Elena’s Breastfeeding Journey

This is a re-post from Elena’s blog, pregnantinpittsburgh.wordpress.com.

Today I’m going to talk about breastfeeding – specifically, my first experience with breastfeeding. Now before you being reading this post, which (WARNING) is more like a short essay, I just want you to know that this was my experience with breastfeeding my first time around. It may not be your experience – whether it be your first time or second time or whatever, but for those of you have have not entered the world of breastfeeding before, I just wanted you to get a taste of what one person experienced. Now, without further ado …

My adventures with breastfeeding began about one hour after my son, Benjamin, was born via c-section, or about two-thirty in the morning on a Thursday. I was wheeled out of surgery into the empty post-op area and the nurse on staff asked, “Are you breastfeeding?” That was my plan, so I told her, “Yes,” and the next thing I knew, my gown was folded down and there was a new little creature sucking on my boob.

In hindsight, the truth of the matter is I do not think Benjamin was sucking at all. From what I recall, he was doing more sleeping than eating. After the nurse left, my husband asked, “How does that feel?” I replied, “I don’t know. Weird I guess. I don’t know what this is supposed to feel like…it’s just interesting.”

Interesting was how I described it at that time, but that did not last long. Soon after I quickly began using other words: painful, awful, torturous! That’s actually why I started writing about the experience – because before my son was born I read every book out there, watched several videos on breastfeeding, convinced myself I just needed to make sure my baby got “the latch” and thought that I was set for feeding my new infant. But, quite frankly, nothing prepares you for the beginning stages of breastfeeding, unless you walk around with nipple clamps on for about a month.

Now please don’t be scared at the onset. This tale will have some gory details but it has a (generally) happy ending. I just want to make sure you have some sound mental preparation to dive headfirst into what will be one of the most challenging experiences of your life if you so choose to attempt it because breastfeeding is so much more than the latch.

The Beginning 

In the days and weeks before your baby is born everyone will tell you, “Get sleep!” or “Enjoy your sleep now!” I hate that. Here’s what I say, “Take a 20 minute shower, let the water hit you on your nipples and enjoy!” because if you’re breastfeeding, it’s going to be a while before you get to do that again and I bet that’s one of those things that you didn’t even realize you wouldn’t get to do, but you won’t and while you think you might not miss that, you will.

Just forget the sleep comments; if you’re pregnant and in your third trimester, than you are already tired and once your baby arrives, you are going to be more tired no matter what you do. Here’s why (especially if you are breastfeeding): newborn babies need to eat every two to three hours (sometimes more frequently) and it can take up to an hour to feed them. Yup – you read that right! But just for good measure I’ll repeat it – it can take up to an hour to feed your new baby. So basically, right when you are finished feeding your little bambino and you put him or her down into their little bassinet, you can go to the bathroom, walk back to bed, pass out for a few minutes and before you know it, they are up again, or you need to wake them up again, to eat.

The entire time I was in the hospital, I could not help thinking, “Why didn’t anyone tell me this before?!” For the life of me, I could not remember any new babies who ate that much. The truth of the matter is I also didn’t know anyone, other than my sister-in-law, who breastfed and she lives in Texas which meant I wasn’t privy to her day-to-day. Whilst I felt intellectually prepared for the challenge of breastfeeding, the truth was that the mental picture I had of it was nothing like the reality that it was.

I was brought to my hospital room at about 4 in the morning. Benjamin was sleeping at the time and me and my hubs were exhausted. I can’t ever remember a time in my life when I felt so mentally incoherent. I was so tired, I thought I could physically feel my brain hurting. All I wanted to do was hold Ben (Ah! The excitement of a new baby!) but one of the nurses recommended that I put him down so we could get some sleep, so I did … but I think that lasted all of 30 minutes because before I knew it, the night nurse was in my room, waking me up, telling me it was time to feed the baby.

