February 9, 2013

Breastfeeding struggles yield silver linings

The above shows me on my first walk around the neighborhood with baby Emilia. It was one week postpartum which was about 9 weeks ago. If I could go back in time and give my "then" self a hug, I would. Because it was my first birth and I hadn't anticipated folding recovery from major surgery into my postpartum story, things were harder than I imagined. The hormonal shifts were a lot to sort through. I was holding onto the hurt feelings I wrote about in my birth and recovery post. And I was physically very sore and uncomfortable. On top of all of the above, I was adjusting to the responsibilities and pressures of being a new mom... a new mom who wanted desperately to establish a strong breastfeeding relationship with my baby.

Tummy time is also a struggle!

Exclusive breastfeeding was among of the goals I had all along. During pregnancy a few people asked about my feeding intentions. Whenever I would describe them I included the caveat, "if we are able to, I would like," because I know that desire alone doesn't make something possible.

But after I had Emilia, I came to view breastfeeding as my own personal reparation for a birth that didn't go according to plan. In retrospect I see how selfish that might sound on the surface. Babies can and do thrive with formula, breast milk, or a combination of the two. So to be rigid for my own ego was ridiculous. I also don't mean to insinuate judgment toward those for whom such a goal is not possible and/or not desired. I don't believe formula fed babies are less healthy or less bonded with their parents. And I hate that the subject breeds such division among families. I am strongly pro-choice in my approach to the politics of motherhood and reproduction and I've come to view this as another aspect of reproductive rights. And although it was a very emotional time for me, fraught with anxiety and self-doubt, I can thank the period during which I began pumping and had to supplement for the relative autonomy and independence I enjoy already (to be explained below). Thank goodness women have choices in terms of their reproduction and in terms of their mothering!

Still, my desire to breastfeed intensified after I had her. It came to represent a regaining of control after feeling like I lost my sense of agency. I thought that asserting myself after going through something I regarded to be traumatic could heal me. 

The pressure to breastfeed was something I half-invented and half-absorbed from the world around me. And inherently, that pressure is one that puts another human being's life in your care. Reaching my goal was especially difficult because my milk was delayed from surgery. When I was in the hospital I saw their lactation consultant who was supportive but also firm in her belief that we could do this without a nipple shield or medical supplements. To stimulate my supply, she brought me the hospital grade pump to borrow along with a huge kit of pump parts that were mine to keep. I began pumping on a schedule to try to coerce supply. During this time, E lost more weight than was safe so we had to give her formula.* I was devastated because yet again I made myself feel like a failure. I failed to have her vaginally and I failed to make enough milk for her. It added insult to the injury of my surgery and it broke my heart.

Because of length, I've put the rest of the story behind a page break.

In that thick haze of my postpartum emotions I came to feel threatened by the bottle. And I learned quickly that certain bottles were indeed threats to my breastfeeding goal. The ease and certainty of artificial, fast-flow nipples took the work out of eating for Emilia. The hospital only had nipples supplied by the formula manufacturers (who of course stand to benefit from a formula family's consumption). I hadn't thought to pack our slow-flow Avent bottles because I hadn't anticipated having trouble breastfeeding. I hadn't anticipated having surgery that would delay my milk. With heavy hearts we used the formula nipples and Emilia, who had immediately latched onto me when we met and who had no trouble latching at all up until that point, developed latch problems. We really only supplemented for a day but the problems it created lasted much longer. She became nipple confused and fought me fiercely whenever I'd try to feed her. She happily took my pumped breastmilk in a bottle from Chris. For the period when we gave it to her, she also happily took the formula. She happily took a pacifier. She suddenly was happy to take everything that wasn't my breast. So I reasoned that if she was comfortable latching onto artificial nipples, she might be more prone to latch with me if I used a shield.**

It worked well enough. She would latch and breastfeed with the shield probably 95% of the time I offered. She latched without it sporadically. But my desires to breastfeed were rooted also in convenience. And keeping a shield with me at all times complicated what I thought would be a convenient and loving process. It was also messy because she'd latch and fill the shield with milk, then unlatch spilling milk everywhere. 

At her first pediatrician check up (five days old) she had great weight gain from my pumped and shield-nursed breastmilk so he gave us the official "go ahead" to stop supplementing (which we had already done since I was monitoring my pumped output and her diaper production so closely). I was still having trouble getting her to latch consistently without a shield so I scheduled an appointment to see their in-house lactation consultant. We met a few days later but by this appointment, E had lost a little weight rather than gained. I was heartbroken and fearful. I wanted my baby to thrive and worried she was hungrier than I could sate on my own. 

