I want to take some time to discuss my experience with breastfeeding. Let me be clear: I think breastfeeding is amazing, I encourage women to do it. That being said, I personally did not breastfeed. It’s not that I didn’t want to; I just feel like I set myself up for failure and didn’t have good environmental supports. Below is my intimate (seriously, stop reading if you don’t want more details) story of my experience with breastfeeding.
I have two sons ages two and 6 months. I want to explain my experience with both of these children. Starting, of course, with the elder.
Emerson was born at 37 weeks by emergency cesarean. He was diagnosed in-utero with a complex congenital heart defect. My pregnancy was closely monitored with the understanding we would probably not make it to our due date or deliver naturally. I was, of course, a part of the on-line community for expecting mothers. I remember getting emails about birth plans and preparing for the hospital. Some of the plans were extremely detailed. Our birth plan was detailed too. The difference was my husband and I did not get to pick the details. It doesn’t really matter because more important than what I want is my child’s medical needs. I know many will agree that your child always comes first.
So on 11/11/11 my first son came into the world. Since I had not had the birth experience I wanted and because I knew we had a long road ahead (starting with a surgery five days after he was born), I wanted to embrace the one area I could care for my son: breastfeeding. Except, I couldn’t actually breastfeed. My son had lines placed to deliver medicine, he had rows and rows of machines providing him with his needs (including TPN a replacement for milk), and he was intubated a few days after his birth. So I settled on pumping.
And I was good at it… at first. My milk came in quickly for someone pumping. I remember the absolute pride I had watching the bottle fill up with colostrum for my child. I knew this was something concrete I was doing to care for my child. The first few days after any child are difficult, a blur really, but a child with medical needs is a completely different experience. It became apparent in the first few days that Emerson had more than a heart defect. We knew he also had kidney abnormalities but he also had other problems; including brain abnormalities. We pushed ahead with his care. Matt and I were confident once we got over the hurdle of his first surgery, Emerson would recover and become a happy, healthy(ish) child.
To say our bubble was burst was an understatement. Emerson had complication after complication after complication. Remember the TPN I mentioned earlier? This was only intended to supplement him through the first surgery and then he should have transitioned to milk. It didn’t work that way. In fact, by the time Emerson received my milk, I was already done pumping.
Stress is inevitable after a child. Stress is also not a helper when it comes to breastfeeding. It makes it more difficult. Luckily, I was pumping, so it was a little easier. I didn’t have to worry about Emerson latching for one thing. Still the stress took it’s toll. I was exhausted. Emotionally wrung out every day but my day never ended. Always in the back of my mind I knew I would need to pump again in a few hours. I never got the rest I needed. And pumping started becoming an interruption. I had to step out of the family waiting room while my child was in surgery (I am all about meeting the needs of your child wherever you are, but I was not about to pump, covered or uncovered, in front of my mother and in-laws). I was anxious during that pumping. What if we got an update? What if something went wrong? What if, What if, What if?
And I was tired. I learned that I do not operate well without sleep. I suspected as much prior to pumping, but it became evident quickly. I was sick. First with migraines then with nausea. So there I was: stressed, sick, oh and in pain. Did I mention the pain? I don’t know how many people told me it shouldn’t hurt, but it did. I had consultations, I was shown how to wear the pump and I was doing it right. I know I was, but I still hurt. And I bled. And I just couldn’t understand why.
Now add my mental state in to all the areas I was physically struggling. I was a train wreck. My son was hanging out somewhere between life and death and no one could tell us how the tables would turn. I don’t think I can adequately explain how my psyche was affecting my ability to pump but, to be succinct, it did not help.
He was also still on TPN. My milk was being put in a freezer, stored away for the future. But what future? Finally, there was no more room in the freezer. I filled up a deep freezer with my breast milk before my child could eat it. Talk about devastating. At the time, I felt heart broken. And what was I going to do with my milk? I didn’t just stop producing because the freezer was full. I made the decision at that time to stop. I didn’t have the energy or time to research a milk donation bank and I couldn’t stand the thought of dumping my breast milk.
In the long run, I made the best decision at the time. I was breaking down day by day. There was no joy in pumping. I felt like a machine. I was producing milk with no purpose. When Emerson finally started having milk, he was taking it by a feeding tube. My breast milk was also being fortified which ultimately was the biggest slap in my face. I was being told by the medical field that my milk was not enough for my child; he needed more than I could give him. Now I know he did need more then I could give him. He is still on a specialized diet today. A diet that I cannot provide for on my own.
My second experience with child bearing and breastfeeding was very different. Sorkin was healthy and on time. We did another c-section at 40 weeks for his and my safety. Sorkin probably would have been two weeks late if we let him. I wasn’t experiencing labor at all prior to my c-section. He was 9lbs, 11oz compared to Emerson at 5lbs 4oz.
I was so excited to try breastfeeding. It was new and exciting and there was no pump in sight! I failed. Once again, my colostrum came in quickly, but it was more difficult with a real child than a pump. Babies move, they’re breakable, and they don’t get it at first. Plus I was loopy from the medication used during my c-section. My medicine was given at 7am and I was still throwing up at 5pm. This is my normal reaction to strong medication. I hate it.
Lining Sorkin up with my nipple was hard, especially when I didn’t have full control of my arms. I relied heavily on Matt and my first nurse. She was fantastic. There is a part of me that feels that if she was my nurse the entire stay, I would have continued breastfeeding. But she wasn’t.
