In honor of National Breastfeeding Month in the US, I reached out to mom friends and asked them to share their breastfeeding stories. We all know that breastfeeding can vary from one mother to another, but siblings can also have two very different journeys. Here is Holly's breastfeeding journey.
Holly's Breastfeeding Journey: Two Kids, Two Stories
I always knew I wanted to breastfeed. I grew up with my mom telling stories of breastfeeding both me and my older sister. She joked about weaning me at nearly 3 years old because I would have been happy to continue nursing well into elementary school. She talked about joining La Leche League and the friendships she formed through the meetings. I was 20 years old when my sister had her first baby and I watched as she dove right into breastfeeding; I watched again as she nursed the two children that followed behind. I watched my friends start having and nursing children of their own. Breastfeeding was natural, it was easy, and it was something I never questioned I would do.
I was 29 when my first child was born. His complicated birth ended with meconium inhalation and a collapsed lung. The first days of his life were a blur of NICU visits, tubes and wires, fear and worry. I was encouraged by the nurses and doctors to pump my breastmilk and bring it to the hospital so they could feed it to him through his NG tube instead of formula. I was given charts and syringes, told to keep a close eye on my output. But I was going to breastfeed; I was going to make it happen. We couldn’t hold him or touch him overly much, but I was going to get that baby on the breast as soon as I possibly could.
I still remember the day my son’s NG tube was removed and we were able to try a latch for the first time. I was so nervous, worried that we had already faced setbacks that couldn’t be overcome. I was determined, though, and the hospital’s lactation consultant came up to help walk us through the process. She was kind, though a bit impatient, but we were able to get a latch! I was over the moon! My baby and I had taken the first steps on our journey of breastfeeding and I couldn’t have been happier. My husband snapped a few pictures and I am so glad he did; they are photos I will cherish forever.
But it wasn’t like I thought it would be. My son would latch, but he fell asleep at the breast quickly without feeding for more than a couple of minutes. I was instructed by the LC that I had to wake him up, swap breasts, don’t let him stay on there for more than five or ten minutes. I was poked at, repositioned, talked at. My baby had fingers put into his mouth, his body moved around, his ears rubbed, and became agitated. I felt frustrated and defeated. The LC left with instructions to call her back if we needed her. The nurse came with a bottle of formula and I handed my baby off to my husband to feed. I cried.
My son was discharged and came home on his fifth day of life. I felt afraid and overwhelmed. I tried to remember all the things the LC had told me at the hospital. I tried getting my son to latch again and nurse. He screamed and fought. So I would pump and give him a bottle. After a week or so I called and made an appointment with the hospital LC. Brought my baby to her and asked what I was doing wrong. She had a laundry list. My nipples were flat, I was holding him wrong, I wasn’t waking him often enough to feed, I wasn’t keeping better track of my output when I pumped or how much he was eating. I felt like a failure. Why wasn’t I able to do this? Literally every mom I knew was able to breastfeed. Why was this so damn hard for me?? My appointment ended and the LC suggested I come down to her office to rent a hospital-grade breast pump. I ran away to my car and cried on the way home.
I kept trying, albeit half-heartedly. My husband tried to help, bless his sweet heart, but his suggestions were absorbed by my wounded pride and turned into criticisms by my heartache. I sought out advice from my sister who had successfully breastfed three babies at that point, but it was no help; she was unable to teach me what came so naturally to her. My mom told me she didn’t remember anything from her breastfeeding days; the decades had wiped away every details save the general experience of having done it. I felt like I didn’t have any support. I languished. I stopped trying.
I resigned myself to pumping.
And so it went for months. I pumped five, six, times a day, every single day. I sobbed every session. After the first couple of months I began to experience horrible pain in both of my breasts, a feeling like a thousand fire ants were stinging them from the inside, every time I pumped. I talked to people about it and got sympathetic (albeit confused) replies instead of answers. I suffered through a bout of mastitis so bad, I felt like I would pass out if something happened to graze my breast. I took antibiotics and was told by the doctor I would have to dump my milk while I was on them. So I did, dumping ounce after precious ounce of milk down my kitchen sink while I wept bitter tears and fed my son formula. The mastitis went away. I kept on pumping.
When my son was about four months old my best friend had a baby, her third child. I would go over to her house with my baby to visit, dragging along my pump and bottles. I watched her nurse her newborn while I fed my infant his bottle. I hated her for doing what I could not.
A couple of weeks later my sister had a baby, her fourth child. I visited her in the hospital post-cesarean, nursing her child, so happy and in love with yet another successful breastfeeding relationship begun. I hated her for getting off to the good start I did not have.
