Today we are sharing the breastfeeding journey of Natalie and her baby girl Lilly. You can follow Natalie and her journey through motherhood on her Instagram and blog. And – you can read other breastfeeding stories here and to share your own just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org !
When I found out I was pregnant, breastfeeding was one of the aspects of mothering a baby that I was most excited to experience. My mother breastfed me and it was embedded in my mind as the definition of closeness and intimacy between mother and child. It was something I really wanted to give to my baby girl and I was so excited to learn all about it! I read all the books from The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding to Ina May’s Guide to Natural Childbirth. I took hypnobirthing classes where breastfeeding was touted as an essential part of mothering a newborn. I went to the hospital’s breastfeeding class and held the slightly creepy looking baby doll to my chest with tears in my eyes as the reality that I was going to nurse my own baby soon set in. I knew that breastfeeding could have a lot of challenges – from tongue ties to supply issues – but I think I thought determination would help me overcome any challenges that came our way.
You’ll notice a theme in my breastfeeding story – expectations versus reality. My birth didn’t go as I expected. I was induced two days before my due date because my baby’s movements had lessened noticeably, and I had gestational diabetes. The gestational diabetes diagnosis was actually a turning point in my expectations versus reality mindset. I read that if the baby had low sugar, the doctors would want to give the baby formula and I was heartbroken. I spoke to an IBCLC who told me I could express colostrum to get her sugar up if this occurred. It may sound incredibly silly, was the first moment I realized that those things I read about in my books could and may actually happen to us.
After a ‘three-day induction, my baby girl was laid on my chest and immediately gravitated toward my nipple. It was the most beautiful moment of my whole life. I was very excited excited to nurse her. My doula helped position her on my breast and I could tell her latch wasn’t as strong as everyone in the room would have liked (side note there are so many people in the room after the baby is born and you are trying to do this intimate act but somehow, I didn’t even notice them!). But she stayed on and was comforted, and I was so grateful for to provide that safe space for her. The cluster feeding began over the next few days and did. not. stop. Until it did. Completely. An IBCLC came in and proceeded to shove my nipple in Lilly’s mouth repeatedly until Lilly went on her first nursing strike at a day old. After an entire day of not eating, the night nurse offered a nipple shield. I accepted it gladly. I just wanted my baby girl to eat. And eat she did! My milk came in very early and I had an oversupply and Lilly was so hungry. She cluster fed all night long and I was grateful for it despite the fact that I was exhausted from our long labor.
We used the nipple shield for a few weeks and then one day I decided I wanted to be done with it. It was a pain to keep sterile and I worried it would get her sick and I was always misplacing it, and it felt like a barrier between us. Fortunately, she adapted easily. She was a healthy, big baby and even though our latch was definitely off (lots of noise and reflux from gulping air), she was gaining well so the IBCLC that came to see us didn’t seem concerned. My postpartum doula was still quite concerned about her latch, so I followed up with yet another IBCLC. She found that Lilly had a high palate and thought that my small nipple size may have been making it difficult for her suck reflex to kick in (I had to laugh at this point because of all the things in my life I’ve been self-conscious about, nipple size was a new one!). I learned that the suck reflex is triggered when the nipple touches the roof of the baby’s mouth, so this made total sense to us. She loved being on the breast that first month and due to my oversupply, she didn’t have to work very hard to get the milk, so I felt like we were doing okay overall. I was engorged a lot and felt like I was covered in milk at all times (the sheets, my clothes, poor Lilly’s face if she pulled off quickly, everything…) but I felt fortunate given how many friends I knew who had struggled with supply, so I didn’t think anything was wrong and certainly didn’t want to complain about it!
Around two months, she started screaming at my left breast. I would offer it and she would scream. I was used to her being fussy as she was colicky, but this felt like something different. I had already cut out dairy and soy after we figured out she had an intolerance and I wondered if she was associating breastfeeding with pain from the reflux dairy caused her. It made me so sad to think that my milk could be causing her pain and I felt so guilty that she was so uncomfortable so much of the time. I was determined to figure out a way to give her breastmilk and all the nutrients and antibodies that came with it but I began to wonder whether continuing to breastfeed was selfish because she was struggling so much. Breastfeeding was truly turning out to be full time job both in the physical sense and with the amount of research, doctor’s appointments, and lactation consultations.
She was feeding every 45 minutes at night and although every lactation consultant kindly marveled at our bond, and our nursing relationship, I knew something was off. Her consistent weight gain was masking an issue that was becoming more problematic by the day. After a lot of research, I started to think that the high palate was due to a tongue tie (the tongue shapes the babies palate so if it’s tied, it doesn’t sweep across the roof of the mouth in utero which leads to a high palate) and that the tongue tie had been missed because of my oversupply which enabled her to have a poor latch but still get plenty of milk. She was feeding so frequently because the improper latch meant she didn’t properly suck-swallow-breathe so much of the milk was spit up after feedings. I felt like a mad scientist, but I also knew I was on to something.
