Pictured above: My son, hours old, and how he felt about breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding is a bitch. There, I said it. Obviously, not the case for everyone, but for way more women than I had ever heard about before I had kids. While I was pregnant, I heard every horror story in the book about pregnancy and postpartum, but nobody really warned me about the trials and tribs of breastfeeding. Maybe because the people I was speaking to didn’t want to completely horrify me, or maybe because their breastfeeding experiences were not so bad (although they came out and admitted they were worse than they let on after the fact!) Regardless, this is MY breastfeeding story, and I share it with the hope that it will help other moms who may feel alone, defeated, scared, and/or confused like I did as I tried to navigate through what I thought would come so naturally.
Before I had my son – we will call him H – I swore I’d breastfeed. I went to classes specifically dedicated to breastfeeding – how to hold the baby, how to help baby latch, how to time your feedings, how often to feed baby, and on and on. I read countless books about the benefits of breastfeeding and watched video after video. It’s my personality to try to master something from the get go, and I went into it with an I Got This mindset. I was practically brainwashed on the breast is best approach and made a vow to stop at nothing to breastfeed H. Well, I was in for a rude awakening.
H was born via C-section. Hurdle #1, I soon came to find out. He was almost 10 pounds. Hurdle #2. He was also tongue-tied. Hurdle #3. Then I learned that my nipples are not ideal for feeding. Hurdle #4. And I didn’t start pumping in the hospital until late in day two. Hurdle #5. The thing is, I didn’t know all of the above in the beginning. So, here we are moments after he is born trying to latch and it’s just not happening. It’s super painful and I have nothing coming out and he is frustrated. The amazing nurses at NYU worked tirelessly to help me with positioning, latching techniques, hand expression… you name it, they did it. We tried for a day and a half, but nothing. I barely had colostrum, and H was big, so he needed more than what I was producing. I was exhausted – nipples already cracked and sore – but I was determined. In the wee hours of the morning on day 3 – the day I was leaving – a nurse came into my room to check my vitals and asked me how I was. I started crying, telling her how defeated I was – that no matter what I tried, H would not latch and I had nothing to give him. She picked him up and tried to help me, which is when she noticed his tongue-tie. Then she pointed out that I might want to use nipple shields to help him latch, and also start pumping to start milk flow. I didn’t understand why none of this had been pointed out prior. And how the fuck did the pediatrician miss a tongue-tie! I was so frustrated, but also excited by this breakthrough. We tried the shields. No luck. We started pumping. No luck. At this point, H was starting to fuss a lot, but I didn’t know his cues yet and just thought I’d keep trying.
Cut to that evening as H was screaming inconsolably. At that point, I called my sister – a mom herself – and asked her what to do. Two seconds hearing him cry and she said, “Lex, he’s starving. Go get him formula.” And there it was, the dreaded F word! In my mind, it also meant Failure. I couldn’t do right by my baby and give him what he needed from me. If there was anything I should be able to do, it should be feed him. This should have been easy. I was just devastated. But, I sent my husband to CVS regardless for some Similac Sensitive. I cried the whole time he was gone – also because H was screaming – and then pulled it together, got a bottle, and fed him formula. He sucked it down in record time, and I cried again, realizing he’d been starving for three days. As I mentioned, he was a big baby. He needed A LOT of food. I didn’t know that then, but I soon realized it when he just consumed ounces and ounces of formula in a sitting – far more than babies usually ate at his age. I felt terrible for having had him wait so long, and almost selfish for not relenting sooner.
Two days later, I had a lactation consultant come in. Between H’s tongue-tie, my lack of milk production, and my nipple situation, we were set up to fail. She reassured me that there was no way I would have ever been able to breastfeed successfully given all the hurdles we had in our way. Apparently, moms who have C-sections have an even tougher time, as the breast tissue is swollen and makes it hard for milk to pass through. (Or at least that is what my LC said.) So, we had everything working against us.
I brought H home on a Saturday. The LC came over on a Monday, and by Wednesday, we were sitting in Dr. Dahl’s office getting H’s tongue-tie snipped. He latched for two minutes and was over it. That was actually the last time he ever made it to my breast. I went to a lactation group at NYU for some help, and ended up with a Supplemental Nursing System (SNS). It’s a small tube that they tape to your nipple that is attached to a vial of formula that you also tape to your body. Basically an IV of formula. It’s supposed to trick baby to latch on to your nipple and feed, but H wasn’t having it. I remember sitting in that circle of moms just balling, and feeling, again, like such a failure. Boobs were popping out everywhere, milk was flowing, and these moms seemed so happy and carefree. Some were even talking about how they had so much milk that they had to donate it to milk banks. Meanwhile, I’m sitting there with these ridiculous contraptions attached to my body and my child is screaming his head off for a bottle. I fed him in the bathroom at NYU, feeling so embarrassed to bottle feed him formula in front of the other mothers. I now refer to those first few weeks as “the dark days.”
I tried pumping for about 3 weeks or so. I would pump for 45 minutes and get half an ounce of milk. Then I started Fenugreek and drank Mother’s Milk Tea and would only get 1-2 ounces after 45 minutes. H ate 4-6 ounces every three hours! I could not keep up! Nipples were cracked and bleeding and I was in so much pain, but if H wasn’t going to come to me, then I was going to bring me to him. I felt like if I could just give him even a few drops of liquid gold, it was worth it. BUT IT WASN’T. I will never forget the moment I realized I had to stop. I took H to the pediatrician for his 4-week check up. Dr. Horwitz sat me down and said, “H is great. Really healthy and doing amazing. You are not. What’s going on?” Through many tears, I shared with him my breastfeeding challenges, and he told me to stop. He actually said Stop. He said H was thriving, and that formula was at the top of the list of the best things I could ever feed him—that it was only downhill from there with baby food and human food and everything else he will be consuming in his lifetime. (Which I now know to be true!) He reminded me that a happy mom = a happy baby, and that my state of mind was everything. I had to rest and feel good to be able to take great care of my son. So, I went home that day, packed up the pump, stocked up on formula, and called it quits. I was done.
What I learned was that formula was not at all horrible. H has thrived. Anyone who knows him will tell you he is beautiful and healthy and super smart and incredibly verbal. He is fine. I did the right thing by trying, because it is what I needed to do for me, but in the end, I couldn’t have continued to torture myself, and that’s precisely what I was doing. I was miserable in body and mind, and that was no good for anyone around me at the time, especially H.
I just had my daughter 8 months ago – we’ll call her E. I, of course, tried to breastfeed when she was born, too. She didn’t latch, and she was also tongue-tied, so on day two, she went on formula. I knew the road ahead of me, and I was not about to go down that road again. And guess what? She’s just fine…and so am I.