As many mothers know, breastfeeding is natural but it doesn’t always come so naturally. My mom and two older sisters didn’t breastfeed so I prepared myself by reading a few books and taking a class. I wasn’t however, prepared for the bumps in the road that would soon lie ahead.
After a long and challenging birth, we did skin-to-skin and roomed-in. He nuzzled up to my breast but didn’t latch on. Exhausted from his treacherous journey into the world, we tried several more times but he just didn’t seem able to latch on to my breast. Lactation support in the hospital was less than stellar so when a nurse wheeled in a breast pump, I obliged. For the next few days I pumped colostrum and fed it to him in a syringe.
When we brought him home, I called a breastfeeding friend for support. She came over and noticed that my nipples were on the flatter side and gave me her Lactation Consultant’s phone number. The next day, the consultant did an evaluation and confirmed that my nipples were on the flatter side. We tried different methods to draw them out but it wasn’t happening, so she showed me a how to use a nipple shield which is typically a last resort. Finally, he latched onto the shield and was able to suck and swallow breast milk. I had a forceful let-down and tried to sit upright to not drown my little guy in milk.
Our game plan was for him to temporarily breastfeed with the nipple shield and wear breast shells in between feeds to gently help draw them out. Then we would gradually wean him off of the shield and directly onto my breasts. The next few weeks proved to be very trying. I had trouble mastering breastfeeding with the shield so my husband would actually hold him into position during feedings. I honestly don’t know how I would’ve gotten through it without his physical and emotional support.
In the meantime, I had an oversupply of milk and was extremely engorged. I tried hand expressing but it didn’t help much. I used the pump just to relieve the pressure but couldn’t believe how much milk was coming out of my breasts. I donated some of it to a friend who weaned due to an illness and some to a mother with a premature baby who was unable to digest formula. With the oversupply came recurrent plugged ducts. Writing this post more than four years later still exhausts me recounting all of the time and effort it took to treat those blasted things. I eventually became a pro when it came to preventing treating them and wrote this blog post to help other women who also battle blocked milk ducts.
I also discovered that the pain I was feeling at the end of each feed was called a condition called a vasospasm which can be triggered by an improper latch. Basically, outside air is cooler than the inside of a baby’s mouth, so when the baby comes off the breast, the nipple will start to blanch, or turn white. As blood starts to flow back to the nipple, there is a throbbing sensation.
When he was five months old, my husband handed in his resignation to start his own company and would also care for him during the day. Soothing him was difficult so my husband literally wore him on his back while building his business. I went back to my full-time corporate job and expressed breast milk while we were separated in the day. I nursed him in the morning, pumped three (sometimes four) times at work, and nursed him when I came home. Bed sharing worked really well for us so that we could “catch up” on our bonding and cuddle time at night and “dream feeding” allowed me to get as much rest as possible for the next mornings hour-long commute and demanding workday.
The same breastfeeding challenges persisted for the better part of a year as another one surfaced. I was certain that a therapeutic ultrasound treatment would release a particularly stubborn plugged duct, so you can imagine my surprise when it turned out to be a mass. An ultrasound and biopsy confirmed that it was a benign breast lesion called a Lactational Adenoma. They are not very common but are thought to occur in response to the physiological and hormonal changes of pregnancy and lactation.
By now he had become a very distracted baby who would only feed in the side-lying position. When my friends and I would take our babies to lunch, they would nurse them at the table and I would duck out into a fitting room and lay a blanket down on the floor to feed him. He would only nurse for a few minutes, get distracted and stop. Then my milk that had let down would sit in my breasts and thicken which would then cause more plugged ducts. So we would go to the car and pump the rest of the milk. Since this was pretty much the norm for any social outing, we usually just stayed home. I felt hopeless and screamed and cried. All I wanted to do was to nourish my baby in the way that felt natural to me. Why was this so difficult? Although I thought about giving up, I didn’t. We had made it this far and I was determined to carry on.
Once he turned a year old things finally settled into place and we went on to enjoy a wonderful breastfeeding relationship. I believe we go through challenges in life to overcome them, learn from them, and use those experiences to help others who are going through a similar process. I felt compelled to help support other women and families achieve their breastfeeding goals and became lactation counselor and educator. I also felt like there was a lack of good information and support.
We continued our breastfeeding relationship until I became pregnant again. If you read B’s birth story, then you know why… here’s an excerpt:
Before B was conceived, I miscarried. It was an early loss, but I was still devastated. I knew miscarriages were common and it was most likely due to a chromosomal abnormality but I couldn’t help but wonder if it was something that I did. I knew women were able to conceive and sustain pregnancies while breastfeeding, but the strong contractions I experienced while nursing J definitely caught my attention. I mentioned it to my doctor and she said it was very unlikely that breastfeeding caused the miscarriage so we continued on.
One morning shortly before sunrise, J rolled over in bed to nurse. Those same strong contractions returned and I just knew I was pregnant again. I ran out to the store in my pajamas to get a pregnancy test and sure enough, it was positive. Even though my doctor reassured me that I could continue breastfeeding, I really struggled with whether or not I should wean.
I don’t know if it was intuition, fear, or a combination of the two, but when I felt the intensity of those contractions it just didn’t sit well with me. I spoke with some trusted Lactation Consultants and our pediatrician (who is actually the first male board certified lactation consultant) and mulled it over. Although I had always envisioned J self-weaning, something told me that after 2 years and 4 months, our breastfeeding relationship would sadly be coming to an end.
Part of me wishes that I would’ve known that early morning feed before taking the pregnancy test would be the last time I would ever nurse him. The other part of me is glad because if I knew, it would have been more devastating to stop. Sure, we had a nice long run, way longer than I thought we would make it, but stopping cold turkey was one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do as a mother. The rest of the day wasn’t so bad. He was occupied by the world around him. It was at night that he just wanted the warmth and comfort of my breasts. For the next few nights, when he woke to nurse, we tried our best to soothe him. I patted his back and sang to him, but my husband ultimately had to walk him around the neighborhood or drive him in the car to get him to fall back asleep. So the next few nights, we gave him breast milk in a sippy cup and let him watch TV. He hadn’t watched television prior to that, so Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood was a real treat! When I asked our pediatrician if I was emotionally scarring J, he said that J will be upset and protest, but he had a secure attachment and would be just fine. By the end of the week J slept through the night for the first time. Prior to that, he was still waking to nurse about 4-6 times a night.
Also, in case you’re wondering, since pumping and hand-expressing weren’t options, I used cabbage leaf compresses, herbs and homeopathy to avoid getting any plugged ducts in the process. J was also later diagnosed with an upper lip tie and posterior tongue tie which we now know made latching-on all the more difficult. Had we been able to revise the ties, we may have been able to resolve our breastfeeding issues sooner.
This was our own personal journey – each mother and child are unique with a different set of circumstances and variables. B is still breastfeeding and I have not yet written about our journey, but it has not included any of the challenges that I experienced the first time around with J. For a good amount of mothers, breastfeeding isn’t this difficult. But if it is for you, please know that you are not alone and good information and support is more readily available. If you are pregnant, taking an independent breastfeeding class and lining up a support system are key to getting breastfeeding off to a good start.