The roller coaster that is Breastfeeding

Before even thinking about having babies, there was never a doubt in my mind that I would breastfeed.  I was breastfed until I was almost 2 1/2.  There was just never any other option in my mind.  It’s every parent’s job to provide the best possible start in life for their children, and breastfeeding very clearly helps to provide the best start.  There are all kinds of health benefits, both physical and psychological, and it is said to help with the bond between the mother and her children.  But this post isn’t about trying to convince anyone to breastfeed… in fact it might do the opposite and persuade people not to breastfeed.  I don’t really have an agenda in mind with this post other than to share my experience thus far with breastfeeding. 

While I was pregnant I started attending the La Leche League meetings here in New Orleans.  The La Leche League is an international breastfeeding support organization that has local chapters that meet and provide support to breastfeeding mothers.  La Leche League leaders are not necessarily lactation consultants but they have a lot of knowledge and experience about breastfeeding.  I decided to check out the meetings as a way to learn more about breastfeeding and to meet other breastfeeding mothers.  The first meeting I went to was very eye-opening and shocking.  I remember there was a mother there who had her 1-week old baby with her and the mother was in tears, crying about how hard it was, how much pain she was in, etc.  She seemed miserable!  The other mothers there were all sympathizing with her, saying things like, “I had a similar experience,” or “I had that same kind of pain,” or “when I was in that same exact situation, here’s what I did…”  I left that first meeting feeling terrified–the meeting left me afraid that everyone has problems and that breastfeeding is really not such a great thing. 

See… in my mind, breastfeeding is this natural process that must be easy.  If cave-people could figure it out without the help of breastpumps and nipple shields and Lanolin cream, it must be pretty simple.  I figured it was just a question of putting my nipple in the baby’s mouth and letting her drink.  After that first meeting I went to, I bought a couple of books about Breastfeeding and started reading them.  The books all painted this beautiful picture in my mind of a mother holding her baby, of the two of them gazing into eachother’s eyes lovingly.  I figured all those ladies at the La Leche League meeting must have been the exception, not the rule… breastfeeding must be pretty simple! 

breastfeeding-benefits

Then… Julia was born.  Via C-Section.  And I didn’t get to hold her until about an hour after she was born.  And Ken said to me, “aren’t you going to nurse her?”  And my initial thought was, “how do I do that?”  There was nobody there to show me what to do.  It wasn’t nearly as intuitive as I thought it should be.  I was also afraid–you hear about how important it is to get a good latch from the get-go and how if your baby doesn’t latch on properly, they’ll never be able to latch on properly, so I didn’t want to start nursing her and then discover that she wasn’t properly latched on.  There are also no lactation consultants in the hospital during off-hours, so there was nobody there to show me exactly what to do.  The nurses would tell me that I had to let her eat every 2-3 hours but I didn’t know if that meant let her eat at 8, 10, 12, etc. or if that meant let her eat from 8-9, then from 12-1.  It also seemed as though Julia was happy just sucking away at my breast constantly and that it was putting her to sleep.  You hear sometimes that  you should never wake a sleeping baby, so that first night when she slept, we wanted to let her sleep so we could get some shut-eye ourselves. 

All of the nurses and lactation consultants said we had a good latch, but it took several days for my milk to come in.  By the time we left the hospital, Julia had gone from 6 lbs. 9 oz. down to 5 lbs. 15 oz, and at her one week appointment she hadn’t gained any weight–she was 6 lbs.  Then  three days later, she still hadn’t gained any weight–she was 6 lbs. 0.5 oz.  It felt as though I was constantly nursing her and yet she clearly wasn’t getting anything out of it.  There were several problems… she was jaundice, which made her sleepy and lethargic so she would nurse and nurse and nurse but she was really just sleeping on my breast, engaging in non-nutritive sucking.  She wasn’t swallowing anything.  I was also on Welbutrin, which is known to negatively affect your milk supply, so it’s really possible she was literally not getting any milk.  After her 2 week appointment when she still hadn’t gained any weight, we met with a Lactation Consultant who gave us all kinds of tips about how to wake her up to eat, how I had to pump after every feeding and we’d feed Julia whatever milk I was able to pump, and about how we had to wake her up to eat every 2 hours during the day and every 3 hours at night.  It was exhausting and I had no way of knowing how much milk Julia was getting.  I felt like all I was doing was nursing.  It seemed to me that she would eat for an hour, I would have to pump for a half an hour, and then it was time to feed her all over again.  I had no way of knowing whether I was doing it right or not.  It also seemed as though every time I took her off the breast, she was fussing and wanted to nurse more, which made me question myself further and made me feel inadequate as a mother.  The fact that Julia wasn’t gaining weight made us all worried, and made me question whether this was the right thing to do for her.  Was I just not able to feed my own baby?  Should we just stop trying and use the free formula we had gotten in the mail?  Was I just going to be unable to breastfeed for some reason?  It also doesn’t help that Ken is a doctor and knows all the possible things that could go wrong with a baby who’s not eating enough and not gaining weight.  All the comments we would get from people, “Oh she’s so tiny!” were discouraging, too.  Ken was scared and frustrated, which in turn made me nervous that I wasn’t doing this right, and everyone says that to be successful at breastfeeding, you need to relax, get sleep, eat enough, drink enough and just trust that everything will be okay. 