With heavy eyelids and a little wooziness, I unsnapped my gown to feed the little one. I grabbed some plastic pillows for propping and the nurse asked, “Are you ready?” I thought so, so she grabbed my boob, squeezed a little, and she stuck the baby on my chest. She then proceeded to ask me, “How does it feel?” My general answer would be the same as it was for my husband earlier – “I don’t know” – but I didn’t want to sound like I didn’t know so I told her, “good” and “okay.” If you’ve never breastfed before, what are you supposed to say? “This feels amazing!”? Every time I fed Ben during those first four days in the hospital, I was continuously asked, “How does it feel?” At the time, I was really annoyed that everyone kept asking me because in many ways it made me feel self-conscious. Aren’t new moms supposed to have great instincts? And isn’t motherhood supposed to feel like bliss? “Stop asking me!” I wanted to shout. In hindsight, the nurses, doctors and lactation consultants  ask “How does that feel?” because they want to know if it hurts. I think the hospital staff frames the question that way though because asking, “Does that hurt?” would make people nervous.

Anyway, here’s where I have to tell you some bad news. Fortunately, if you’re not hurting, then it means you’re off to a great breastfeeding start. And so help me dear reader, I pray for your sake that you are one of those women who claims she orgasms every time the baby feeds, but in general, even if breastfeeding is going well, it probably doesn’t feel good. In fact, for me, by day 2, when people were asking, “How does that feel?” I started telling them the truth… awful.

The fact of the matter is that the first two weeks of breastfeeding are so awful and challenging that if you survive, I think your doctor should send you a medal. (That’s not even a joke, I think a medal would be cool and trust me, you would totally deserve it!) Even though I had a c-section and everyone fussed over me during my recovery period, I frequently joked that breastfeeding was harder than having major surgery. And, well, for me, it really wasn’t a joke. I’m pretty sure I called my sister-in-law at one point and yelled, “Why didn’t you tell me about all this before? Why didn’t you warn me!” So now you have been warned.

I can’t remember when my nipples really started to hurt, but by the end of the second day, I remember thinking, “I don’t want to wake this baby up to feed him because it hurts! Can’t he sleep just a little longer?” Looking back I really regret that. I didn’t ever delay waking him, but I also had some specific issues at hand with Benjamin that I did not anticipate when I read all the books about breastfeeding. You see, Benjamin had lost 10% of his body weight and he had slight jaundice. Weight loss and jaundice are a nasty cycle because the only way to stave off jaundice is to eat more but jaundice babies are extra sleepy (and sleepy babies don’t breastfeed for long). Are you familiar with that phrase, “Never wake a sleeping baby?” I always reply, “Unless he has jaundice.” And of course when your nipples are hurting, you think – maybe a sleeping baby isn’t that bad?  I mean, back to my nipples for a second, they were so sore that I almost didn’t want to get out of bed because I didn’t want to rustle my clothes and have them rub against my nipples. If I could, I would have walked around topless. Any modesty I might have had when I was admitted to the hospital was out the door as soon as my nipples started burn. The mere thought of a hug at the time still sends shivers down my spine.

Now back to weight loss and jaundice, I didn’t know this then but those two things are like a one/two punch of breastfeeding obstacles because as soon as your newborn loses 10% of their birth weight, the medical staff will recommend that you supplement your nursing with bottle formula. I specifically say “medical staff”  because if you’re lucky enough to have access to lactation consultants some of them might make you feel like formula is the devil. They will tell you that “the last thing you want to do is formula feed” (lest you won’t produce as much milk as you need without the demand) and “your baby won’t get the nutrients he needs.” Are you starting to get dizzy and confused? Me too. This is where I felt my breastfeeding woes took a downward spiral fast…

