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The Breastfeeding Battle: My Struggle to Make It Work

breastfeeding baby

It sucks (ha) when breastfeeding isn't the cuddlefest you'd hoped for. Credit: Mothering Touch

New mom Jessica recently shared her struggles in adapting to mommyhood. Here she shares her experiences with breastfeeding and her valiant effort to make it work. We hope that by sharing her breastfeeding experience, other moms who may be struggling with breastfeeding will know they’re not alone. While it sucks that not every mom’s breastfeeding experience is a breeze, even those of us who consider it to be easy may have battled breastfeeding challenges. (And if you haven’t, sprinkle some of that dust our way!) Like we always say, you have to do what’s best for you and your family.    

The cover of a recent issue of Time magazine showing a mother nursing her pre-school age son sparked a lot of discussion about breastfeeding and parenting choices. And when it comes to breastfeeding, most of what you hear and read will tell you that you don’t have much of a choice: If you can do it, you should. Everyone knows the benefits of breastfeeding, real or exaggerated, including higher IQ, reduced allergies, fewer sick days, baby’s higher level of trust that his mother will meet his needs, etc. Those are the “good” of breastfeeding. But I’m here to talk about the bad and the ugly.

I am a first time mom struggling through nursing my nearly 3-month old son. Yes, struggling. And I want to talk about how much of a struggle it can be because I don’t feel like anyone talks about it. And I know I can’t be the only one experiencing the bad and the ugly.

First of all, I want to say that I was truly looking forward to breastfeeding my baby. The hospital where I delivered encourages early parental bonding. I expected to have a gooey baby plopped on my chest right after delivery and to be nursing a few minutes later. I knew that this was a totally natural process and that the baby would instinctively know how to latch and suck. I imagined, after we left the hospital, my husband would get up in the middle of the night to bring the baby to me where I would happily cuddle my baby while nursing in a half-asleep state. I had even read that after the first couple weeks of sore nipples, nursing could feel really good—like sex good.  I also knew about all the great benefits my baby would get from nursing, and how much cheaper it would be than buying formula. All around, breastfeeding seemed like a win-win-win situation. I couldn’t wait.

Unfortunately, my actual experience has been nothing like that. My son was delivered by emergency C-section about a month premature and spent his first two weeks of life in the NICU. I wasn’t able to hold him until he was three days old, and I didn’t get to try to nurse him until day 5. By day 8, he was healthy and off the oxygen and the jaundice-reducing blue light. Now the only goal was to get him to eat well enough to gain weight.   We did not get to take him home until he was 15 days old, so you can see how that went.

I spent 10 days going to the hospital for a 10- to 12-hour shift where I would try to nurse him three or four times, usually with lactation consultants hovering around to help position us and offer tips. He didn’t latch well, and he didn’t stay latched, and much of the time he didn’t even stay awake. Feedings became a three-person job at times (well, four if you count the baby). I would provide the food source, the lactation consultant would observe and correct, and my husband or a nurse would try to tickle the little guy’s feet or move his arm around to keep him awake. It was such a chore and incredibly stressful. And of course, he was still getting half of his feedings through a tube in his nose, which meant I had to pump several times a day to provide breast milk for those feedings, and to supplement when he didn’t eat well during our nursing attempts. As ready as I was to get out of the NICU and take our baby home, I was terrified at the prospect of trying to feed him all alone at home.

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  1. Atisheh says:

    Woman, give the baby some formula.

    Hmm… okay, this post really hit home for a number of reasons. My birth experience was rather like your bfeeding experience: I had lots of pretty ideas, and then life smacked me in the face.

    My son also took a while to learn to latch, but I was lucky in that since we brought him home, nursing has been pretty smooth. Even the sore nipples only lasted for another week, and I solved that with positioning. Right now, breastfeeding is, I can say, a pleasure often. But. BUT.

    The lactation consultants at the hospital were great, but they did not really give us the tools to keep nursing. I was so close to throwing in the towel a month ago. I was in a much better situation than you — maternity leave, plus an easy time nursing — but I was also weak from labour and c-section, had lost a lot of weight, and nursing and round-the-clock waking was making me crazy and unhealthy. They tell you to nurse on demand, but it becomes so exhausting that pretty much any woman is likely to dream about stopping. My mom, visiting at the time, practically made us buy some formula and water.

    And we did. I still haven’t given any of it to the baby, but mainly because we found a better solution — a feed-wake-sleep cycle around 3 hours long, with some flexibility in it. So now, instead of having baby snack all day, sometimes one hour apart, I get good chunks of time to myself. And he’s napping better. And I’m not interpreting every cry as a sign of hunger. For anyone reading this, I found the website http://www.mybabysleepguide.com useful, and, later, the book Babywise.

    I now feel I could nurse for months to come, but it’s not because of anything they told me at the hospital. On-demand nursing may be fine for the first days when we’re trying to get the baby above birth weight, but afterwards it becomes a real pain in the butt, and not necessarily great for the kid either. There has to be a better way. I’m still a bit frustrated at the fact that I can’t have two drinks in a row, or that when I leave the house I don’t know if my baby will take a bottle or spend hours howling.

    Oh yeah, the other thing I learned giving birth? Nobody has the right to judge your labour. And I’d extend that to say: nobody has the right to judge how you nurse or feed your child. They don’t know your situation.

