Uniquely Fed: An Honest Look at the Realities of Breastfeeding, Part One – My Journey
I think it’s time we had some real, honest talk about breastfeeding. And no, I’m not talking about feelings about breastfeeding in public. I’m talking about simply breastfeeding, or maybe even just feeding, your child. Breastfeeding offers incredible health benefits to both you and your baby and can be an enjoyable and wonderful bonding experience. But it’s not always the simple, idyllic thing that it’s made out to be. It can be complicated, emotional, difficult, and nearly impossible, too. That’s why I wanted to start this series about breastfeeding – to share the good and the not-so-good aspects. Because it’s not all sunshine and roses. Sometimes you need support and to know that you’re not alone – no matter how easy or difficult your breastfeeding relationship is. And sometimes, you need to know that if breastfeeding doesn’t work out for you, there’s no need to beat yourself up or feel like you’re the worst Mom ever. The ultimate goal is for your baby to be healthy, fed, and loved.
Let me start by telling you about my journey.
I have breastfed two boys. Breastfeeding Ace was a relatively simple journey. I had a fair amount of discomfort the first 2-3 weeks but nothing that a little all-purpose nipple cream and time couldn’t solve. I never had any cracked or bleeding nipples or any issues beyond the temporary discomfort. We breastfed successfully for 6 months. I decided to wean him because I was working full-time and I just couldn’t keep up with pumping. I had too many inconvenient meetings and I didn’t have a breastfeeding-friendly office environment. There was no good place provided that I could pump so I ended up stringing a curtain across my cubicle doorway with a “Do Not Disturb” sign…though I think the sound of the breast pump echoing through the office hallways was warning enough about what was going on. I didn’t particularly enjoy the logistics of breastfeeding but I believed in its importance and wanted to do it as long as I possibly could. I felt some guilt about quitting before the 1-year mark but the stress relief of knowing that I didn’t have to worry about how much I was pumping soon wiped away any mom-guilt.
Breastfeeding Dash has been a completely different story. I am a SAHM now so the obstacles that prevented a longer-term breastfeeding relationship were no longer present. I had full intentions of breastfeeding for the full 12-months with no problems. In fact, I looked forward to how my feelings about breastfeeding would be changed now that my life circumstances were so different. But as with most things in life, my expectations did not meet reality.
In the hospital, Dash and I were champs. His latch looked fantastic and I had no problems getting him on a regular breastfeeding schedule. When I asked for a lactation consultant to come take a look at us, she had only glowing things to say. Phrases like “you’re a pro” and “you guys are doing so great” were uttered frequently. I had some discomfort but I expected that to happen as my nipples adjusted to breastfeeding again. So I brushed it off.
It only took a day or so after we left the hospital for things to get bad and get bad quickly. My nipple pain increased daily and it wasn’t long before I had major abrasions. Breastfeeding became something I dreaded. I actually cried from the pain. Once I finally realized that this wasn’t going away and that I couldn’t just grit my teeth and bear it, I told my pediatrician about it. She immediately recommended that I see a lactation consultant and recommended a fantastic one.
During my first visit, I learned so much. It appeared Dash had a posterior tongue tie and upper lip tie. He also had a lot of tension in his body as evidenced by his visible cranial sutures and his habit of tightly balling up his fists with his thumbs tucked in (something else I learned about). She gave me tons of great suggestions for how to help Dash latch properly and how to overcome the issues we were facing. Revision of his ties was something that we needed to consider but we could also try some other therapy interventions, such as craniosacral therapy for his tension and speech-language therapy for his oral-motor function. These therapies were only partly covered by insurance, unfortunately. But these things could solve his problems and make a revision unnecessary, so they seemed worth a try.
The first thing I have to say is that craniosacral therapy is amazing. The best layman’s description I can give you is that it is a combination of massage, accupressure, and chiropractic therapy. But I encourage you to research it yourself if you’re curious. Our craniosacral therapist (CST) was incredible. She explained how Dash’s fast birth (good for me but not for him) contributed to his problems due to the lack of time he spent in the birth canal being compressed by contractions…who knew that was so important?! Our therapy sessions with her went well. We went a couple of times and I could definitely see a difference in our nursing relationship. His tension was dramatically decreased but the pain with nursing was still largely unchanged.
After much discussion and research, my husband and I felt that revision was our only next course of action. There is an incredible pediatric dentist about an hour and a half away from us that specializes in laser frenectomies and so we made the trek. Revision is not an easy experience. I cried the whole time (probably more than Dash ever did)! His latch was so beautiful immediately post-revision but my research had told me not to expect a miracle cure. And, if our journey up to this point had been any indication of what was to come, it wasn’t. But it was significantly better. Dash almost immediately started making sounds that he had never made before. It was like he felt the freedom in having his ties released and was eager to capitalize on it. But there was still pain, and discomfort and difficulty.
