“It’s the most natural thing in the world.”
How many times did I read this during my pregnancy? In my mind, each time I read that, I translated it as: “Breastfeeding is easy, like breathing. People who have trouble breastfeeding are like people who have asthma… something is interrupting this normal, natural, easy process. For most people, it’s second nature.”
Lost in translation, indeed. Let me suggest a few tweaks to this common, infuriating phrase:
“Breastfeeding, like running, is the most natural thing in the world.”
“Breastfeeding, like giving birth, is the most natural thing in the world.”
“Breastfeeding, like walking 3 miles uphill in the snow to school, is the most natural thing in the world.”
I think these put the word “natural” in a more appropriate context… first, yes, our bodies can run, and we’ve needed to in the past to catch prey and escape predators. But you don’t just hop off the couch and chase a bear 6 miles… you train, for a long time. You start with light jogging mixed with walking, and it’s months before you can run that 5k. You have to learn to do this natural thing.
Yes, our bodies are made to give birth. But just as most of us don’t feel the 8 hours of childbirthing class prepared us for the process of pushing an infant through our vaginas, 2 hours of breastfeeding class doesn’t prepare you for the recommended 12 months of breastfeeding. The more you prepare for childbirth, the better it will go… usually. Sometimes your water breaks long before your body is ready for labor and you get crazy drugs. Sometimes baby’s flipped around and needs to be cut out. Sure, it’s natural to give birth. But it takes preparation, and there are no guarantees. It’s not easy the second time around because your vagina is now a great open cave; it’s easier because you know what to expect… you’ve done this before.
Finally, aren’t you proud of your grandparents for fighting blizzards to walk uphill to school? Don’t you wish you could be that amazing? No, you say? You’re happy to cruise to the front door in your heated seats or wait in your heated bus stop and get there in 5 minutes instead of an hour? Breastfeeding, like walking, is the most natural means to an end – feeding your baby – but it’s made for an era of a year of maternity leave, multi-family living situations in which the new mom does nothing but breastfeed and sleep and in which the 3-5 more experienced mothers living in the house provide advice, assistance and even milk if possible. We don’t walk to school anymore; maternity leave and family help are luxuries.
I knew I was going to breastfeed. When people asked me, I was confused by the if. What do you mean, am I going to breastfeed? Yes, I’m going to feed my baby. My Mom tried to warn me that it’s hard, but she’s kind of a worrier, so I said “eh, she’s exaggerating.” I wasn’t hearing that from anyone else, so maybe it was just hard for her. (Newsflash from a new parent: your mom is right. just assume that.) I knew infants could be tongue-tied and that could cause problems, but beyond an asthma-like complication, I thought breastfeeding was breathing. Some people have COPD; most people don’t think twice about it.
Heh. Here’s my advice:
BREASTFEEDING IS HARD. IT MIGHT BE THE HARDEST THING YOU’VE EVER DONE.
There. Now you can’t claim ignorance.
Owen was born early and induced. I had some colostrum, but my milk didn’t come in until day 5. Day 2 in the hospital he was frantic and inconsolable. I pumped and got nothing. Even the lactation consultant in a hospital that doesn’t even carry pacifiers (Matt went out at 2am to get one our first night in) recommended supplementing. 20 ml of formula later, our baby was quietly sleeping. The boy was starving, and I had literally been nursing him for hours.
We took him home with a little bit of formula and the plan to supplement until the milk came in. Once it did, he was used to bottles and wouldn’t latch. Cue lactation consultant number two. She taught me about laid-back nursing, helped me see what he was getting when he nursed, and introduced the syringe. Somehow, I have an impatient baby (imagine that!). While he was trying to latch, Matt would squirt in some milk from the syringe. That helped him trust that, hey, unlike the first few days of your life, you’re not going to exhaust yourself sucking and getting nothing… there’s milk here. Four hands and many frustrating minutes, and we could get him to eat. We did this every 90 min-2 hours.
Lactation consultant number #3 helped me with engorgement, and we also realized at that point that I have a wonk boob. Wonk produces about 1/3 of what it should. A few days of work, and it still pancaked in comparison to the other boob. I looked funny in shirts. Owen got half of what he should at each feeding. I put cabbage in my bra to deal with the engorgement, and it only lasted 24 hours.
