our own private battle

Who knew we’d be waging a war from Day One, you and I?

When they first placed you, hot, slippery and still corded, on my chest, the only thing I could think was, “Please let him cry.” Gloriously, you screamed your little lungs out, and in a wave of relief, my thoughts quickly shifted to, “Please let him latch.” For me, there was never a question or a decision to be made. I was going to breastfeed you, just as your Nonna had breastfed me. It wasn’t simply about the health benefits (although lord knows they drill that message into you from the moment your pregnancy is confirmed) or even about the bonding; it was just something I felt deep down to my core that I was supposed to do for you.

So when you were born, I waited for nursing to happen.

Well, it quickly became evident that babies are not like kittens; they don’t intuitively find their way to the breast and take it from there while their mamas lounge in the sun grooming themselves. They need help to nurse. And I had no idea how to help you.

This is 100 percent my own fault. I’d kind of halfheartedly read a book about nursing but I hadn’t paid much attention to the process before you were born. I didn’t take a class. I didn’t seek out lactation assistance. I just figured that everyone else could do it and so could I. I’ve never been so wrong in my life–or so regretful, once I learned the truth about nursing.

It’s damn hard.

And we had the odds stacked against us. While the staff at St. Agnes Hospital, where you were born, were truly excellent in supporting us through labor and delivery, they dropped the ball where lactation was concerned. You were born at 2:13 p.m. By the time we were both cleaned up and given the all clear to be moved to our postpartum suite, it was closer to 5, and by then, it was too late for us to a see a lactation consultant. That first night, as we struggled to figure out what we were doing, Daddy and I gave you formula–at the recommendation of the nursery staff–to keep you hydrated. (If only we’d known then what we know now!) It took nearly 24 hours for the lactation consultants to see us. And when they finally arrived, it was in the midst of a hectic hubbub in our room: OB, pediatrician, nursery staff, family, etc. I was hot, sweaty and overwhelmed (not to mention steeling myself against a great deal of pain from delivery). And it just wasn’t working all that well.

But the LCs got me pumping, at least, that tiny bit of colustrum that new mothers can produce. And they showed me how to hold you so we could at least make an effort. Daddy and I continued to give you formula from a tiny syringe because we didn’t want you to lose too much weight. When they discharged us, you were down 6 ounces from your birth weight.

I don’t remember how we stumbled through those first few sleepless nights. I don’t remember how I nursed you, when I nursed you or where I nursed you. I only remember the panic that gripped me when at your first pediatrician appointment, four days after you joined us, you weighed in at merely 6 pounds. You’d dropped another 6 ounces, down 12 from your birth weight. All I could think was, “I’m starving my child,” and I burst into tears. The pediatrician told us that we had to get your weight up, and if it wasn’t working by breastfeeding, we’d need to tuck into the formula. My milk hadn’t even come in yet, so of course it wasn’t working by breastfeeding. She piled free cans of formula on us (yay for free formula, at least; that stuff is powdered gold) and sent us off with orders to fatten you up.

That night, stressed nearly to the breaking point by my inability to feed you, we had an in-home appointment with a lactation consultant referred to us by your doula. It was an overwhelming, exhausting two hours. But there were some major takeaways from our time with her:

  1. She determined, by weighing you pre- and post-feeding, that you were transferring very little milk, maybe a third of an ounce.
  2. This was due in part to what she diagnosed as a tongue tie. We’d never heard of this before, but it’s the affectionate term for a shortened frenulum, the membrane that keeps the tongue from floating around in the mouth.
  3. She told me that to establish and increase my milk supply, I’d have to pump constantly–at least every time I fed you, if not more, and around the clock–and I should be doing so with a rented hospital-grade pump.
  4. She got us started nursing with nipple shields to help you latch.

By the time she left, I felt defeated. Your Daddy and Nonna did everything they could to scrape my morale and my will to continue up off the floor and push us forward in our battle to breastfeed. The next few weeks are a blur, but we did our best. You were eating every two hours during the day; each time we fed you, you’d nurse, then bottle feed and then I’d pump. Your feeding sessions lasted well more than an hour–and then, just minutes later, it seemed, we’d start the whole process again.

When I pumped, it was a matter of a few milliliters. I’d collect the 3 or 4 or 5 CCs I pumped in a tiny syringe, and we’d feed it to you along with your formula at your next feeding. Overnight, I’d wake you at 11 p.m., 3 a.m. and 7 a.m., and I’d breastfeed you for 45 minutes–that was our cutoff–before handing you off to Daddy while I pumped for 20 minutes through the deepest depths of exhaustion.

