The War of Breastfeeding

It took six weeks for me and Little Poppet to figure out this breast feeding thing.  Of all the things people warn you about giving birth and taking care of a new baby, I was never warned about how devastatingly difficult, soul-crushing, and painful breastfeeding could be.  While I was still pregnant, whenever I expressed concerns to people about issues that may arise, I was met with comments like, "Don't even worry about it!  Breast feeding is natural".   

Just because breastfeeding is natural, doesn't mean you and baby don't have to learn how to do it.  And Little Poppet didn't fully get the hang of it until she was 6 weeks old.  She never latched until she was 5 weeks old.  I decided to share our story because I think new mothers don't talk enough about their struggles.  I hope this can give some new mother out there some hope.  You're not alone.  Hang in there.

Little Poppet was 6 lbs 14 oz at birth and couldn't fit her little mouth around my giant aureola to latch.  Apparently my nipples were a bit flat as well.  I remember the first time we tried nursing.  I'd just given birth to her, and she cried for a whole hour.  She was cuddled on my chest, looking up at me with her goopy eyes, screaming for me to make things better.  My midwife came over and asked if I'd like her to help me get her to try breastfeeding.  I thought, "maybe that will soothe her?"  I allowed the midwife to show me how to position her, to get her to latch.  

I saw her frustration from the very first time she was brought to nurse.  She just ended up screaming over and over as her little head was forced into my breast by the midwife.  I successfully made her first nursing experience a frightening and frustrating one.  I should have let her root.  I should have cuddled her and guided her there myself.  My mamma bear instincts kicked in, and I wanted the midwife to stop.  But I didn't do anything.  I still wish I had.  It broke my heart, and I just wanted to hold her tiny body and protect her.  I wanted to be alone with her and save her from all this frustration.  

The scratching, clawing, screaming, and head shaking would continue for five weeks straight.  We fed her from a tiny cup full of colostrum the first night.  We were asked to feed her every two hours, but it was taking us two hours to feed her.  One feed was overlapping the next, and Little Poppet would fall asleep half-way through.  We tried so hard to feed her from this ridiculous cup.  But it wasn't enough. 

At the end of our first 48 hours, I was desperate and exhausted.  I was sick with worry.  Even though the midwives said she's got "reserves" of baby fat, I knew she was tired and not getting enough.  Little Poppet lost nearly 11% of her birth weight, and we were thankfully given a syringe to feed her with instead a couple days later.  We continued feeding her every two hours, around the clock, for more than three weeks.  I was pumping breast milk 8-12 times a day.  

Because we syringe fed her, it often required two people.  Thankfully my husband was infinitely supportive, and as determined to get breastfeeding going as I was.  He was up with me every two hours and took two weeks of Parental Leave from his work, and my mother stayed with us on our futon for 8 days.  He is Super Dad, truly.  We got into a routine where he'd go and change her while I went and got the breastmilk warmed up and the syringes ready to go with tape on my finger.  I'd feed her on my lap, pushing gently on the syringe every time I felt her suck my finger.  When she was finished, I'd hand her to Daddy who would burp her while I pumped for 15-20 minutes to get milk ready for the next feeding.  What took over an hour in the first two weeks got whittled down to 45 minutes by three weeks. So we were able to have short frequent winks of sleep.

Here are some of the tips, tricks and "rules" I was asked to try while we learned to breastfeed.

1) Never introduce the bottle.  It would apparently confuse her and teach her she didn't need to suck in order to get milk. 

2) Cup feed or finger feed using a syringe and a tube instead.

3) Attempt at least 10 minutes of breast feeding at every feed.

4) Try skin to skin at every feed and let her find the breast on her own with a little guidance

5) Don't try to feed her when she's too hungry, or she'll frustrate herself easily

6) If she falls asleep at the breast, try to feed her when she's hungry instead, so she's more eager.

7) Never let Daddy feed her because she needs to taste you and your skin with your fingers.

8) Make the breast a comforting thing, don't make her work too hard or she'll associate the breast with difficulty

9) Try her at the breast before you finger feed.

10) Try her at the breast after you finger feed to "top her up" after she is calm and contented

11) Hold her arms down so that she doesn't get her hands in the way of breastfeeding.  Babies don't know what they're doing and their hands flail all over the place

12) Don't hold her arms down.  Babies need to be able to orient themselves to the breast using their hands. 

13) Change her diaper before you feed her to wake her up.

14) Don't use a nipple shield because it can affect your supply and babies won't learn to latch properly!

Are you still following this?  Now try to fit in all this "advice" into a two hour period, and still find time to change her, record her diapers, clean the syringes, get her back to sleep, pump, feed yourself so your milk supply isn't compromised, pop some painkillers for yourself, and maybe sleep yourself.  Can't?  Too bad.  Baby's hungry and you're determined to breastfeed.

As if being a new mother isn't difficult enough.  Dealing with your body healing, unbelievably sore nipples, crazy post-partum hormones, and almost no sleep already sets you on edge emotionally.  For weeks I heard those mocking voices ringing in my ears, 'breastfeeding is natural'.  It wasn't coming naturally for us.  Therefore, I was obviously doing something wrong.  I was the problem.  I was a bad mother.  I became overwhelmed with mummy guilt.  

I remember on the evening of day 2 when I needed her to eat more than I needed anything else in the world.  I was strung out, emotionally exhausted, my whole body ached from giving birth.  It was 4am, and my mother was pushing me to give her formula in a bottle.  She said she'd go to the drug store and buy some.  I broke down crying and called her awful names.  She was trying to ruin everything.  I was convinced that giving her a bottle and formula was going to destroy any chance we would have of breastfeeding.  The midwives SAID that you can't do bottles!!  They said!!!  

