To say that breastfeeding has been a struggle would be an understatement. I had been told over and over that breastfeeding was hard so I went into it promising myself that I would make sure my baby was fed no matter what. I was so hopeful that once Isla was here it would just work. No matter how much I wanted it, it didn’t happen that way.
In the Hospital
I was determined in the hospital to breastfeed Isla pretty much right away. That time was such a blur that I can’t quite remember what happened but she did not latch. I was told this is pretty normal so I wasn’t particularly discouraged. I knew we both needed to practice. But the next time I tried, it didn’t go so well either. I had the nurses help try to latch her on and despite the pain, it didn’t seem she was feeding properly. I’ll spare you all the messy details, but after seeing two lactation consultants, I only had one successful feed, which of course was interrupted so Isla could be whisked away for one reason of another.
During my hospital stay, I did start to pump using the hospital grade (Medela Symphony) pump in my room so I could hand feed Isla cololstrum. I was also encouraged to supplement with formula, which Chris and I did slowly using a syringe and our fingers. I was pretty upset that I had to supplement but was so grateful I was able to feed a healthy baby. I made sure we rented a hospital pump before I was discharged to help my milk come in (and come it did).
As terrified as I was to leave the hospital with a new baby when I felt like I had no idea what I was doing, going home was amazing. I no longer felt the pressure to perform in front of an audience (I was much more discouraged when I struggled to feed Isla in front of the nurses). Once home, Isla was still quite jaundice and it was very difficult to keep her awake during a feed despite stripping her down to the her diaper, changing her before, and tickling her throughout. And the pain. I cannot put into words the pain. It was second only to labor… and sometimes, I thought it was even worse.
We had to go to the doctor four days straight to have Isla’s bilirubin levels checked, so she was weighed often. I know my pediatrician meant well, but when Isla dropped a couple of ounces between appointments (after already going back up to her birth weight), she encouraged us to supplement and I stopped breastfeeding right then and there.
From that moment on, I became an exclusive pumper. If you have ever done this, you know what kind of personal hell it is. Isla was eating about every two hours at this point, meaning I had to feed her a bottle (I was pretty set on limiting her formula intake so this was usually expressed breast milk), which took about 20 minutes, then connect myself to a pump for thirty minutes, and was the parts and bottle. This left VERY little time in between. I felt chained to my pump. I couldn’t leave the house for more than two hours so I wouldn’t miss a pumping session and therefore potentially hurt my supply (this is another thing I was borderline obsessed with).
Eventually, I noticed while Chris was giving Isla a bottle, she was beginning to root and search for his nipple through his shirt. This reignited my dreams of breastfeeding, so I booked an in-home visit with a lactation consultant that was recommended by my breastfeeding class instructor (another IBCLC, or International Board Certified Lactation Consultant). I had already started experimenting with nursing Isla again and the pain was pretty unreal. The great thing about seeing a lactation consultant is she weighed Isla before a feed and then again after, giving me an idea of how much she was taking in. This not only reassured me, but gave me a better idea of how often she needed to feed. The LC watched me feed and gave me some tips that really changed the game for me, like leaning backward and allowing Isla more freedom with her neck. Breastfeeding during this session went great.
However, without her guidance, I really struggled with breastfeeding. I was in so much pain with every feeding, developed many, many milk blebs (I can’t explain the pain), as well as bleeding scabs. I watched dozens of YouTube videos on breastfeeding, and though these helped me get a deeper latch and lessened my pain, they didn’t eliminate it. I used a nipple shield off and on when I wanted to give a breast a break, but it didn’t actually help as much as I would have liked so I eventually stopped relying on it.
I saw my LC again for an in-home follow-up and she did not see any major issue with latching. She did find that Isla was now gaining weight a bit more slowly, but that is to be expected when you are new to breastfeeding. Overall, she gave me the confidence I needed to keep going. The remainder of this month was such a roller coaster. There were times I fed without pain, and times where both sides were sore. I just took every feed as it came.
Mastitis + Abscesses
Unfortunately, during this time I got mastitis…twice. Talk about pain. Each time, I woke up with a VERY sore breast. I felt fatigued and achy, had a fever, and couldn’t breastfeed on that side. I made sure to pump, massage, and use warm compresses but I did get antibiotics both times. The second time it got so bad that I was sent to the ER to be checked for an abscess. It came back negative but a few weeks later, it turned out I did have an abscess. Had it aspirated with a needle… 0/10, do not recommend.
