misadventures in breastfeeding

Or, what I like to call the longest 3 and a half weeks of my life. It all started when we decided to skip the breastfeeding class at the hospital before she was born. At the time I was thinking, how hard could it be? In the days following Kaylee’s birth I found the answer to that question was very hard. I went into it thinking i’d give it a shot and if it didn’t work out we’d move on. But after she was here I became stubborn in my conviction to make it work, constantly feeling inadequate at every set back. By the second week I was consumed with anxiety and guilt over the possibility that I may not be able to provide for my family the way I thought I should. Bombarded by messages that “Breast if best” every where I turned, including the formula companies, I developed an obsessive need to succeed at all costs. I read tons of articles on the subject all over the Internet, sought out advice from a lactation consultant and two doctors, all in the search for the key that would solve any one of my numerous problems from poor latch, to nipple damage, to let-down & pumping issues, to low supply. Bit by bit I began to piece together the complexities of my specific problems but each time I thought I found a solution, a new problem would follow in its place.  Needless to say, breastfeeding definitely wasn’t the magical natural bonding experience I thought it would turn out to be if only I tried a little harder to make it work.

There are so many things I would have done differently if I had only known then what I know now, starting with our very first nursing session. About an hour after she was born, Kaylee and I were alone in the labor room with the nurse who asked if I’d like to breastfeed her. I said sure. But in that moment I realized I had no clue what I was doing. I looked at the nurse, expecting her to offer some advice to get me started, and when she didn’t I said “I’m not sure how.” She helped me unhook my bra and offer Kaylee a breast. She didn’t however offer any tips on positioning (the start of our downfall), only that I should use my fingers to hold my breast away from her nose (horrible advice that led our latching problems). Kaylee seemed to be eating, and it hurt, but I had read that it would so I didn’t think much of it (it felt like shards of glass being pulled through my nipples, it’s not really supposed to hurt that bad). I assumed everything was going ok (boy, was I wrong). When the lactation consultant stopped by to see us the next day Kaylee was asleep and I didn’t wake her to demo my technique (huge mistake). Kaylee only lost 4% of her birth weight in the hospital, well below the typical 10%. The pediatrician  who came to discharge her said we seemed to be doing things right (boy, was he wrong). Add to all that to the fact that she’s like a piranha when she latches on. It’s like she’s trying to suck a really thick milkshake through a coffee stirrer and the pain was so excruciating it made my toes curl up every time she nursed.

The only thing I did right while I was in the hospital was hang on to the lactation consultant’s phone number. By the second day at home I was in agony. I would tense up in anticipation of the pain at the start of every nursing session, which made Kaylee tense too. My nipples were cracked and bleeding and chunks of skin would fall off after she fed. It was so bad at one point she tore a scab off  when she pulled away and blood dripped on her face and my shirt. The part of my brain that wasn’t affected by the hormones in those early days knew at that moment that things just weren’t right, but the irrational side was determined to beat this thing… NO-MATTER-WHAT!!

Kaylee was also a cluster feeder, which means she groups 5 to six feedings together between a half hour and hour apart then takes a big nap that lasts 4 to 5 hours at some point during the night. Just before she hit two weeks she had a growth spurt too and wanted to eat every hour from 5pm to 3 am then slept until 9. This would be no problem if things were going well, but they weren’t and I ended up with even more damage with the added strain of additional feedings. I later realized she was trying to increase my milk supply which was probably already on the decline due to a number of other mistakes I made early on including not offering her both breasts during a feeding and not waking her up if she fell asleep while at the breast so she could finish up.

I tried using the manual pump so that I could give my breasts a break and allow Scott some additional bonding time with her. But, I couldn’t get any milk with the manual pump and the flange didn’t fit properly and cut into my areola. We went out to Babies R Us and purchased an electric pump ($154 on sale). But, I had problems with the flanges on it too and although it came with 3 options, none of them seemed right. I ended up adding additional cracking around the base of my nipple along with all the damage to the tops. And, I was only able to get a half ounce to an ounce per 45 minute session (I found out later this was normal as you are typically only able to pump half the amount you can produce). After doing a bit of reasearch I discovered I have a problem with the letdown reflex with the pump, and possibly while Kaylee is nursing too. Most of the advice for stimulating your let-down reflex is warm compresses,  relaxation and meditation (think of waterfalls, or your baby crying) which just made me feel silly. A few days ago I figured out I could just express some milk with my fingers  to trigger the let-down reflex before using the pump and skip the waterfalls and compresses all together.

Kaylee had lost more weight by her first doctor’s appointment and her doctor was concerned. She had us schedule a followup appointment a few days later to check on her status.

By our fourth day home Scott called the lactation consultant while I was in the shower and explained what was going on and asked for some help. We set up an appointment to meet with her on Saturday and I spent some time on YouTube in between looking for any breastfeeding technique video I could find. I figured out most of my problems were due to an improper latch stemming from what I had been taught by the nurse in the hospital and my lack of knowledge. I started to change things up a bit, and I noticed a change in my nipple damage immediately.