 Enter the World of Many Experts

I was given a bottle of formula to give to Benjamin between the hours of 6 and 8 am on the third day. Where I was, lactation consultants come in after 9am to check on patients and see how they feel.  From what I remember, the lactation consultant – who we’ll call Kim – arrived around 11 a.m., saw the box of formula on my window pane and with a look of disgust declared, “You’re formula feeding.” I was really quite confused by her tone and overall expression; it was the first time anyone had been anything but kind and excited with me (“a new mother!”). I replied, “Oh, no. That’s just for supplementing. Ben lost 10% of his bodyweight.” She looked relieved. Then she commented, “Well, let’s just check your breasts to see if there’s milk coming out because you really should just be putting him on your breast to eat.” I allowed Kim to squeeze my breasts in all kinds of ways while I complained of sore nipples. She didn’t listen to me at all. A little bit of milk came out and she talked over me, “See, you’re getting some milk. The baby should really be eating that. Are you still going to use the formula?” My initial answer was yes. Why wouldn’t I? My baby had lost 10% of his birth weight and the staff, including his pediatrician had recommended it. But for fear of saying yes out loud, I replied, “I don’t know” and she informed me of all the reasons why I shouldn’t supplement with formula: baby food allergies, decreased milk production, harder for babies to digest, nipple confusion, yadda, yadda, yadda. I’m a pretty confident woman and I feel like I’ve been a pretty confident mom but if there was ever a time in my life when I felt flabbergasted it was then: the moment when I was two days without any stretch of sleep greater than 2 hours, my baby’s weight was decreasing, and some woman – who had been fondling me faster than any boyfriend ever attempted – verbally shredded me about feeding my own baby. I can’t really remember what she said exactly because somewhere along the way I shut down but when she was gone I told my husband I hoped she never came back. I’m sure she was trying to be helpful but the information she gave me came with such a tone of superiority that I didn’t feel like she was supportive or helpful at all. Instead it felt judgmental and critical. And what was there to judge? I was just trying to be the best mom for my baby. At that stage in the game, I still didn’t really know what I was doing with breastfeeding but I didn’t want to work with Kim anymore. I thought back to the questions I had asked her when she visited me on Day 1 and Day 2 and what she did when she was with me at those times and the truth was I didn’t find her presence to be critical. During those first two days, the only thing she would do was grab my boob and throw Ben on my nipple and when she answered any questions I had, she spoke so fast I could hardly pay attention or retain the information. On a random side note, I think the nicest thing anyone can do in the hospital for a new, sleep-deprived Mom is talk slow and speak in simple language. But anyway, Kim was getting ready to leave, informed us that she was off for two days and asked us if we still wanted to utilize the hospital’s lactation consultant service. I was a little afraid for who would come next but I was too tired and didn’t want to be rude, so I said, “Yes! Have a great vacation and thank you so much for everything!”

Even though Kim made me feel bad and I didn’t like her, what she had said impacted me so I started talking about breastfeeding with the night nurse, Angela. Angela was a wonderful woman. She spoke slowly and was informative. She was patient and kind. In essence, she talked through all the information with me, answered one hundred questions and basically made me feel like she was there to support me in whatever I wanted to do. When Kim had left, I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing and that any decision I would make would be very wrong. After 10 minutes with Angela, which included some tears, I had concluded that I wanted to try and keep Ben on breast milk only – if at all possible – but I didn’t know how I’d do it because I didn’t have a lot of milk coming out and along the way, Benjamin’s jaundice was getting worse.

For the record, Ben wasn’t officially declared with jaundice until Day 3 and even then, his billirubin was barely over the threshold. He never had to undergo any light treatment, but with those lights impending, I asked one of the nurses what the light treatment therapy entailed. She informed me that babies with jaundice are put under therapy lights for three hours and brought out for thirty minutes to be with their Moms for feeding. When I heard that, all I could think was, “Thirty minutes! Thirty minutes? My baby would be away from me for 3 hours and then I’d only see him for thirty minutes!” Something about that frightened me so much that I immediately informed Angela that I wanted to make sure Ben was eating every two hours and I regretted that I hadn’t fed him every two hours the day before.

As soon as I told Angela that I wanted to feed Ben every two hours and I wanted to feed him exclusively breast milk, we started talking about the volume of milk I was producing and whether or not the two hour feedings should include a formula supplement. I was concerned that I may not be producing enough milk and Angela asked if I considered using a breast pump to create breast milk supplements. I can tell you now that I did not consider that at all because: 1. I was barely able to think and 2. I didn’t even know that was an option (I even had my breast pump in tow as I had read in a book that I should bring it to the hospital; let that be a demonstration of the disaster that is new parenthood brain). In those first few days I realized quickly that breast feeding was way harder than I had thought, with too many complications and factors that I didn’t even realize mattered and I was too tired to think about all of it. Angela said that she’d go secure a hospital-grade breast pump for me (it was supposed to be better than retail brands) and she told me that the lactation consultant of the day would be Pam who she’d get on the phone right away.

