August is National Breastfeeding Month and today marks the end of National Breastfeeding week. In the spirit of this year’s theme, Charting The Course Together, I’m sharing my own breastfeeding journey. It’s pretty much impossible to discuss how my foray into breastfeeding began without disclosing a deeply painful personal story that began the night my first son Bear was born. It was the Fourth of July, and when he entered the outside world, the East River fireworks were the only sound in the room. He was blue, he was not breathing and no one would speak to me.
I believed for the first few minutes that my baby did not survive. He was sent to the NICU after five minutes. There was no skin to skin, I didn’t get to hold him in my arms. He was held up to my face so that I could give him a single kiss on the cheek before he was taken away. He had my husband’s lips, just as I wished he would. “What color are his eyes?” I asked the room, which was filled with three doctors, and eight nurses. No one would tell me.
The next morning, a lactation specialist wheeled a gigantic, noisy pump into my hospital room (closet, this was Manhattan) and I sat there for 10 minutes and pumped less than an ounce. When I asked if they would please give it to my son, the nurse was sent in to tell me that Bear was not yet drinking milk. He was being fed IV fluid through a tube in his bellybutton and they did not know when he would have the tube removed.
I continued chugging Nalgene bottles filled with water, pumping every two to three hours in the hospital, and saving the tiny droplets into clear and purple Lansinoh storage bags. I cried for my son, and I cried thinking that he would never drink it. I kept pumping in the neonatal intensive care unit, where I spent every day staring at my baby covered in tubes, while other mothers’ tiny children flatlined in nearby beds. The nurses called Bear “the biggest baby in the NICU.”
My husband and I left the hospital three days later, without our son. Every single block we passed was a knife in my heart, a punch in the face. I could barely breathe when I walked into our apartment. My mother said she had never seen me cry like that. After she went home, I sat in bed and pumped again. The zipper on my pumping bra broke, but this time, two ounces filled the bottoms of the bottles.
On day 4, the NICU nurses called to let us know they would try to feed him a bottle of my milk. I went over to the hospital first thing in the morning, as I did every day, and continued to pump and stare at his face. He ate it like a champ, so I kept pumping. I felt like I was finally comforting him. I was finally giving him something he needed.
I wore the pumping bra with the broken zipper, keeping it zipped and pulling it over my head which was awkward enough to do in front of a room full of strangers and unwell newborns so I resorted to wearing strapless dresses and tops for easy access.
On day 6, I was able to hold him and feed him straight from the tap. “You have to entice him,” our favorite nurse told me. I thought, why? Doesn’t he want it? My sister in law visited. She said, “just shove your boob in his mouth. Later on you won’t need to.” She was right. We took him home after 14 days.
The first few months felt like I lived with a small man attached to my chest. I couldn’t have been happier just having him alive, living in our noisy apartment, holding him in my arms, letting him drink whenever he wanted to. It was hotter than hell that summer in Manhattan. His pediatrician advised me not to take him out in 85 degree heat and above, so we spent our first few days lying in bed to the sounds of the AC unit while we both finally had the chance to recover from delivery and just be together. I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were practicing the method described as “lying in.” I would use it again later on when my supply dipped. I continued to pump once or twice a day once he was eating a little less and stashed the milk in storage bags in the freezer after three days. I wasted money on another pumping bra, until my cousin put me on to this game changing Pump Ease jam. Once my maternity leave ended, I nursed Bear while I blogged using this pillow.
Breastfeeding gave Bear and I the physical bonding experience that we had been missing those first two weeks. Emotionally and spiritually I had already felt so intensely conjoined to his little soul. I always say that Bear’s stay in the NICU was the darkest time in our lives, but it was also the greatest gift. I never whined about losing sleep or having to care for him because I knew how crushing it felt not to hear my baby cry, not to be able to feed him, or hold him, or look into his eyes (which are Hunter green, foreshadowed by his middle name). It gave me the gift of the deepest gratitude I could ever fathom.
On weekends, my husband would feed him bottles so I could go out with my friends or by myself or get my nails done. Once Bear was five months old, I hired my first nanny and had her feed him so I could work and go to meetings. It took months before I allowed her to take him on walks or to the park and she was kind and patient about my neuroses.
