Early Breastfeeding Struggles

At some point during my pregnancy, I had decided that I wanted to breastfeed. Knowing that it was possible I might face some challenges with this given my “advanced maternal age” and PCOS, I did early research, sought help before the baby was born and requested a lactation consultant visit me when I checked in at the hospital. When I decided to breastfeed, knowing in advance that I might not be able to, I told myself I would try but I wouldn’t be upset if it didn’t work out.

Well, somewhere between that conversation with myself and the birth of my daughter I became passionate about breastfeeding. I think it was because so many things about my pregnancy and birth experience didn’t go as I’d expected that this one thing became so important to me. I didn’t get my skin to skin right after my c-section, they gave our daughter to my husband and I barely got a glimpse of her. Despite that, as soon as she was with me she latched and started nursing immediately. And in my mind that seemed to seal the deal. I had to do this.

During our two day stay in the hospital, Kerrigan wanted to nurse very frequently. Because of her size her blood sugar was monitored during the first day (it was fine). She cried a lot, slept a lot and nursed a lot. That was the extent of her existence during those early days. When they checked her weight the day following her birth, the doctor commented that she’d lost more than expected but didn’t seem to worried about it. The doctor the following day also commented on how much she’d lost, but didn’t seem overly concerned and signed off on discharging her. We had a follow up appointment with the mother and baby center at the hospital four days after her birth, and they would recheck her weight then. We didn’t think very much of it as they discharged us and sent us on our way.

In the days following our discharge, Kerrigan nursed constantly and continued to cry a lot. Being new parents, we just assumed that this was normal for babies. I mean, they are hungry and they cry, right?

Fast forward a couple of days to our follow up appointment at the hospital. That morning my milk had FINALLY come in! We could tell because I looked like I’d exploded overnight and when I hand expressed there was finally milk instead of colostrum. Hooray! Unfortunately, that excitement was short lived. At our appointment we learned that Kerrigan had lost too much of her birth weight and there were concerns about how much she was getting to eat. We were immediately scheduled appointments with our pediatrician and a lactation consultant for the following day. We were also told we needed to supplement.

I was devastated.  

Robert and I stayed firm that we didn’t want Kerrigan to have formula. My milk had just come in, we told the nurse. We were confident that she didn’t need formula. We didn’t even have bottles other than those for the pump. Since Kerrigan received enough during her weighted feeding the nurse agreed we could try without formula, but that the pediatrician may advise us differently the following day. If we were sure we didn’t want to supplement with formula (we were sure) we needed to supplement with breast milk. She put us on a feeding schedule that had us feeding Kerrigan every two hours for the next 24 hours. I was to give her ten minutes on each breast and then pump for 15 minutes. We were to save the milk that was pumped and my  husband was to give it to her in a bottle after she nursed the next session, while I was pumping. She gave us a nipple she recommended instead of the ones that came with the pump bottles and wistfully sent us on our way.

The 24 hours following that appointment were probably some of the worst of my life. The entire feeding cycle, that we followed to a tee, took about an hour from start to finish. After nursing, I was able to pump an ounce of milk each time. If we were lucky we were able to rest for an hour before starting it all over again. I was physically and emotionally exhausted. And trying to recover from major surgery. 

I sobbed the first time my husband gave Kerrigan a bottle, as I sat there connected to the pump hoping to increase my supply. We’d always planned to have him give her one bottle a day, starting around 4 weeks, but it wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Getting to nurse her was supposed to be my thing, dammit. I didn’t get my immediate skin to skin – that was given to him. I didn’t get the birth I was hoping for – that was dictated by her. But nursing was supposed to be in my control and now these moments were also being ripped away from me. I felt horrible for being upset. I felt horrible for resenting my husband for feeding our child. But I couldn’t stop the emotions or the tears. I was her mother. I was breastfeeding. This was supposed to be my experience.
Despite never having any problems latching, after her third bottle that night I strugled to get her to latch. I cried even harder. Despair set in and I was convinced that was it, I was done. I was a failure at breastfeeding, let’s just go buy the kid some formula and be done with it (the exact reason we specifically got rid of that freebie formula that was sent in the mail!). But knowing this was important to me, knowing it was best for Kerrigan, my husband pushed me to keep going. “We aren’t quitters in this house” he told me. And he was right. We didn’t quit trying to conceive when it got hard – why should I give up on this? And I am so grateful for that moment. I don’t think I’ve ever told him that – but I’m so glad that he held fast when I didn’t and pushed me to be strong.

Somehow we made it through those 24 hours, and despite our sleep deprivation, made it to the pediatrician’s office. The preceeding 24 hours were awful, and we both headed into the pediatrician’s office with the mindset that we were going to tell him we didn’t feel it necessary to keep at the pumping/bottle feeding. It was causing stress. My milk had just come in yesterday morning, we are sure she is getting enough to eat! The first thing they did was weigh Kerrigan, and then double checked her weight. The doctor came in and told us we could stop the feeding schedule the nurse the prior day put us on. He didn’t think it was necessary. In fact, he even went as far to say that he thought the scales at the hospital may have been off! Either that or Kerrigan had gained five ounces over night!

