aka, my first ten weeks of breastfeeding
“Colette, look down.”
Three pushes from the end and I was already crying uncontrollably at the mere overwhelming thought of seeing my son for the first time. When my OB told me to look down and I actually did see him, I had a split-second little panic attack—this person had been inside my body for nine months and I didn’t even know him. I felt strangely unprepared for the experience of really seeing his face.
It turns out there’s a lot about motherhood I was pretty unprepared for. But what blindsided me most was breastfeeding.
Vaguely I knew it was tough for some people, but didn’t really know why. Everyone I knew seemed to take to it effortlessly, so I assumed I would, too.
While I was in labour, the nurse asked me a bunch of questions about what I had in mind for how I’d like the delivery to go. Did I want an epidural? Did I want baby placed on my chest immediately, before being cleaned off? Was I planning to breastfeed? Well, sure. They all seemed like easy decisions. Especially the feeding, though. It’s the easiest route, isn’t it? Why pump unless the baby can’t nurse? Why pay for formula when your body makes free food?
The first 24 hours are pretty much a blur now. While I was still numbed up “down there”, I had no idea of the damage I’d spend weeks healing from. I was still throwing up from the morphine (for the forceps) when they wheeled my bed from delivery into our hospital room. When the nausea was under control, I still couldn’t stop violently shaking. A drug reaction? Shock? I’d been awake for over thirty hours but was not tired, just excited. I finally had a baby!
The nurses tried to get us breastfeeding right away. It was awkward. He was heavy in my arms but girding him up with pillows helped a bit. The epidural hadn’t worn off so I was at least sitting normally in bed, but my milk wasn’t in—just a couple drops of colostrum every few hours. Latching on did not come naturally to Adam. Nothing was coming out and I think he was confused about why everyone kept shoving his face into a nipple. He fought it and got mad every time. Eventually the nurse gave me a plastic spoon and told me to hand-express any colostrum I could and feed him that way. But it was still just so little fluid and it stressed me out. Wasn’t this big baby hungry?
When all the IV drugs wore off, it became plain that I was seriously injured. I could lie flat but sitting was agony, even in a reclining bed.
On day two, a nurse came in and sat me down (figuratively). She said we would start supplementing Adam with formula for medical reasons because I wasn’t making milk and he needed to eat. She said all this in a measured, pitying voice as if she was telling me that my whole family just died in a car crash. Is it because some mothers view this as a failure and break down? I guess it did make me feel kind of useless in my sleep deprived, hormonal haze, but mostly I was just glad that he’d finally get a proper meal.
In the meantime, they set me up with a single electric breast pump and told me to use it for fifteen minutes per side every two hours to encourage my milk to come in. But that meant more sitting and more agony.
I know Grey Nuns is, like, super on board with breastfeeding. I get it. It is best if/when you get all the kinks worked out. But man, the stigma on formula there was palpable and pretty stressful for a first time mom with a giant baby who knows it’s customary for it to take a few days for milk to come in. I wasn’t being lazy or obstinate, it just wasn’t there yet. When Adam cried with hunger we had to “order” formula through the call nurse button. Was I imagining the tone of disapproval every time we asked for it? Sometimes it took 45 minutes to come. I know nurses aren’t room service— not complaining about the wait time, but there seemed to be some policy by which they could not leave formula powder in our room for us to make up as he needed it. It made me sad for Adam. He was just hungry.
Day three and we finally were able to go home around noon. My parents were at our house by then and it made me feel better. Away from the hospital, Tom and my parents encouraged me to rest. The milk would come in its own time— no need to suffer every two hours sitting up to pump out nothing.
Unfortunately, we had to return to the hospital the next day so Adam could go under the jaundice lights. I was crushed because it felt so good to be home. When we arrived and ordered some formula, I remember saying to Tom, “everyone here hates me,” because I still wasn’t breastfeeding. In retrospect, that was an overreaction and the nurses really weren’t being mean. But hormones, pain and sleep deprivation are a pretty good cocktail for misery and can magnify feelings of inadequacy pretty effectively. At the time I did think the nurses hated me.
The second trip home from the hospital felt better. Tom’s side of the family dropped by and gave us tons of stuff to help— bottles, a breast pump, nursing pillows, etc. I really needed multiple nursing pillows because I was using them as donut cushions in order to sit in chairs, although it was still really painful after just a few minutes.
When my milk came in, it was time to get to business with breastfeeding. Experts advise “skin to skin” with baby in those early days of breastfeeding, so I’d strip down and clip on “My Brest Friend” which worked well but looked ridiculous and either my mom or Tom would hand a crying Adam to me. He was more used to bottles by now and got frustrated quickly over how it was more work to get milk from a breast. Within a few minutes he’d be angry and clawing at my chest. I’d be welling up over the sore nipples, sore crotch, and feelings of frustration and failure. At the time, I had no idea how common it is to struggle with breastfeeding to the point of wanting to give up. I thought it was only me.
