The Hardest Month- A Nursing Story
The four weeks immediately following Hermione’s birth were some of the most physically and emotionally draining I have ever been through. This is a story I have wanted to tell and now, a year later I finally feel ready to revisit what was an incredibly difficult time for me.
Long before I became pregnant I knew I wanted nurse my baby. My plan had always been to breastfeed as long as possible whether that was three months or three years. I had no idea that something so natural could be so difficult.
After a fast and furious labor and two and a half hours of excruciating pushing I was elated to finally meet my baby girl. As soon as Hermione was born my doctor placed her on my chest and my doula and I tried to get her to latch and nurse. She was tiny and very tired from being born. No one thought twice when she did not latch on right away. We would try again later.
That whole night in the hospital I continued to try and get Hermione to latch. Every time I brought her to my breast she would fall asleep. I would gently try and rouse her and encourage her to nurse. My doula, and the nurses all assured me this was perfectly normal. Many newborns do not eat at all the first 24 hours after birth as they are still recovering from the experience and are very sleepy.
We left the hospital the next day and despite a few seconds here and there Hermione had yet to successfully latch. Doug and I brought her home, unpacked our bags and began our life as a family of three. When my doula left us for the night I remember asking her “what do I do with her overnight?” She advised me to wake her every four hours overnight and try and get her to nurse.
The next morning, Hermione had still not nursed for any real period of time. She was becoming jaundiced from the lack of hydration. Something had to be done. Hermione needed to eat and I needed to start stimulating my breasts if I wanted to protect and build my milk supply. Breastfeeding is all about supply and demand. If your baby does not nurse and empty your breasts frequently your body will think it does not need to continue to make milk.
My doula went out and purchased me a breast pump. I did not have one as I had no plans of pumping and giving Hermione bottles. I remember sitting in my bed, hooking myself up to the pump and feeling like a failure. My milk had not come in yet but I was able to pump colostrum for Hermione. I fed her medicine droppers full of colostrum, as I did not want to introduce a bottle for fear of “nipple confusion.” We were having enough problems already.
Everyday, my doula and I would spend our time trying to get Hermione to latch on and nurse. Now that she had woken up a bit she would no longer fall asleep but would scream her head off every time she was brought to my breast. To have her screaming and crying when she got near my nipple was heart breaking. After trying to get her to nurse for a few minutes I would be unable to bear the screaming and would give her a bit of a bottle of pumped milk. I would then alternate between the bottle and offering my breast hoping the bottle would take the edge off her hunger and calm her down so she could focus and nurse. Once she had had a full feeding, I would then have to pump in order to have enough milk ready in a bottle for her next feeding. This whole routine of offering her my breast, then the bottle, then the breast again, then the bottle and then finally pumping took about an hour. Newborns need to eat every hour and a half to two hours so I basically had 30 minutes in between our feeding/screaming/pumping sessions.
Nighttime was the hardest. As a newborn, Hermione slept in our bed with us. I had hoped to be able to nurse her all night while we were both still half asleep. This was not to be. When Hermione would wake up hungry every two hours in the middle of the night she and I would go to her nursery so Doug would not be woken up by her screaming at my breast. No need for all of us to be sleepless. I would finish feeding her, get her back to sleep and then pump her next bottle. Or pump with her perched on my legs. Or pass her off to Doug so he could bounce her to sleep on the yoga ball. By the time Doug or I got her and ourselves back to sleep she would wake up about 30 minutes to an hour later hungry again. I was exhausted, I was in pain from giving birth, and I was devastated that my baby would not nurse.
Every morning my doula would come over and we would try new ways to convince Hermione to nurse. I would spend all day in bed topless with her so she could causally nuzzle up to me and not be stressed out at my breast. We tried to nurse in the bath. We tried to nurse while bouncing on the yoga ball. We tried to nurse while walking around. We tried to nurse with her in a carrier. Nothing worked. Every time she got anywhere near my breast she would scream and scream. I hated pumping and giving her bottles. Each feeding made me cry. I hated holding my newborn in my arms, my nipples leaking milk, while giving her a bottle.
After a few days with no success we decided to call in a lactation consultant. My doula is a lactation specialist but we both felt we needed an outside opinion. The lactation consultant, came, watched me try to nurse Hermione and concluded that there might be something physically blocking her from nursing. She felt inside Hermione’s mouth and noticed her palate was unusually high. She was not sure what this could mean but gave me the name of an osteopath and an ENT to see for their opinions. In the meantime she advised me to continue what I had been doing. Any lactation consultant will tell you that when it comes to nursing problems there are two rules. Rule number one is feed the baby. Rule number two is protect the milk supply. So Hermione kept getting bottles of pumped milk and I kept pumping after each feeding. We were building up quite a milk supply in the freezer. I was producing much more milk than she was drinking thanks to all that pumping.
