When I was pregnant with my daughter, I had a mental picture of how everything would go down. I was only mildly afraid of labour (I was always the kid that had to burn her hand to know the stove was hot), because I had a mental image of being the strong, natural mother who did what was BEST for my child, both before and after her birth. The books and interweb both told me a few things for sure: painkillers during labour are going to make your child drowsy and affect her ability to latch, and breast is best. You’ll note that even the first one is tied to the idea of how important breastfeeding is. I KNEW I was going to go into labour naturally, I KNEW I would not need pain meds or an epidural (based on the foolhardy assumption that I could breathe through ANYTHING and that I already knew REAL pain- more on this another day), I KNEW I would get skin-to-skin time immediately after birth, I KNEW I would breastfeed exclusively and I KNEW in my heart of hearts that I would bond with my tiny human the instant I saw her.
We had a plan. I knew it was foolish to make one of those down-to-the-minute plans because you can’t plan a delivery THAT well, and I’m frankly not type A and could never make that sort of plan anyway… but we had a plan, regardless. It was more dos and don’ts – a flow chart of possibilities that included my non-negotiables and my preferences. Skin-to-skin and breastfeeding were the only non-negotiables. Everything else was a “make sure it’s really necessary” sort of thing (epidural, c-section, etc.).
This is not where I tell you my birth story. That post will be marked with an “abandon hope all ye who enter here” heading. This is just where I tell you how hilariously, tragically, hopelessly wrong everything went and leave it at that. (please note that I really do know how much worse it can go and I’m so grateful that my situation ended the way it did)
To start, I had “planned” (ha) on going full-term. I was NOT interested in being induced early because the internet told me that’s more likely to end up in a c-section and with trauma to the poor baby who is not ready to leave the womb. I went in to my 39-week appointment expecting to hear that I had not dilated at all and was going to for sure be going past my due date. Yeah no. I had not dilated, but I was required to deliver by 40 weeks. I have an iso-immunization issue that is very dangerous to the baby after 40 weeks and, because my original OB had gone on leave partway through my pregnancy, both her and the new OB thought the other one had told me about this. Yup. So I walked out of that appointment with a good dose of shell-shock and an induction date.
It did not get better from there. Everything I had wanted for my delivery became impossible. Even skin-to-skin was denied me at first because I was hemhorraging and needed several professionals to stitch me up. In part because everything else was denied me, and in part because I’m just naturally incredibly, stupidly stubborn, I set all of my hopes and dreams on the one choice remaining to me: breastfeeding.
The trouble started there.
First: she couldn’t latch. We had… anatomical incompatabilities, according to the nurse. In addition to this, my daughter had severe jaundice (partly a result of the iso-immunization issue mentioned above) and was too lethargic to suck even if we got her latched. I held out. I was breastfeeding and that was that. The nurses wanted to supplement, the doctor recommended I supplement. I held out for another day. Another tear-filled day of women handling my breasts and my baby and trying their best to help me breastfeed. A day of weeping over my baby who wouldn’t, couldn’t, wake up enough to eat. A day of wrenching sadness as I grappled with the feeling that I was failing her regardless of which decision I made. When I finally agreed to supplement with formula, I cried watching them give her the first bottle. I couldn’t do it myself because I couldn’t bear the reminder of my failure. She had lost a lot of weight already, and I knew it was because I had refused to compromise.
I wasn’t done yet, though. The decision to supplement strengthened my resolve to breastfeed. I bought a shield, booked a lactation consultation, read endless posts on my phone about how to fix a latch etc. I was determined, and by God, I was going to nurse my child if it killed me. And it seemed to be working! The shield helped her latch enough to eat, and, with the help of my husband, we woke her up every three hours to forcefeed her for the next two weeks.
Sidebar: let me tell you something: if you’ve never tried to wake a jaundiced baby up to eat, you can never understand what it’s like. It was a two person task and took at least an hour each time. It involved ice cubes, ear flicking, clapping, foot tickling, begging, cajoling and crying each time. Plus the recording process where we had to write down how much, how long, how often for everything she did to show the doctors/nurses. I was insane with exhaustion and worry, but triumphant: we were nursing. There was no more formula involved! I knew how delicate a line I was walking though, because I had a low supply from having a baby who didn’t nurse fully for the first few weeks…but my joy at succeeding even this much overwhelmed my worry.
And then came the biggest roadblock.
