could not get him to latch well. She then pulled up his upper lip and found a lip tie – I felt so much relief in that moment. There was a reason! It wasn’t just me!
We went to see our pediatrician the next day and a few hours later we were in an ENT’s office getting his lip tie revised. I will be honest, that appointment was pretty awful for me as a mama, but I knew we could not continue to breastfeed without the procedure. I was pretty disappointed to find that his latch did not immediately get better post-revision and we continued to struggle. I was still in a lot of pain and I wondered how much longer I could continue breastfeeding. I felt guilty that I couldn’t ‘power through’ the pain and felt that since we’d put him through the lip tie revision I couldn’t give up now! My mother urged me to talk to my doctor about it and when I went into my appointment, I reluctantly brought it up to my OB. She reminded me that my health was important too and that I did not need to suffer through that much pain. She encouraged me to use a nipple shield to let myself heal. I had read that nipple shields aren’t meant for long term use so I felt a little defeated, but I decided to give the nipple shield a try – and it was a life-saver for us. I do not think we could have successfully breastfed with out it!
I decided to use the shield for as long as I felt that we needed it – which ended up being about 3 months. We struggled with latch issues until his little lips grew enough to latch deeply. Honestly, I felt shame about needing a nipple shield and wanted to hide it when I carried it around in the diaper bag. I wished breastfeeding had been easier for us and felt envious of friends who seemed to effortlessly and painlessly feed their babies. For a couple of months it felt like we would never be able to feed without the shield, but one day while I wasn’t paying attention my son latched correctly all by himself! We were able to give up the shield completely a few days later and have finally been able to have a pain-free breastfeeding experience. In fact, I have surprised myself with how much I actually enjoy breastfeeding now and do not expect to wean anytime soon.
Looking back I wish I would have advocated for myself more – my pain and mental health are important! I wish I would have just let myself use the nipple shield when I needed it – it was sitting right on my night stand while I cried in pain – and worried less about what I was ‘supposed’ to do. As new mothers it is so easy to put our baby’s needs above our own, but we need to care for ourselves too. Making your mental and physical health a priority IS caring for your baby – babies need healthy mothers! If the nipple shield hadn’t worked for us I was prepared to switch to formula – and that would have been okay too! Fed is always best. My breastfeeding journey did not look at all how I had imagined, but we took it one day at a time. Motherhood is the most difficult and most rewarding journey I have ever been on and I plan on continuing to take it one day at a time as he grows. I did not have the breastfeeding experience that I expected, but I learned so much about trusting my own instincts as a mother through the process, so I suppose it ended up being just as beautiful as I’d hoped.