Breastfeeding is hard

The Nushka turned 6 weeks old yesterday.  She is a bundle of joy.  She is happy and healthy and we love her to death.  We are very, very, very lucky.

The only part of the having-the-Nushka experience which is not so good is the breastfeeding.  I really wish that childbirth classes spent more time (or maybe, any time at all) preparing you for how hard breastfeeding can be.  Our childbirth class did have one week on breastfeeding, which focused on pounding in the “breast is best” mantra.  But it didn’t explain that you needed to be well-prepared for what could go wrong and how to handle it.  I knew lots and lots and lots about labor and delivery, I had read lots of books and had educated opinions on my options.  But breastfeeding?  I figured that would just… work.

So… here’s what actually happened.  At the hospital, the Nushka and I couldn’t figure out a good latch and I got very bloody and scabbed nipples.  We ended up using a nipple shield, which seemed to work well.  “Seemed” being the operative term here because with the nipple shield  (a) we didn’t learn to latch well without it and (b) the Nushka wasn’t getting enough milk and (c) my boobs weren’t getting enough stimulation to keep the milk production up.  I didn’t realize these things until we found out from a lactation consultant we called to find out why the Nushka wanted to nurse 24 hours a day that the reason was… she was starving.

We’ve spent the last 5 weeks in a constant stream of problem-solving with the help of two very good lactation consultants.  For a while the Nushka preferred the bottle to the breast, it took some training to get her back interested in the boob (now she much prefers it, fortunately).  We worked hard to get a good latch, but even now, 5 weeks later, she still does not latch on very well.  For example, she still is not capable of triggering a milk ejection reflex on one side (i.e., basically, she can’t eat out of one boob). I have been pumping for 5 weeks to try to keep the milk production up, but have had various problems with the pump as well including scabbing from the flanges and mysterious sudden drops in production.  We spent 5 days fairly early on trying to wean her off the supplements by continuous nursing, which should in theory get your milk production up but in practice didn’t really work.  So mostly for us feeding has consisted of (1) nursing then (2) bottle feeding then (3) pumping – lather, rinse, repeat 8-10 times a day.  Now I am trying to get a supplemental nursing system working (a system whereby a tube taped to your nipple delivers formula while you nurse), which should let me cut out stages (2) and (3) of the daily grind, but so far for mysterious reasons the Nushka is not getting enough food out of it to meet her needs.

Why is all this happening?  Some of it is just mysterious and apparently random.  But some of it is starting to be clear.

1) I am hyperthyroid.  Actually, I am or at least was hypothyroid during my pregnancy, and it seems like my thyroid function is returning after pregnancy and, combined with my thyroid meds, is making me hyperthyroid.  Did you know that thyroid levels play a major role in breastfeeding?  No, I didn’t.  Sure wish I had known that earlier.  And that my thyroid levels were very near the hyperthyroid cut-off before I gave birth already.   The midwives had just told me they were “normal.”  They were normal, but only by a sliver…

2)  The Nushka had an obscure form of a tongue-tie.  This means she could not move her tongue freely.  She had been checked for tongue-tie by her pediatrician but because she has a subtle kind it hadn’t been caught.  The lactation consultants had been wondering if it might be why latching wasn’t working, but it took a while to rule everything else out.  Finally we had the tongue-tie snipped this past Monday.  Right away – well, after she had stopped crying because she was so traumatized by the anesthetic – she started really sticking her tongue out and Mr. Nishkanu and I realized that this tongue-tie thing really had impeded her.  Now she is learning to breastfeed again, but old habits die hard.  Maybe, maybe, maybe she can learn to latch on without pain.  If that is the case we can try to get my milk production up.  And if that works maybe we can finally get rid of the supplements.  But I have my doubts.

My behavior in response to all this has really surprised me.  I never would have guessed that I would be plowing on through all this to try to breastfeed.  In fact, if you asked me beforehand, I would have told you I would not do it.  Breastmilk is best, that’s true, but formula isn’t so much worse really.  But after I had my Nushka… and after I knew what it was like to snuggle up with her and feed her (even with the scabs)… then I didn’t want to stop.  The idea of weaning her makes me feel intensely sad, even though I am not really supplying that big a part of her nutrition.  I don’t really care about the health benefits, what I care about is the relationship. I want to be a breastfeeding mama to my Nushka.  That’s it.  If they had said that in childbirth education instead of sticking with the “best nutrition” argument maybe I would have listened a bit more.   Or maybe not, after all I am pretty pig-headed.

So here’s the thing.  “Breast is best” is the public education mantra.My childbirth education class did point out that most American women do not successfully breastfeed to the extent that they planned or hoped to before the baby came, and said the reason for that is lack of societal support.  But I have had a lot of societal support – I am motivated, my husband was mostly home for the last 6 weeks and pitched in 100% in childcare, I had my family here for 4 weeks helping as well, I am working with 2 excellent, super helpful lactation consultants, I have 6 weeks of paid full-time maternity leave (actually 7 – it was extended one week because of the tongue-tie operation) and I am still only partially breastfeeding.  How is the average new mother supposed to do this?