I breastfed Bear until he nearly bit my left nipple off at 9 months. He had a ton of teeth and he was excited to use them. With my nipple hanging by a thread and only one usable breast, I realized I had to wean him onto bottles only. I began using up my frozen supply, and begrudgingly began researching formula as we prepared for our first international trip without our little man. I decided on Baby’s Only Lactorelief Formula, since it was the only one without scandal. At first, Bear scoffed at the non-mama milk, but he eventually got over it. Until he got coxsackie. He then refused everything except for my homemade applesauce (just pink lady apples and cinnamon in the Blendtec) and breast milk. That was the end of my entire supply. He was on formula for two months before we switched to whole milk at 1 year.
Although I had planned to nurse Bear for a year, I know I made the right decision. I mean, my nipples and my baby had been through enough and I couldn’t feed him milk with THAT much blood in it (a little is OK, there is a trace amount via cracked nipples for the first couple of weeks post partum).
My experience with Luke has been very different. I elected to have a c-section because I could not handle the thought of another one of my babies getting hurt, and we still do not know why Bear was injured on his way out. I had the surgery in the morning, and in the late afternoon he was laid naked on my chest. He nursed right away. I was worried that my supply would suffer from not going through labor, but my milk came in so quickly he couldn’t keep up with my supply. Mr Dr. said that can happen when you have two babies in two years. I quickly noticed that he unlatched frequently, and later that day, I was told by the pediatrician that Luke had a tongue tie. The doctor said they didn’t feel that it was severe enough that it had to be remedied immediately, if at all. They said that I could take time to think about it and to see how nursing went over the next couple of weeks.
When the lactation specialist came to check in on us, I said, “It’s going great, thanks!” Which meant girl, bye. Instead, she stayed, and asked if she could take a look. I thought she was going to watch Luke eat, but before I could pick him up, she reached into my nursing tank, and pulled my right breast out. She squeezed my sore nipple like a navel orange and swirled the milk on my areola. “Beautiful. Just beautiful.” I sat there with my mouth agape before I laughed at the concept that I had been reduced to livestock.
Breastfeeding is uncomfortable at the start because your nipples are just not used to it, so I had a hard time telling if it was worse with Luke than the first time around with Bear. As time extended passed the initial two weeks, I realized that it was still a little painful but more importantly, I fell into a Babycenter / Baby Web MD hole so deep, I became concerned that the tongue tie could cause speech problems down the line. I saw a specialist twice, and made the decision to have Luke’s frenulum clipped. He nursed immediately after, and his latch drastically improved in just days. I don’t regret doing it, and I don’t regret taking my time to research before deciding.
If I’m being honest, the biggest difference between my nursing experiences with Bear and Luke is not even the NICU separation I experienced with Bear. It’s actually that the first time around, I would go into a separate room to nurse in private when some friends and extended family were present. Now I whip out a boob whenever wherever to feed my baby and honestly I DGAF.
The other huge difference is that this time, I wasn’t opposed to accepting help. My in-laws flew in from Chicago and helped us for the first two weeks, and my nanny and mother split the days for the remaining few weeks. It was a life saver. I was in more physical pain than emotional pain post-partum with Luke, and I was unable to pick Bear up (he was a little under two years old but the size of a three year old) at first, and their help allowed me to have quality time with both of my babies. I was worried that Bear would be upset to see me nursing Luke, but he was happy to have a little brother and he told Luke he loved him the first day we brought him home.
I will continue to nurse Luke until he is one year old or until I can’t for whatever reason (hopefully not Nipplegate the sequel). This time, I won’t agonize over the decision or spend weeks researching formulas over fears of trace chemicals. As women and as mothers, we are constantly made to feel as if we aren’t doing enough. We are. A fed baby is a happy baby and that’s all that matters.
The other day, I was nursing Luke and Bear said, “Luke is taking Mama.” I died inside thinking that he felt I was being stolen from him by his new brother. Twenty minutes later I was holding Bear and he said, “Bear is taking Mama.” I knew the truth right then and there. They are both taking me. They’ve eaten me alive in ways I never could have imagined. They know this.
I’ll be taking a hiatus over the next week to spend some down time with family. I hope you do the same before sweet Summer leaves us. Thank you for reading and for following along. Please share your BF journey in the comments!