A new mother shared her breastfeeding struggles with me this week. Her baby is three months old and she has tried every position without being comfortable. As we worked together on how to nurse upright in her ring sling, I was reminded of my first nursling, born almost six years ago.
In honor of World Breastfeeding Week, I wanted to share my story with you. Maybe you’ll hear some familiar chords to your own. But please, while I am a doula now and educated on breastfeeding, my own techniques or experiences shared below should never take the place of professional support from a certified lactation counselor.
My own breastfeeding journey began at birth, I suppose.
My mother was one of the first wave of American women to return to breastfeeding in the 70s, when only the hippies breastfed, and she nursed all three of her children. She attended La Leche League meetings and to her recall, breastfeeding was rather uneventful. We each were weaned around a year old.
In my mind, there was no other option to feed her than my milk. We started right away, latched at the birth center, were proclaimed “ok” and sent home seven blissful hours after birth. At home, I struggled mightily to get a “good latch.” It HURT! She didn’t open her mouth wide enough, it seemed, for my large breast. I talked with the midwives about it on the phone and was encouraged to just “keep trying.” My doula, and childbirth educator, came by for a postpartum visit and helped me latch her on. “OK,” I thought, “I’m just not doing it right.”
By day three my nipples were a horrific mess of bloody cracks.
I expressed my concerns and difficulties at a weigh-in visit for the baby, who wasn’t gaining enough, despite thriving in all other measures. (P.S., if this is your baby, run, don’t walk, to Dr. Jay Gordon’s amazing article, “Look at the Baby, Not the Scale.“)
“Oh, I bet it’s that tongue-tie she has,” said the midwife.
Huh? This was the first I’d heard of it!
“Yeah, we spotted it at birth and wondered if it would be a problem,” she followed.
I was flummoxed and frustrated.
Three days in and I was in so much pain that physically breastfeeding my baby was impossible. The midwives gave me an angled syringe and taught me how to finger feed with my breastmilk because I didn’t want to use a bottle.
For several weeks I’d attempt to latch my baby and, when I couldn’t, I’d pump on the fly and use the syringe. (And I was a horrible pumper – I was lucky to get one full ounce out of each breast.) At yet another “weigh in,” the lactation consultant suggested a frenectomy. My husband and I agonized but decided the best decision was to have it done. Our midwife clipped our baby’s maxillary frenulum and we were sent home.
Thanks to damaged nipples and deflated hopes, we still weren’t getting a great latch. I bought a nipple shield one day and tried it out. Success! I had read all about them, how to be careful because at some point you have to wean off of them, how they can affect milk transfer, etc., but at the time, it saved our nursing relationship.
We nursed for five months with the shield and every now and then I’d try to latch without it. One day I thought, “Today feels different!” And we latched without it. That day, it was only one time, but the next day, it was three times. Within the week, I had thrown them away!
It was around this time I also became comfortable with nursing in public and mastered the art of side-lying in bed to nurse. Both are easier if you don’t have to put a piece of medical grade silicone on your nipple first! By six months, breastfeeding was blissful. We nursed until my milk dried up during my next pregnancy, when she was 22 months old. I was so sad not to make it to two years, but celebrated nonetheless.
Now my third baby is 11 months and nursing is a casual, non-event.
Each one of my girls had some level of tie – the middle and littlest babies both have lip tie and tongue ties, but thanks to my earlier experiences, I knew what a “correct” latch felt like and how to make it happen. Each one was also a slightly different style of nurser – one was a “happy spitter,” one was ravenous at all times, one could take it or leave it.
Each time, I’d have wavering moments of self-doubt. Ultimately, I learned to let my baby lead the way. Now, I understand how much they actually do know about this stuff and try to move myself – mentally – out of the way.
A few “breast” wishes from my experience.
I wish I’d tried harder to get “laid back” nursing to work. I’d read about it in The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, my handbook at the time. I was so unsure about myself and my body that I couldn’t trust it to work… and it does! Now we see it successfully used to help mother and baby connect over and over.
Personally, I wish I’d been told about my first baby’s tongue tie at birth and given earlier interventions, although this isn’t the solution for every mother and baby pair. Today, I know that tongue-ties are a bit of a scapegoat for all types of breastfeeding challenges, and don’t always need to be revised or addressed. Clearly, our baby’s tie needed attention. Until her frenectomy, even the lactation consultants told me “work on getting a better latch.” I spent long hours and MANY tears trying to do that! It was very frustrating because it felt as if I was slacking or not trying hard enough. Eventually, even this frenectomy needed correction – it was originally done with surgical scissors in North Carolina and at age four, it was revised using a laser by a pediatric dentist because he diagnosed her as still tied. Healing was much quicker and there was significantly less blood.
I wish every mother the insane amount of unrelenting support I had: from my mother, who was always full of encouraging words; my sister, who gave me countless hours of phone-lactation support; my family doctor, an experienced breastfeeder; and my husband, who listened to me and baby cry – a lot – and always supported our goals.
I wish I had access to other breastfeeding mothers. I quickly learned how important it is to find – or in my case, build – your tribe of support. At the time, my support system was long-distance and everyone I knew personally didn’t breastfeed. I spent a lot of time in online support groups, but that support was lacking… it lacked a personal connection and it was either “yeah, I had that problem so I stopped” or the “perfect” scenario advice you get from breastfeeding gurus or tomes. It wasn’t “real.”