Today I’m excited to share our first breastfeeding story. As you know we often share birth stories on The Mama Notes – and after I posted this on Instagram, Suzanne reached out to me inspired and wanting to share her nursing story. It’s a long, but beautiful story about a new mother who was determined to breastfeed her baby. It has a happy ending and I encourage any new or expecting mother to read it.
“My breastfeeding journey has been one of the most challenging experiences of my life. I wanted to share my breastfeeding story to encourage pregnant moms who are ready to breastfeed, and moms who may be breastfeeding and are ready to throw in the towel.” — Suzanne
During my pregnancy, I was solely focused on the health of the baby first and foremost. However, I think first-time expectant mothers can admit that the actual process of giving birth is such a big unknown and can be very scary. I spent most of my free time researching Iabor and delivery and I decided that I wanted to have a natural childbirth for many reasons. One of those reasons being that my baby wouldn’t have any hindrances nursing—a possible side effect from common drugs used during labor.
In preparing for my natural childbirth, I chose the Hypnobabies method. Hypnobabies is a self-hypnosis course that teaches you how to relax during labor through meditation. I took the course with my husband and diligently practiced the self-hypnosis meditation techniques any chance I could get. I was so focused on preparing for the labor experience that learning about breastfeeding came secondary. I watched a few “How to Latch your Baby” videos and I took a breastfeeding class at my birth center, but that was about all I did to prepare. I did manage to set up the pump before the baby came, but I didn’t really know how to use it, nor did I think I would have to until I went back to work.
After 13.5 hours of hard labor, our son Erik was born. No drugs—except for some laughing gas. I got to pull him out and plop him right onto my belly Kourtney Kardashian-style (for those of you who have seen her give birth on national television). All of the breastfeeding videos we watched in class described how the baby will inch his way to your breast and start rooting around for your nipple. This did not happen and the nurse assured me that babies are very tired after birth and they may not nurse for a while. She tested his suck and said it was strong. As I was getting stitched up, the midwife was manually helping Erik drink some colostrum from my breast. I knew, even in the haze of pain from the stitches, that something wasn’t right with Erik’s suck.
The next day or two after Erik’s birth felt like an eternity. I tried and tried to latch my son onto my breast and was so unsuccessful that his chin began to chafe from all of the tries. The pediatrician was concerned about his 10 percent weight loss, but I knew that it was normal for babies to lose 5-10% of their birth weight. She didn’t think he was dehydrated, so I kept attempting to nurse.
I woke up the next morning on a Saturday (he was born on a Wednesday) and Erik didn’t look right. He looked more jaundiced and his eyes looked slightly off color. I called every La Leche League (a breastfeeding advocacy group) leader’s number that I had saved on my fridge, and no one answered. I was completely panicked. It was mid August and I’m sure everyone was out of town.
Finally, one of the La Leche leaders called me back and said, “Your baby needs to eat so he doesn’t get dehydrated. You need to either syringe, spoon, or bottle feed him with your breast milk.”
I proceeded to call the lactation consultant who led the class at the birth center. Luckily, she was at the birth center assisting a birth and told me to come over. We rushed Erik in the car and headed to meet her. The lactation consultant immediately checked Erik’s mouth and informed us that Erik had a tongue and lip tie. I’d heard about tongue and lip ties from some of my fellow mom friends and I had actually asked about the ties in my breastfeeding class. In class, the lactation consultant had said that the percentage of tongue and lips ties was very small, so I’d felt reassured at the time and hadn’t given it a second thought.
The lactation consultant got Erik latched on while I was laying flat on my back and Erik nursed for the first time since he was born. I cried the whole time. While it was unimaginably painful, I also felt relieved that my baby finally ate, and I got some relief from the pain of my breasts being engorged.
We left the birth center with a prescription for Canadian Nipple Cream and the phone number of a pediatric dentist who removes tongue and lip ties with a laser. I felt like things were looking up.
We got home and it was time for Erik to eat again. I dreaded it. This time would be the first of many dreaded feeds. We did exactly what the lactation consultant advised and it hurt so badly. I just cried and cried and cried. This went on all day. Finally, it was like time stopped. My mom and husband were in the bedroom and my mom looked at us and said, “This baby needs to eat.”
We couldn’t get a consultation with the pediatric dentist for a few more days, so I started pumping around the clock. I was getting the tiniest bit of what looked like colostrum because my milk hadn’t come in yet. My husband would bottle feed the baby with my small bits of colostrum and we used a little formula that my sister-in-law picked up for us at the store. Erik chugged the bottles like his life depended on it.
In the following days, I literally felt like I was pumping my life away. I wasn’t getting much milk, but I knew from my late night online searches that it would come. It was slightly delayed because Erik wasn’t sucking in the beginning. I watched before my eyes as my milk started to change from yellow, to cream, to white. My milk finally came in and my husband and I were laughing and crying for joy! That moment was our happiest since I’d first plopped baby Erik right onto my tummy and had seen him face to face.
At our consultation with the pediatric dentist, we found out that Erik did have a really tight tongue and lip tie (known in medical terms as Ankyloglossia) and was a good candidate for the laser procedure (also known as a Frenectomy). My husband and I quickly agreed to take their next available appointment and the pediatric dentist assured us that baby Erik would be able to nurse effectively after the procedure. I felt reassured that we were doing the right thing and that again, things would improve.