The first night was…terrible. After talking with my (5) sisters who have had kids, Matt and I decided to have Sorkin sleep in the nursery between feedings. The nurses did not respect this decision. The night started with Sorkin in the nursery but by morning he was sleeping in the room. The nurses brought him in for his first feeding. I was tired and disoriented. They had brought me my schedule pain medication an hour before and I had barely drifted off when I was re-awoken. I couldn’t get Sorkin situation and I asked for help. The nurse sighed as if my request was a big imposition. She told me I would have to do it on my own at some point as she pushed at me to adjust Sorkin. The first feeding done, I looked forward to a few hours of sleep. All too soon (as new mothers know), I was being woken again. Time for another feeding.
After that feeding, I was asked if I wanted Sorkin in the room again. I said no, please take him to the nursery. I wanted to use the help available in order to recover more quickly from my surgery (yes, a c-section is a surgery and takes longer to recover from than natural birth). About an hour later, I was again awoken from my sleep by the nurse. Sorkin was crying and he now had to stay in the room. They kicked him out of the nursery. Because he was crying. He was not hungry and he did not have a dirty diaper, but the nurses couldn’t figure out how to sooth him and so he was brought to his mom. My husband was asleep in the room. My wonderful husband who is more than capable of holding a crying baby who just wants love, but the nurses woke me up instead. Matt was there to help with Sorkin during these times because he knows me. He knows I need sleep or I get sick. He knows I recover poorly from anesthesia. I comforted my child, got him to sleep, and put him back in his bed (which remained in my room).
The next feeding came around and, again, I was struggling. I could not get Sorkin to latch. The nurse came over and assessed the situation. Her assessment? Your nipples are too short. What does this mean to a new mom at 3am? It means: It’s your fault, If only you were better, you’re the problem in this situation. I struggled through the feeding and I realized the pain has started again. I assumed that I was doing something wrong but now I am scared to ask the nurse. I was scared to ask because I took her assessment as a personal judgement.
Sorkin went back to the nursery after that for a few hours. At the next feeding, the nurse tried nipple covers. She tried to help me adjust my body. She tweeked my nipple, rubbed my breast, and lowered the bed. It was very impersonal and demeaning to me. I was also embarrassed that this is what my husband was seeing and how he was being taught to support me during breastfeeding. The nipple covers were terrible. Plastic over my nipple to encourage my nipple to form the correct way. I could see that my nipple was not converging in the nipple cover correctly so I took it off. I didn’t want to feel like a machine again. I didn’t want plastic between my baby and me while I was breastfeeding.
Sorkin had some of his initial tests which showed he was jaundice. He was also loosing weight. Both of these can occur naturally after birth but they can also happen if a child isn’t getting enough nutrition. My stress increased. My nipples were too short and I wasn’t providing enough milk for my child. After another half day of struggling, I spoke with the lactation consultant. She looked at Sorkin and she looked at me. She explained that I did in fact have short nipples which is part of what caused the pain. She also said that Sorkin had a shorter tongue which makes latching difficult (even with normal nipples). She explained the jaundice and weight loss would be hard to overcome but they could be overcome. I could continue to try to teach Sorkin to latch, I could pump, I could supplement with formula. All of this information filled me with despair: I didn’t want to supplement and I didn’t want to pump– I just wanted to breastfeed my son. She did not think Sorkin could latch successfully and she expressed concern that continuing the same course would make weight gain a problem. She then told me what I needed to hear: It was okay for me not to breast feed. It was okay to have him take bottles and formula.
I felt an immediate relief upon hearing those words. Matt and I decided together that the best thing for Sorkin, our family, and our lifestyle was to bottle feed (I was already worried about going back to work while breastfeeding; although my work is supportive of breastfeeding women it is not an easy task to manage both work and breastfeeding). Sorkin was a hungry boy. He ate a lot each feeding. He started gaining weight and sleeping better. Matt was participating in feeding which made him feel like he was meaningfully involved with Sorkin. We were still bonding and I wasn’t crying at my failure every time Sorkin ate.
I am not saying bottle feeding is better. Absolutely not. I feel incredible amounts of guilt at times when I see women post about breastfeeding. When my milk came in, it was a painful reminder that I had failed (again) to provide milk for my son. But it is the decision I made to best serve my family and my own needs. I will always be a strong advocate for doing what is best for your family. I think we need better systems in place for teaching women how to breastfeed. The myth that women should experience no pain is just that: a myth. There are reasons you could feel pain. There are reasons you may be struggling. And it’s okay! I wish the message I received and my experience with breastfeeding would have been more positive. After the first nurse left (she was fantastic, supportive, encouraging), I felt an expectation from the nurses that I should know what I am doing.
Guess what, I didn’t know what I was doing. It is okay to ask for help. It is okay to breastfeed when and where your child needs to eat. It is okay to bottle feed. It is okay to donate your milk to a donation center and it is okay to feed your child with that donated milk. For years and years and years, women could not breast feed in public and were, to an extent, discouraged from even trying. I love that breastfeeding is once again socially acceptable and I hope women get enough support in their endeavor.
That being said, I have been thrown nasty looks when the formula comes out. I have been judged, comment on, and asked “why i’m not breastfeeding”. Really, it’s none of your business. Women get to decide how they feed their infants. Women have the right to decide how to safely care for their child without being judge by the general population.
So breastfeed, or don’t. I really don’t care and I won’t judge when the food (whatever the source) comes out in the community. Baby’s need to eat when they need to eat. I just wanted to share my experience with breastfeeding so far. Who knows, maybe on the third baby I will finally meet with success?