This is a post about my breasts. A very long post about my breasts. If the idea of this makes you uncomfortable, you should probably skip this one. But it’s an important story for me and it’s one I need to write out.
When Elijah was born, he was immediately placed on my chest, this tiny creature that I had created. That I somehow already knew, inside and out. It was, without question, the greatest moment of my life.
After our families got a few minutes (literally like 2) to take a peek at the baby, we had 2 hours of uninterrupted skin-to-skin time. That is something our hospital is proud of since it has been shown to improve breastfeeding rates and all kinds of other physiological benefits that are kind of voodoo science to me. But I had my baby and I was more than happy to snuggle.
After a few minutes, the nurse helped me move the baby to my breast to initiate breastfeeding and once there he did nothing. He did not open his mouth. He did not root. He showed no interest in eating. We tickled his cheeks, we (read: the nurse) squeezed the living hell out of my boob to entice him with colostrum…and nothing. And so we just took a breath and let him rest. He and I had both had a rather eventful hour and we were told to relax, it would happen. And so against my nature, I relaxed. I trusted that my son could lead the way. I was told over and over, he is a baby, this is what he is programmed to do.
We tried again a few times throughout those first two hours, always with the same result. At the end of the 2 hours the nurse took Eli and weighed him, measured him, threw on a pair of gloves and popped a finger in his mouth to see if she could elicit a suck reflex. And once again, nothing. It was as though he just had no idea how to eat even though babies were supposed to be born with the reflexes and drive to do that. Again, I was told to relax, that we had 24 hours to work it out, and so I did.
Throughout the night, the baby would wake up and cry, I would put him to my breast and occasionally he’d open his mouth, but nothing ever came of it. No latching, no sucking. Nothing.
We finally saw a lactation consultant at around 22 hours of life. 22 hours where my child had not eaten anything at all. I was no longer relaxed. I was stressed. And tired. And worried. The lactation consultant was worried. She threw around labels, trying to find a cause. She thought maybe he had a tight jaw. Or torticollis. Or it was the epidural. The more she talked the more I felt like I had done something wrong. I had gotten that stupid epidural. I had relaxed like the nurses had told me and now my child couldn’t breastfeed. Now his first meal on this earth would be formula.
I put on a happy face while inside I crumbled. I didn’t have very many strong parenting ideas, but breastfeeding was one of them. I wanted to breastfeed. I wanted to bond with my child. I wanted to provide him that perfect nutrition. I wanted to be the person he had to go to whenever he was upset or distressed or otherwise just needed comfort. I was his home for 9 months, I wanted to be his sustenance for at least 12 more.
I tried to keep my worries quiet, but we went home that evening with a rented pump and directions on how to pump, tube/finger feed and an appointment with the LC in 2 days.
At that appointment, to our great excitement, Eli latched on and ate off both sides. He still had to have supplemented formula because my supply was already completely inadequate, but he breastfed. The next day he latched on 2 more times. We were elated. And then he never did it again.
He would nurse with a nipple shield, but it was agony. My nipple would get pulled through the little holes at the end and trapped there. He would slip off and just nurse off the very tip. And he would fall asleep every time. The feedings became a 90 minute affair. 45 minutes of nursing, 15 minutes of screaming despite 45 minutes of eating and scales showing he had ingested >2 ounces, and finally giving a bottle to top him off and 30 minutes of pumping/cleaning up. And then 90 minutes later, it all started over again. We did this for 5 weeks. We both cried at least 8 times a day. I loved that baby so fiercely, but I came to resent him because feeding him made me feel like a failure. I couldn’t do the most natural thing in the world- the thing that women were literally designed to do. I could not sustain my child with breastfeeding.
We took a week off at 5 weeks because we both needed it. I pumped, he ate out of the bottle and we cried less. We tried again at 6 weeks and at the recommendation of a lactation consultant I tried to do a “nursing vacation” where you basically just lay around with the baby and let him eat all the time. He would only nurse with the shield and after 2 hours he became hysterical, despite free reign of my breasts.
That night I made a decision. We were done. After 6 weeks of my child rejecting my breasts, 6 weeks of tears at every feeding, 6 weeks of struggle and sadness, we quit. And for a time, I felt relieved. I hated pumping, but since breastfeeding was clearly not going to happen, this was my redemption. I could still get him breast milk.
My son is nearly 5 months old. I no longer dread the pump, but I am every bit as sad about what happened as I was the day we gave up, perhaps even more so. I hear my friends with babies talk about breastfeeding and how the love to do it and all the wonderful things I had dreamed of and I feel completely inadequate. I resent them for their success, which isn’t fair. But it’s true. My sister is preparing to have a baby and while I wish her all the luck in the world and hope that her daughter takes to breastfeeding without difficulty, I know that it will be nearly impossible for me to see. That it will remind me of what we couldn’t, what we can’t do.
All the lactation consultants we saw (4? 5? in total), told me to keep going. That babies just “get it” between 4-8 weeks and if they don’t you can get them to breastfeed as late as 6 months or beyond. We tried again last week because I can’t seem to let it go and it was the worst disaster to date. Even with the shield, my child screamed and screamed, choked, and screamed some more.
It’s funny because I have always defended mothers who bottle feed for any reason because I believe that it is a mother’s choice and that feeding a baby is all that matters/ed. I do not and have not judged mothers for not trying or not sticking with breastfeeding, but when I’m out in public, bottle feeding my son, I want to yell to everyone watching that it’s breast milk. That I’m still giving him breast milk, as though anyone cares or as though if I was giving him formula (which I sometimes do) it would be a big deal (it isn’t). My inner hypocrisy is somewhat appalling.
I judge myself. I blame myself for not pushing harder. For not doing the “breast crawl” at birth and instead, letting family in those first few minutes. For switching to bottles when I knew that it could risk the minimal success we had with breastfeeding. For giving up too soon. For not just toughing out all the 90 minute feedings and nipple shield nonsense. I could’ve kept going. I chose not to and while in my heart of hearts I know it was the right call, somewhere in my gut, I have deep layers of guilt.
I still pump and it’s not a road I recommend to anyone, but at this point, it’s as much a part of my life as the baby is. It’s gotten much easier to manage, I can pump around his nap schedule and though I do supplement with formula (4ish oz a day), I have been able to grow my supply to be far closer to adequate. And while I can tell you that I’m doing it so my son gets breast milk, the truth is that I’m doing it because I need to feel successful at something. I couldn’t control the breastfeeding situation, but I can control this. And as a bonus, my son gets breast milk.
I guess what I have learned, now that I’m finally putting the words down, is that feeding my child was and is the most important thing. I wanted to breastfeed him, I still do, but when the choice is between us maybe someday getting the hang of it and being miserable in the meantime, or enjoying my son and giving up this dream, there simply isn’t a choice at all. He is healthy, he is happy and that is all that matters.
I will probably always wish things worked out differently, I will definitely always wish that our first weeks weren’t filled with so much strife. But I will be proud that I was able to prioritize my son over my goals and climb out of that experience to make us both happier.