Pam came to my room as soon as possible. She was a beautiful woman with a warm smile and a soft voice. To this day I can remember her talking and it makes me calm. Anyway, Pam came in, said hello, and I unloaded, “I’m tired. I’m stressed. My nipples hurt like hell. I’m worried about my baby’s health. He won’t wake to eat and I’m not sure if I’m doing this latching thing correctly. Please help!” I may have even admitted that I didn’t like feeding him and that I had anxiety before every feeding because my nipples hurt so bad. Pam was so calm. She said, “Let’s start from the top” and we did …

“First things first,” she said, “Let’s get you some nipple shields.” ”Nipple shields? Nipple shields! They have something called nipple shields and I didn’t know about it until day three?” (This confirmed my dislike of Kim.) Nipple shields are exactly what they sound like – small, plastic, circular coverings that go over your nipples and in your bra; they make you look like a rounded-version of the cone-bra Madonna. They prevent anything from scratching or touching your raw babies and by day three I thought it was the world’s greatest invention.

Pam then gave me an arsenal of tricks to try and keep Ben awake while feeding: tickle his feet, take off his clothes, rub his back, put a wet washcloth on his face. They all sound cruel and unusual but she reminded me that it was for the best interest of Ben and she even spoke slow enough for me to write it down. I really believe this woman was sent straight from heaven. Anyway, this also gave my husband something to do. He had been very supportive and helpful over the previous two days, but now he could really get in on the action. Right after Pam suggested we put something cold on his cheek I thought, “I couldn’t! He’s just so little! And it’s a little cold in the room!” but next thing you know, my husband (Andrew) was right up next to me touching Ben with cold hands declaring, “I’m on it!” (and to think one of the arguments against breastfeeding is that dads can’t get involved!)

By the end of that third day, Benjamin started putting on a little weight and his bilirubin levels were evening out. Andrew, Angela, Pam and I made it my mission to continue to feed Ben every 2 hours – so long as I could stand it – and supplement pump both for breast milk production and to create a supply of formula that was solely breast milk. As you might surmise, with a schedule like that, Andrew and I got hardly any sleep. But we thought it was worth it. In some ways, even though I was tired beyond exhaustion, I was calm and felt at peace knowing that Ben was finally out of “the danger zone.”

Just when I thought we had finally figured everything out, my doctor came to check on me. He checked my incision scar. He checked my abdomen. And he checked my breasts. And that’s when I got hit up again with the other side of the formula/breast milk debate: “Look at your breasts – you have a bruise on each nipple, “he exclaimed. He continued, “How long are you feeding the baby for? Is the lactation consultant pushing you too hard? Don’t listen to these nurses! If you keep pushing yourself with the breastfeeding, you’re going to have tissue damage. No more than 10 minutes on each boob. The way to do it, really, is to wait a few days, but if you really must than feed him no more than 10 minutes on each boob and then feed him formula.” I thought, “Wha?” (that’s right, I was too tired to even fully complete the thought in my head)

I had been on mental cruise control for a day (only one more day ‘til my discharge!) and yet here was another doctor giving me another option and suddenly I wanted to cry all over again. (Actually, I did cry. And I asked Andrew to ”hold me … without actually hitting my boobs!”)

Tissue damage!? Bruising?! I had been wondering what the purple things were on my nipples (they kind of looked like hickeys) but I figured it was just a part of breastfeeding; you know, like how your areolae get darker? I just figured maybe they get purple sometimes too. I called Pam and Angela who came as soon as my doctor left. Angela politely “cursed out” my doctor and declared, “We finally figured out a system and now he’s come and messed everything up?! What do you want to do?”

I don’t think Andrew had ever seen me so broken. I’m usually very upbeat with a lot of energy and no task ever seems beyond reach, but I really felt like I was losing in some sort of terrible battle. After some conversation I told him, “I can’t take it anymore. Everyone has their opinions … and they’re so different! We have the pediatrician telling us to feed Ben just bottles which is great for his weight and the jaundice but over the long term doesn’t help my milk production; the lactation consultants telling us that nothing is better for the baby than breast milk; and the obstetrician telling me that I’m damaging my boobs no matter what I do and should probably not truly start breastfeeding for two weeks?”