The second lactation consultant was wonderful. She also insisted that I didn't need a shield. She helped me get E to latch without it and taught me a few additional positions. She likened nursing with a shield to drinking from a straw vs directly out of a cup. And she suggested that if I don't want to stop the shield cold, I wean Emilia from it by taking it off while we fed. This would work because once she had already latched and had some food in her belly she would be in a better mood. 

I was still so nervous to try to get her onto my breast without a shield that night. My mom and sister were there to help me but I just wasn't confident enough to try without it. I instead removed it mid-feeding and she did latch again but my fear of rejection was palpable. I remember feeling the stress pour from me. Just in case, I ordered more shields to keep in various places around the house and a bin to weigh Emilia on our kitchen scale. At night I was too groggy to "work," so I used the shield without removal. But I'd offer myself sans shield or remove it mid-feeding during the day. She was also still eating pumped milk from bottles with Chris or one of our family members. I was instructed to never give her a bottle while having latch problems. I didn't want her to associate bottles with me. Eventually it all worked out. I find myself thinking that more often than ever these days... with just about everything.

Holding my sweater while she eats.

Although the story of our breastfeeding issues lasted for only a few weeks, it felt like forever while we lived it. I was full of self doubt and worry during that period. I was terribly sleep deprived, sad, and sore which amplified every hardship. I was so stressed and fearful that she wasn't getting enough food. I was so worried that my supply was inadequate. I was so worried that my c-section "ruined" one of the things I wanted so much for us. But everything turned out fine. And we are all doing great now.

From our struggles came silver linings. I've found in my short tenure that struggles in parenting rarely come without learning. We're more flexible and relaxed as a unit. Emilia taught us that she would eat from bottles and with people who weren't her parents. I became more calm and confident as her parent. Emilia came to eat from me without a shield, even at night. We got to the point where breastfeeding became (just as I hoped it would) the easiest and most convenient option. I stopped keeping a shield with me everywhere I go (though I do still have one in her diaper bag as my own personal security blanket). Chris (and a few of our relatives) had the opportunity to bond with Emilia through feeding. I became familiar with the process of pumping and mastered the use of my own Medela Pump In Style. This skill set will be crucial for when I return to work and it also gives me a bit of independence and freedom in the meanwhile. We even became lax with bottle use to the point where we've had to work on reestablishing that. But this experience taught us that she will get there (again). We will all get there with time and patience. 

*Some have said I should have fought the recommendation to supplement at all but I was thinking of her. And from my purview, it was in her best interests to eat by any means necessary. If I couldn't feed her enough from my breast, she still needed to eat. 

**The shield also allowed my body to heal and adapt to this new task.


  1. Reading your entries take me back and the one thing you mentioned really resonated: "lasted only for a few weeks but seemed like forever while we lived it"! Ah, yes, how time passes with an infant! I remember being told, about various undertakings, "just try it for a week" or "you need to do it for one week and see what happens". If I had not written things down, I would have never had any idea how long I was trying some new initiative. I swear 24 hours could feel like a week! Of course, my ability to write things down was pretty limited too but I did appreciate the philosophy: that our sense of time is altered and we may be quick to draw conclusions while our baby is not. Congratulations to you and Chris and your beautiful Emilia!

    1. The passage of time right now is so bizarre because it feels too fast and too slow at once. I feel like I blinked and she is already 2.5 months old and yet when I look back and think of the challenges and stress of new parenthood as we live through it, it moves so slowly.

      Thank you so much for your kind words and commiseration.

  2. I had a very similar experience with my first baby. I had to supplement too because he was losing too much weight. I also think the hormones in our bodies at that time really shape our thinking! I knew it was the best thing for him but the guilt was overwhelming. I'm glad you were able to work through all of the issues and now be in a much better place!

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience and commenting! I think the most reassuring thing about this stuff is learning that others have been there. The hormones do really intensify everything.

  3. I can't thank you enough for your recent posts. I'm expecting my first baby in 3 months and I feel like your stories have been so helpful to me. I want to be as mentally prepared as possible.

    1. Thank you for saying that! It really helps me to share and write. It's therapeutic enough that I found myself journaling (on paper) in much more personal detail throughout my pregnancy. Wish I still had time to do it but typing is easier. Anyway, congratulations and best wishes on your pregnancy and upcoming birth!! If you decide to blog it, let me know.


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