Before giving birth, everything I had seen in movies and read about in books made it sound like breastfeeding was natural and therefore easy. The reality for me was very different. Instead of being a straightforward path, it’s more like a road full of bumps, detours – sometimes it even feels like you’re going around in circles, getting nowhere. I am now 6 months into my breastfeeding journey and I have needed the help of an entire team of professionals and loved ones to make it this far! I can say with certainty that having support is crucial to developing the confidence you need to persevere through a difficult breastfeeding experience.
The birth of my son, Kainoa, went nothing like I expected. After a long labor ending in an emergency cesarean, me and my baby were separated so he could be taken to the NICU. I consented to giving him formula, because I was told his glucose levels were very low, and lying on the operating table, there was nothing I could do.
Several hours after his birth, I attempted to breastfeed, but he was very weak and would not latch. He was still fed formula and had a lot of difficulty digesting. After a day, he was hooked up to a feeding tube, which he also ended up regurgitating. I was extremely anxious for my milk to come in. I attributed the lateness of my milk to the medicated interventions during labor and the lack of immediate skin to skin. I also concluded that my difficulty extracting colostrum was due to the fact that I had to use the hospital’s pump since my baby couldn’t feed on my breast. On day three, I felt completely discouraged and felt like I had missed my window and would never be able to breastfeed. But then in the evening, after days of dry-pumping every 3 hours, I finally got some milk! Magic!! That was the most excited I had been since he was born.
During Kainoa’s 10-day NICU stay, I attempted breastfeeding maybe a dozen time. I felt so little confidence in my ability to breastfeed. On top of the discomfort I felt from recovering from a c-section, my baby being strapped to what seemed like a hundred wires did not help the situation. It felt so foreign and uncomfortable. A few incredibly patient and kind NICU nurses tried to help, going as far as grabbing my boob and “shoving” it in baby’s mouth (I swear this was way more forceful than I ever imagined necessary). Before my milk had come in, one of them also set up a supplemental nursing system consisting of a syringe filled with formula connected a tube snuck into a nipple shield. Up until the last day, they tried assisting me any way they could, but we hadn’t had a successful feed. Still, I was pumping every 3 hours, including when I went home at night, so we could feed him bottles of my milk.
When we came home, I honestly stopped trying. Kainoa was eating well with a bottle and I didn’t want to jeopardize that. Everyone was concerned with him gaining weight back and I didn’t want breastfeeding attempts to interfere with that. I was so discouraged and scared to try to latch him myself, but during a home visit and then a couple days later at her office, my midwife helped me latch him on, and both times, he had a full feed! My husband observed her technique when squeezing my boob, hamburger-style into his mouth and helped me replicate it when we got home. Slowly we phased out the bottles and the pumping, and we started exclusively breastfeeding. The only thing was… it hurt so badly.
I will spare you the details of cracked nipples and engorgement, but ultimately, every single feed felt awful. At his first appointment, my chiropractor noticed Kainoa had a lip tie which was later confirmed by his pediatrician. Because his latch wasn’t deep enough, I was in a lot of pain. He would also have difficulty latching and sometimes take several minutes to get a decent latch. The lip tie was also causing clicking while feeding, milk dribbling from his mouth, falling asleep at the breast, a build up of milk on his tongue and his upper lip being unable to flail outwards. After consulting a pediatric dentist, we opted to correct his lip tie through a laser frenectomy, hoping that would solve our issues. Afterwards, his lip did flail out much better and he would latch on easier but… I was still in a lot of pain.
It Didn’t Fix Everything
We were maybe three months into breastfeeding at this point, and I was in so much pain daily. I would find myself thinking “there is no way I can do this for two years” (my personal goal). I decided to take one day off of breastfeeding a week and chose to pump and bottle feed instead, to give my nipples some rest from the incessant torture I was putting them through.
After watching a video on tongue ties and lip ties, I learned that I could seek the help of a pediatric osteopath, and so I found one. After assessing him over zoom because of covid and because we lived over three hours away, she concluded he had muscle weakness and tightness in his neck and jaw that was probably causing the residual pain after releasing his lip tie. She suggested some neck exercises, lots of tummy time, stop swaddling at night, keeping up with his chiropractor appointments, as well as considering seeing an IBCLC lactation consultant and craniosacral therapist once things opened up again. That made a world of difference.
After that it was smooth sailing. I thought “Oh wow, I can totally do this for two years, maybe even more.”
The whole time I was navigating my breastfeeding journey, I was also seeing a therapist to help process my birth trauma. Another recurring theme in our conversations was my constant anxiety over potentially losing my supply. I think this was brought on by the fact that we pumped and bottle fed for so long where I had a clear idea of how much milk I was making. The moment we were exclusively breastfeeding, I had no visual confirmation that I was making enough milk. I would always squeeze my boobs to see if they were full and I would try to squeeze out a drop of milk after feeding the baby to see if my boob had been empty or if there was still some in there.
Then right around the five month mark, I woke up one morning and my breasts felt completely empty. I tried pumping and got a mere 20ml (0.7oz). I freaked out, thinking “That’s it, it’s over. I have no more milk.” I spent the following days reading tons of articles about increasing your milk supply, tried power pumping a couple mornings, and drank a few lactation teas.
Eventually, my supply came back up for the most part, but it did force me to make peace with the idea that I can’t control everything. All I can do is do my best and hope things work out. I had to reevaluate my initial goal of breastfeeding for two years and realized that even if I don’t reach that goal, every single time I breastfeed my son still counts. I also had to come to understand that breastfeeding is not all or nothing. There is always an option for supplementing with formula without fully stopping to breastfeed. Now that my supply is back up, I am slowly building up my freezer stash in case my supply dips again. I know that my milk supply will eventually dwindle, whether that is when I am ready or not, but when it does I will be happy I got to breastfeed my baby and give him as much liquid gold as I could.
It took the help of several NICU nurses, a lactation consultant, my midwife, my husband, a pediatric chiropractor, a pediatric dentist, an osteopath, and a maternal mental health therapist to make it this far. Not to mention the support from other mamas on online groups and mama friends in my community. What I’ve learned is that you shouldn’t have to do this alone – accept the help that is offered to you, and ultimately, let go of the expectations you set for yourself and just do your best.
Laurie Lo is a childbirth educator, birth and postpartum doula, fertility, prenatal and postnatal yoga teacher, and mama. She loves supporting and educating women about all stages of womanhood. She is the creator of Blooming Mamahood, a podcast and blog, about empowering and celebrating mamas on their journey through mamahood.