  2. Kathy says:

    I, too, had trouble with breastfeeding when my son was born. I felt like I was a terrible mother when he lost over a pound during the first week because I wasn’t producing enough milk. I felt like a failure when the pediatrician told us to supplement with formula. No one ever seems to talk about how breastfeeding isn’t always easy and comfortable, so I congratulate you on sharing your story! I persevered through pumping, taking fenugreek (and smelling like maple syrup constantly), supplementing with formula and ended up breastfeeding for almost a year. It was tough, but it did get easier as time went on. And, my son is just fine!

  3. Marilyn B. says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story.

    I love what Atisheh wrote:
    “nobody has the right to judge how you nurse or feed your child. They don’t know your situation.”

    That is absolutely true! The recent swing of the pendulum back to exclusively breast feeding, albeit a healthy swing, makes supplementing seem so evil! I was fortunate to have my maternity leave go right into my summer break (being a teacher), so through all of the pain, blocked ducts, and sore nipples, we finally got into a groove. This was only possible with the help of the free breast feeding clinic by the hospital. Praise the Lord for those faithful ladies! But there were lots of crying-during-feeding times, and times when I remembered why it was worth all of that.

    Then I had to go back to work. I, too, spent every free moment of my lunch looking like a crazy cyborg, hooked up to my pump, some days just crying from loneliness. Other days, it was a nice reprieve from the crazy that was my workplace! I wasn’t working out anymore, and hardly went out either. A few months into all of this, I just wasn’t able to pump as much as my son needed during the day. I didn’t have an option, so we had to supplement formula, but I decided that any amount of breast milk was better than none, so I continued to nurse and pump until he was one.

    There is NO shame in wanting to exclusively nurse your baby, but for today’s working mother/ mother having a difficult time producing enough milk/ mother who has absolute horror stories to share about the breast feeding experience, there is also NO shame in resting, taking time to exercise, leave the house, or letting daddy have a time with the kiddo by giving your baby a bottle of formula.

    I know a ton of very healthy, happy kids that were exclusively bottle fed, too.

  4. Atisheh says:

    Marilyn B, I love what you wrote too! I completely agree — a totally positive movement can become a bit tyrannical at times. (The movement for “natural” childbirth is much the same way.) We forget that mothers who couldn’t breastfeed exclusively have gotten help throughout history too, either from wet nurses or from supplements (though those were, historically, not particularly good).

    I knew being a mom would be exhausting, but I thought people just meant that was because of the interrupted sleep and business. But it’s also the most arduous physical thing I’ve ever done, starting with a four-day labour and continuing through nursing… it’s all I can do to eat enough nutrients not to fall apart. Add the psychological strain onto that — why should we feel guilty for our naps, our exercise, an hour spent wandering aimlessly around a mall or bookstore, the break we get when someone else feeds the baby, enjoying our work, etc. etc.?

    And yeah — my husband was exclusively formula fed, and he has the constitution of an ox. I think we can all agree that breast is best, but there are a lot of factors that go into making a happy, healthy child, and I’d argue that mom’s well being, physical and mental, is one of the most important.

  5. Jen says:

    First of all, thank you for sharing. Congratulations on breastfeeding as long as you have!!! Good for you!!! You have been through some terrible aspects of the whole process. Nobody tells you how hard it is going to be, I believe, because no one would do it if they knew the truth.

    But your son will get all the nutrition and antibodies and everything else good from you even if you drop one feeding a night and let your husband give him formula. And 4 straight hours of sleep will feel like a vacation in HI to you! But you need to decide what is best for YOUR family. Nobody but you and your husband can do that, and nobody else should. You can listen to everybodys advice and then go ahead, without any guilt, and do what works best for you. That being said, in my experience, I found that the baby wasn’t really big enough to nurse laying down until probably 4-5 months. So if that isn’t working for you but you want to nurse that way I would suggest trying again in a few weeks.

    My son is now 19 months old and I’ve only weaned him about a month ago. He would still be nursing once or twice a day if he could, but I couldn’t handle it anymore and it was starting to cause me to resent him and be repulsed by the whole experience. So I decided it was better to stop.

    In the beginning, I had clogged ducts, major engorgement and cracked nipples. And I never LOVED breastfeeding. I wanted to do it for a year, he didn’t want to give it up, so I compromised at 18 months. There was once or twice when I wasn’t exhausted, it didn’t hurt and he wasn’t wiggling like an eel that I was able to take a deep breath and think “this is what mothers love about breastfeeding”. I’m glad I did it for as long as I did but I’m also thankful that it’s over.

    Also, in my opinion, the biggest hurdle for any mom, is the judgement from everybody else. I lost one of my best friends over an arguement that started about co-sleeping. It was working for us at the time but she couldn’t stop lecturing me about how I was suppose to parent until I blew up at her told her to stop. She was furious that I presumed to know better what my family needed since she had so much more experience then me. Unless a child is doing something that would truely hurt them; running into traffic, putting their finger into an electrical outlet, etc. we as mom’s just need to mind our own business. If breastfeeding/bottle feeding, co-sleeping/crying it out, etc is working for your family, good for you! Great job doing what works for you.

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