In that moment I was reminded of something a dear friend had told me during my pregnancy: you’re your baby’s best parent. I didn’t know if I should trust my instinct – or if I had any at all, quite frankly – but I thought to myself, “Everyone is a specialist in their field and I’m just trying to figure out what’s best for my breastfeeding at this point. Of all the days, day three was the best, so I think I should stick to the plan that we’ve been working on for a day.” Andrew agreed and so we trucked on.

Good Luck and God Speed

On my final day in the hospital, Pam came by to see how I was doing and wish me luck. Since the day before, I had determined that the bruising on my nipples was from my first two days of breastfeeding. Somewhere along the way, Ben hadn’t latched on properly, but because I didn’t know what everything was supposed to feel like or look like, he basically had given me a hickey on my nipples. I asked Pam if there was anything I could do to heal the bruises because it made breastfeeding even more painful but she told me the only thing you can do is feed through the pain. I asked her how long is would take to heal and she told me, “Up to two days.”

I couldn’t fathom one more day of the pain, let alone two or more, so at that point in time I decided I’d focus on each feeding session and tell myself, “You just have to get through this one” and “You only have to do one more,” etc. to help push me through. We were getting ready to go home – me, Ben, and Andrew – and we weren’t going to have 24/7 help, so I made it a point to keep my eyes ahead, even though I didn’t know how long the road would be because at the very least, with heavy boobs and sore nipples, I determined I needed a good attitude.

Ben’s weight had been slowly rising and his bilirubin levels evened out, but for good measure, the pediatrician told us that they wanted us to stop by the following day for a weigh-in. Looking back, it made me nervous about Ben’s health but I think the real reason they asked me to go to their office is because they knew I was exclusively breastfeeding and I’m certain the first day home is when things go terribly awry. Whether my suspicion is true or not, it was good that I was worried about Ben’s health because that’s where my focus was and for the next 24 hours, I was a diligent, even if begrudging, feeding machine.

We got home around 4 pm and we had one rule: feed Ben no less than every three hours and sooner if he was awake. Andrew’s job was to monitor the clock and feed us and my job was to focus on the baby and my boobs. This included caring for my nippies, pumping to stimulate milk production, and maintaining a little extra milk supply, if possible, to give to Ben at each feeding post his eating-at-my-chest. We had done this routine for the last whole day while I was in the hospital which meant we could do it in our sleep which was great because that’s basically what we did. We were walking zombies but Ben was fed to the greatest extent possible.

By the time the pediatrician’s appointment rolled around the next day, Andrew was imbibing as much caffeine as possible and I was trying to figure out what to wear. Please don’t be confused … I wasn’t trying to look pretty … I was trying to find something that would actually, physically, fit me. I knew I’d be going home from the hospital at a size of what I called “me at about five months pregnant” but I didn’t realize how long that would last and I hadn’t fully prepared my wardrobe for going outside; technically, my “five months pregnant me” was four months earlier and it was a warmer season then. I just assumed that I would be indoors for as long as possible after Ben was born and I figured I would use Andrew’s clothes if I had to venture out – but I didn’t actually fit into them, even post-baby. The only item that I could (and did) use was his sneakers. Yes – for two whole weeks post baby including my departure from the hospital.

Anyway, after a few minutes of playing what I call “awful dress-up game,” I found an oversized sweater that I hadn’t worn in five years and some exercise pants that I hadn’t worn in seven, and we ventured out the door, car seat, blankets, and coffee in tow.

We were the first people at the pediatricians’ office because they bring the new babies in super early before any kids (ahem, sick kids) are around and almost as soon as we entered, they ushered us to the back for weighing in and a doctor visit. They brought us into a room and told us to undress Ben down to a clean diaper. I was too tired and sore to move so Andrew quickly sprang to action. The nurse came back a few minutes later and told us to follow him all the while engaging Andrew in some new parent conversation (i.e., “Congratulations! How does it feel to be a new parents?!” etc.) I got up to follow but after only two, slow steps Andrew, Ben and the nurse were nearly 10 feet away so I silently mumbled, “I’ll just wait in here” and I sat back down. It felt like Andrew and Ben were gone forever so I thought about closing my eyes to take a nap but they were only gone for 2 minutes and as soon as Andrew re-entered the room he declared that Ben had put on 7 ounces overnight. That meant nothing to me other than, “he’s putting on weight” so I felt content.