We had only been home for a few days (we spent four in the hospital for her jaundice) when I collapsed with a dangerously high fever. I had a severe infection and had to be re-hospitalized. I refused morphine in the ambulance. I refused any anti-biotic that would stop me from nursing. My husband brought our daughter to the hospital and I nursed all day through my 105 degree fever, and then I pumped alone in the shower of my shared room every two hours all night to try to have enough milk for her at home (she couldn’t stay at the hospital with me overnight because I was not in the maternity ward). The infection got worse. They told me that if they couldn’t get it under control, I would require surgery, and the infection was severe enough that the risk of perforating my uterus was very high – I would have to be prepared for a hysterectomy. I relented and they gave me very strong antibiotics. I couldn’t nurse at all anymore. My supply dwindled to almost nothing. I cried almost non-stop. In 8 days, I had lost all of the progress I had gained. My daughter, when I held her, was like a stranger to me. I felt like I couldn’t bond with her, and that I had failed in every way.
When I was finally released from the hospital, I tried to get back to nursing, but my supply was very low. It took a long time and a lot of work to build it back up – I was on every natural and medicinal support I could be to raise my supply. I used a shield, sterilizing it every time. Nursing sessions were upwards of an hour, and then she would be hungry again in 20-30 minutes. I waited anxiously every day for wet diapers that didn’t come nearly often enough. I sat through awful appointments every few days at the clinic where we weighed her and watched her slide backwards down the growth charts, until we couldn’t use them anymore because she was underneath the lowest lines.
We started supplementing, but only at night. I wouldn’t let my husband give her formula except for after the last feed before bedtime. I wearily dragged myself out of bed every 2 hours to nurse, even knowing I didn’t have enough to fill her up for long enough to sleep longer than that. Eventually, my husband, in a fit of frustration, asked me why I refused to supplement (bless his heart for being patient with my demands for so long), and when I, in a state of exhaustion so pure that I can’t actually tell you if my words formed a sentence, mumbled out a sentence about the importance of breastmilk to a baby’s development, he threw his hands in the air and said “do you honestly think you could pick out which of our friends are formula fed? I bet most of them were! Our moms only got a couple months of leave back in the 80s – can you tell me which of THEIR moms were failures?” (this later became a recurring joke between the two of us, but at the time, I burst out in tears because he had confirmed that I was, in fact, failing… a point which was absolutely not a part of that sentence, but try telling a sleep-deprived woman with PPD that).
And so we started to supplement. I could never pump more than an ounce, so it was formula. My supply slowly came back, and my daughter started to gain weight. She re-entered the charts and settled comfortably at the 25th percentile. When we started supplementing, my husband got a chance to bond in the same way that I had started to… and some of the pressure was off of me. I could stop dreading appointments with the clinics. I could see little chubby rolls on her thighs. She started sleeping longer stretches.
Things got better – for all of us. I can honestly say that I do NOT regret insisting on breastfeeding. I nursed until 13 months, and she continued to have formula at night on one of our laps for another month or two after that. My nursing sessions with my daughter were times of peace. She’s a very busy little girl, but our sessions, even when they were down to just one at night, were quiet times, where we babbled, napped and bonded. I have never known anything like those times, and I wouldn’t want to lose them for the world. But I can also say that my insistence on breastfeeding harmed my daughter, though fortunately not permanently, and also my husband. I didn’t know how much it affected her until she was eating solids. Almost as soon as she was eating solids full time, she rebounded up to the 50th percentile and started sleeping those 10-12 hour nights. I realized much too late that my insistence on the “natural” method of feeding her is the reason that she was so small, and was also a big part of the reason I was so anxious and depressed.
And I can also say that my husband got those same quiet bonding times with her over her bottle of formula. Our night time routine – breast, bath, bottle, book – allowed both of us to be a part of that special quiet time, and I see the relationship that it helped my husband to build with my daughter. I know that anyone out there who pumps or supplements would agree… there’s nothing like daddy getting to feed his baby to help him feel like a part of the family and the relationships that are forming.
Ultimately, I have realized as a result of our breastfeeding journey, that, while breastfeeding might be the *ideal,* it’s incredibly hard and not always the right decision for you or for the baby. You have to do what is best for you and your family. And know that each baby is a different baby! My experiences so far with my son are a VERY different story, but this post is already super long, so I’ll leave it there.
Do what keeps you sane. Do what helps your baby grow and be healthy and happy. A healthy you and a healthy baby are more important than what the books say, or what the internet will say, or what your mother-in-law will say (mine was actually very supportive either way).