I followed up with the lactation consultant shortly after the revision and yet another issue was discovered. Dash had acid reflux caused by a severe milk protein allergy. The pediatrician recommended I cut out all dairy (and soy as a precaution) from my diet. And when even that didn’t work (and he didn’t test positive for any other allergies), we put him on medication for the reflux. Which worked…mostly. Besides cutting out dairy, I learned that he was sensitive to almost every vegetable and anything spicy, tangy, acidic, or citrusy. My diet just kept getting more and more restricted.
Speech therapy was again recommended to retrain his tongue post-revision and ensure that his oral-motor function was ready for the introduction of solid foods. After 3 months of therapy with a wonderful speech therapist, his function was fantastic…but I still had discomfort.
Then I got a clogged duct. Or a milk blister, to be more precise. All of this struggle was getting to be more than I could bear.
As therapy came to an end and Dash turned 5 months, I came to the difficult realization that breastfeeding for us would NEVER be discomfort-free. And I had to decide if I could live with that…for another 7 months. That milk blister would occasionally threaten to return. His acid reflux was only partially controlled. And the stress and pressure of always having to eat a certain way and being concerned that neither of us was getting great nutrition because of my diet restrictions, finally led me to decide that maybe our breastfeeding journey was at an end.
We are currently on a hypoallergenic, prescription formula and I’m down to only breastfeeding him during his night wakings. I expect him to be fully weaned within a week or two. Needless to say, I have struggled a lot along this journey. And as the breastfeeding comes to an end, I am struggling with the guilt of not being able to make it further and the societal pressure that comes upon any mom when she chooses formula over breast milk. Add to all of this that I have had to let go of my goals and ideals of breastfeeding for 12 months AND that Dash is our last baby and you have the recipe for a major emotional rollercoaster.
Right now, I’m just taking things one day at a time. I’m realizing that though I’m mourning the loss of the breastfeeding relationship and the goals I set, I’m actually still doing what is best for my baby. I have been all along! If I didn’t care about what was best, I wouldn’t have gone to such great lengths to achieve it! And by being honest about the difficulties and admitting that there are some really good reasons why breastfeeding might not be the best thing for us (my diet and his reflux, to just name two), I’m actually achieving my goal.
But this very struggle has made me want to write about the truths of breastfeeding. The reality is that breastfeeding is different not only for every mom, but for every baby. Not every breastfeeding relationship can last long-term and it isn’t always as easy as our society and culture would have us believe. Even many of the breastfeeding champion mamas out there have had tough times! It is important for us to understand both the ups and the downs. To give breastfeeding a fighting chance but to also not beat ourselves up if it doesn’t work or if it’s not what we thought it would be.
**UPDATE: Dash is now officially weaned. The insurance FINALLY approved the formula prescription and that, coupled with a back injury (ugh), brought our breastfeeding relationship to an end. At first I didn’t think I was going to be able to give us a “last” feeding, but I did! I took some pictures and cried a lot. But the great thing was that he was ready to be done. He fed for about 5 minutes and then just didn’t seem super interested. So I offered him a bottle and he ate hungrily. It actually helped me to know that he wasn’t pining for breastfeeding. And while I feared that I was losing a closeness connection with him, it was actually just the opposite. We cuddled as he ate and he looked lovingly into my eyes…something he never did when breastfeeding (he always kept his eyes closed.) He then snuggled on my shoulder while I burped him and nearly fell asleep in my arms as I rocked him after that. It was a truly special moment. And I am so happy to report that we have had MANY more special moments just like that one ever since. So even though I’m sad that our breastfeeding journey has ended, it seems that it has been replaced by something equally as wonderful. This mama’s heart is so full and so thankful.
So to all of you mamas who are facing the end (or who have already ended your breastfeeding relationship), know that you are still special to your little one and you can still have a special, close connection!!
Stay tuned for the rest of the posts in this series. I will be sharing some basic information and resources on how to handle a few of the more common breastfeeding problems and how to build a support system for yourself as you navigate through breastfeeding (and motherhood.)
I have also been working hard gathering stories from real moms about their experiences and I will be sharing them with you too. I am probably most excited about this part because these stories represent the full spectrum of the complexities of breastfeeding. I hope that as you read them you feel encouraged and connected. I hope it helps you understand that no matter what your experience is, you are not alone!
Read all the Uniquely Fed Series Posts!