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The School of Hard Knock (er)s


I don’t know for sure when I decided I would breastfeed my hypothetical future babies. Growing up, I wasn’t exposed to it very often, if at all. One of my babysitters had a 3 year old son whom she nursed on occasion, and my mother had some VERY strong negative opinions on that. In high school, while taking Parenting class as an elective, I was given twin girls as my final assignment, and carried around 2 dolls for a week. Never in a million years would I have considered that it was possible to breastfeed twins. After all, my brothers (who are twins) were formula fed from day one, and I was breastfed for maybe a month until I was hospitalized with jaundice. My mother was told her milk was making me sick and she stopped. So, I guess you could say that I didn’t have much of a base knowledge!

In 2005, I began studying midwifery at Laurentian University. Despite my lack of knowledge of breastfeeding, I had always been fascinated by pregnancy and babies. I had classmates with very young children, and to my surprise, some of them were still nursing their toddlers! This was such a foreign concept to me, and remembering my mother’s words about my babysitter who nursed her toddler, I may have said a few really ignorant things for which I am eternally ashamed. But then, I remember learning that one classmate, Sabrina, was pregnant in our second semester, and she mentioned that her 19 month old daughter Ayla had self-weaned because the taste of her milk had changed. Suddenly it didn’t seem so odd anymore – I was fascinated. I didn’t know breasts could do these things! What else could they do? As my studies continued, I was exposed to a lot more knowledge about breastfeeding, lactation, and the physiological basis for it. The science of it fascinated me – how the process starts in pregnancy, the mechanics of milk transfer, the nutritional complexity – I ate it up. I got to use some of that new knowledge in my placements, but of course, having never breastfed a baby, I actually learned more from my clients than they did from me!

I ended up switching to nursing studies at Cambrian College in 2009, and many of the lessons I learned in midwifery school carried with me, particularly in my second year placement on labor and delivery. Then, just prior to my third year, I found out I was expecting my first child! Being pregnant throughout most of third year was tough. I kept my focus on the fact that I would meet my baby soon, and since I was a starving student, I was determined that I was going to breastfeed – our finances didn’t allow any alternative. I imagined it would be a breeze.

Boy was I wrong.

My beautiful son Cole was born March 8th, 2012. Breastfeeding him was a nightmare. For starters, I had severe postpartum depression pretty much from the beginning. I didn’t want to hold him or bond with him. I loved him, but I didn’t feel connected to him. I fed him on demand, because I knew it was expected of me, but I just did not want to have him touching me. He seemed to be nursing well, and was gaining weight, but after a week or so, I had blisters the size of pennies on my nipples, and I ended up with mastitis. I had so much pain when he latched that I would stamp my foot and count backwards from 10 until the pain stopped. He would also nurse for short periods, scream, nurse again an hour later, and repeat. I could not lay him down flat on his back or he would cry endlessly. Years later, the dentist told me he has a lip tether on his top lip – something that went unnoticed by my care providers and it wasn’t something that I knew to assess for then. I know now that these can contribute to reflux and nipple pain, but I didn’t know that then. All I knew was that I hated breastfeeding him.

At 4 months of age, my doctor told me he wasn’t gaining well and asked me “How committed are you to exclusively breastfeeding, anyway?” I was surprised when I shot back, “Extremely. Why?” She wanted me to supplement with formula, and to start solids and give him butter and cream. I wanted to laugh in her face. What the hell kind of advice was this to give a struggling new mom? I think that bolstered my resolve, though, because I knew deep in my heart (and empirically) that she was wrong. She was trying to tell me that he was “failure to thrive”, and I resented that. Though he was slowly gaining weight and was in the 5th percentile for weight, his length and head circumference were the 50th and 85th percentile, respectively. Mind you, this child of mine was never one to be still. He met and surpassed all his milestones early, and walked at 9 months of age. I was nursing him every 2 to 4 hours and when we started solids, he would eat til the food was practically coming out of his ears! In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t listen to her when she said start solids right away. Today he’s a happy, healthy 6 year old and he is tall and skinny as ever, no matter how much food he shovels in. I nursed him til he was 2 years and 8 months old, something that horrified my mother, but I was past caring at that point what anyone thought. I had worked so hard to nurse him as long as I did, and eventually did come to love our connection, so I was content to let him go as long as he wanted.

My second child, Archer, was born Christmas Day 2016. Breastfeeding him was much easier, but was not without its challenges. Like his brother, he could not tolerate being laid flat whatsoever, and would have small frequent feedings with lots of screaming. Sometimes I would hear him swallowing hard in his sleep, and he’d wake up crying soon after. Worse, at 2 weeks of age, he started getting streaks of blood in his stool. I had been a pediatric nurse for 3 years at that point and began to run through different diagnoses in my head. Was it pyloric stenosis? No, he was voiding and stooling often, and did not have the classic “olive” sign, and was gaining weight wonderfully. Milk protein allergy? Maybe. I do love my cheese. I cut out dairy for a good 2 months and his symptoms continued to get worse. Finally, he was diagnosed with reflux, after several visits to the doctor and the realization that I’d seen the preemies in the NICU behave like this too. Like his big brother, he has a lip tether, and I had a really forceful let down reflex and a LOT of milk. The first dose of Zantac was like MAGIC – he nursed properly and then slept for 3 hours straight!!! Unfortunately, we had to keep adjusting his dose because now that he was happily nursing for longer periods, he was gaining more weight and outgrowing his dose. Still, he was thriving, and I was again glad that I’d used what knowledge I had to push to have him treated. We continue to nurse today, and at the time of this writing I am 37 weeks pregnant with another boy. It’s been tough to nurse through the pain and sensitivity caused by pregnancy, but I am determined to tandem nurse my babes.