My husband was assigned the role of being the dedicated parent to hold Erik down during the release procedure, while I stayed in the waiting room—far away from the sight of my baby in pain and crying. When I got back to the procedure room, my husband was sweating and Erik was really upset. It was an intense 5-minute procedure, to say the least. I asked how it went and my husband informed me that it was very difficult to watch and that the dentist had trouble booting up the laser for the tongue release. He described how she was poking around under the tongue with the laser and it wouldn’t boot properly. He said that she then went to do the upper lip release and proceeded back to the tongue. Once again, my mommy instincts kicked in. I did not have a good feeling about this procedure’s results.
After a couple of weeks, we returned for our final follow up and the dentist said that Erik’s tongue-tie wasn’t fully released and recommended that we do the procedure again. We did all of the tongue and lip tie stretches that we were supposed to do for Erik. They were awful and he hated them, but we did still manage to do them. How could the tie have reattached? I truly believe the tongue wasn’t released properly during the initial procedure.
I was slipping into a darker place as the days went on and I was glued to the breast pump. I never gave up trying to put Erik on the breast, but he seemed to hate nursing. I think it was too hard for him.
As much as I didn’t want to do the laser procedure again, I knew that I had to if I ever wanted to nurse. My milk supply diminished because exclusively pumping doesn’t extract the milk as efficiently, so your body slows down its production. I also had to return to work.
I pulled out the formula from the first week of Erik’s birth and told my husband to give it to him. I didn’t have milk stored because I could barely keep up with Erik at every feeding. My husband gave Erik the formula and put him down for a nap. A couple of hours later, I went to pick him up from his nap and he was unusually quiet in his Rock and Play and was laying in a pile of yellow vomit. I held him and he was extremely lethargic. He started to gag and projectile vomit. This happened for hours, and the pediatrician coached me through the process. She believed that Erik had a milk protein allergy and encouraged me to keep pumping breast milk until we could figure out an alternative formula brand.
As this was happening, I reached out to my mommy group text thread of my closest mom friends. One of my best friends from college said, “Suz, I know this may be weird and you can say no, but I have a ton of breast milk stored in the freezer and I would be happy to give it to you.”
My pediatrician gave me the okay to use my friend’s breast milk and I was extremely grateful.
I decided to proceed with the second tongue-tie release procedure, and every day my nursing saga seemed to get harder and harder. I dreaded every feeding and I was always glued to the pump so I couldn’t hold or spend as much time with Erik as I wanted to. I dreamt about giving him formula, but I dreaded the trial and error after he got sick. Thankfully, the donor milk kept me hanging on a little longer. And thanks to the help of our awesome lactation consultant and intuitive pediatrician, we did find a diagnosis for Erik: Torticollis, a condition in which the head becomes persistently turned to one side, often associated with painful muscle spasms. This happens with some babies who have tongue and lip ties and was the main reason Erik had such a hard time nursing. The poor little guy was uncomfortable turning his head.
At this time, I was only nursing Erik on one side and I was using a nipple shield—a plastic nipple cover used to protect your nipples during breastfeeding. He could turn his head better to one side so that was the side he nursed on. I would then pump the other side and bottle-feed him after nursing him. I was taking him to an infant occupational therapist once a week and also an infant chiropractor so that he would eventually get full range of motion in his head and neck. Whew! I am exhausted even typing about it.
Erik continued to scream during nursing, but he kept trying to latch on, so I didn’t want to give up yet. In one of his nursing tantrums, the nipple shield flew off mid-air and plopped on the floor. I was crying, Erik was screaming, and I just lay in my bed feeling totally defeated by breastfeeding. Then something happened. Erik got quiet and started rooting towards my breast and he began to try to latch himself! I helped him latch on and he didn’t cry. It hurt like hell, but I couldn’t believe my eyes. He wasn’t rejecting the breast; he was rejecting the nipple shield. Immediately after that feeding, I rushed to the nipple cream section of my medicine cabinet. All out of lanolin, I called my friend (the lifesaver who gave me her breast milk), as she was on her way over to visit that day. I asked her to bring some lanolin. A few friends came over that day to visit and I spent the entire get-together in my bedroom nursing. I could hear my friends laughing in the kitchen and catching up. I didn’t care, my baby was finally nursing!
Erik had difficulty nursing until he was 4 months old. Yes, it took us 4 months for Erik to nurse successfully on both breasts! I never gave up. I wanted to throw in the towel so many times, but I kept holding out hope that Erik would nurse. I believed in my heart that he wanted to nurse as much I wanted him to.
Now when he’s hungry, I don’t cringe at the thought of feeding him. I look forward to it. We worked so hard, persevered, and never gave up on each other. I feel so close to Erik because of it and I know he feels close to me. Some nursing days are better than others, but I find it such an honor to be able to feed my son, especially knowing what it took to get us to this place.
I wanted to share my story to encourage other moms. Breastfeeding is hard and it’s something no one really talks about.
My recommendation to first-time expectant moms and to moms who are ready to throw in the towel: find a good lactation consultant, go to a breastfeeding support group, and talk to other nursing moms about their experiences. This helped me so much to have the resolve to keep going and I am so glad I did.
Images by Sarah Price