He agreed that she was getting enough to eat and told us if our appointment at the hospital had been a day later we probably wouldn’t even be sitting in his office because her weight would have been fine. We did admit that there was a positive to thse past 24 hours, and that was that we got to experience our baby with a full belly. And that she was actually a pretty content baby. And that was both great news and a hard pill for me to swallow because it meant that the reason she had been so upset before had been because she was hungry and not getting enough to eat. That realization broke my heart and still upsets me to this day.

We met with the lactation consultant later that day – and she was also amazed at how much weight Kerrigan had gained seemingly overnight and even more impressed that we supplemented with breastmilk and not formula. She admitted to having been prepared for problems with me breastfeeding, and had shared that she’d put a few red flags in my file: Age, PCOS, C-Section. But she was thrilled with how successful we’d been and was happy with how much Kerrigan was getting during her weighted feeding. She encouraged me to hold onto 2-3 of the pumpings, but indicated we didn’t need to provide extra milk after nursing sessions. She also requested that we come in and weigh her weekly over the next four weeks.

After that appointment we had two more appointments with lactation consultants. We also had an evaluation on a posterior tongue tie. But Kerrigan continued to grow and do very well. As it turns out, my supply is fine. In fact, I am blessed with an over supply such that I have a 900 ounce stash of milk in my freezer in case of an emergency. It seems that it was just the circumstances that I was presented with that caused our struggles – an almost 10 pound baby and a c-section delaying the arrival of my milk. In hindsight, I see now that Kerrigan likely never got enough colostrum to fill her belly. And was hungy for the first four days of her life. But I can’t change those things.

To this day I still have anxiety about Kerrigan gaining enough weight and getting enough to eat. I still take her regularly to the mom and baby center to use their scales and weigh her to ease my mind. I still worry about my supply, and anytime I have a lower pump at work I panic a little. I was unsettled when she dropped a feeding. I still pump after nursing twice a day on days that I don’t work. I do everything that I can to protect my supply at all costs. To say that this experience left a lasting impression on me would be an understatement; but I don’t have regrets about it. 

I am grateful that I am able to breastfeed. I am grateful that I overcame those early challenges and had a support system that helped me through those difficult times. Breastfeeding is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, but I am so grateful for the bond that only I have with my daughter when she nurses. As it turns out, I did get to keep this one thing. And it has been worth every tear shed and every struggle we endured.

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Can I Breastfeed? Should I?

Look, I’m going to tell you the truth here. Which also happens to be the only thing that matters. Only you can answer the questsions above. And, frankly, it’s no one else’s business how you choose to feed your child. The truth is that breastfeeding is hard. And it’s a very personal decision that no one else should make on your behalf.

Yes, there are benefits for both you and the baby if you breastfeed. Yes, you will be inundated with inforamtion on all of those benefits throughout your pregnancy. Yes, you will feel pressured to breastfeed your baby and you will be made to feel like you are failing if you don’t. But the fact is that as long is your baby is happy, healthy and well fed, it doesn’t matter how you are feeding them. They won’t remember if they were bottle fed or breastfed. They will only remember your love for them and that they had a full belly!

Going into my pregnancy I wasn’t sure if I was going to breastfeed. In fact, given my PCOS, I wasn’t sure that I would physically be able to breastfeed. I was seriously considering just starting with formula. After all, I was a formula fed baby and I was fine. But after talking to my mom about it and hearing her say that she wished she’d been able to breastfeed me, I decided that I’d give it a try. I knew it might be hard. I knew it might have challenges. But I did a lot of research going into it, and made sure to set myself up for success.

I took classes, read books, requested lactation consultants, meet with lactation consultants and refused to keep a single can of formula in the house. All those freebies that were sent in the mail were donated. I told myself that I wouldn’t be upset if it didn’t work out. That I had a lot of things working against me – my age, PCOS, a c-section. I reminded myself that it was my choice how to feed my baby. And if breastfeeding didn’t work out, it wasn’t a reflection of me as a mother.

As it turns out, I ended up be very passionate about breastfeeding Kerrigan. Yes, it was hard. Yes, I had some struggles (which I’ll discuss in another post). But it was important to me that I keep at it. I actually like breastfeeding. The closeness, the bond, the time it allows me with my baby. But it wasn’t “natrual” and it sure as hell wasn’t “easy” in those early days. In fact, at times it was exceptionally stressful and reduced me to tears.

I don’t regret toughing those early days out, and I don’t regret that I fought hard to continue to breastfeed. It ended up being something I eventually really enjoyed and am still enjoying. We are five months in and still going strong. And while I’m excited to get to start solids with Kerrigan in just a few weeks, I also recognize that she won’t breastfeed forever and that it’s important to enjoy this moment. 

But I think I might have felt differently if I hadn’t come to the decision to breastfeed on my terms. So if I have just one piece of advice to offer when making the decision to breastfeed, it would be to make sure it’s your decision.