With Nonna’s help, I took you to the drop-in breastfeeding clinics at the local hospitals. Diligently, we’d weigh you before you ate. You’d breastfeed for 40 minutes. We’d weigh you again. Time and time again, your post-feeding weight indicated that for all your effort, you’d gotten two-tenths or three-tenths or four-tenths of an ounce. I cried ten times that in tears, easily. I felt guilty and helpless and like I was a terrible, unfit mother. You just kept happily trying to nurse, not knowing that it should be infinitely easier. You loved your boob and you loved your bottle.

The good news is you put on weight, and fast, thanks to the formula. But my dream was to get you off of formula and exclusively onto breast milk. I did everything they told me do to increase my supply: In addition to the pumping, I took Fenugreek and Blessed Thistle, two giant pills each three times a day (yes, that’s 12 pills daily); I ate oatmeal every morning topped with brewer’s yeast and flax seeds; I drank mother’s milk tea; I baked up lactation cookies; and I pumped myself to dairy cow-dom and back.

When you were three weeks old, after seeing multiple lactation consultants who all said you were maybe dealing with a tongue tie and getting multiple opinions from some of Nonna’s former colleagues, we went to see Dr. Andrew Goldstone, an ENT at GBMC who was recommended to us for his expertise in more complicated tongue ties. He took one look in your mouth and confirmed what all the LCs had said. You had a tongue tie, alright, but it was posterior–a more difficult diagnosis. You also had a lip tie, a shortened membrane attaching your upper lip to your gum. He could correct both in three seconds through a procedure using a cauterizing blade, he said. Would it solve all of our problems? He couldn’t guarantee anything, but as there were no risks involved–no real pain or even bleeding–and a huge possibility that it could solve our problems (not to mention eventual orthodontic issues, the only lasting effects of a lip tie), we decided to go through with it. I steeled myself for putting my sweet, three-week-old boy through surgery, however minor. I cried more than you did.

Three seconds later, even though we didn’t  yet know it, the course of our private war had changed. Within 24 hours, we’d abandoned the nipple shields. Within a week, you’d learn to latch like a pro. And all of a sudden, breastfeeding became–if not easy, much less stressful. I could relax, and so could you. I stopped timing our sessions, and I started focusing on how quiet and peaceful our nursing time was for both of us.

But I’ve never produced enough breast milk, sadly, to completely ditch the formula. This will always, always be the pea under my giant pile of motherhood mattresses. I have nothing against formula; I’m not a militant lactivist. I don’t understand this judgey mom debate about breastfeeding vs. bottle feeding. Sure, breastfeeding provides benefits that formula cannot. But I’ve never met a formula-fed baby who’s worse off for it. And while formula is absurdly expensive, breastfeeding is far from free. I just had a personal desire to breastfeed you, and I would’ve loved to be able to do it without supplementing with formula. I tried, once, to get you off of formula; it was probably the worst day of your young life. By mid-afternoon, you’d nursed me dry and screamed and screamed for more food. I decided it wasn’t worth starving you, so we went back to what seemed to work: about an even split of breast milk and formula from both breast and bottle.

Daddy, our family and our friends never stopped encouraging me to breastfeed, though, even when I was tempted to give up. And every time we weighed you, we were reassured that we were doing everything right. At one point, you were gaining more than an ounce and a half a day–and turning quite pleasantly plump.

When you started sleeping through the night at about four weeks, I continued to get up in the middle of the night to pump as recommended to maintain my supply. At first, we’d give you the extra pumped milk in the morning to boost the amount you were getting, but then I started freezing it in an effort to develop a stash of breast milk to make sure you continued to get as much as possible when I went back to work.

And here we are, four and a half months into our lives together, and you’re still nursing happily. My 3 a.m. pumping–which I quit just a week ago, after 19 weeks of never sleeping through the night, when I returned to work full time after the holidays–contributed to a supply of approximately 150 ounces, which we’re using to supplement what I’m pumping at work. My goal of nursing you for two months turned into a goal of four months, and now I’ve got my eyes on six months. Maybe we’ll make it to nine months or maybe even a year. At this point, whenever together we call it quits, I’ll be at peace with it. I feel like we’ve achieved the impossible. We’ve battled fiercely, and we’ve won the war.

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