What Surprised Me About Breastfeeding
Disclaimer: I plan to be as honest and up front as possible because I valued that so much from others while I was in the midst of my struggles with breastfeeding. So, if you feel uncomfortable with the subject, you can skip this post. Or, read on, because feeling uncomfortable is good sometimes. I'll leave that up to you. :)
Leading up to my son's birth I was very excited about the idea of breastfeeding. I took the class, read health articles, and drew on the experiences of my friends and my mom. I was a little nervous, worried that my history with hyperthyroidism could affect my milk supply. However, in the end I decided not to dwell on it and just focus on being excited for the bonding experience. Suffice it to say, once it actually came time to breastfeed everything I thought I knew went out the window. Here are some of the biggest things that surprised me:
Breastfeeding can be really, really hard. Really hard.
Since I had a C-Section (read more about the birth here), I was unable to do skin-to-skin contact immediately following the birth as planned. When I was finally able to hold Declan a few hours later, the nurse helped me with positioning and I was ecstatic to find that my first milk (called colostrum) was coming in. The first thing that struck me was how difficult positioning a newborn to latch really is. He was so tiny and fragile and his hands and my arms were never in the right place it seemed. Brian was indispensable by helping to hold him with me or adding a pillow here and there. But as hard as positioning and feeling comfortable post-birth was, it was nothing compared to latching issues. They say that breastfeeding is the most natural thing in the world, but that it doesn't always come naturally. Let me tell you - that is an understatement, or at least it was in my case. I am absolutely in love with my son, but let me just put it this way: I gave birth to a biter. It did not matter what fancy "hold" I put him in. It did not matter how many lactation consultants and nurses I saw over the course of our hospital stay that tried to help me. Declan would open his mouth indicating he was hungry, I would draw him close, and CHOMP. "But he didn't have any teeth", you might be thinking. Doesn't matter. His grip was so strong and so consistently strong that he would leave my nipples misshapen when I inevitably pulled him off because it hurt too much. The class I had taken had said that a correct latch shouldn't hurt. So something was clearly wrong, but what could I do? He seemed to absolutely hate the experience and it broke my heart. I could tell he was hungry and I just wanted so badly to give him what I knew he needed but he didn't know how to receive it.
On our last day at the hospital I remember Declan crying and crying as we were making our way down the elevator. The nurse who was helping us made a comment about how some babies need to be held a lot after birth and Declan seemed like he would need extra hugs. It was meant to make light of the situation but I still remember it because it struck me at that moment that the amount of crying Declan had been doing did not appear "normal" to a nurse who sees babies all the time.
The following few days would prove even worse. It seemed like Declan did nothing but cry. I thought maybe he was colicky or something resulting from the surgery that threw things off. Or maybe I was doing something wrong, or maybe the crying was normal. Or maybe... Believe me, there is no breeding ground for fear quite like the mind and heart of a new mom. On top of things, I wasn't sleeping, I could hardly walk from the pain from my surgery and my breasts were so raw it was painful to wear anything over them. At Declan's first wellness visit at the pediatrician, I heard that he was 7 pounds something ounces, and my heart sank. He was born at 8 pounds 12 ounces and while losing some weight is normal, not that much. And when the first thing the doctor said when he entered the room was, "ok, let's get this little guy healthy", I broke down. My worst fears had been confirmed: something was wrong and I was literally starving my baby. The doctor knelt in front of me and comforted me, pointing me to the onesie that Brian had chosen for Declan that day, which said "Dad and I agree, Mom is the best". "You need to believe that", he said. I nodded through my tears and watched as Declan transformed before my eyes as he drank a bottle of formula that the Doctor had brought in with him. He sent us home with two free boxes and encouraged me to continue putting Declan to the breast.