We were referred to a laser dentist who confirmed that she had a posterior tongue tie that was understandably missed by all nine (nine!) IBCLCs we met with. We set an appointment for a frenectomy and I really believed we were on track to a long breastfeeding relationship. In the meantime, she had grown so frustrating with feeding that she was refusing my breasts completely. The first time I fed her a bottle of my milk I cried. I felt like I was failing her as a mama, which in retrospect I know wasn’t the case at all. But in those early days, I felt like there was so little I could do to make her feel comforted in her big, new world that she was struggling to adapt to and I wanted so badly to be able to do this for her. I think I also knew that this was the beginning of the end of nursing for us.
The stress around the frenectomy was really hard for me. I realize now that I had begun to have postpartum depression and anxiety from the challenges we were undergoing with feeding and not sleeping. The idea of a laser cutting my daughter’s tongue was really too much for me to bear. I struggled a lot even looking at her in the days leading up to it because I knew she was going to experience this pain and that I was choosing to put her through it. I would cry while rocking her, feeding her, pretty much during anything and everything because I felt like no baby should have to have pain and it was breaking me heart to make the decision to have this procedure done. It was the first moment I realized as a parent that we would have to make these really difficult choices on behalf of another person. My husband was so supportive and reminded me that we were doing this for her wellbeing, but my mama heart was breaking.
After the frenectomy we had to do exercises to reopen the wound for three weeks. At first, I couldn’t bring myself to do them, but my husband traveled for work, so I had to do it. It wasn’t as awful as I expected, although if I’m being truly honest, it was very hard because I knew I was hurting her when I did them. At first, she latched well and was breastfeeding again but then the dreaded left boob scream routine started up again. I had yet another IBCLC who came highly recommended by my doula come to my house to help. She specialized in tongue tied babies and helped us try different positions to encourage Lilly to feed from my left breast. I could tell she was truly concerned that Lilly may not do it. Lilly is strong willed (like her mama) and for whatever reason, she really didn’t want to feed from my left boob! She recommended we try cranial sacral therapy and so we did.
After a few rounds of cranial sacral therapy, she was still reluctant but was feeding more easily on each breast as long as she was sleepy in a dark room. I began holding her for all her naps so that I could latch her as soon as she awoke and ensure she got a good feed. Morning feeds were good, middle of the night feeds were great, but evening feeds were a no go. I began pumping after she went to bed to have milk for that evening bottle since there was no way to pump during the day with a fussy baby who napped on me.
This went on until she was six months old. I knew she had to learn to nap not on my body, but I also knew that we would lose our breastfeeding relationship. I began putting her down for naps and just as I knew would happen, she stopped wanting to breastfeed when she woke up. It was heartbreaking. I pumped and calculated ounces like it was my job (it basically was) and finally decided that as a stay at home mom with a baby that took 20-minute naps and wouldn’t let me pump when she was awake (I lovingly call her my koala baby), that I would introduce formula to supplement.
I am a strong believer that fed is best, but I felt truly heartbroken when we introduced formula. I think my expectations about birth and breastfeeding made it difficult for me to sit with what actually was occurring with Lilly and me. I think a lot of mamas feel this pressure and it can really wear on us! Once I released that need to control and all the resistance I had created around formula, I felt much better. It was still hard, but it was better. I continued to supplement with my pumped milk and the occasional daytime nursing session while living for the night wake ups when we could nurse peacefully and enjoy that bond together. I felt really defeated at times, but I knew that we had done our best. That she got the breast milk I hoped to be able to provide her in her early months. That we shared the beauty and struggle of nursing for months and that in itself was a gift.
At eight months, after going on antidepressants for my postpartum depression and anxiety and admitting to myself that our breastfeeding relationship was naturally ending, I took my first glorious bite of ice cream in eight months (#dairyfreelife) and with that, our breastfeeding relationship was over. I’m crying as a write this, not because we are no longer nursing, but because this journey was such a metaphor for motherhood. We do our best for our babies. We try and try and try again. And we give our babies our hearts, bodies and souls. And sometimes we have to remind ourselves that we are enough. That our babies are loved and fed and what matters isn’t how we do it but that we do it. I hope our story can help shed some light for mamas in the thick of a trying breastfeeding journey. It didn’t look the way I had expected, and it ended much earlier than I hoped but it was beautiful, and it was sacred, and it was ours. Our bond is just as close and amazing as it was when we were nursing. I needlessly feared we would lose that closeness. She still snuggles into me, gazes into my eyes and plays with my hair when she feeds. She’s my daughter and whether we nursed, or bottle fed from the beginning that would always be true. At the end of the day, she is nourished and happy and that’s all that matters. I’m so grateful for all the lessons this journey taught me about being a mama to my daughter, and for the chance to learn them, even if it wasn’t always easy.