I am sure all you mamas out there have heard about, or experienced first-hand, how hard (yet rewarding) breastfeeding can be. Whether you want to breastfeed for three months, six months, a year, or even longer, it is a big time and emotional commitment. To those of you who are currently doing it, have done it, or are going to, YOU ARE AMAZING. Whatever length of time you are able or willing to commit to breastfeeding is a huge success.
I just want to share with you my journey of breastfeeding. There have been many ups and downs, lots of tears shed, and countless times of frustration. But Gideon is six-months old now and I am finally feeling good about it.
Let’s start at the beginning. Our son was born two weeks early with the cord around his neck. Because he wasn’t breathing when he was born, they required him to stay in the NICU for 5 days—they also required me to stay in the hospital for a few days due to tearing, and then stay the remainder of the time in guest quarters across the hall from the NICU since I wanted to exclusively breastfeed Gideon—and let me tell you. Breastfeeding was TOUGH from the get-go.
Since Gideon was a NICU baby, my nurses and lactation consultant really pushed me to start pumping while I was at the hospital. They wanted to ensure that my milk came in without any problems so that Gideon could start gaining weight ASAP—in fact, they wouldn’t let us leave until he did.
My time in the hospital was good and bad. I am glad we were there as long as we were, simply because I had torn so significantly (and had an episiotomy on top of it) that I needed the extra help from the nurses. It was like having a nanny from the moment he was born. I couldn’t get myself out of bed, let alone go pick up Gideon every time he cried. Of course James was there, but because I was basically incapacitated he was taking care of me and Gideon, so it was helpful having the nurses around. Plus, I had meals available basically 24/7, which I was so grateful for—the hospital food was surprisingly delicious. It was kind of a bummer when I went home and had to prepare food for myself (first-world problems).
Now the bad side. For the most part my nurses and the NICU nurses were amazing. They were very encouraging, especially when it came to breastfeeding. That is, all but one (there always has to be that one nurse, right?). When James and I would go visit Gideon in the NICU for feedings, the nurses would check in, make sure he was latching, etc. Gideon was a super sleepy baby so we would have to remove his clothes, wash his face with a cold wet rag, and tickle him while he ate to keep him awake. He had a bit of a hard time latching too, so the nurses gave me a nipple shield to help. Another nurse saw how exhausted I was (36 hours of labor plus having to get up every 2-3 hours to feed baby equals zombie-mama), and suggested we let her feed him some donor’s milk so that we could get more sleep. James and I agreed to it and Gideon took the donor’s milk just fine.
After a few days of being there and producing what I thought was just enough colostrum/milk for a newborn, “that one nurse” came in and cracked down on us. She basically told us Gideon was “failing to thrive” and we needed to consider giving him formula. Now, up to this point all of the nurses had been encouraging and saying how well he was doing. And we had made it clear from the beginning that we wanted to exclusively breastfeed. So imagine how surprised we were when this nurse came in and told us the complete opposite. I was furious but also extremely hormonal (I mean, I did just give birth all but 72 hours earlier), so I cried and asked James what we should do. He left the hospital to run an errand and when he came back he went into the NICU and told off the nurse that had pushed formula on us. He made it very clear that we would be exclusively breastfeeding and that all the other nurses said Gideon was doing just fine (go James! I had a very proud wife moment here). Of course we wanted the best for Gideon, but why should we listen to one formula-pushing-nurse? Plus, we were quite aware that milk takes 3-5 days to come in, and we were only on day 3 at this point. Within the next 12 hours my milk came in full-force. From that point on every 2-3 hours I would breastfeed Gideon until he refused to stay awake any longer, then James would wake him up to eat whatever I had pumped previously. The next time we saw that nurse she said how “happy” she was that my milk came in (insert aggressive-eye-roll here).
We left the hospital feeling pretty good about how Gideon was doing breastfeeding, despite his sleepy-habits and inability to latch without a nipple shield. We went home and did what all first-time parents do—survived.
Within the next few weeks of being home I decided to exclusively pump. Breastfeeding was becoming exhausting because it was near impossible to keep Gideon awake to eat, and I was pumping after each session anyway. So it became easier to just pump every 2-3 hours instead of breastfeed and pump. Well, it was easier for a little while anyways.
After a few weeks of exclusively pumping, outside of maybe 1-2 breastfeeding sessions a day depending on how tired I was, I started producing a LOT of milk. Around 60 oz. a day, which was more than twice as much as Gideon was eating. It seemed like a good thing until I started getting unbearable amounts of plugged ducts. Plugged ducts are milk ducts that get blockages because they aren’t being emptied out completely. To get rid of them you have to massage and massage and massage them until they go away, which can be pretty painful. If the ducts don’t clear up, you can end up with mastitis, which is a breast infection that gives you flu-like symptoms. I got mastitis more than once due to my over-production.
I did everything I could to prevent mastitis, from going on lecithin (a supplement that supposedly makes your milk less viscous and less likely to cause plugged ducts), to sticking to a strict pumping schedule, massaging, warm showers and compresses, etc. Nothing seemed to work and I was getting really tired of feeling stressed out over having to be glued to my pump all day. Plus Gideon decided to go on a complete nursing strike around 3-months old. I was miserable, so I started thinking about weaning.
I tried pretty much everything to wean. Drinking 3 cups of peppermint tea per day, peppermint oil applied topically, frozen cabbage leaves, pumping less at each session, even cutting down my daily water intake. But nothing worked. Thankfully my production slowed down to about 40 oz. per day, but the methods I used didn’t dry me up completely. Instead I was left smelling like minty old coleslaw.
At this point I was feeling pretty discouraged. Pumping was causing issues, Gideon wouldn’t nurse, and I couldn’t wean. What was I supposed to do?
So I started doing some research online and decided to try breastfeeding again. After a couple days of skin-to-skin with Gideon, switching out his bottle nipples from mid-flow to slow-flow, and attempting to nurse him while he was half-asleep, he latched on (still with a nipple-shield). At that point since I was down to producing 40 oz. a day, I started breastfeeding exclusively and pumped only when I felt extra full during the day, and then a couple times throughout the night.
I was ecstatic that Gideon was latching. He was still sleepy, but he was eating more aggressively than he ever had before. This was a big turning point in my breastfeeding journey—after months of stress and pain, things seemed to finally be working out. About a month later Gideon even started latching without the nipple shield.
Gideon is now six-months old and breastfeeding like a pro. I am pretty much stuck on the couch all day because he likes to eat frequently, but I rarely get plugged ducts and I haven’t had mastitis in months. I still use the pump at night, but breastfeed exclusively during the day. I also have over 2-months’ worth of milk stored in a deep freezer, and my plan is to continue breastfeeding through November, at which point I will have enough milk stored in our freezer to last him through his first birthday.
So my experience with a pump has not been great. It worked well for a while, but being an over-producer prone to plugged ducts, it just wasn’t worth it. I almost gave up on breastfeeding because of it. But with a little persistence and “one last try” at breastfeeding Gideon where I gave it my all after doing my research, it worked out.
I hope that my personal journey doesn’t frighten any of you soon-to-be mamas, but rather shows you that you can do it. If I can do it after everything I went through—rude nurse, plugged ducts, mastitis, nursing-strikes and all, so can you. I just pray it goes a little more smoothly for you. But if it doesn’t, hang in there. If breastfeeding is really what you want, push for it! And if it isn’t, then you do you! Breastfeeding, pumping, formula, donor’s milk, whatever you need to do to feed your baby—and whatever helps you keep your sanity—go for it.