Sometimes I feel like having a background in peds nursing and midwifery is a disadvantage to me, in that I “know” all of these things theoretically and experientially, but when it’s my own children, I begin to apply the worst case scenarios. Or, because they’re my babies, all my knowledge flies out of my head and there’s no way to be objective. However, the things I have learned have helped my patients, and in turn I’ve learned so many things from them, and from my colleagues. The way I look at it, our breasts are amazing and fascinating and the way they can sustain life is just phenomenal. I hope to someday become a lactation consultant and help other people learn the things I wish I had known when my babies were born.

If there was anything I could recommend to people wanting to nurse their babies…

Surround yourself with a good support system. Other parents who breastfeed/chestfeed are a great resource! And trust me, nobody wants to mess with a group of lactating parents who could orchestrate a full-frontal mammary assault.

Know your rights. Breastfeeding in public is protected by the Ontario Human Rights Code. Nobody is allowed to tell you to cover up, move to a more covert location, or to stop nursing your baby in public. You and your baby’s right to eat are protected by law. Their right to be a judgmental asshole isn’t.

Facebook groups can be stupidly dramatic and judgy but there are some good nuggets of info. Learn to suss out what is factual, evidence based information. Generally sites with .org, .edu or .gov are good ones to trust but if the info you read doesn’t resonate with you, look for other resources. KellyMom is a great site, and so is the LactMed database and Motherisk.

If you’ve got people giving you pushback for breastfeeding, don’t take that crap from them. No matter what their opinions or hangups are about breastfeeding, they’re not the ones who are responsible for the care and feeding of your tiny human. If it’s your spouse/partner/significant other saying negative things, same applies. You made a person together* and you’re the one with the breasts who is feeding their child. They can be helpful or they can GTFO. If they’re concerned about bonding with baby, there are plenty of non-nutritional activities they can do! Like holding baby while you take a much deserved nap, burping, changing diapers, reading stories, singing songs. Oh, and rubbing mama’s shoulders when they get stiff from holding a permalatched baby, or bringing her water and food when she’s stuck nursing for what feels like forever. (You’re welcome.)

*theoretically – families are formed in many different ways and I don’t assume anything about the gender of either parent here, though I do use female pronouns to describe the lactating parent in most of this post.

Stay hydrated. It makes all the difference, especially in the beginning when your body is trying to figure out where to allocate all this extra fluid from pregnancy.

In the hospital, if you need help, ask. If the help you’re offered is “here’s a bottle” and you don’t want one, ask for another nurse. Be the pain in the ass patient. They’re supposed to be trained in breastfeeding support and it is your right to receive it. Ask for a referral to the lactation consultant if you think you may need it.

If you have stitches/episiotomy/swelling from a vaginal delivery, side lying to nurse is sanity saving. Seriously. If you’ve had a c-section and it is painful to sit up, same applies. Use good body mechanics while you lie down and brace your incision with a pillow. And for goodness sakes take your pain meds if prescribed them. They won’t hurt your little one. You need to be comfortable and relaxed to nurse.

Speaking of pain. Nobody really tells you how FREAKING BAD the afterpains are with subsequent pregnancies, especially when breastfeeding. Anticipate this, get heating packs and Advil, and remember that breastfeeding is shrinking down your uterus and that it is not, in fact, attempting to escape through your sacrum.

Remember that you AND baby are both learning how to do this. You have the advantage of having read books and articles, watched videos, maybe attended some information sessions. As one of my former coworkers used to say, “Baby never read the book. Baby can’t read.” Have grace with yourself, and with your little one.

Last but not least…I really hate the term “fed is best” because a fed child is the absolute bare minimum. I came across something that said “informed and supported is best” and that’s the philosophy I try to live by when it comes to infant feeding. I firmly believe the media tries to pit mothers against each other with this binary of breast vs bottle, vaginal delivery vs c-section, home birth vs hospital birth, etc., as a way to make us feel incompetent so we buy their shit. Real talk: none of those things makes you any more or less of a mother. Loving your child, nurturing your child, safeguarding their health as they grow – those are the important things to focus your concern. Infant feeding methods do incorporate those three things, but they are not worth dividing ourselves over. So, bottom line – if you see a mom breastfeeding in public, smile and encourage her. If you see a mom giving her baby a bottle, smile and encourage her. You don’t know what someone’s individual circumstances are like, so be kind. ----Andrea Benoit