Breastfeeding is a complex issue. On one hand, it’s what our bodies are made to do, and our babies come out designed to make it work. However, there are so many nuances, potential issues, and even just basic understand of how it works versus how you think it’s going to work that it’s much harder than a lot of us expect. Not to mention all the potential Booby Traps out there that can really derail confidence or confuse you.
A recent Scottish study interviewed 36 moms and basically concluded that the recommendations out there that promote breastfeeding are unrealistic, so it was suggested we scale back the recommendations. However, I, like many, completely disagree. It’s not the recommendations that are the problem, but our culture. Best for Babes co-founder Danielle Rigg says: “Telling moms to breast-feed without full cultural, institutional and legal support is like being encouraged to run a marathon in a pair of flip-flops without any coaching.”
That’s where we have the problems. Not what we’re saying should happen, but with all the roadblocks we’ve got in place to prevent it. I already got into how talking to other moms honestly about breastfeeding is important, since we need to let them be aware of the struggles and how to overcome then as well as assurance they’re normal, but there’s so much more to it than that.
When I was pregnant with my first, I’d never touched a baby, much less seen one breastfed, and most of my friends were too young to be having children. We didn’t have the internet until I was in my last month of pregnancy either, so I read “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”, since it was given to me by my OB. Also in the “gift bag” were pamphlets from formula companies, and they signed me up for formula company mailing lists, unbeknownst to me. The Navy gave us some information as well, which actually included a fantastic booklet with 27 pages on breastfeeding. Between those resources, I came to one conclusion: Breastfeeding was what I needed to do. After all, it was best for the baby, best for me, helped his immune system (and mine isn’t great so I worried about his), prevented cancers, and so on. It was obvious to me that breastfeeding was superior, and with my rapidly growing new breasts that leaked, I was pretty sure it was going to be a piece of cake and didn’t give it much thought. Instead I color-organized Rowan’s closet and pondered other things like circumcision, epidurals, and was especially concerned about breaking blood vessels in my face while pushing.
His birth was… okay. Really, though I’d never do it like that again, I am totally fine with it. What I’m really not okay with was after he’d been born. When it came time to feed him, I didn’t just put him to the breast. The nurse wheeled in double pump, and told me we needed to see if I had colostrum first. Dutifully, I put the foreign contraption to my breasts and pumped out almost two ounces of liquid gold. She applauded me, saying that was fantastic, and I felt smug. See? My breasts worked! Then, to not waste it, she took out a typical kitchen spoon and attempted to feed the pumped colostrum to my baby. He took some of it, but she spilled most of it on his hospital gown. Then I nursed him. Fortunately for me, he took to it with ease, and so did I. My son nursed, and nursed, and nursed some more, and we were content.
When we were discharged, I was feeling fabulous, and even stopped by Wal-Mart to pick up some clothes (he was full-term but tiny, so we needed preemie clothes), and also stopped into a Blockbuster where a friend was working to show him off. I also had my nice formula gift bag with bottles, a can of powder, and they even so generously provided us with two entire pallets of ready-to-feed formula and a sterile nipple for each bottle.
At home, things started to not go so well. He would nurse non-stop, vomit, nurse more, cry, nurse, vomit… and it kept going. I was getting so tired, and started getting scared he wasn’t getting enough to eat, so of course, popped a nipple on the ready-to-feed bottle and fed him. He ate the whole thing even after nursing for an hour, projectile vomited… and stopped breathing. Then breathed. Then stopped again for another 10 seconds, which when it’s your newborn, feels like a lifetime.
To make a long story very, very short, we took him to the ER where they didn’t allow him to nurse for 6 hours, then took a 30 minute ambulance ride to a specialty children’s hospital, where it took another hour to be admitted and they ran some tests. Shockingly (that’s sarcasm), after 8 hours of not eating, he was lethargic and had insanely low blood sugar. They considered everything from meningitis (he had a spinal tap) to STDs. Every time I wanted to nurse, they’d tell me to page them so they could prick his heel for a blood sugar test, and then do it again when he was done. Once they started taking 15-20 minutes to respond when I’d page them, I got pissed and just nursed him regardless. Not surprisingly, his blood sugar went back to normal as soon as he was allowed to eat regularly. They also provided more pallets of formula and nipples, and suggested maybe he wasn’t getting enough from me, despite his diapers weighing in fabulously heavy and him pooping regularly. My milk came in while we were there and I went up another full cup size, my breasts were rock solid, red, painful and stretch-marked, and I learned later that can be exacerbated by the excess fluids given to women during labor. Lovely.
We got to go home after 5 hellish days. The official diagnosis, by the way, was GERD. You know, essentially really bad reflux? It went untreated (they told us basically prop him up, that was it) and when I approached his pediatrician for help, was told to just let him cry and only feed him every three hours. Thank god at this point, I’d found an online forum called “Breastfeeding Your Reflux Baby” and learned from them there were medications to help (no one mentioned dairy elimination that I saw then).
I didn’t just let him cry, but I was so tired, so upset, not getting help, didn’t know where to turn, so when I finally would put him down after hours of nursing and walk away and he’d cry, I’d cry too and beg my husband to go give him a bottle so I could get a break. I also pumped religiously, still swearing I must not be making enough. I cried a lot, and was so exhausted that I ended up co-sleeping even though I didn’t want to because I’d pass out while side-lying nursing. I started with one bottle a day, but kept upping it to give myself a break, despite my husband’s protests, and we even bought a can when we ran out of the three pallets and full-sized “sample” can.
Eventually, my Navy husband deployed when our son was 5 or 6 weeks old, and I was too tired to deal with washing the pump, bottles, or mixing powdered formula, so I stopped giving it to him, and also got him on Zantac and Reglan (then promptly switched pediatricians). I nursed in public even though I was uncomfortable because I was alone, he was hungry, and with no one to help me, I had the option of feeding him there, or going home empty-handed with a screaming baby and never getting to leave my house. I was told I had to nurse in a bathroom at a restaurant even though I had a cover and had simply asked for a private corner booth (we promptly left the restaurant), given very dirty looks at a swimming pool for nursing him in 100 degree weather under a button-up shirt put on backwards by middle aged adults in bathing suits, and treated like a leper by a teenage boy handing out pizza at a Navy wife get-together at a bowling alley. I felt really alone.
Despite that, though suddenly things were going okay. His GERD was getting better, I was getting sleep, we were happier, he seemed content, and we continued to nurse with ease until he was 28 months old. But I think so often about how ridiculously hard those first few weeks were, how many people gave me bad advice, how many ways I’d been sabotaged without even knowing it, and how lucky I was to overcome it. If I’d had any real supply problems, latching problems, anything at all, I would have failed.
My daughter will be three in a couple months and has never had a drop of formula, I attended La Leche League meetings solely for companionship, and the two bottles of pumped milk she had were wasted since she considered them torture. I’m very proud of myself for that, but it took me really having some hindsight to see how wrong things went the first time around to realize that I’ve just been very lucky.
So no, we don’t need to tell people not to nurse exclusively until six months, or that they should keep going until two and beyond — we need to change how breastfeeding moms are treated by society, by health professionals, what information they are given, and put a stop to the sabotage or “Booby Traps” they’re regularly thrown into and really help them succeed, rather than telling them they need to do something and giving them no tools and only roadblocks on the path to do it.