My Breastfeeding Story (So Far)
This week, I'm going to focus all of my posts on breastfeeding, which I've found to be one of the most magical parts of motherhood. Today, I'll share my story. And later this week I'll share my breastfeeding must-haves, some things I've learned through nursing Noam so far, and a Q&A with an awesome IBCLC who I personally consulted when Noam was brand new and still when issues arise.
I've sat down to write this story too many times to count, but the words always seemed to evade me, something always came up, or life just kind of got in the way. This is a story I've been wanting - needing - to write down for so long, so I'm relieved and excited and pretty nervous to finally be here, typing it out, reliving it and sharing it with you. This might be the closest you'll get to seeing my heart.
Every mother's breastfeeding journey is different, just as every baby is different. But I had no idea how difficult breastfeeding would be, and I hear that exact same thing from every new mom I spend even a few minutes with. It's a universal truth, but it's not something that seems to be talked about much (or at least as much as I think it's warranted). So here's my attempt at talking about it some more. Here's my breastfeeding story.
When I think about how to begin the story, I flash back to a few days after I arrived home from the hospital with Noam. My mom was staying with us - helping us with the dogs and the house and everything in between - while we figured out this whole parenting thing and I recovered a little. I'm in Noam's nursery, it's nighttime - it's dark outside - and I'm sitting on the floor or maybe on a cushion. I'm topless and crying - crying so hard it's difficult to breath and nearly impossible to speak. I'm in so much pain and I'm so confused and frustrated and concerned and scared - like really, really scared - and the only thing that I could utter was 'I can't do this' over and over again.
Side Note: As I'm typing this, tears are coming to my eyes. It's not easy for me to be this vulnerable - even behind a computer screen.
But let me start at the beginning and go from there. Breastfeeding was the biggest non-decision I've ever made. It was not an option for me (I mean, of course it was an option but it was not an option, ya know?). The merits of breastfeeding for my baby, the bond that I'd share with my son, the health benefits for myself - these were all factors in my decision. But the biggest factor was my instinct - my mama gut (and not the one I was left with post-delivery) - that led to my breastfeeding. It was just a given. It was natural. It was what I needed to do. I guess what I'm trying to say is: breastfeeding just felt right and obvious and me. It felt like my duty and my responsibility and my privilege and like the single most important thing I could provide for my son right off the bat.
It came so incredibly naturally to me but that does not mean it was easy.
My story started in the hospital after Noam was delivered. My first time nursing him was that night, and I remember having no idea what I was doing. I mean, I knew what it was supposed to look like but I had no idea how it was supposed to feel or if I was doing it right. Did he know what to do? Was it working? Since he was born at 9:49pm, it was very late and I was exhausted - I had been awake since 3am - before I even tried for the first time. I remember the nurse telling me that I should nurse him, and I remember thinking 'How?' as I said 'Oh, yes, of course.'
The following day, a nurse who was studying to become an IBCLC came in to help me. She showed me a few positions and how to make sure he was correctly latched and threw (not literally but it kind of felt like I was being hit with them) a bunch of products at me - breast shells and shields and sundry other breastfeeding tools - to presumably make me feel like I had a grasp on all of it. (It turned out that I did not need what she threw at me but I was grateful that she cared enough to offer.)
I remember getting home from the hospital and feeling like a wave had rushed over me. It's overwhelming being in the hospital, post-delivery and breastfeeding with so many people around you. But it's a completely different level being home, post-delivery and breastfeeding with really no one around you.
That evening crying in the nursery was probably the toughest day since having Noam. And now that I really think about it, it was tougher than any day following it. I'm not sure what I meant when I said "I can't do this." It was not "I can't do breastfeeding." But it may have been "I can't do breastfeeding if this is how it's going to be forever." And so that sentiment - the one that made me question the single most parenting important decision I had made thus far - is the reason I'm writing this.
I remember going to the pediatrician's office on Friday - Noam was just 4 days old. The pediatrician suggested almost immediately that I supplement with formula. I told her definitively "I'm not going to do that." and went home and cried. (I never went back to her.) To be sure, I wasn't upset that formula was suggested period. I was upset that there were no alternatives offered - like a visit with an IBCLC, like pumping, like spoon feeding, and no options discussed. I didn't feel heard or listened to. And in those first few days when I'd never felt more vulnerable or scared, that was the opposite of what I needed.
My milk didn't come in until Friday (Noam was born on Monday), so up until then I was feeding Noam only colostrum (which is incredibly nutrient dense) - but no milk. No one had told me that sometimes it takes a little while for milk to come in, so I questioned myself. What was I doing wrong? What was wrong with me? Was this going to work? Noam had jaundice, too, at this point, so it was really important that he was getting enough to eat and pooping enough to get rid of the extra bilirubin.