A few minutes later the doctor entered the check-up room and ran through his series of questions: How are you feeling? How is the breast-feeding going? How is the baby doing? etc. He checked Ben and said that the jaundice looked like it was getting better – though it would take at least two weeks to clear up – and he was surprised by Ben’s weight, so he wanted to weigh him again personally. That made me a little nervous, but of course I was also thinking, “nap time!” So Andrew, Ben, and the doctor left and when they came back the doctor informed us that not only had the nurse weighed him correctly but it was clear I did some hard work in the several hours before because babies, on average, put on 8 ounces over the course of a week. If there ever was a time when I felt like I won something – it was then. Hearing the doctor say, “You’re doing a good job feeding your baby” was the greatest single moment of that day. He then proceeded to tell me we only needed to do one thing more, “Relax a little and get some sleep.” The bags under my eyes must have been as big as tea bags for a doctor to tell me to get some sleep, but I didn’t care. I was so happy that I could now worry a little less about Ben’s weight and instead focus on being a new parent.

Why It’s Hard To Shower with a Newborn

With doctor orders “to relax,” I got home and decided what I needed was a nice, warm shower. Andrew took a sleeping Ben and I went off for 10 minutes of solace. I wanted to feel, even if only for a little bit, that I was alone and bask in the happiness of my overnight breast-feeding success for just a little. But that happiness was short lived because as soon as I got under the sprinkles of the shower, I wanted to cry in pain. My nipples were stinging! It had been a few days since I showered and I hadn’t realized how painful a few drops of water would be, but as soon as I let the water hit my chest, I regretted it. I cupped my breasts and wanted to jump out of the shower. In theory, something cold on my nipples might have felt good, but the pressure caused so much pain it felt like someone was whipping them. All I wanted to do was exit the shower and run for some lanolin.

Now, the fact that I made it this far without mentioning lanolin is a miracle because it’s one of the most useful things for new breast-feeding mothers (it’s right up there with nipple shields!). Lanolin is like a really thick vasoline. I got it upon the recommendation of my sister-in-law weeks before Ben was due (but I forgot to bring it to the hospital, so make a note to yourself – bring yours with you!) and I’m really glad I had it in stock in the house.

So I ran out of the shower and put some lanolin on my boobs. I realized that it would probably be a few days before I would shower again if not for the mere fact that I didn’t even want to shower now that I realized how unenjoyable it was with raw nipples. Outside of the excitement of a new baby, that left little joy in my world; I was sleeping for stretches of time that lasted no more 2 hours, I wasn’t interested in showering, and every time it was time to feed the baby, I had anxiety in anticipation of our latching game. The good news is that by this time I had generally figured out how to tell if Ben was “on a good latch” but it also meant that I would sit there during each feeding session with him repeating the mantra in my head, “Please don’t break the latch! Please don’t break the latch!” I hate getting vaccines and putting Ben on the boob kind of reminded me of the way I felt only moments before a flu shot: I knew it was going to hurt and I was anxious in anticipation of the pain. By then, the good news is that getting him ON my boob was the worst so long as he stayed there because eventually your nipples dull to the pain while the baby is sucking. From what I recall, I just had to survive about a minute before I could finally reconnect with my brain and remind myself to relax. So I would say to myself, “You just have to get him on and then count to 10 and it might still hurt a little then, so extend the time to 20 and if it’s not hurting by 20, then you’re okay.” Sounds like a lot of mental preparation, right? It was. This is why I truly meant it when I said you should give yourself a medal after two weeks. By then you will have given yourself so many pep talks and survived so many feeding sessions that you truly are a champion.

At this time, with my attention on “each feeding session,” I made it my new goal to make each session as enjoyable as possible. Since the pediatrician’s office, I felt like Ben and I had what it takes to be a successful breastfeeding team and I didn’t want to give up. There were so many women out there who made breastfeeding seem so wonderful and while I wasn’t there myself, I did feel a sense of happiness in knowing that my baby was getting “the best.”