As happy as I was that Declan was sleeping now and seemed a lot happier, to my horror, he would no longer latch at all. Formula from a bottle flowed much faster and didn't pull away in pain so he began rejecting the breast all together. Look up the term "breast aversion". It's a thing, and no, I didn't know that either. Refusing to give up, I decided to start pumping to build up my supply, believing that he would eventually get the hang of things. Little by little I was able to see my milk come in and about a month after he was born my supply slowly overtook the need for supplementing formula. In the weeks of pumping I went with my gut and gave breastfeeding a break. It is hard to explain, but it was a super charged emotional battle when it comes to trying to feed a baby that bites. I would cringe from fear, cry from the pain (if he latched at all), and he would sense my emotions and push me away. So, once I was confident that I was making enough milk, I decided to try one or two feedings a day to help reacquaint him to it. It was around this time that I remember praying one of my most raw and honest prayers to God that I have ever prayed. It was usually accompanied with tears and it went something like, "God, I usually pray that your will be done. I never ask for anything from you. But this... I want this." Looking back, I don't even regret how selfish that sounds because I was crying out to my God the desires of my heart in true David fashion. Unashamedly. Unafraid.
At almost two months old, Declan breastfed exclusively for the first time and at four months, he stopped biting as he latched. Instead of listening to all the experts I went with my gut and let him latch on his own without guiding him or holding his head (which he hated). From the very beginning Declan has had a mind of his own so it's no surprise in retrospect that this approach ended up working for us. It was quite an adventure in the first months of his life, and really took me by surprise how hard physically and emotionally it would really be.
The culture surrounding breastfeeding is difficult to navigate.
If you are a mom to a young child right now, you understand what I mean when it comes to misconceptions, judgments, and stereotypes of those who breastfeed in public, those who feed their babies formula instead of breastfeeding, those who breastfeed beyond a year, etc. For the very short time that I have been a mom so far, I do not have a whole ton of advice for how to navigate through it, especially in a social media dominated age. So I will only speak from my own experience as an exclusively breastfeeding mom and the misconceptions I have come across. Firstly, there is the perception that nursing should be something done in private. While I typically do this anyway because Declan is very easily distracted at this age, I realized that earlier on I was becoming concerned with it being "inappropriate" unless we were hidden away from view. I am not sure why it is so in American culture but as much as I wanted to breastfeed even I fell prey to the lie that breastfeeding in front of others is somehow sexual in nature. Now, that doesn't mean that I want to go around flashing people for no reason, but I decided at a certain point to stop being embarrassed of feeding my child. I stopped pumping in advance just so I could feed Declan my milk from a bottle, and I stopped wrestling with him under a nursing cover (which he also hated). I look at it as being similar to open carrying a gun (yes, I'm a nerd and I went there). It's perfectly legal here in Virginia, but because it isn't "normalized", I have actually been pulled aside by a complete stranger asking me why my husband was open carrying because she had never seen it before and it shocked her. So, open carrying is actually a great way to help normalize something that many people aren't used to seeing. That being said, again - there's a balance. Walking around a grocery store with a shotgun is asking for attention which I am just not personally comfortable with. Same with breastfeeding. I admire women who can pull down their blouse (pulling up plus a baby's head pretty much blocks everything from view) and there isn't anything wrong with it, but I'd rather not get that attention myself.
The second misconception I want to be delicate about, because it involves moms who don't breastfeed which will include women who want to breastfeed but can't. Believe me, I was there, and I know how much it can hurt wanting so bad to be able to do so but for whatever reason it isn't working. So please don't feel that I am dismissing your pain or that I blame you in any way when I address my next point. Namely, the view that breastfeeding women should not be proud that they do so. I have seen so many ads and videos and comments from people saying that however a baby is fed by their mom and what works for them is the best way. And that is true! But it always seems to come with this underlying tone directed towards nursing moms who advocate for breastfeeding being the most healthy option. But that is also true! Can they both be true? I think so. Back when we were trying so hard to have a baby, I remember thinking, everybody is getting pregnant. That girl who wasn't even trying just got pregnant. Women get abortions every day. I swear, if I see one more pregnancy announcement... What I finally realized after being convicted by the Holy Spirit of my anger was that I was projecting my pain and heartache onto people that had what I longed for. As much as my desires at heart weren't wrong, just because someone else was proud and wanted to shout from the rooftops how happy they were about their life, didn't mean that I was doing anything wrong or that God loved me any less. So if I share about how much I love breastfeeding just know that I do not look down on you or judge you if you don't (and if I do, that is my sin burden to carry). On the other side of things, I do think it is prudent to be mindful of hot button topics like this and so many others: singles on Valentine's Day, Mother's and Father's Day for those with bad or non-existent relationships with their parents, etc. That Facebook post about how amazing your spouse or child is could be like a knife through the heart of someone who longs for that kind of love.