For many mothers, I guess, breastfeeding  does come relatively easily.  But for many others, it doesn’t.  When I called work to ask about getting additional leave, the person who answered my call explained that she had had the same problems that I am having.  But the doctor she went to poo-poo’d her when she suggested it could be a tongue tie, and she gave up.   It’s really pretty sad.

On the positive side:

1) My nipples are pain-free enough that I can wear a bra or a shirt now!

2) My milk supply is stable!

3) The Nushka managed to get milk out of the right boob once or twice recently!

4) She likes breastfeeding!

so there is progress, just in tiny tiny steps.

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5 Comments »

  1. I hear this so often. I really would have thought that a breastfeeding class would focus on troubleshooting rather than convincing– I mean, if you’re there for a breastfeeding class, clearly you have interest in breastfeeding. You don’t necessarily need to be lectured on why you should breastfeed, right? Why wouldn’t they tell you instead how to approach the hurdles that can pop up? Maybe they think that by telling you that there *could* be hurdles, they’re giving you an excuse not to even try. I don’t know. All I do know is that I have known only one person in my life for whom breastfeeding was never, ever a problem– and I know a LOT of people who have children, so that must say something, mostly that you are totally normal.

    I wish you luck in overcoming your breastfeeding issues- YOU CAN DO IT!

    • nishkanu said

      Hi Kate – thanks for the encouragement! The breastfeeding advocates I have talked to about this say that they don’t talk too much about the problems or how hard it is because they don’t want to scare people off. But I think this ends up scaring people off after they try breastfeeding instead of before…

  2. Ana said

    Oh, wow, I was waiting for your take on breastfeeding! Its great that you are getting such satisfaction out of it, despite the many MANY difficulties.
    I, too, was not at all prepared for the difficulty. I was looking forward to it as the “best” way to feed y baby & also the whole snuggling skin to skin and bonding with your baby aspect of it. Turns out, such was our difficulty that I am now exclusively pumping and bottle-feeding my breast milk to Little Monkey (8 times a day—can you say “Moo”?). 2 bouts of clogged ducts & mastitis later (not even GOING to describe the nipple issues that made labour seem easy!) I am still going at it, even though I also thought to myself that if it didn’t work out, I’d switch to formula with no regrets. Sadly enough, for me the painful & frustrating act of breastfeeding my baby did NOT turn out to be a bonding experience. In fact, it was leading to my resentment of him & the whole concept of motherhood! I got cold sweats just thinking about the next feeding, and each session ended up with me, baby, and sometimes poor helpless husband in tears. The first time I gave him a bottle, and saw him calmly sucking away, looking up at me with the cutest face while I held him in my arms, I realized that there is more than one way to bond with your baby & unfortunately, breastfeeding was not going to be it for us.
    Now I will have to excuse myself to go pump!

  3. Shinejil said

    Breastfeeding is super hard. Here’s some good news, though: It WILL get easier. Seriously. I’m not just blowing sunshine up your ass.

    My little guy and I had some similar stuff going on as you and Nushka (what an adorable nickname, btw). He latched, but then forgot everything. I used a hospital-grade pump for about a month. It felt like I was always one step away from him screaming in hunger (I remember crying once when I spilled two ounces in the middle of the night one time).

    Then he got into the nipple sombrero, which felt like a huge relief, even if it was a PITA. He grew just fine, so he didn’t seem to have trouble getting enough milk, though he did feed constantly.

    Right around 11 weeks, boom. Didn’t want the sombrero. Wanted to go commando. And my supply shot up like mad. (I’m hypothyroid, btw, and I have noticed some ups and downs in my supply, though things seem pretty steady at the moment).

    You’ve done an amazing job sticking with this. This is really, really hard. Just because something is “natural” or “best,” doesn’t mean it happens naturally.

  4. Rachel said

    I gave up. The whole thing was a nightmare and I absolutely *HATED* pumping. My little girl got BM every day for the first 4 weeks or so… after talking to many people, we decided this was okay.

    I think BF is great for those women for whom it goes smoothly… but in this culture, I think those women are in the minority. I think it’s a huge scam to tell modern, Western women who aren’t prepared for what BFing really entails that BFing is the ‘best way’ without preparing them for what it is really like. It is simply, as you and others have mentioned, WAY harder than they tell you.

    To the woman above who cried over spilled breastmilk: oh, do I know those tears honey.

    I had horrible guilt, and cried about it… until I did my research and found some pretty interesting info. Lo and behold, there is actually NO PROOF that BFing is better. Formula has improved to such an extent that it really doesn’t matter what you do. Yes, your baby can only get antibodies through BM… but if you can at least pump or BF even a little, you can get that covered.

    Anyway, I commend you for putting in such effort. It was getting in the way of motherhood for me, and I don’t regret my decision. I hope it gets even easier for you and baby!

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