Despite my little hiccup with a breast abscess, the clouds cleared and breastfeeding became somewhat successful during this month. I still experienced soreness after almost every feed, but it was (and is) bearable. I no longer absolutely dread feeding Isla and am a lot more confident about doing so in public. She is definitely gaining weight and we haven’t had to supplement since those early days. I even finally cut the cord and returned my hospital grade hospital pump and settled for my Medela Pump in Style pump. It’s not as good as the Symphony, but it does the job.
Lip Tie Revision
Back in November, my LC mentioned Isla could potentially have a lip and/or tongue tie. She recommended a dentist in the area to have Isla evaluated but I was so terrified of the process that I wanted to research it some more first. Also, our pediatrician didn’t think there was an issue so I put it off until December. After overcoming so many breastfeeding obstacles but still experiencing regular pain, I decided to make an appointment. Unfortunately, they couldn’t get us in until January. I absolutely dreaded it and second guessed myself over and over again, but now that it’s over, I’m glad we did it. The office we went to (Dr. Jordan in Delaware) was awesome. We felt very comfortable there and they definitely have the process down. All my worrying was unnecessary, as I cried more than Isla in the end. She had her lip tie revised with a laser in seconds.
Every baby is different and a lip tie is very different from a tongue tie, but I was relieved by how well everything went. I went into the appointment prepared, so I think that played a huge part, but the dentist we saw also has a lot of experience with ties. I felt as much at ease as I could and I definitely cried more than Isla. I’m gad we revised her tie because at the time I’m publishing this, breastfeeding is pain-free! Fingers crossed it stays this way.
I am not a breastfeeding expert. I am just one mother who went through the ringer with breastfeeding and have a lot to say that I wish someone had told me. Everyone says, “breastfeeding is hard” but I don’t think that does it justice. The experience is different from mother to mother, so it’s hard to know how your experience will relate to someone else’s. I also know how unsupportive other people can be, even if they don’t mean to be. These are breastfeeding tips I learned along the way and I hope will be of some use to others.
- Work with a lactation consultant. Don’t go it alone. Nearly everyone I know has worked with a lactation consultant. As natural as breastfeeding is supposed to be, it is incredibly helpful to have an expert work with you and your baby.
- Try different positions. When I first started breastfeeding, I found that football hold was the easiest way for me to control latch. I definitely needed my boppy pillow for this hold, though. Over time, I started use cross cradle more and more as it felt the most natural. The stronger Isla got, the easier it got. When I was experiencing a lot of pain, was getting frustrated, or needed a break, I did side-lying. It really saved me during my most difficult feeds (especially when I was sick).
- Rent a hospital pump. I don’t know how much the hospital pump helped my milk come in, but it gave me peace of mind either way. This pump is much more efficient, and much quieter than most and is so simple to use. It has an initiation mode which I used until I was able to pump more than 20mL total. I held onto this pump like a security blanket until I went back to work. Thankfully, I have never had supply issues and was able to freeze quite a bit of milk during the time I had this pump.
- Reach out to other mothers. Oh man, this was so helpful to me. Becoming a mother has opened my eyes to the hardships of motherhood. All moms are superheroes, whether you breastfed or not. It is amazing what women’s bodies can do and how we can persevere through the early weeks of motherhood. I read dozens of discussion boards online but got the most support via social media. I connected with people I know who have gone through similar hardships which provided fuel to keep me pushing through the obstacles that come with breastfeeding.
- Take care of yourself. I cannot overstate it. Taking care of yourself is the best way to take care of baby. I wasn’t particularly hard on myself but those early days and weeks, your hormones are completely out of whack, you’re sleep deprived, and oftentimes, super isolated. I would get myself so worked up about pumping and nursing, about whether I had enough milk stored up, about how much formula Isla got, when all that mattered was that she was fed and happy. I had to start making decisions that kept me healthy and sane. Maybe breastfeeding isn’t going to work for you. Your baby will still thrive. You can still connect with your baby. But if you want to keep trying, don’t let other people stop you.
My breastfeeding experience is not perfect but I am so grateful for how far we’ve come. I can’t articulate why it was (and IS) so important to me to continue to breastfeed her. Maybe it’s the look on her face while she nurses, maybe it’s the way she rubs her hand across my chest, or how it calms her down when she is upset, but breastfeeding her is the best part of my day.