Community is so important.
I do not know how I would have gotten through the first few months of breastfeeding nightmares without my husband and friends and family. You probably think (like I did) that it is purely a mother+baby affair, but for those first several days Brian was with me for every feeding; holding him in place, warming up milk, mixing formula, heating up the heating pad to help with my breast pain, holding me through the break downs. There surely is no better way to fall completely head over heels back in love with your spouse than the I-have-no-idea-what-I'm-doing-I-hope-I-don't-ruin-this-baby's-life days. We leaned on and comforted each other, and ended up stronger on the other side. I also reached out to women in my Bible study group and they were instrumental in supporting me and encouraging me not to give up. I compare it to trying to finish a marathon and hearing all kinds of voices saying "it's ok to give up - you've made it really far already". While that is true, when you have a burning desire to get to the finish line, unless you pass out and physically can't make it what you need are people cheering you on.
Breastfeeding is an emotional, delicate, & sacrificial bonding experience.
In the process of breastfeeding, women experience "let down" where the milk starts flowing. Did you know that especially in the first few weeks, the slightest thing that reminds a woman of her baby can trigger it? If I smelt something of Declan's, thought about him for a while, or heard him cry my body would have a reaction to it and I would start "leaking". On one embarrassing occasion, Brian and I were at breakfast without Declan on a date when a baby on the other side of the restaurant started crying. To my surprise, my milk let down and I had to rush to the bathroom to keep from leaking through my shirt. When I went back to work, I used to watch videos that I had recorded on my phone of him nursing to help the let down so I could pump enough for his daycare. I just love breastfeeding. To this day, when Declan is ready to nurse he buries himself almost like a little ball into my chest and throughout the session he strokes my arm with his little hand and it is enough to break my heart with happiness. Now, once Declan "got it", it wasn't like "snap it's easy now". I still have to be very careful that I am not distracted by my phone or have the TV on or he might choose to get my attention by biting again. I don't drink caffeine or alcohol and if I get sick I have to be careful what kind of medication I take. About 2 weeks ago Declan went on a "nursing strike" where he refused to breastfeed. It was so confusing and emotional because it came out of the blue and instead of eating he would arch his back, cry, and push me away. I felt so lost and rejected, thinking that I had hurt his feelings somehow or that he just didn't want to breastfeed anymore. Thankfully, we got through it and after about 24 hours he began nursing again. But it has made it all the more clear to me that I can't take it for granted. Sacrificially, I have had to give up serving and volunteering opportunities because of his nursing schedule. I can't just go away for a weekend or sleep in and have someone else feed him. I am on call all the time. And yet...
Breastfeeding (and everything that comes with it) is worth it.
I had no idea just the sheer amount of determination I had hidden in me to not give up on it. I can honestly say that breastfeeding may not be for everyone, especially if it puts you in an unhealthy place emotionally (or puts your baby at risk if you aren't producing enough). But for me, I even look back at my statement from earlier in this post:
I could tell he was hungry and I just wanted so badly to give him what I knew he needed but he didn't know how to receive it.
That feeling for me has given me a new perspective on God's heart. I am so proud to say that I pursued breastfeeding with my son, knowing that I could provide, and it just blows my mind how the Lord pursues me every single day. Sometimes I even bite back at him, or I refuse him completely. It's not a perfect analogy, but it opened my eyes to Gospel love in a new and personal way. I am still in the what-the-heck-am-I-doing days. But in the midst of it, I am thankful.