Our early breastfeeding experience was a disaster. I went through a reputable parenting agency to find a certified lactation consultant after Eleanor arrived, but this woman was awful. After two visits to our house, $700 later, this LC put me on the fast track to formula. I could hash out why she was a disaster, but that would turn into a much longer post. Let me just say that she was abrasive and taught me a very difficult way of latching Eleanor that felt unnatural and led to cracked and bleeding nipples, blisters, and yeast. I was in immense pain. Even though Eleanor was a champion latcher, I never managed to get her properly latched with the consultant's "method." Part of her fee included phone time, but every time I called her, nearly in tears, she would rush me off the phone, and even once asked me why I thought breastfeeding was so hard.
Adding fuel to the fire was the fact that Eleanor was a very sleepy baby and hard to rouse to eat. The LC insisted I not wake her, and Eleanor ended up gaining only two ounces her first two weeks. (Note to parents -- wake a sleeping baby if they need to eat!) This put our pediatrician on high alert and led to frequent weight checks. Our pediatrician was very pro-formula, and wanted me to get Eleanor on a "routine" early, so she was disturbed by the fact that Eleanor could take up to an hour to eat and decided that I wasn't feeding her correctly. She made incorrect assumptions about my milk supply. She also wanted Eleanor gaining lots of weight -- something that even breastmilk and formula couldn't accomplish. She berated me in her office. It was a miserable experience.
Even with the huge roadblocks I had in my early weeks, I desperately wanted to continue breastfeeding. I don't think I can adequately describe how important it was to me. I loved the closeness, the snuggling, the bonding, and knowing that I was nourishing my daughter. There were lots of tears; I was stressed beyond belief. But I was determined to go forward. I just wasn't quite sure how. But somewhat haphazardly, I found my way. It took a good 9 or 10 weeks, but Eleanor and I finally figured it out, and it's now hard for me to think back to how hard it actually was.
With all that out of the way, I'd like the rest of my post to be about what worked for me, what I'd encourage others to do, and advice I have for those who'd like to breastfeed.
1. Get support.
For some women, breastfeeding comes naturally. For others, the process is far more difficult. Regardless of your experiences, it's always nice to have someone to talk to. For me, I found that my best allies were my friends who recently had babies and La Leche League. When I realized that breastfeeding would be a far more difficult road then I had realized, I contacted friends who were recent breastfeeders or who had recently tried breastfeeding. Hearing their stories, struggles, and input was invaluable. It was nice to know that I wasn't alone.
But above and beyond, La Leche League was the best resource I found. La Leche League is an international breastfeeding support group. I had heard about it before, but with negative connotations (mainly, that LLL women were "crazy" and "extremist.") But after some unsuccessful trips to breastfeeding support groups and with some encouragement from my midwives, I decided to call my local LLL leaders. One leader, whose youngest daughter was only a few weeks older than Eleanor, spent countless hours on the phone with me, and another leader came to my home twice to check my latch. ("It's perfect!" she exclaimed. "We just need to boost your confidence!") I began attending meetings, which are always held in someone's home. It was nice to be in a cozy, intimate setting; there was just something so welcoming about sitting around a living room, sharing your struggles, triumphs, and ideas. I've met mothers there who supplement with formula and mothers who are extended breastfeeders, and I realized that there are ways to make breastfeeding fit into your child rearing. Ultimately, I found a group of supportive, kind hearted women who want to see me succeed in my own breastfeeding goals.
My recommendation -- check out free breastfeeding support services before paying for a lactation consultant and go from there. La Leche League is a wonderful resource -- I can't recommend it enough. (I'm not saying all lactation consultants are bad; I'm sure there are fabulous ones out there, and I do know people who have had great experiences with LCs. I think I was just pretty unlucky in who I selected. Nevertheless, I still think it's fruitful to explore free options before shelling out money.)
2. Get a second opinion.
Eleanor wasn't a huge weight-gainer in utero, and no matter how much food I stuffed into her (per request of my pediatrician), she never gained more than three-quarters of an ounce a day. Other than her weight, she was surpassing all her developmental milestones and was as healthy as could be. But my pediatrician deemed it inadequate and refused to see Eleanor for who she is -- a petite kid. Eleanor and I were constantly in her office for weight checks, and the tension and stress I felt was unbearable. I was paranoid about her weight and constantly second guessing myself. My final straw was when my pediatrician told me I needed to make Eleanor eat so much food that she would vomit after every meal so she could expand her stomach. I was infuriated. It finally dawned on me that I didn't need to stay with a pediatrician who simply wasn't working with me. So, I interviewed other pediatricians who all informed me that her weight gain was normal, and I finally settled on one. Together, we realized that Eleanor was gaining weight along the standard curve, albeit at one of the lowest percentiles. And since she was thriving in all other aspects, her weight has been a non-issue. Through this experience, I've realized that babies come in all shapes and sizes. There is no norm. My child just happens to be little and that's perfectly okay. I also trust my current pediatrician and respect her opinion, which is important. With all this, I learned to listen to my gut and to seek the best possible care for my child without blindly listening to someone simply because he or she was a professional.
3. How you choose to feed your baby is a personal decision.
Some women breastfeed, some formula feed, some do a mixture of both. How you choose to feed your child can be a difficult, highly-charged issue that is ultimately up to the mother. I highly respect any woman who's made informed decisions of how to feed their child in a way that best fits both mother and baby. While I do believe that more women would breastfeed if they had the right support system, it's up to the individual to feed their child as they see fit. Plain and simple.
4. If you know someone who is breastfeeding, listen and offer support.
Perhaps the worst thing said to me in my early struggles with breastfeeding was "why aren't you just giving her formula?" Each time I heard this, it felt like a slap in the face. Going back to my third point, I felt like those in my life who wanted me to give Eleanor formula wouldn't acknowledge the fact that I wanted to breastfeed because it was important to me. Breastfeeding Eleanor was my decision. While I don't think these comments were meant to be harmful, they were difficult to hear, and they made me feel isolated and frustrated. So if you know someone who is struggling with breastfeeding, listen to what she has to say. A simple "you can do it!" goes a long way. Ask if there's anything you can do to help. Suggest she contact her OB/midwife or La Leche League International for additional resources and support. Remind her she's doing a great job as a mom. Such positive reinforcement makes a difference.
5. Breastfeeding is natural... sort of.
In those first few weeks, breastfeeding was anything but natural. I was sore and in constant pain. I was anxious about latching Eleanor and feeding her. The "breast is best!" slogans I kept on seeing (what seemed like) everywhere annoyed me. When I finally called my La Leche League Leader, she came over to check my latch. As I tried to position Eleanor, my leader stopped me and had me close my eyes, put my head back, and breathe. She placed Eleanor on my chest, and voila! Eleanor found her way and latched on. It was so simple, so easy, that I couldn't believe that I had paid someone to teach me a latch technique. And then I got thinking. While breastfeeding was nerve wracking and stressful on my end, Eleanor clearly knew what to do. Had my desire to hire a lactation consultant interfered with her instinct and mine? In my desire to do it "right," have I gotten in our own way? Babies have been breastfed far longer than the advent of formula, and obviously it works. While there are exceptions and unforeseen problems, breastfeeding is natural, even if it doesn't always feel that way.
So, for those mothers out there struggling with breastfeeding: I promise it does get easier. You are not a failure if you can't figure it out on your own. And no matter how you choose to feed your baby, your baby will be just fine. And remember, you're doing a great job.
My happy little lady -- five months old!