”Is he hungry?”
In the past few weeks, those three words have elicited excitement, apprehension, nervousness, fear, dread and sadness.
I never once for an instant doubted I would breastfeed. I read all of the information about how breastfeeding isn’t a walk in the park and the joys of feeding your baby included more pain than pleasure in the first few weeks. But I thought – oh well, I can handle it. It’s worth it. It’s temporary and I can manage.
I had no idea.
First of all, Owen was born with a tongue tie. This made his latch really painful for me because he couldn’t get his tongue fully over his bottom gums. But, at first, I called it “uncomfortable” but thought it was tolerable. In the meantime, we scheduled him an appointment with a pediatric dentist to have the tongue tie snipped and I assumed the “discomfort” would go away after that. The appointment came and went and despite our fear and dread, Owen didn’t seem to mind the 2 second procedure. The dentist assured me things would “feel much better soon.”
But they didn’t. My nipples began to crack. Then ooze. Then bleed. My emotions began to intensify such that the only time I was anxiety free was in the fifteen minutes or so immediately after he was fed. Then the anxiety would start mounting again as the minutes ticked down to the next feeding. I called the lactation consultant for a home visit. All was good while she was there and she gave me hope. But when she left again I was left with the pain and the fear. Getting him latched on turned into a dance of pain. Me offering the nipple, then pulling it away in fear and cursing myself for “teasing” my son. The consultant called it an anticipatory pain response and said it is very normal. I call it confusing my baby.
I began to have break downs. The first timed itself with my first experience with engorgement. I remember sitting on the couch holding my burning-hot-bowling-ball-boobs and sobbing my eyes out (post partum hormones definitely playing a role here) to my husband while my mom tried to comfort the screaming, hungry baby. I also began to have a negative reaction to my baby. In the beginning, I loved to hold him and gaze at him and just be with him. As time went on, it seemed that as soon as he got near me he wanted to feed and my only interactions with him involved pain. I was jealous of other people who got to cuddle and hold him without the dread that he would want to eat.
I tried it all. Ice. Heat. Cooling gel pads. Enough lanolin to cover my entire body in grease three times over. Breast milk baths for my nipples. Air drying. Different kinds of lanolin. Different kinds of gel pads. Showers. Hand expressing. Pumping. Um…any other suggestions? I’ve probably tried them. I got so frustrated with the breastfeeding books and websites that talk about bleeding nipples and say things like “prevention is the best cure” and “whatever you do, don’t stop breastfeeding.” Fuck you. Breastfeeding was turning an already different postpartum period into intervals of pain and fear. Not to mention, I was beginning to withdraw and get depressed and think that this isn’t a sustainable way of life. And worst of all, it was changing how I looked at my baby.
I gave up and tried nipple shields, per the LC’s advice. Even though I was worried they would “ruin the latch” or ruin our breastfeeding entirely. But, I couldn’t figure out how to use them and it still hurt when he nursed through them, so I ditched that idea.
Finally, I broke down. At B’s urging after looking at my nipples (or lack thereof – I swear all I had left where two oozing holes where my nipples used to be), we broke down and offered him a bottle of pumped breast milk. We did this three times in a row until my right nipple started to heal and I started to feel ready to feed him again. Each bottle we gave made me feel like a failure and I like I was letting him down. I began to get jealous of the bottle and the person feeding him. Finally, I let the jealousy overcome the fear and I was ready again.
But the pain continued. More crying. More pain. Another bottle session. It was hell for B and I. He wanted to fix the problem but couldn’t. He vacillated between wanting to comfort me and wanting me to be strong for our son. I mostly just cried and feared that I was going to fail completely.
Called the LC again. She spent a long time normalizing this for me. Explaining that my reaction was more normal than you’d think and, with her first baby, she didn’t even want to hold her daughter because she was so fearful and overwhelmed by feeding her. She reminded me of the things I’m doing well – I’m still feeding him despite the pain. He has gained a pound back from his lowest weight. He is able to switch between bottle and nipple with no problems. And then we came up with a plan – feed only from the healthier right side for 24 hours, whilst pumping the left side and supplementing with breastmilk bottles if needed. Luckily, I seem to have a really good supply and am able to easily pump 2 oz off the left breast at each pumping with little time spent. So we did this. I was cheerful and hopeful.
That was two days ago. I still haven’t transitioned back to the left breast. It is still open and oozing and I just want the skin to grow back. But I know I can’t keep doing what I’m doing. Right now, feeding the baby involves breast feeding on one side, a pumping session on the other, and a bottle. Even though B usually gives the bottle, the whole process takes 2-3x the amount of time that normal breastfeeding would take. Especially since, with only one breast to feed on, he needs to feed even longer to get enough milk. SIGH. I am not getting enough sleep.
One positive is that, with less pain (note I say less pain, not no pain) associated with feeding, I am no longer dreading each feeding. I now only dislike the first few minutes, but then settle in and feel ok during the rest of the feeding. And I don’t have so much terror when someone hands me the baby and tells me he’s hungry. Also, because B has gone back to work, I am doing more of the baby care now. This is actually a good thing because it means my only interaction with him is not just feeding him. Who knew that changing a diaper could help my relationship with my son? But it does. To do something for him that is not invoking fear and sadness in me is a GOOD thing.
So where does that leave me? I fear I am just a few hours away from backsliding into the bad, bad place. But I hope I am a few hours away from finding a sustainable, tolerable routine. I’m not sure which direction the scale will tip.
In sum, breastfeeding is second only to my ridiculous labor in the hardest thing I have ever done. In some ways, it is harder, because it is prolonged and drawn out and paints a picture of weeks and weeks of intolerable pain and suffering. If I didn’t really, really, really want this, I would have given in to exclusively pumping or formula in the first week. It’s almost like choosing an epidural after wanting a medication-free birth. The option is there. But it’s not something I want. It’s very, very important to me. And so, the fact that I’ve considered stopping shows you how absolutely awful this has been for me.
I wish I hadn’t discounted what I read about other women’s experiences. This is harder than you think. Unless you are super-woman and are lucky enough to be able to have a painfree experience or are strong enough to stoically push through it. If that is the case, then I hate you.
Right now, he is in the Mamaroo next to me (does anyone else feel totally guilty for leaving their baby in a swing for hours??) and I am already planning ahead for the next feeding. Sigh. But, I just looked over at him and he has both fists up by his head and he looks absolutely adorable. So, that helps.
I don’t know where that leaves me. I hope, soon, I will be able to feed equally on both sides and it won’t be such an ordeal . When I ask, “Is he hungry?” and the answer is yes, I want to be able to calmly take the baby, put him to my breast, and begin to feed him without stopping my conversation I was having. Until then, I remain feeling isolated, frightened, and overwhelmed by the entire experience.