With this new perspective, I thought about each session and what I didn’t enjoy so that I could hopefully “correct” things little by little. Starting at the top would be my nipples but I didn’t really have much control there, so I moved onto my next physical pain: my wrists. They were killing me! I had several pillows and blankets that I was using to prop Ben under my boobs but he was getting heavier by the day and that was wearing away the usefulness of my resources. One of the nurses in the hospital had suggested that I get the “Brest Friend” pillow. I had rejected purchasing this pillow before Ben was born because I had bought that giant maternity pillow while I was pregnant and I only used it for a week so I assumed perhaps this would be the same and I thought the name was stupid. Yeah. I kind of chuckled at the name while researching breastfeeding supplies pre-Ben and mainly decided I didn’t want to spend $20 on something that had a stupid name. Ha! But in the end I’ll tell you what was stupid: me. That pillow ended up being the third best thing for breastfeeding and I really regret that I didn’t have it weeks before Ben was due. So yes, more pointers: get yourself a breast-feeding pillow and bring it with you to the hospital.

Back to each feeding session, I also decided that I was very anxious and stressed so I wanted to try and feel more relaxed. The pain was getting a little better each day, but the anxiety was still there and I wanted to start feeling a sense of excitement leading up to each time it was time to feed Ben versus dreading what would be the next hour of my life. Cue the time when I realized I wanted it to feel “spa-like.”

Are you done laughing now? Because yes, it was then that I had thought to myself, “I want to get excited about it in the same way I get excited about going to the spa.” While the whole comparison is absurd, it partially worked. I decided I needed a serene setting (i.e., not feeding Ben while seated on the couch watching tv), I needed relaxing music, and perhaps I would wear a white robe? I didn’t have a white robe, but with my new breast-feeding pillow, I relocated my feeding station to the bedroom and I made a playlist of soft music I enjoyed.

Weeks Three and Four

With my newfound breastfeeding spa, the prospect of blissful breastfeeding (you know, the kind where a Mother holds her baby all while a glow of light emanates around them) started to look positive. Only a few days before, at Ben’s two-week check-up, we confirmed that he had passed his birth weight, and then some, so his weight was no longer an issue. I still didn’t know how long I had to go to get that emanating light, but I felt like I had the latching thing down, my physical pain was starting to decrease a little bit (both in my boobs and wrists), and I really was starting to, at least mildly, look forward to each feeding session.

Once I reached this plateau, I felt like I had a good grip on breast feeding and began spending all of my free time researching baby sleep. I use the term “free time” loosely. What I really mean is “that time around three in the morning, when you just finished feeding the baby but you’re awake and he’s awake and you’re trying to figure out why and how to make it stop.” There was still some anxiety in the minutes before ‘the latch,’ but by now any adrenaline that had moved me through two weeks of new parenthood was starting to wear off and the effects of sleep deprivation were taking over. Any stress I had felt towards breast feeding was dissipating as I started to be overcome by fatigue. The day to day of breast feeding still had its highs and lows, but I was so worried I would never sleep again, I stopped paying attention to anything that was related to breastfeeding.

Generally, Ben was sleeping at night for no more than 3 hours. While 3 hours was good, I wanted more. One random time during the previous two weeks, Ben had slept for four hours and once I knew he was capable of that, I just wanted to figure out how to make him do it again. I won’t get into all his sleep details because that’s a whole other adventure, but you should know that being obsessed with your baby’s sleep is a great distraction for what was previously your obsession with breastfeeding. But of course, it doesn’t come unattached because once Ben actually started sleeping a little longer (even if only for an hour) new breast-feeding obstacles ensued …

 Say Hello to My Boobs: “Engorged” and “Leaky”

I truly believed that once Ben started sleeping longer, that I’d get to sleep longer too but I didn’t realize that the slightest change in any factor of our routine would also disrupt the balance I had achieved with breastfeeding. Ben was now sleeping for four, or even five hours, at night. But my breasts were used to being attended to (ie, emptied) every three hours. I tried desperately for days to get a five hour stretch of sleep but, inevitably, I would wake up after three and a half hours – every time – because my boobs were engorged and as hard as a rock.

