In the 6 accumulated years that I have been breastfeeding, there have been many wonderful, supportive people who have come through my life. There is my wonderful husband, who has done everything he knew how to support my desire to breastfeed, and to learn about breastfeeding with me. There are family members who have done all they can to be positive about my nursing. There are the friends who have sat and nursed next to me at playdates, the park, the zoo, or some other public setting. There are the amazing women who donated breast milk to Walter when we were really struggling with breastfeeding. And there have been many, many others along the way. But out of all of these amazing people, there are two who stand out the most in my mind as being supportive. Both of these women share some common themes, as to why they stand out so much as being my biggest supporters in my breastfeeding journey.
One thing that I’m pretty sure they had in common – I don’t think either of them thought that I would be able to recover a breastfeeding relationship with my child. And neither of them told me so at the time.
When Sofi was born, as I’ve said a million times, she was 2 months early. She was a c-section under general anesthesia, and she was whisked to the NICU well before I woke up. I got to see her an hour after she was born, when they wheeled my gurney up next to her warmer, and I reached out a hand and touched her soft little arm. Then, I was wheeled up to my room, where I fell asleep again for an hour or two. I went down to see her a few times during that day, but wasn’t allowed to hold her at all until the following day. I had expressed my desire to breastfeed, and the NICU staff told me to have my postpartum nurse contact lactation services for me. I asked her to, and to get me a pump. However, the hospital was short staffed, and my nurse (a temp agency nurse) didn’t know how to contact lactation nor get me a pump. So she did neither. I didn’t know enough to stand up for myself and force the issues. The next day brought a new nurse, who promised to call, but who was also so busy that I have a feeling it got put off for a while.
By the time the lactation consultant showed up with my pump, Sofiya was over 24 hours old, born by c-section, barely touched, to a mom with thyroid issues who had never even looked at a pump before in my life. I am SURE, looking back, that lactation consultant thought I had missed my window, and would never be able to supply enough for that baby to breastfeed. She was shocked that I had asked for a pump within hours of birth and not received one for more than a day – that I could tell by her facial expression. But, she never said a discouraging word. She set about showing me how to use the pump, getting me positioned, and helping me to pump my first few ounces of love for my daughter.
She told me several things that helped me to get started on my breastfeeding journey, in this unexpected style. She got me a list of places to rent a hospital grade pump from. She told me about the pump rooms in the NICU area, where I could pump when I came to visit Sofi after I had checked out of the hospital. And she told me one of the most valuable things that anyone has ever told me about breastfeeding. She said:
A lot of people will tell you a lot of things about breastfeeding. Everyone has their own opinion about the “right” way to do it. But not everything that everyone tells you will work for you. You need to remember that in a breastfeeding relationship, there are only 2 people; you and the baby. So if someone tells you something, and it doesn’t work for you and your baby, just disregard it and do what works for YOUR relationship.
This was so empowering! It was the single best piece of breastfeeding advice I have ever gotten. It allowed me, from the first day of my breastfeeding experience, to authoritatively release myself from anything that didn’t work for me. When people would tell me not to nurse for more than 5 minutes, I could let it roll off. Maybe that worked for some people, but not for us. When someone would tell me not to let her fall asleep at the breast, I could let it go. Maybe that worked for some people, but not us. And on, and on. And so, I was able to focus on the wants and needs of my self and my baby – and not the societal pressures to do things a certain way.
Maybe that is why I didn’t notice that the odds were stacked against my little preemie and myself… Maybe that is why I didn’t really care about the suggestions of formula, or lower production for the pump. I was quite proud of myself when I was able to pump 2 ounces from each side after several days of pumping! Wow! That was twice as much as I’d been getting! Had Sofi started taking food earlier than 5 days old, or been allowed more than a smackerel here and there, I probably could not have pumped enough to feed her. But, since I had much more milk in the freezer than she was eating, I felt quite confident in my abilities! I had no idea how much my milk supply had been jeopardized by the delay in getting a pump. My little doll was too tiny to latch onto the breast, and I was advised to simply pump for her until they let her go from the hospital and then work on getting her to nurse at home. The logic being that if I wore her out trying to nurse, she would be stuck at the hospital longer. I reluctantly listened, and went along. Looking back, I think that the NICU staff did not think we would be able to successfully breastfeed, and they didn’t want me to stop pumping so that Sofi would continue to do well in the NICU.