Around 6-7 weeks, things started getting better… Julia was gaining weight slowly but surely, my milk supply had seemingly increased, I was focusing a lot more on drinking lots of water and on getting in enough calories, and I had stopped taking Welbutrin, so that certainly had a positive effect on everything.  I would pump whenever I could, and we’d feed Julia whatever milk I was able to pump, and I learned how to do breast compressions and how to make sure Julia was sucking and swallowing.  Julia is small for her age–she started out in the 10th percentile, and she’s now between the 10th and 25th percentiles for weight–but she is gaining weight slowly but surely.  She’s staying right along her curve, which is what the doctors look for.  Now that I’m back at work, it feels as though my life is consumed by breastfeeding.  When I’m with Julia, she nurses every 2-3 hours.  She’s also the kind of baby who would be happy to nurse all day–sometimes for nutrition, sometimes for comfort, sometimes to go to sleep.  When I’m not nursing, I’m making sure I’m drinking enough water or eating enough food to make sure that my milk supply is doing well.  When I’m at work, I pump every 2-3 hours.  And now, every morning and every evening I have to get bottles ready to go to daycare with Julia, to come to work with me so I can pump into them, and I have to clean breastpump parts.  I know that this is only temporary because once Julia is 6 months old, we’ll start giving her solid foods and milk will no longer make up the entirety of her diet.  It’s amazing to think that all the growing she’s done has been on milk that I’ve provided for her, but it will also be nice, once she starts eating solids, to not have the burden placed entirely on me anymore. 

Now that we are 14 weeks into it, I love breastfeeding.  I love that no matter what is bothering Julia, I can generally calm her down and make her feel better by nursing her.  Whether she’s hungry, tired, scared, or just wants to be comforted, nursing does the trick.  I also love how convenient it is to be able to breastfeed.  For now (I realize this will change in a few months), when we leave the house, we just have to make sure we have diapers and wipes, a burp cloth and a change of clothes.  We don’t have to worry about bottles, formula, water, sterilizers, bottle warmers, etc.  When we’re out and Julia gets fussy, all I have to do is let her nurse and she immediately quiets down.  It means going to restaurants is easy because as long as I can nurse her, I can keep her quiet.  The older she gets, the less time it takes her to eat because she’s gotten more efficient over time, and I can tell that this will only get better.  Nursing does also create a great bond between us–I love that I have what she wants and needs most in life right now, and that I’m the only one who can provide that for her.

Nursing was not easy at the beginning and I think the thing I’ve learned the most is that you can’t learn about breastfeeding from a class or from a book… you really have to figure it out with your own baby.  You can learn tips and tricks from other mothers, you can learn solutions to common problems from a book, but to really learn how to breastfeed and how to develop your breastfeeding relationship with your child, you have to just figure it out with your baby.  Every baby is different, and the way each baby nurses is unique.  The most important advice I got from anybody was to not give up… even when you’ve been nursing for what feels like hours and you’re tired and frustrated and sore, even when you have no way of knowing how much milk your baby has had, even when all you want to do is lie down and go to sleep, it’s important to not give up because it does get better.  The thing I find most special about nursing now is when Julia nurses and falls asleep at the breast, and she just lies there looking so calm and peaceful after nursing.  Sometimes a little drop of milk will drip down her chin.  It’s so amazing and empoewring to think that I’ve given her all of her nutrition her whole life so far!

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