I had been awake at that point for more than 60 hours.  I couldn't think straight. My breasts were on fire, and the thought of pumping again made me want to sob more.  My mum was just being a mum, though.  She saw that I was at the end of my rope and I had nothing left of myself to give to Little Poppet.

I gave in and gave Little Poppet a bottle of my breastmilk.  A bottle.  She drank from a bottle.  I sobbed so hard, but I slept deeper than I'd slept in days.  My baby's tummy was finally full.  She was FULL.  She wasn't hungry.  

And you know what?  It didn't ruin anything in the long run.  All that worry was for nothing.

Now here is a little advice I wish I could have given myself.  And these are the reasons breastfeeding eventually worked for us:

1) Allow yourself to cry.  Feeling guilty is completely normal.  You can feel tired.  You can feel like a failure.  You can feel like you're a bad mum because you're not following all the rules 100% of the time, but you are a fantastic mum!

2) It's OK to take a break.  If you need to put your breastmilk in a bottle now and then, or even supplement with formula, your little one isn't going to notice, I promise.  And I promise you haven't ruined your chances of breastfeeding.  

3) Tell yourself over and over and over again that your little one wants to breastfeed.  It may seem like she doesn't when she screams and claws at you.  But she's confused and needs you to teach her.  You guys are in it together

4) Repeat this mantra: "Two steps forward, one step back.  Two steps forward, one step back".  There will be so so SO many days where you think there's no light at the end of the tunnel.  Maybe your baby tried to latch yesterday, but is screaming at the breast again.  She is still making progress if she wasn't trying to latch at all last week.  Keep repeating that to yourself.

5) Focus on the accomplishments. Did your little one put his her mouth on your nipple and fall asleep there contented? Who cares if they didn't latch.  That is a big step.  It may not happen again for a while but it will.  Pat yourself on the back. Mum.  You're getting there.

6) Listen to your baby.   Take all the "rules" and "advice" out there with a grain of salt.  You truly know what is best.  If you're both too tired to do skin to skin every feed, then don't.  Little Poppet and I did it about once a day.  Breastfeeding was emotionally exhausting for her too.
7) Use a friggen nipple shield if you have latch issues.  Try to go a couple weeks without it if you can, but if you've gone three weeks and you're still tube feeding, get a shield.  Lactation consultants tend to hate these things because they're over-prescribed.  But come on.  If you're a diligent enough mum to pump and tube feed for weeks, you'll be great with nipple shield. It took Little Poppet about two days to learn how to use the shield, when she was five weeks old, but she got it.  I cried big ugly tears when she did. I decided that I could use the shield for the next year or so if I needed to, I didn't care.  It was 1000 times easier than anything else.  But she weaned from the shield at six weeks and has been nursing like a pro since.

8) Get help!  Talk to lactation consultants.  Read  Go to La Leche League meetings.  Go online and talk to other mummies in the same boat.  You need emotional support from people who understand; people who can hold you up when you can't anymore. Surround yourself with people who will tell you you're doing a good job.  My midwife told me this at every appointment, and I needed to hear that more than anything else.  Poor woman had to see me cry every time she saw me.  But I eventually brought her to tears when she saw Little Poppet nurse for the first time.

Finally, recognize that giving birth was your battle, but breastfeeding is your war. There may be blood.  There will be tears.  You will want to give up.  You will feel like a failure for wanting it. No amount of all-nighters in University can prepare you for the sleep deprivation you'll feel.  This is a mental and physical war, but I promise you can get through it.  

I promised myself that I would never give up as long as I believed Little Poppet wanted to breastfeed. I had to pull something from deep down inside myself to find the energy to keep going.  Finns call it sisu which is understood as a deep determination to succeed in the face of impossible odds; stubbornness to the point of absurdity.  Find your sisu. 

Lastly, I wanted to say that if you truly can't do it, you are not a bad mum.  Many mums and babies try for weeks and make no progress whatsoever, and that doesn't make it your fault.  Some ladies have terrible supply issues, mastitis, need post-partum medications that prevent them from breast feeding, or deal with other hellish issues that make breastfeeding much too difficult or impossible.  Some babies have health issues, lip and tongue tie, etc.  If you're in this situation, you don't need to plague yourself with mummy guilt on top of all of that.  Even though I had a rough time, I consider myself lucky that the primary reason Little Poppet couldn't nurse was because of her latch.

Above everything else, you need to feed your baby the way all mothers do; with love.  Breastfeeding isn't just about feeding your baby with your nipple.  It's about bonding with your little one while they eat.  It's about cuddling your little one close to your heart and comforting with your breast.  That was the one thing that I kept constant throughout the 6 weeks we struggled.  I never wanted Little Poppet to associate my breast with frustration.  That's why I only tried latching her once or twice a day.  Each other time I fed her (from the syringe), I cuddled her close to my breast, stroked her cheeks, and gazed upon her sweet contented face.  I cherished those moments, and I still get teary eyed when I remember the feeling of her tiny mouth sucking on my finger as she'd fall asleep.  

Bonding is so important for you and your baby.  Don't ruin it by struggling every single time you try to breastfeed.  

You can still bond with baby while feeding them AT the breast.  Feed your baby pumped breastmilk from a bottle.  Feed your baby formula.  Just feed your baby using the method that works for both of you, and know deep down that you are loving your baby and caring for him or her way better than anyone else in this world can. Know it, Mama.  You're doing a great job.