She finally went home at 3 weeks old, and we began a grueling routine of doctor visits, and follow up appointments. Since I was postoperative, and didn’t have a car, my mother-in-law and father-in-law drove us to all of our appointments. Since I couldn’t nurse, and there was nowhere convenient to pump, I often had to put off pumping for 5-6 hours at a time. There came a day when, for the entire day, I had pumped 2 ounces of milk. I knew right then that we had to get the baby off of the bottles and on to the breast – or my milk was going to go away. And so I began the difficult task of talking a baby out of fast flowing bottles and into working for the slower moving breast. It took several days, but I did it. My milk production picked right back up, and Sofi breastfed until the month of her third birthday.
I had no idea until much later, sharing my experiences with others, that our experience had been hard. Or that there were many reasons that our breastfeeding relationship should not have endured. I still thank God for that, because I firmly believe that breastfeeding is what kept Sofi alive and kept her as healthy as she was and is.
Sixteen days after Sofi’s second birthday, we welcome Walter into our arms. He came gently into the world, and latched well within minutes of birth, but something wasn’t right. After 3 days, he had still never peed. He slept often, and seemed fairly content, but I was worried. Sofi was still nursing, but only a few times per day. Walter was getting the majority of the time at the breast, but I just felt antsy. Everything I read said that he should be urinating by the second to third day. My La Leche League leader, who had anticipated me not having any trouble, had called the third day, and I called her back to tell her my concern. She agreed that it sounded like there was an issue, and came over to help us troubleshoot.
We adjusted his position, checked for an obvious tongue tie, and generally poked around. My leader suggested I start pumping after each nursing session and supplementing him an ounce of milk from a bottle. So, we started the process of pumping. Within hours of supplementing 1 ounce after each feed, he began to pee. We thought we were in the clear. Until nearly a week had gone by and he hadn’t pooped yet. Again, I called my leader. Again, she came out and looked us over.
My lack of arm strength made it difficult to get an optimal position, and I was sorely discouraged. But, we used lots of pillows, and worked and worked at it. In the long run, I pumped and supplemented more to get him to start pooping. My leader and I talked daily, most of the time. Sometimes, she would take a few tearful phone calls from me in a day. There were days I was amazed that she kept answering the phone. But, she always did. Always. For seven weeks, my leader answered the phone, listened to the ups and downs of our nursing, sorted out the details from my sleep deprived accounts of what was going on with us, and did her best to help us figure it out.
At 7 weeks, I hauled both of my babies to an occupational therapist who worked with nursing newborns (sometimes). She stuck her finger in my baby’s mouth and felt around for about half an hour. She watched us nurse. I don’t even remember what all she did, honestly. I was so overwhelmed by that point, and so sleep deprived, I don’t know how I was still going. And yet, I was!
We had tried and tried and tried to get Walter to nurse. We had pumped and bottle fed – with many assurances that this was only for a few days. I had not been able to pump enough to supply him with enough milk to get him through an entire day (I have oversupply, but do not respond well to the pump – proof that what you pump is not at all indicative of what you make!). We had to supplement him from other sources, including donated breastmilk and formula. We had tried a supplemental nursing system(SNS), to allow him to be supplemented at the breast, or to finger feed, which is a more similar motion than the bottle. The use of the SNS caused him to not gain a single ounce for the entire time it was used. The very act of sucking caused him to burn as many calories as he was taking in.
And then this OT, with her finger in his mouth, said, “I know he doesn’t look like he has a tongue tie, but I am pretty sure he can’t move the back of his tongue!” And this was the cause of all of the trouble. He could latch. He could suck. But he couldn’t suck hard enough to draw out the milk without burning so many calories that he couldn’t gain weight. Three days later, our family practitioner clipped the tongue. The morning following that, Walter began nursing at the breast while still gaining weight, and never looked back. Finally, finally, we had a breastfeeding relationship.
A few weeks later, talking to my leader for a follow up, she told me that she was amazed that I had gotten through it. She told me that she wasn’t sure that she, herself, would have been able to persevere through so much difficulty. I was somewhat surprised that she felt that way. My confidence in my breastfeeding ability had been hugely shaken – though I had come out breastfeeding. But she told me then, she had considered telling me it was ok to give up, but decided that she couldn’t be the reason that I stopped. So, she had just kept answering the phone and encouraging me however she could. Had she told me it was ok to stop, I’m sure I would have. But as long as she was willing to just answer the phone, I was willing to keep on trying.
I thank God often for her endurance, as well. Walter was already forming an allergy to formula, on the gentlest type there was. Had I truly given up, I’m not sure what he would have done, but I know he wouldn’t be as healthy as he is today.
I always chuckle when I think to myself that the best support I ever got was simply people NOT telling me to give up. But it is so true!
What was the best breastfeeding support you got?