But that Friday - that glorious day - my milk came in. So Noam's bilirubin levels had plateaued and were declining and he was nursing like a champ and everything seemed great. And then the next problem arose: I was incredibly engorged. Engorgement occurs initially when the milk first comes in and can cause a lot of discomfort and pain if not relieved. I don't remember it lasting long, but I do remember it being so painful. This was (among other things, probably) what I was crying about in the nursery that night.
That weekend, I made the most important call I could've made and invested several hours of our time to make sure we were heading in the right direction: I had a lactation consultant come (two actually), who helped me work through the newness of nursing, checked on his latch and my positioning and made sure he was transferring milk well. I cannot convey the relief or confidence I felt following the visit with the IBCLC, and I really couldn't recommend seeing a professional enough.
Breastfeeding got so much easier after that day. They say the first few days are the most difficult. And they are - one hundred percent. I would say the first six weeks or so were the most challenging, though. Noam was a big baby - 8 lb. 8 oz. - and my delivery was a little rough. So my recovery was difficult and it took me a pretty long while to really begin to feel okay. I was sleeping very little. My hormones were shifting a mile a minute (and hormonal shifts are a very real, very powerful thing). My milk was just coming in on day 5, which is normal but I was made to feel as though it was late and something was wrong (until I was reassured that there was, in fact, nothing wrong). And Noam and I were learning - for the first time ever - how to eat and how to feed. There was a lot going on, to say the least!
And once my body regulated a little bit - once the engorgement ended - and once Noam latched well and I understood how to best position him (football on a pillow while he was super small, cross body when he got a little bigger, side-lying as often as possible) and once my body adjusted to all of the changes heaped upon it, I was able to focus on the bond that we were forging and the beauty in sustaining my baby with my body and the discomfort and pain and second guesses and self-doubt, while still present, took a back seat to this kind of string of magical moments.
That is not to say there weren't surprising or exhausting or difficult days after that or now still today (though now they're few and far between). Cluster feeding in the early days and during growth spurts was exhausting - physically and mentally and emotionally. Wondering if he was getting enough - was his nursing every 2 hours normal? (yes, it absolutely was) or if I was doing enough (yes, I absolutely was) took a toll on my mental sanity at times. The idea (and act) of nursing in public - not of being exposed but of wondering if others would say something to me, if I would receive disapproving glances or comments - caused me anxiety at times. And the occasional bite, when he first cut a few teeth, that made me wonder if this was what the rest of our nursing experience would be like.
I have an oversupply in one of my breasts and a very low supply in the other, which has presented a unique set of challenges that I've learned to handle but that caused problems in the beginning. I've had mastitis twice, which was extremely painful and upsetting because I simultaneously felt like I caused it and that I was not in control of my own body. I've had several milk blisters (aka milk blebs), which are excruciating and clogged ducts, which are uncomfortable and annoying. And I've been engorged for various reasons, which ranges from mildly uncomfortable to downright painful. I'm perpetually lopsided. Needless to say, it's been a bit of a roller coaster. But if there's one thing I've learned through breastfeeding, it's this: there are many, many challenges but nothing is impossible.
But those troubles were often overshadowed by the surprises and delights of nursing Noam. I reveled in the chipmunk-like noises Noam would make when he was searching for milk or latching and the way he scrunched his nose and the dimples on his chubby little hands when he'd grasp me tightly. My heart melted at the sight of his thankful eyes and the goofy smile that'd creep across his face when he was satisfied. I love watching him drift to sleep purely from my milk and rocking. And when he says 'nuh' to ask for milk these days - well, my heart just about bursts.
Today, our breastfeeding story is as close to magic as I think I'll ever come. It's comical at times - I often find a foot on my face or a finger in my nose or mouth - and frustrating at other times - Noam is a busy, curious baby who can get distracted - but it's just pure magic.
I'm not proud of questioning myself in the beginning, but second guesses and self-doubt and all of the question are a deep-rooted, albeit unfortunate, part of motherhood that I accept and work through. I'm not proud that I doubted myself and my instincts and our ability to figure this all out. But I am proud - very proud - of this: I could do it. I did do it. And I'm still doing it. I see no end in sight. When I first started nursing, I'd heard from others to set 'realistic' goals. 3 months. 6 months. A year. Don't overdo it, they said. Or you could end up being disappointed. And while I think the intention was admirable, and I totally understand the reasoning, I thought to myself, "I'm going to do whatever we want to do - together. And self-weaning makes the most sense." Was it a reach goal? Of course. Will it work out? I hope so, but I really can't say for sure. But with this goal in mind, it feels like every day isn't just one step closer to my 'realistic goal' but one step further in our mother-son bond.
I've always tried to operate in a respectful, gentle way - in general, but specifically with regard to parenting. I practice attachment parenting. I believe baby knows best. So I will continue to follow Noam's cues and let him lead the way, just as I have since before he entered the world.
Let's see where this takes us, little one.