Sunday, August 5, 2012

Adventures in Breastfeeding

In honor of World Breastfeeding Week 2012 - here's my story. 

And what an adventure it has been! Breastfeeding has been the most physically, mentally and emotionally challenging thing I've ever done. Yes, I had a natural unmedicated childbirth, but this has taken far more endurance, support and encouragement than I could have even imagined. I was very confident going into labor, I trusted my body and knew that it was meant to do this and that biology wouldn't fail me. Breastfeeding, I thought, would have been the same. I was perhaps even a bit idealistic about how it would go, I mean - my birth had been a dream, but it sure was quite a slap in the face with how much I struggled.

First off, even though she was only a week and a half early, pre-term babies have a tougher time sucking. We had latch issues from the get go, she was very lethargic, and within 24 hours my nipples had tiny blood blisters on them and I was so sore when she would wake up to eat I would just start crying. Everyone offered their advice to tell me how painful contractions were, therefore I could mentally prepare for it, but no one told me how painful breastfeeding is if you don't do it right (although I really appreciate my sister stocking me up on nipple cream and a friend reminding me to have it handy.)

Breastfeeding is a 4, perhaps 5 handed task at the beginning. I wouldn't be nursing today if I didn't have Ross by my side holding my boob, adjusting the seven or so pillows, holding her arm as she squirmed and fussed, creating the super baby swaddle (where you swaddle just the arms to allow for continued skin-to-skin contact). He was unwavering in his love and support and was always cheering us girls on. A bit of criticism I got in deciding to breastfeed was that Ross would never be able to feed her (which sharing feedings is really no reason to decide not to breastfeed... you'll probably have to pump and use bottles at some point) - but PLEASE, he was there every feeding making it happen. Emotionally he was my rock, and enabled me to continue to give our daughter an incredible gift of health.

At our 24 hour homevisit with our midwives I got lots of help and coaching and was reminded that we both just have to learn how to do this - and the learning curve is huge. Other than the occasional mother at work and my cousin when I visited her for a weekend, I'd never really seen women breastfeeding. I'd read a book and watched a few videos, but it didn't quite click. At 36 hours I was crying to Ross and while I knew I couldn't give up I knew why so few women actually breastfeed their children - there are so many barriers! Short, often unpaid maternity leave, lack of experience and support, formula companies advertising about how great their overpriced-infant-digestive-and-immune-system-havoc-wreaker concoctions are. I get why so many women give up: it's hard, not instinctive, and society doesn't make it any easier on us.

But I decided that it was important enough to me to persevere, and I was determined to make this work, so we pushed on. We ended up using a nipple shield. It makes it easier for baby to suck and get milk, and protects your nipples. I thought of it like wearing wool-skin in your hiking books to prevent blisters, thought it's temporary, once you form those callouses then you are fine. And it definitely helped, allowed me to nurse my baby pain free after a couple days, she could get all the milk she needed, and we were off and running.

Except that I hated it - it had a bit of a reservoir and milk would leak everywhere (especially when she would bat it off) and it was one more thing to clean, to pack, to make sure we ALWAYS had with us. And I felt hurt by it - that my own breasts and nipples weren't good enough for her. So after our three week appointment my midwife suggested going cold turkey, and that it would be like starting over (it was, and I didn't like it) but that I would be so much happier in the end (I am!).

The whole process was depressing to me - she outright rejected my nipple at first and I felt terrible, like I wasn't good enough, and that I was just a failure. I spent an entire 3 or 4 days where I decided I wasn't going anywhere, doing anything or letting anyone visit until we figured this out. She and I just hung out in bed, didn't get dressed or anything, and just worked on breastfeeding. Sometimes it would take an hour of fussing and crying until she would take the nipple, but then it was 45 minutes, then 30, then she finally realized that I had what she wanted and this was the only way she was going to get it. And boy did I feel like a champ once we got it! Of course my nipples were super sore for about another week and a half, but now they've toughened up and she's a nursing pro. It feels SO good - and I'm finally comfortable heading out into the world with my little one.

Now I LOVE breastfeeding, and am actually enjoying it and all the benefits! We have milk for her ready to go at any moment, at the right temperature, and we don't have to do any extra dishes. I don't even have to get out of bed at night for nighttime feedings, I can just roll her into my side, nurse, and we fall back asleep together. We get so much more sleep!!! I can even walk and nurse at the same time. I'm only 4 pounds from my pre-pregnancy weight and fitting into nearly my entire wardrobe and I've been eating whatever I want (my midwife told us that we need 500-800 extra calories everyday while nursing... I'm going to enjoy it!). I'm giving my baby incredible health benefits, aiding in the development of her immune system, and growing her myself. Oh - and it's all FREE.

As I'm reflecting on it now that we've almost made it to the 6-week mark and things are going well I want to share my words of wisdom:

DON'T GIVE UP - especially on a bad day; it gets better.
BUY - Nipple cream and soothing gel pads.
GET SUPPORT - having our midwives on call 24/7 made it possible, a lactation appointment, talking with a La Leche League leader, friends and family offering their love and prayers, and an incredible husband/partner to help you through those tough times. Don't wait to ask for help.
ATTEND - a La Leche League meeting while pregnant or after and watch other women breastfeed. It's not creepy, trust me, and the mother-to-mother support is incredible.
READ - as much as you can beforehand when you have more time. Get The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding and keep it by your side.
LOVE - the beautiful bond that you have with your little one. I love that I'm the only one who can nurse her, it means I get dedicated time with her that no one else can take away from me.

I know that for some there are significant medical barriers to breastfeeding, but I really believe every woman is capable just as our ancestors have been for millennia, and I just hope my story offers a bit of hope and support out there for you if you are trying to make it work. You can do it! Your body was made to produce milk!

Breast milk is the best milk!