We went a week with no supplementation. He was eating every 1.5-2 hours, maybe one 3 hour stretch at night, but hey, we were breastfeeding.
(Side note: here’s another piece of advice… it’s not 1-2 hours BETWEEN feedings… it’s 1-2 hours from the START of one feeding to the START of the next. And feedings can be 40 minutes to an hour. That’s a 20 minute break if he wants to eat every hour.)
Went to the doctor and Owen was gaining weight too slowly. Lactation consultant number FOUR saw the frequency of his feedings and was appalled. He was pretty much cluster feeding most of the time. And he was still gaining too slowly. Her new plan: at least two hours BETWEEN feedings, no more than 15 minutes at each breast, and an ounce of supplementation at each feed.
Well, he wanted more than an ounce. We were giving him about 2 ounces at each feed. Babies his age eat 2.5 ounces every 3 hours or so. So he was spending 40 minutes at my breasts and getting a half ounce.
After only a few days we went back to the doctor and OWEN WAS UP A WHOLE POUND. No more waking him up every 3 hours, even at night, to feed. No more twice weekly doctor visits. And really, no more breastfeeding.
Supplementation for us was necessary. But it leads to early weaning. Looking back, I think I treated the engorgement too aggressively, and my milk supply diminished as a result. Maybe I should have let the cluster feedings continue and ignored LC#4s advice. Maybe I should have started fenugreek (an herbal supplement that increases milk supply) in my 36th week of pregnancy. Maybe I should have prepared myself for the insanity of this “natural” process so that my stress didn’t impact my milk supply.
Listen, I gave it my best shot. I had lots going for me: pliable nipples (ever gotten that compliment from a perfect stranger?), a baby who COULD latch, once he learned. But it just kind of naturally (there’s that damn word again) diminished with the supplementation. I thought about relactating, but now Owen likes the bottle. He’s happy with the formula. He has gone 8 hours between feedings. He has regular bowel movements. We are still dealing with gas and reflux, but the formula hasn’t made it worse as far as I can tell.
I was SO READY to burn 600 calories a day sitting on my butt, caressing my baby while he gained nourishment from what used to be merely a great accessory to an outfit. I haven’t given up without a fight, and I’m not quitting lightly. If you know my weight struggles, you know the decision to give up free calorie burn is a big one for me. But this natural, beautiful process? A few things you should know before you take my naive attitude of “of course I’m breastfeeding, dummy. I’m not on heroin!”
1) It can be torture. If you’re not a touchy person, if you’re impatient, if you have sensitive boobs, if you’re sensitive to hormones, if you need lots of sleep, if you work, if you like to leave the house, if you want to ever leave the baby with someone else for more than a half hour, if you don’t like the idea of being without your hands 8-12 hours/day (it’s not hands free, esp if you have big boobs. I have one hand to make sure Owen doesn’t suffocate in breast tissue)… it ain’t easy.
2) Your life is about boobs, not baby. My son was second to my need to pump, my breast pain, my nursing bra, my nursing pads, my leaking, my intense thirst, finding a shirt that fit when people were over… those sound like small things, but when you’re running on a couple of disconnected hours of sleep, they seem huge. Holding him became a chore, not a joy.
3) Not everyone breastfeeds. I was under the impression that adoptive parents, parents with health problems and older babies did the formula thing. After being open about my struggles, I learned that SO. MANY. MOMS. have trouble. Some just “naturally” become Bessie the Cow for a year, pump like champs, drop weight like ballers, don’t even have to look at the 60 different types of formula available… but just as many or more of us get on a roller coaster that makes parenting MUCH harder, as if it’s not already the toughest thing you could do.
So, as Owen turns 1 month old, I’m letting go. My baby will be just fine. I have regrets about the way things have gone, and sure, I wish I could be Superstar Breastfeeder, but in trying to do my absolute best, it just hasn’t worked. Breast might be best, but it’s not “natural” in the sense that it just happens. It’s an art and a practice. I learned nothing about either before his birth. I can’t expect to run the whole marathon of a year of nursing after barely training for the 100 meter dash.
So, bottles and formula. Next, it’ll be chicken nuggets and Jerry Springer at snack time. I watched plenty of Jerry as a kid. And I’m doing just fine.