Going to the lactation consultant also helped a lot. Lisa answered all of our questions and made us feel so much better. Most importantly, she gave me a boost of confidence I needed to continue to persevere ( my stubbornness could only get me so far). She looked at the damage to my breasts and said she was proud of me for sticking with it because most people would have given up by now. She weighed Kaylee before and after a feeding to determine that she was getting the perfect amount of milk. She checked the latch, which I had started correcting already. She gave me a few more tips to help with our specific issues – I was holding Kaylee a little too much towards the center of my body and needed to shift her a bit based on the shape of my nipple after her feeding (it was angled like a new tube of lipstick).  She called me back a week later to check on how things were going and told me that I could come in to see her for free on Tuesdays during the newborn hospital class. I wish I would have known that before our appointment and saved myself $200 out-of-pocket. Although she gave us about $50 in product samples so it was really only about $150 bucks, and although it was expensive it was probably the best money I’ve spent on a baby related item. While the lactation consultation was great, looking back now I think she was too pro breastfeeding to give us unbiased advice about continuing on. She didn’t offer any alternatives such as giving a bottle before nursing to help lessen Kaylee’s ferocious suck (something I ran across on the Internet a little too late to help). 

We had our follow up visit at the pediatrician right after our lactation appointment. Kaylee was gaining weight again, not back up to her birth weight yet, but definitely headed in the right direction. The doctor said to continue to feed on demand and that we could supplement with 1-2 ounces of formula if Kaylee seemed hungry after nursing or during cluster feeding sessions if I needed a break. I got a renewed sense of hope. Until a week later when Kaylee was so fussy and not sleeping well at all. It was like someone snuck into our house in the middle of the night and replaced our happy baby with a demon child.  We were all miserable.

I think my supply was not keeping up with her demand due to my earlier habits of not encouraging her to completely empty both breasts at each feeding. We started supplementing with formula and Kaylee soon lost interest in nursing. She didn’t want to work for it anymore after having the easy delivery of the bottle. She developed a bad latch again and my nipples suffered the consequences. I made an appointment with my OB/GYN who said I didn’t have an infection yet but that I should stop supplementing and force Kaylee to space her feedings to at least 1 and a half hours apart (good luck convincing a hungry newborn of this at 3 in the morning). She also said the shards of glass feeling I was experiencing was normal and would eventually go away.

I’m not fully healed but I’m on the mend. I ordered new flanges for the electric pump because I thought I needed a larger size, but they didn’t help. I’ve got enough creams, pads, and other products to get me through the rest of the healing process. Whoever said breastfeeding is a cheaper alternative to formula never had issues. We’re heavily invested in this thing, I’d guess probably somewhere around $600 between the consultation fee and the products.  

Back to the pump issues. The advice the lactation consultant gave me about the pump was useless. I didn’t figure out until 3 and a half weeks into this that my areola wasn’t being stimulated properly with the pump we chose – manual expression yielded plenty of milk and letdown was easily achieved. Unfortunately, at this point my supply is down, Kaylee no longer takes to the breast for anything other than consoling, and we’re working on weaning. I would have liked to have been able to get the pumping thing down so that I could give her breast milk instead of formula for the next few months, but it just didn’t work out that way for us either.

I do have regrets about the experience. I wish I wouldn’t have been so nieve going into it. At one point I was incredibly tortured by a feeling of guilt and disappointment over my failure to conquer this beast which made the whole thing spiral even more out of control and go on a lot longer than it needed too. We faced so many obstacles right from the start and the conflicting advice from each doctor we saw made it even more difficult to figure out what to do to get everything back on track. I was driving myself crazy, making my baby unhappy, and hindering our bonding experience by stubbornly forcing something that just wasn’t working on both of us. Eventually I realized I needed to cut my losses and that I’m not any less of a mother, or a woman, because this didn’t work out for us. Kaylee is thriving on the bottle and I know a whole lot more about breastfeeding if I decide I want to try it out again if we have another baby. And, honestly, I love bottle feeding. I feel like I’m bonding better with her now that every meal isn’t tainted in misery for both of us. Bottles are so easy and convenient and a great fit for our family lifestyle. We don’t have to time our day around Kaylee’s feeding schedule as much anymore. If she gets fussy while we are out we can just give her a bottle  instead of trying to find some place private to nurse her. And, Scott gets to help out too which is totally awesome. He takes the 2am feeding now which allows me to catch up on some sleep in the middle of the night when I need it most.

We’re not out of the woods yet. Weaning is tough, particularly on me since Kaylee refuses to help me out anymore. Luckily, I’m a little better at pumping now, at least with the manual pump. It takes forever but it works and will hopefully get me through the next week or two while my supply diminishes.

If you’re reading this and thinking of breastfeeding do yourself a favor and take a class. Hook up with a lactation consultant as soon as possible – preferably  one that doesn’t believe “breast is best” at all costs. Be willing to throw in the towel if it just isn’t working out for you and your baby. And, rather than feeling incompetent and guilty if it doesn’t go the way you expected it would, understand that just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it’s easy or that it’s right for you. In the end you need to do what works out best for your family and don’t worry about what any one else thinks about your decision.

In the immortal words of Bob Marley…”don’t worry, about a thing. ‘Cuz every little thing is gonna be alright.”

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3 thoughts on “misadventures in breastfeeding

  1. I wish we had talked about this! I would’ve told you how hard it is. In fact, I consider it one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. From what I saw at my house, Kaylee is happy and thriving. You were right to let it go.

  2. I’m over it now. We all came through the experience a little worse for wear, but ultimately we’re more happy and healthy which is more than I could have asked for. I just wish there was more information out there about how hard it really is. I would have had a much more realistic expectation and probably been OK with stopping sooner. The only thing I can think of is that perhaps doctors (or even society) are worried that mothers will skip breast feeding all together if they know what is in store for them – but that’s not really fair to women or their children and causes a lot of unecessary anguish.

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