When I was pregnant with my first child, friends and strangers alike often asked me questions. Some of these questions I was expecting: Do you know if it’s a boy or girl? What names have you picked? Some of these questions I was not expecting: How much weight have you gained (never a good question!) and Are you going to breastfeed?
It was surprising to me just how interested people seemed to be in whether I was going to breast or bottle feed our baby. Even more surprising were their responses when I told them that yes, I planned to breastfeed. “Good!” my breastfeeding friends would say heartily. “That never worked for me,” my non-breastfeeding friends would say almost apologetically. I was puzzled by how emotional this topic seemed. I also was amazed by how many of my friends had problems breastfeeding. I had two sisters who had breastfed their babies – one breastfed seven children – and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. I figured you had the baby, you put it to your breast, and the baby nursed. It seemed like it would be simple. Was I right? No! My experience breastfeeding was one of the most challenging yet rewarding aspects of being a new mother. It’s a story that’s fraught with as much emotion and tears as a Lifetime movie; and I’ve come to find out that my experience is not all that different from many women’s.
Last August, I was lying in bed, watching Regis and Kelly, when suddenly my water broke. This being my first child, I at first was unsure what was happening. Fluid was gushing out of me and yet my baby wasn’t due for another month and a half. I was terrified she was suddenly going to slip out of me in a rush of fluid. Little did I know it wouldn’t be until after another 23 hours of labor that our little Anne would make her appearance! Due to her early arrival Anne was whisked away to a larger hospital nearby to be in their NICU. My husband and I were left a bit dazed and shell-shocked. I had had many happy envisionings of Anne’s birth. I saw my husband cutting the cord, Anne being placed in my arms, a few pictures, and I had written in my birth plan: “I want to put my baby to breast immediately”. Instead I was felt like I’d been hit by a truck, my husband hadn’t slept and barely eaten in over 24 hours, our baby was in the next town in a large hospital and we hadn’t even been able to hold her.
Later that afternoon, I was lying in my hospital room, trying to think positive when the nurse came in to check my vitals.
“Are you pumping?” she said, somewhat suspiciously, eyeing me carefully.
“Pumping what?” I asked.
“Your breasts! You need to get your milk in!” she responded. She then left and quickly returned with a blue box on wheels. “I’m sending in the lactation consultant,” she explained.
A while later one of the lactation consultants arrived. Little did I know that she would be the first of 12 different nurses or consultants I would work with (all of whom had a different approach!). She hooked up some plastic tubing to the machine, then attached them to what looked like funnels.
“Put these over your breasts,” she ordered. I placed a funnel (technically called a “phalange”) over each nipple. She flipped the switch and I nearly jumped out of bed.
“Yikes!” I cried. “I feel like my breasts are being sucked into a vacuum cleaner!”
“That means it’s working,” she explained. “Now stay there for 25 minutes.”
Ten minutes later, I was near tears. This blue machine was killing me and nothing was coming out of my breasts. By 15 minutes I was in tears. I turned off the machine and called for the nurse. This time a different nurse and different consultant appeared. They tried to comfort me as I fretted over the lack of milk and the pain. What would they feed my baby if I had no milk? Why did this machine feel like a torture device? This consultant turned the machine down to a lower setting and told me “Only 10 minutes at a time, once every three hours”. I figured I would endure 10 minutes okay. They assured me that my nipples just needed to “toughen up”. Toughen up? What did that mean? I pictured my nipples looking some something that had been left on the beach too long. Would they “untoughen” later? How long did it take to toughen?
The next day I continued my pumping, though I had a great deal of pain. I would endure this, I thought. This is for my baby. She needs my milk! I looked down and noticed I was bleeding. I switched off the pump and called for the nurse.
