My Breastfeeding Story
Our ellington is three months old! We are officially out of the fourth trimester, and trying to find our new rhythm as a family (!!!) over here. I have shared on instagram that we have had a difficult breastfeeding journey, and I thought it was a good time to share more details on our story and reflect on what I would have done differently in the hopes it may help someone going through this.
I imagined my breastfeeding journey would begin with ellington latching right after birth and us having plenty of skin-to-skin to encourage my milk to come in. Instead, I was alone in my recovery room while ellington and my husband were in the NICU. We did have a couple minutes of skin-to-skin in the operating room (he was rooting around like crazy!), but we were not allowed to latch. And then there was a lot of confusion about whether I was allowed to enter the NICU. Because of the fever I developed during labor, they did not want me to enter the NICU if I had an infection because of the risk to the other babies there. I completely understood, but I also wanted to see my baby and knew the importance of early breastfeeding. I requested a pump, but in the HOURS it took to get a pump, they cleared me to enter the NICU. It took several more hours to get a nurse to take me, but I finally got to hold him again!
LESSON ONE: ASK FOR A PUMP WHEN YOU LEAVE THE OPERATING ROOM
In what I have learned about breastfeeding since ellington's birth, early stimulation is important. I did not ask for a pump until 5-6 hours after the birth and it took some time to get one. If I ever find myself in this situation again and know I will be separated from my baby, I will ask for a pump to be delivered to my room even before we get into the operating room! It took 10 days for my milk to fully come in, and while I will never know why, I feel earlier pumping would have helped.
Once I made it to the NICU, I latched ellington, and he spent 15 minutes on one side and then 45 minutes on the other side. I thought feed-on-demand meant letting him nurse as long as he wanted. Well, he tore that nipple up! And even worse, I had a reaction to the natural nipple cream I put on causing more issues. The c-section pain was NOTHING compared to the pain I felt breastfeeding after that.
LESSON TWO: REQUEST A LACTATION CONSULANT OR NURSE ASSIST YOU, AND STAY WHILE YOU FEED FOR THE FIRST TIME
The nurse showed me how to latch, but then walked away. When she returned to see that I was still feeding, she told me 45 minutes was too long (especially since when he unlatched, we realized he had latched very poorly causing damage). Next time, I will ask someone to stay and likely unlatch after 15 minutes to see if any damage is being done.
After this first time, I needed to heal so the hospital staff told me to pump in the meantime. I was told to pump every two hours, so I did. It hurt like crazy and I was only getting drops, which I would feed to ellington with a syringe.
When we went home, I continued to pump every two hours, still only getting drops each time. I tried latching him again and again, but it always ended up with both of us crying. Finally, 5 days after my c-section, my milk came in - ON ONE SIDE ONLY! We continued this routine - try to latch ellington, have it fail, have my husband hold him while he cried and I pumped as much as I could - for weeks, every two hours.
LESSON THREE: USE FORMULA TO COVER THE GAP AND GET AHEAD OF YOUR BABY IF YOU NEED TO
So this one is likely to be controversial and you need to decide what is best for you and your family, but if I ever find myself in this situation again, I will use formula earlier. Not during the time when milk wouldn't normally have come in, but afterwards. We were stuck in a losing cycle - I wouldn't pump so that if ellington latched, I would have enough milk. When he was hungry, we would spend lots of time trying to latch. Eventually, it wouldn't work - I would be crying in pain and ellington would be crying from hunger and frustration. Then someone would need to hold him and try to calm him down while I pumped.
Often, I had to pump listening to him cry. I pumped in a rush and under stress. I was often crying while pumping telling myself I had failed again, and that I was a mother who could not feed her hungry baby. But you know what works against milk production - stress!