Not being able to sit for long was the ultimate root of all our breastfeeding woes. By the time Adam was two weeks old, I was pretty much exclusively pumping. Wasn’t it an easy choice? I could go into a quiet room and pump for 10 minutes while watching Netflix… or I could struggle as someone or other stood too close and tried to help while I was naked from the waist up with that damn pillow strapped on and an angry baby scratched and chomped and left me sore and weeping.
I quickly associated pumping with peace and control and breastfeeding with pain, sadness and humiliation.
We chugged along. Pump, bottle, pump, bottle. I tried to put Adam to the breast once a day just to keep practicing, but this was completely out of obligation. It did not feel like bonding. It felt like, “how long can we do this before we’re both tired and mad at each other.”
Tom has been an excellent support through all this, along with all our friends and family. But no one could magically fix my injuries so there was sort of a limit to how much anyone could really help. Outside of that network, I got the same advice everywhere I turned: “he needs a deeper latch” and “you should try breastfeeding lying down.” I did my best with the latch, but he just wasn’t there yet. He’d get a few sucks and then pop off, cry, claw, latch on, pop off, etc. Facilitating that process while lying down and craning my neck down to see what he was doing was hell on earth— like, sitting on my wrecked perineum, hemorrhoids, and busted tailbone was still easier than that. Oh man, it got to the point where I wanted to throat punch people who suggested breastfeeding while lying down with the tone of having just solved all my problems. You really think that with a crotch this demolished that a month has gone by without that idea occurring to me yet?
When Adam was five weeks old, I was nearing my wits’ end with breastfeeding. I still felt so sore in the nipples every time he fed, and it also seemed like pumping and washing bottles was all I did in a day. At night, Adam woke up hungry every two hours and after feeding him the bottle for 45 minutes and putting him back down, I’d still have to pump for 15 minutes to make the next bottle before going back to sleep myself. I was exhausted and could not even imagine keeping this up for a year. I didn’t know what to do.
Two things turned the situation around that week. Claire’s mom gave me a call and offered some good advice. We had him on a slow-flow nipple to help with all his gassiness, but it was taking him too long to finish a bottle. She said he was old enough to be on a faster-flow now. Ahh! I had no idea he was ready for a that already. What a difference it made at night for him to finish a bottle in 15 minutes instead! She also said that if exclusively breastfeeding was something I still wanted, I’d pretty much have to go cold turkey on the pump and tough out the frustration at the breast. It was hard to hear but I needed to know.
It made me scared because when I looked in the mirror, my nipples looked so sore and raw. They looked absolutely awful to me. And yet, I had to kind of shake myself and think, “is the pain really that bad? I’d run into a burning building for this little guy. Surely I can endure some nipple sting and practice with him long enough that it’s easier for both of us.” I had to ‘woman up’.
Obviously my nipples were in horrible shape by now. But were they? Truth was, I had no idea what “breastfeeding nipples” typically look like. I’d been waiting for them to look normal again, but I realized that it was a weird expectation. Why would they look like they used to, considering a tiny human is sucking and chomping on them every two hours now? Maybe they’re supposed to look this strange and red.
I had to know. Back in trimester two I joined a Facebook group for Canadian women due in December and it’s been just wonderful. Post a question and you get ten replies within the hour (even at 3am these days!) Nothing is TMI by now so I seriously posted a picture of my nipple and asked for opinions. I didn’t know what I’d get back. Would it be, “ohhh, honey, just use formula those nipples are done” or “yep, you’re breastfeeding.”
Turns out it was the second one. A little red and cracked, sure, but still more or less normal. Just knowing that they were “supposed” to look like that changed the game and somehow made them hurt less. I think some of the pain was in my head.
So, we powered through. It’s a process, but ten weeks in, things are way, way better. My tailbone still makes nursing in any chair (except the precisely pillowed chair in our room) a pain in the butt literally, but I no longer bring the breast pump if I’m going somewhere for longer than three hours. Adam is the pump now! He’s much better at latching on and everything hurts less. Time, healing, help, and practice fixed a hopeless situation.
All this to say, a rocky start can get back on track and turn out alright. I realized that all I knew of breastfeeding was what I saw in my mom friends— people who were already, like, really good at it. I saw them whip out a boob and get baby into position in one fluid motion and suddenly they were the picture of beautiful, tender motherhood. I didn’t know that it was a skill to be learned and practiced, both by mother and baby. Some babies catch on sooner than others. Adam took a while, and that’s okay. (Also I learned that I have a forceful letdown and that’s why we’re both soaked by the end of each feeding. Thanks, genetic lottery! Oh well, it could be worse.)
I hope I’m not making it sound like I had a bad relationship with Adam in the first two months because of our breastfeeding problems. As soon as I saw him, it was almost too much— my body just knew to love him more than I’ve ever loved anything. That was the first love, but there’s also been the bonding moments of getting to know someone and falling in love slowly every day. What a wonderful, fun guy he is.
Actually one of my favourite moments with him so far was a 3am diaper change during which he peed into his own face. It was so pitiful, his questioning expression of, “What? Why am I wet all of a sudden?” I dried him off and he grinned hugely and made his velociraptor noise (which is what passes for laughing these days).
Together, we will make the best of unfortunate situations. I’m so happy to be a mom.