Once again all my energy (and there was not much of it) was focused on breastfeeding and figuring out how to even out Ben’s intake with my body. It was a total pain. Just when I felt like I knew Ben was well and he was sleeping more and we had the hang of breastfeeding, I started to worry that if I wasn’t feeding him at the same times, I wouldn’t be producing enough milk and he wouldn’t be getting enough to eat.

A little research into engorgement taught me pretty quick about ice packs, ibuprofen and cabbage leaves. There was of course the option of pumping my milk out for comfort, but I feared that even though Ben could sleep for five hours, he might wake up after four, to eat, and I wouldn’t have enough milk. Yes, yes – then I could feed him a bottle of what I pumped, but that completely undermined the “convenience” of breastfeeding and wouldn’t help teach my body when it needed to make milk (if you’re pumping to release milk, your body thinks it’s being eaten one way or another and will continue to make milk on that schedule). In general, now that Ben was sleeping more and I wanted to sleep more, it was time to come up with a new feeding schedule.

I spent the next two days with ice packs on my chest every time my boobs were engorged both to decrease the pain and to decrease my boobs’ milk production. By the end of week four, as I continued to manage my lactation, with the help of the aforementioned, I had survived several days. Things were finally in a groove again and I had a small grip on Ben’s sleep, my sleep, and my boobs. Only once did I have an incident where my breasts reminded me they were a pain when I fell asleep on the bed but forget to put leak pads in my bra. You know how you can sometimes wake up in pile of drool? This time around, I woke up with a small puddle around me. I had read about leaking and heard of women leaking through their bras and shirts, but after four weeks, I thought it was in the clear. Nope. I was not. And as a reminder that I was never in the clear while breastfeeding, I had to completely change the bedsheets that were replaced as of the day before. I was really tired at this point but on his best night, Ben was sleeping from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. and then he would awake to eat, but he would go back down from 3-6 so life was good for me.

Breastfeeding Bliss

Somewhere along the fifth week, I had a few days in a row where I was getting a little less than seven (non-consecutive) ours of sleep during what people would actually call ‘night time’ so things started to seem really bright in the world. Andrew had been back to work for almost three weeks and I noticed that I no longer had anxiety before feeding Ben. The absence of anxiety really made me feel less alone during the day and I started to experience some real joy in motherhood. Ben must have felt it too because pretty soon after, he started smiling (or maybe I was awake enough during the day to notice?).

I didn’t tell anyone for two days because I didn’t want people to think I was crazy. I wasn’t sure when babies smile and I knew people were going to tell me he was just passing gas, but by day three of consistently seeing his little gums, I knew deep down that he wasn’t passing gas and I started to think that maybe, just maybe, my baby was happy! I went photo-crazy that day. If breastfeeding or sleep deprivation had even been on my mind, they were forgotten as soon as Ben smiled. I quickly realized that once your baby starts interacting with you, almost all of the “problems” of new parenthood don’t seem that bad. I spent all my waking hours trying to get Ben to smile or giggle and I was always ready with camera in hand. One day, while the camera strap rubbed against my chest, I realized my nipples weren’t hurting anymore either. Ben was only six weeks old.  Is that how long it was supposed to take? Who knows. But I must admit – at that time I finally felt like we had that “breastfeeding bliss” I so desperately desired in my previous weeks. Perhaps it was like true love – “you find it when you’re not looking.”

Now my breastfeeding adventures continued during the weeks beyond, but for the purpose of this blog post, it ends here – where things started to get really good. In case you’re wondering, I breast-fed Ben for nine months. I won’t tell you how or why it ended because that’s another story, but I wanted to mention that I breast-fed for nine months because I am very proud of that time. I think all moms everywhere should be proud of any time that they breast feed whether it be 2 days or 2 years because it’s seriously hard work. And if you put in that hard work, I think you should wear your achievement proud. Dear reader, if you’re getting ready to breast feed and you’ve never done it before, I wish you well. I also hope this post can give you some insight or at least a good laugh and I cross my fingers that you come across only the nicest and most patient nurses, lactation consultants and doctors from the get-go. Good luck!

Elena Petzold is the creator of Mama’s MilkBox, a nursing apparel subscription service for Moms who want to look good, feel good and breastfeed their babies. 
You can sign up for a box at mamasmilkbox.com and read more musings by the author at pregnantinpittsburgh.wordpress.com.
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