I decided to try breastfeeding again. My son had not been offered the breast in over three and half months but I thought, “I can do this. I WILL do this.” I caught him as he was waking from a nap, still a little sleepy, right about the time he would get a bottle. Instead, I freed my breast from my shirt and coaxed him to latch. He did. He nursed for a solid ten minutes on one side; I swapped him to the other and he nursed for another twenty. I snapped a picture with my phone and texted it to my husband. I was enraptured. It was pure magic.
We had two days of breastfeeding before mastitis hit me again like a truck. I was crushed. I pulled out the pump only to discover it was toast, the motor dead and its days of pumping done. I was also done. Done with trying to nurse, done with pumping, done with everything having to do with my breasts as a source of food. I called my sister and wept; she said she would pump for me so my son could keep having breastmilk, she had more than enough, was pumping anyway, it was no trouble. I went to the store and bought a cabbage, stuck its leaves into my bra. My milk dried up in two days. I threw the pump in the trash and dusted my hands of the whole thing. I grieved. HARD.
Two and a half years later I was pregnant with my second child. I knew I wanted to try breastfeeding again. I wanted to have everything go as smoothly as possible during the birth, determined to get off to the best possible start without the delays and setbacks I had before. When my second son was born, he went immediately on my chest. I watched for cues and offered the breast within an hour of his entrance into the world. He latched. He suckled. It worked. The hospital LC came to visit during my recovery--- different hospital, different LC than with my first--- and proclaimed us perfect. She gave no tips or tricks because she said none were needed. I was elated.
We got home and I spent the first two weeks in a topless haze of milky boobs and a nursing baby. I learned my nipples were not only flat but slightly inverted, something not brought to my attention the first time around. I got a nipple shield that seemed to help. Things were going well. My son has his two week checkup at the pediatrician and I was told he’d lost too much weight. He set me up with the office’s lactation nurse for a consultation. She was very kind, very soft and gentle. She listened to my story and my fears, gave me good advice and reassured me. We kept trying.
My baby was about a month old when I began feeling pain again. Both breasts, every time I nursed. That horrible needling pressure and the stinging, crawling sensation that I’d felt before when pumping for my first. It began happening when I was not nursing. Sometimes the pain was so bad, it would wake me in the middle of the night, tears pouring down my face, as I screamed into my pillow and beat my fists on the bed while I waited for the pain to stop. I was in agony.
I started feeling again like my body was broken, that maybe I just wasn’t meant to nurse a child. So I turned to the internet. Good old Dr. Google, haha. After poring through several articles on thrush and determining that just didn’t fit my symptoms, I stumbled across a link through the La Leche League website which referenced Raynaud’s Syndrome, a vasoconstrictive disorder that affects the extremities. The blood vessels spasm and tighten, cutting off the flow of blood and causing extreme pain; when they relax, the blood comes flooding back to the area and the pain fades away. The article I read mentioned this particular phenomenon occurring in the breasts and nipples, causing pain like the type I was feeling. It’s often misdiagnosed as thrush because the feeling is so similar, but unlike the fungal infection, Raynaud’s of the breast could not be treated by medications like diflucan. The article said to check for signs of nipple blanching---when the vessels contract, the color drains away---followed by a purplish then reddish flush. It said the condition is exacerbated by cold temperatures and could be prevented by keeping warm and covered while nursing.
I cried, this time tears of relief. I felt like finally, FINALLY I had an answer as to what was going on with my body. So I kept nursing my son. I kept myself warm and made sure to cover my breasts quickly after each session. It didn’t always work, but the pain was greatly reduced. I felt free; I felt redeemed.
For nearly eight months I fed my son with my breasts. No bottles, no pumped milk, no supplementation. Just him and me. I still grieved for the loss I felt not breastfeeding my first child. Sometimes I would look at my nursing baby and feel sadness for not having bonded the same way with his older brother. The loss is still sharp sometimes, even almost seven years later, but that’s okay. My youngest nursed for 33 months, weaning himself when he felt ready to do so. It was gentle and bittersweet. Those 33 months were magic, even with the fear and the pain and the frustration and everything, I was able to feed my baby with my body as I always wanted to do and I was triumphant in that success.
Breastfeeding is not always easy. I had created this expectation of natural and instinctual simplicity by observing the women closest to me when I should have been talking to them. I wish I had talked to more women, heard more stories, been able to follow more journies, been exposed to a more diverse set of experiences. I wish I’d given myself and my son more grace, more time to figure out what we were doing. I wish I had people in my life tell me that it was hard, but that hard was okay.
My nursing days are far behind me now but I still share my story with those who wish to listen. Because I don’t want them to learn the way that I did that breastfeeding IS hard. But hard is okay.
Holly is mother to two boys and lives outside of Fort Worth, TX. She is the owner and creator of Ginger Jay, a small business specializing in natural products for everyday living. Ginger Jay is committed to using the power of nature to create effective products free from harsh chemicals, designed for everyday living. You can visit Ginger Jay's website or find them on Facebook.