World Breastfeeding Week – But Is It Always Happy?

Bottle Baby

“It’s really hard sometimes. I’m frantically trying to mix the bottle and he’s really hungry and upset and I could comfort him so much more quickly if I could just breastfeed him. I wish I knew why they didn’t do what they were supposed to. Why didn’t you work?!” She looked down at her chest and aimed this last question directly at her breasts as she let out a heavy sigh. When she looked up I saw her forced smile, but I could also see the pain in her eyes.

I reassured her, “Your baby is gorgeous and thriving, so you must be giving him exactly what he needs!” And then the conversation shifted to how bottle-feeding was going. I was happy to hear that they’d found a formula that the baby was tolerating well and that Dad had jumped into help with feeding his newborn son – a happy and alert four-month old, curious about the world around him.

The assumption is, that if a woman has the equipment and a baby has the breathe-suck-swallow-reflex, all you need to do is put the two together, and – Voilá! Breastfeeding happens, no problem! And when it does work out that way, it’s fantastic! But it doesn’t always work out that way. In fact, I think a lot of women would place breastfeeding challenges at the top of their list of unexpected outcomes – but only after they’ve had their baby.

If I taught breastfeeding – which I don’t, I’m not trained to do so – my classes would probably focus on the challenges that a woman might face. (Remember me? I don’t call myself “The REP” for nothing!) I recognize the valid concern that if all we talk about are the challenges of breastfeeding, that this might discourage women from attempting breastfeeding in the first place. I get that. But it’s all in the delivery of the information!

There’s a balance to strike between “Here are some challenges that you might face when you’re breastfeeding” and “Wow! Breastfeeding is going to be waaaaaay harder than you think!” I continue to hear from so many women that they wish they’d known more in those early days and weeks about how challenging breastfeeding might actually be for them.

Now, I’m lucky enough to have friends who are excellent breastfeeding educators and lactation specialists and I know first-hand that they do talk about breastfeeding challenges – both in the classroom and one-on-one. Maybe this information just isn’t able to fully sink into the minds of these pregnant women who are still fixated on how they’re going to get the baby out.

In any case, women share with me how their feelings of being unprepared lead them to feeling “broken” and then guilty at not being able to do what is best for their baby (“Breast is Best!” after all. Yes, they know… they hear it all the time.) It literally breaks my heart.

In Portland, Oregon if breastfeeding goes well for you, than this can be a wonderful city to live in. We’ve got Baby Friendly hospitals, amazing IBCLC trained lactation specialists, great initiation rates, some impressive longevity rates, and many people feel more comfortable breastfeeding in public here than in other parts of the country because they see it all around them and know that what they’re doing is largely supported.

But, if for any reason, breastfeeding does not go well for you, than living in Portland, Oregon can be really tough. There’s a lot of judgement about bottle-feeding in this town. Maybe this is also true where you live?

I’m not trying to promote bottle-feeding over breastfeeding. I breastfed all four of my kiddos until they were close to two years old. I promote breastfeeding all over the place, personally as well as professionally. I am a breastfeeding advocate.

AND I’m also a new parent advocate.

I want to support these new parents – even more so if they’ve had to make a challenging decision while feeling vulnerable and still trying to find their way in their new roles as parents.

I want to provide positive attention to those women who’re truly unable to breastfeed or who’ve made the decision to bottle-feed their babies for a number of different and valid reasons. Oftentimes, this can be the most difficult decision they’ve had to make as a new Momma. Most of the women that I know personally who’ve had to switch to any amount of supplemental feeding for their babies have only done so after weeks and months of trying to get breastfeeding to work. The amount of effort they have exerted is nothing short of Herculean.

So, how can we better support Mommas who’ve had to make a decision that goes against the way want to feed their baby, when they’re confronted with the reality that breastfeeding is no longer an option?

I’d just like to acknowledge that for some women, “Happy World Breastfeeding Week!” might not be that happy. Those of us who’ve been able to breastfeed can be grateful that breastfeeding was not that challenging for us, or if we did have challenges we were able to move past them and continue to breastfeed. But maybe can we also try to be more supportive, truly supportive, of the Mommas who’ve had to make other, different, hard choices around the issue of breastfeeding?

Instead of judgement, let’s offer each other a soft place to land in this challenging and trying world that is new parenting. Be gentle with one another. Be gentle with ourselves. We’re all doing the very best we can for our babies, and they’re thriving because of our tender love and care. This is hard work, and we need all the support we can get.

What was your breastfeeding relationship like with your baby(ies)? Easy-peasy, challenging-but-doable, or it-just-didn’t-happen? How do you feel about that? Were you able to find support? Where? Please share your comments with me. I appreciate them and YOU so much!