As soon as we could get an appointment Hermione, my doula and I went to see the osteopath. She felt inside Hermione’s mouth and along her skull. Like the lactation consultant she also noted that Hermione had a high palate. She commented that there was some compression along the top ridge of her skull. Both of these things could be making it difficult to nurse. We made several visits to the osteopath over the course of three weeks. After each treatment I would attempt to get Hermione to nurse but it would not work. I continued to offer my breast, finish with a bottle and pump. I was getting sadder by the day. All I wanted was to nurse my newborn baby all day. Instead our days were a blur of pumps, bottles, frozen milk and screaming.
When nothing seemed to be working I got desperate. Would she never nurse? I heard from family and friends that they knew babies that took many weeks to get the hang of breastfeeding. This was different. I did not have a baby that was difficult to latch. I did not have a baby who cluster nursed all day. I had a baby who could not latch and could not nurse. At all.
At the end of Hermione’s fourth week I made an appointment with a fancy uptown ENT. When it comes to newborns ENT’s mostly deal with correcting “tongue-tie” via a very short procedure called a frenulectomy. Basically, they snip underneath your babies’ tongue in order to loosen it up and make it easier for them to nurse. I was sure Hermione did not have this problem. She had been checked for tongue-tie many times by our pediatrician, my doula, the lactation consultant, and the osteopath.
As Hermione, my doula and I waited in the ENT’s office a nurse came in with a bunch of sharp, shiny tools.
“What are those?” I asked.
“In case you decide to do the procedure today” she coldly replied.
“Oh, no we are just here for a consultation, my baby is not tongue-tied” I assured her.
“The doctor will be right in.” And she left.
The fancy ENT swept into the room put on a glove and felt the roof of Hermione’s mouth.
“Do you want to be able to nurse this baby?”
“More than anything.” I replied with tears welling in my eyes.
“Then this procedure is your only hope.”
She went on to explain that while Hermione was not in fact tongue-tied her tongue was too short for her high palate. She could not reach to the front of her mouth the nurse effectively. That was why she screamed every time she was put on my breast. She wanted to nurse and was hungry but physically could not. If I let the doctor perform the frenulectomy Hermione’s tongue would be loosened and freed up and nursing would be much easier for her.
I was shaking. I had not been prepared to let someone snip at my four week old baby. I asked the doctor for a minute while I collected myself and consulted with my doula. We both agreed this was my only hope. Hermione would get the procedure then and there.
The doctor came back in, and I told her I was ready. My doula held Hermione’s head while I looked away. I was sobbing. Hermione barely cried. The procedure took all of ten seconds but was excruciating for me.
Immediately following the procedure the doctor had me try to latch Hermione. She did it. Only for a few seconds but she did it! She was nursing! I balled tears of joy. To feel her really suckling at my breast and getting milk was euphoric. I could not believe it!
Bottles are much easier to get milk from than a breast so after four weeks of mostly bottles Hermione had some habits to break. The next two days were the hardest as I tried to get her off the bottle completely. I now knew she could nurse so would only give her the bottle if she was hysterical. There was screaming. Lots of screaming. She wanted her milk faster than my breast was giving it to her. Each feeding took almost and hour and a half. She was very, very slow at the breast but she was doing it.
Finally, two full days after our ENT visit Hermione got it. I could nurse her without screaming. I could nurse her in front of the TV. I could nurse her in bed at night. It was bliss.
The next day I put the bottles and the pump away. I was done. I did not want to see any of it ever again. I had amassed over 150 ounces of pumped milk in the freezer which I donated to another mom my doula was working with who had just adopted a little boy.
Hermione is a year old and we have been nursing for 11 months. After those first four weeks she never had another bottle. Exclusively nursing her has forced me to make sacrifices but it has been worth every minute.
Our nursing relationship has changed quite a bit over the past year. It now takes Hermione about five minutes to finish a feeding. Sometimes she is too distracted and would rather play than nurse. She can also help herself now; it has been a long time since I have had to worry about her latch. The other night in the bathtub she even nursed while fully sitting up and then looked at me and laughed! Even though she is far from a tiny newborn there is nothing sweeter than holding her in my arms in her dark nursery while she nurses before bed. I love these quiet moments we share and know they will not last forever.
When people ask me if I am still nursing I simply say, “yes.” When they ask me how long I plan to nurse for I reply, “as long as she wants.”