“My nipples are bleeding.” I told her. I must admit I felt like an idiot. I had never heard of any of my friends or sisters nipples falling apart like this. Weren’t they supposed to “toughen up”? Why were my nipples so troublesome? And where was my milk?? I still hadn’t seen a drop. The nurse assured me that this was normal. My husband thought it didn’t seem to normal to expect bleeding, but I told him I‘d be okay. The hospital arranged for a pump to be brought to me to take with me when I left the hospital. Luckily, it was a kinder, gentler pump that the blue one I’d been using.
The next day I was discharged and we moved into a hotel near the hospital where Anne was. We finally got to hold our little girl! When the nurses in the NICU asked me if I was going to breastfeed I explained that I was trying to pump to get my milk in.
“Good!” they said enthusiastically. “We want the first thing to hit her stomach to be your milk. It’s liquid gold”.
Liquid gold? They explained that my body knew Anne had been born early, so the constitution of my milk had changed and it was just what Anne needed. You can imagine, after that pep talk I was geared up to pump (and even more stressed)! This time their consultant worked with me. The first thing she did was to get me new phalanges. The ones I had been using (the nipple-chewing ones) were actually too small for me. The new ones made a world of difference. She also taught my husband and I how to collect the colostrum with a syringe, using sterile water, and how to bottle it to bring to the NICU for Anne’s feedings. Fortunately for me, my husband is a scientist. He was quite comfortable collecting drops with syringes, sterilizing equipment, etc. The first time I lost a drop of milk from the syringe onto the floor I burst into tears. I’d worked hard for that drop! Anne needed it! He soon took over all collection activities. We called him “Pump Guy”. He also did the set-up and sterilizing of my pump parts for me, giving me time to get set up myself or to clean up. He even set the alarm and woke me every three hours during the night to pump.
Soon my milk came in, and it was cause for rejoicing! I pumped, more and more milk came, the baby had it through her feeding tube, and I felt like I was doing the one thing that only I could do for her. Then came the day that we learned to nurse.
I have to say “learned” to nurse, because I really thought nursing was going to be a reflex skill and it wasn’t. Anne was tiny and she had feeding issues. She couldn’t suck and swallow and breathe in a coordinated fashion. I wasn’t sure what to do except hold her close to my breast and worry that I was going to suffocate her. The first time she latched on and sucked (6 sucks it was) I burst into tears. We were going to do this! Anne was going to be okay! I had milk! Grab the camera! It was actually 2 and ½ months before Anne could normally and naturally nurse without issue and sustain herself, but those first four weeks were the hardest. She had a bad latch, a weak suck, and difficulty staying awake as the effort was too much for her. My nipples felt like they were on fire at times (thank goodness for lansinoh ointment!). We used a shield on and off for a while, too. But we made it. One way we made it was by doing what worked for us and what felt right. I appreciated all the people who tried to help me, and all the consultants who took the time to aid me, but I think it was my husband’s comment that really made the most sense. When I was still in the throws of despair and stressing over my milk coming in, he said that it seemed like the “trick” to lactation was that there was no trick to lactation! There was no one right answer. Everyone had to find out what was right for them, their body, and their baby. I really think he’s right. My sisters had no problems. They didn‘t even own a breast pump. I had lots of problems, but eventually met with success. Other friends of mine had so many problems that they couldn’t continue. While I think no one would argue that breastmilk is the healthiest and most natural choice for an infant, the adage “breast is best” can put undue pressure on women. What’s best should be what’s best for you and your baby. Women shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help (I found a wonderful nurse/consultant from the La Leche website after Anne came home). But for some people breastfeeding just doesn’t work out for them, even though they try.
Breastfeeding my daughter was one of the most wonderful experiences for me. I felt I gave her a gift to help her grow stronger while she was in the hospital. It was a beautiful bonding experience. But it wasn’t easy, and it certainly wasn’t what I was expecting. Fortunately, we were able to make it work.
Always the optimist, I was recently filling out my birth plan and once again I wrote “I would like to immediately put my baby to breast”. Who knows? Maybe this time it’ll be just like my sisters – the most natural thing in the world. At least now I know what to expect – and I know how to toughen my nipples!