Silent Night

Silence

I used to look forward to the silence that would surround us at 2 am when my baby would wake to eat – again. The whole world was asleep and we were the only two beings on earth locking our eyes on one another in that moonlit room. This was not always the case, mind you. No, the first several weeks of breastfeeding were pretty terrible. It didn’t matter that I could teach someone how to latch a baby on correctly. I had no practical experience of actually doing it myself.

I had the great idea that if I had the “equipment” and my baby had the reflex, it would be easy to put us together and we’d be “The World’s Greatest Momma and Baby Breastfeeding Pair!” Uh, no – that’s not exactly how it went.

At first, we were pretty good at it. I had plenty of colostrum, a.k.a. “liquid gold,” that the newborn lives on for the first hours and days. And getting her latched on to eat while still at the hospital seemed pretty easy. She liked to eat – a lot. My more “mature” milk, (the white stuff) came in early – or so the nurses told me.

They didn’t really need to tell me this. I watched with a combination of fascination and horror, as my size 34 As ballooned to size 38 DDs almost overnight. In the shower at the hospital before heading home, I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “Whoa – these are getting pretty big!” My husband was in the room on the phone with his father. I stepped out and mouthed the words “The Breast Fairy has arrived!” and flashed him. He dropped the phone in complete shock! But by the next morning, it was clear that my centerfold-worthy breasts were more of a curse than a blessing. My body had produced enough milk for an entire litter of babies! I was experiencing engorgement – with a little bonus of oversupply. (You can read more about this and how to work with it if it happens to you here.)

Each individual breast was larger than my head and they were painful to the touch. Getting my baby to latch on to a nipple that was stretched so tight it was completely flat was an issue. That, coupled with her ridiculous ability to shove an entire fist into her mouth just as I was getting ready to slip the nipple in, made the whole process more challenging than it needed to be. I couldn’t believe that it took four hands to get her on at first.

She would cry so hard when she was hungry that I would just shove her on as best I could, knowing that it was a horrible latch. How did I know? It hurt like hell – but at least she wasn’t crying anymore. I tried to comfort myself with that thought, but it was hard to do when my nipples were getting destroyed in the process.

The low point for me was probably “Day 5,” when she started to cry and needed to eat – and I started crying, too. I’d gotten to the point where I didn’t want to feed her because it hurt so badly. My husband frustrated by not being able to make things better announced, “I’m going to the store to buy formula!” We’d already called Lactation Services for phone triage three times, but it was clear that an in-person visit was now necessary.

Tracy, my IBCLC, was so good to me. She let me cry, listened to me, and helped me understand what was happening in my body and how we could make it better. I went home with an interesting “prescription:” cabbage leaves, hand expression, and even more frequent feedings than we’d already been doing. Only this time, with proper latch technique perfected and the permission to pop her off and start again if it didn’t feel good. Tracy assured me that my newborn would not die of starvation if she had to cry for a few more minutes before the right latch was achieved.

It took a little while for us to get into the right rhythm with each other. My breasts had to become less engorged before good latches were happening consistently. My oversupply issue was worked through by becoming a “one-breaster” – only feeding on one side at a time instead of switching halfway through at each feeding. For a little while, this meant I was pretty lop-sided. But eventually, we got it. We figured it out. With a lot of extra help, maybe, but still.

Breastfeeding is something that both Momma and baby need to learn how to do – together. It’s usually more challenging than you think it should be. And it might take awhile before you actually feel comfortable doing it. My initial struggle with breastfeeding was much harder than I had imagined and I would be lying if I said I never thought about giving up. 

We did become “(One Of) The World’s Greatest Momma and Baby Breastfeeding Pair(s)!” My baby and I even mastered the skill of going from breast to pumped bottle and back again – which was an incredible achievement for all of us. This allowed me to get more sleep and my husband to share in one of the most important jobs as a new parent – feeding his baby.

We dropped into a daily schedule: I would breastfeed her around 9 pm and then my husband would stay up to watch “Conan” and give her a bottle around 11:30. This meant I would get to sleep until about 2 am.

And then I’d wake to feed her once again. The whole world lay sleeping as the silence settled in around us – her contented humming, and my relaxed sighing the only noises to break the stillness.

Did you have issues with breastfeeding at first? Did you have to make a different choice about feeding your baby? How did you feel about this in the first days and weeks of that 4th Trimester?

For a fantastic read about how real women experience breastfeeding, check out this book “Unbuttoned: Women Open Up About the Pleasures, Pains, and Politics of Breastfeeding.” It’s an anthology about the ups and downs of breastfeeding and a really good read.