Common advice is to look at pictures of your baby and imagine your baby nursing to get more milk during pump sessions, so I am guessing being very stressed out, rushed, in pain, and listening to your baby cry does not help. Once we used formula for just a few feedings, I was able to be ahead of him by a couple feedings. This meant we could try to latch, and if it failed, someone else could feed him while I could pump. Often, I had my husband feed him near me while I pumped so I could smell him and watch him eat. I started to see a huge increase in my milk production after this and eventually we did not need to use formula anymore.
I had been very resistant to using formula in the beginning, but in hindsight, using formula strategically is what helped me be able to provide him with breastmilk in the long run.
LESSON FOUR: CALL THE LACTATION CONSULTANT EARLY
After several days, we finally called a lactation consultant to come to our home. We met with two lactation consultants in the hospital, but they were focused on just the basics. We needed help figuring out why ellington had a shallow latch, and why my milk supply was so low. After meeting with the lactation consultant, I started on some herbs and on the 10th day after his birth, my milk finally came in on the other side!
A few notes about picking a lactation consultant. First, check to see if your pediatrician has one that is covered by insurance. We shelled out lots of money to have a private one come to our house, but I didn't work well with her. I finally saw the one at our pediatrician's office, and she and I had a great rapport! Also, if you pick a private one, make sure you can email or even text daily. The private lactation consultant we saw was not very good at answering my follow up emails and texts, so after her 1-hour visit, I was on my own again, which wasn't very helpful.
Once my milk came in, ellington had passed birth weight, and I was ahead of him by at least one feeding, things felt a lot more relaxed. We got into a groove, but I was still trying to latch him several times a day. Only twice we were successful, and the pressure to keep trying was crushing me.
I saw a fourth lactation consultant at this time - at my pediatrician's office - and she helped me figure out how much ellington should be eating and whether I was producing enough. She also tried to help me latch again.
LESSON FIVE: TRY TO LET THE GUILT OF "CALLING IT" GO
I originally wanted to say "don't feel guilty for 'calling it,'" but I am not here to tell you how to feel, and frankly, asking a new mom not to feel guilty about things not going as she hoped they would is unrealistic. But I will say, there is a fine line between perseverance and denial. Despite the stress, the pain and the toll trying to directly breastfeed was taking on my mental health, I kept trying. I might not have had the natural birth I wanted, but I was sure as hell going to be one of those women who fed her baby openly and freely wherever and whenever she needed to - no toting around bottles or a pump or formula. Yeah, no.
I had to let go of what I thought I would be doing as a mama, and focus on my values as a mama. I valued being a happy and healthy mama. I valued feeding my baby the best way I could while also balancing my own mental health. For me, continuing to try to directly breastfeed was dominating over all the other aspects of motherhood. It was becoming a singular focus that was draining all the joy out being a mama.
I will forever be grateful to the fourth lactation consultant who gave me the space to call it. I had several appointments with her, and we tried this and that. At the last appointment with her, she asked me how I was feeling having tried so many options over the last two months and what I wanted to do next. I had been afraid to give up directly breastfeeding because I thought that would make me a failure. My perseverance to keep at it was becoming a denial that it wasn't working and that it was pushing me towards a breaking point.
I told her I was done and wanted to exclusively pump for as long as I could and then switch to formula if needed. To my surprise, she was so enthusiastic about this choice. She validated my feelings that I had really tried everything I could. She reminded me that breastfeeding is a two-person relationship, and that regardless of how hard I tried, ellington's skill set may not include effortless breastfeeding (but he can chug a bottle like a champ!). She gave me the space to rewrite the narrative about what I was doing - I wasn't giving up, rather I was making a hard, but necessary decision for the health of ellington and myself; decisions I will need to make as a parent all the time.
I don't make it through every day without some guilt over this. It comes up especially when I want to leave the house but have to figure out bottles and the pumping schedule. But I have come a long way from where I was just a few weeks ago. I have now embraced exclusive pumping. Soon, we will also supplement with formula since my milk supply is only 1-2 ounces above what he needs in a day, and his demands are still growing. But I have a healthy, happy baby who has a healthy, happy mama, and that is all that matters!