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Breastfeeding: The Most Unnatural Natural Thing in the World

An Unabridged Memoir on the Early Months of Lactation

It’s the most unnatural natural thing in the world.

I said that every time someone asked me about my experience during the 17 months I breastfed Sydney. I was never that new mother who smugly found ways to reference my breastfeeding success in thinly veiled humble brags on social media. The relief I felt after Sydney and I finally found our nursing groove would not morph into complacency for my womanhood or diehard advocacy for overzealous #BreastIsBest propaganda. I was just that. Relieved.

My breastfeeding anxiety and subsequent relief were not statistically groundless — neither nationwide nor within my own personal and professional circles. I have family members, friends and acquaintances who had tried and failed. Not tried and just didn’t like it. Tried and legitimately could not. Milk didn’t come in, or it came in but there wasn’t enough being produced. Baby could not latch. Excruciating pain was unyielding. And those stories don’t include the mothers whose return from maternity leave was conducive to neither a breastfeeding nor pumping timetable. I even have dear friends who were (or still are) so caught up in their own education and advocacy that any shred of empathy is extinguished. One even mentioned that mothers who don’t breastfeed are lazy. Lazy.

I cannot be authentic in any campaign against mom-shaming and simultaneously sling back equally negative adjectives in my own judgement of another’s judgement. And if I unwind my own critical susceptibilities, I can appreciate the passion of those who genuinely desire to spread awareness of the issues they support. However, I also cannot remain neutral on stances in which silence only emboldens judgement. As American-Romanian writer Elie Wiesel is famous for penning, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”

In the ever-evolving dynamics of our world, that sentiment never loses relevance — neither across international borders, religious beliefs, cultural differences, nor the bitter political clash on breastfeeding. From the formula debate to the societal taboos on where and how public nursing should take place, negative viewpoints abound. So, when it comes to broadly labeling the mothers of formula-fed babies as lazy, I must respectfully disagree.

Because I almost failed at breastfeeding even though I was producing plenty of milk.

Not only has my own experience guided my opinion, but it is also shepherded by the anguished voices of mothers who were devastated by their own disappointment or guilted into shame by societal pressures — if not both.

Because proving that one is able to suffer through childbirth without an epidural and then emerge from the sweat, blood and mucous with an ethereal afterglow while breastfeeding a gorgeous newborn is what defines natural womanhood and proves our worth to our male partners, right? And don’t forget to capture and share our radiant mortal-to-mother transformation on Instagram no less than an hour post-birth with a carefully crafted caption glorifying Mother Nature while concurrently appearing self-deprecating because we want to inspire other women — not make them feel inferior and envious, of course. And #nofilter because I secretly used Facetune. Also, #snapback.

Our labor and delivery were quite the literal opposite of all of that. We couldn’t see it through our rose-colored glasses at the time, but we had proudly given birth to a swollen raisin. While we had truly never beheld anything more precious, the reality is that our beloved cherub bore a remarkable resemblance to a plump, old Chinese man. As for my own postpartum condition, my hair was matted by 18 hours of dried sweat, and my hospital gown and skin were stained with a combination of blood and bodily fluids. Urination was such utter agony that I was tempted to resist all hydration, and my first bowel movement warranted its own epidural. It was also unclear where my calves ended and my feet began. All value in being able to see my toes again was lost when peering down over a deflated jello mold. And all importance hovered over the grueling nursing and diapering timetable that began immediately after the last laborious push and subsequently relinquished all postpartum recovery into fitful pockets of open-mouthed, drool-encrusted sleep. But surely breastfeeding would be the easiest and most natural part of the life miracle — according to all of the peaceful and elegant nursing photos I had seen on the internet.

The feeding schedule that our pediatrician outlined for us during our first round of check-ups in the maternity ward was as follows: Feed every three hours around the clock until Sydney stops losing weight and the scale plateaus. Until then, we were to keep a count of her wet diapers to ensure she was sufficiently hydrated, and we’d bring her to the pediatric office every few days for a weight check.

Exclusively breastfed newborns will lose weight during the first week while the mother’s body is solely producing colostrum, I was told. By day 4, my milk should start to come in and the needle on the scale would trend in the opposite direction as more calories were consumed. If our newborn’s weight loss did not at least plateau within several days, our pediatrician warned, we would begin to supplement with formula.

OK. Feed every three hours. Count wet diapers. Schedule routine weigh-ins. Got it. Should be easy enough. It’s not like I have anywhere else to be.

I like good plans. And that sounded like a good one to me. I was so confident in the plan that I didn’t give formula another thought. I set a recurring 3-hour nursing alarm on my iPhone and cracked my knuckles.

Alright; let’s do this.

By the middle of our second night at home, the brutal realities of the feeding schedule were as follows: Alarm blares. Husband brings freshly diapered baby. Try not to twist or turn in any motion that might further enrage fiery postpartum vagina. Attempt to arouse semiunconscious newborn. Tickle bottoms of tiny feet. Blow lightly on angelic face. Resort to shoving nipple in groggy baby’s mouth. Baby latches 15 to 30 minutes later and finally begins to suckle. Not softly. More of a fierce vacuum-like suction coupled with a chomping motion. (On the outset, Sydney would initiate a nearly perfect latch, but she didn’t understand how to suck. So she chewed.) Break suction and pry nipple out of gruesome bear trap in center of sweet baby’s tender face. Wipe away tears (mama’s; not baby’s, but sometimes both). Try again. Fail numerous times to engineer a comfortable latch. Submit to hungry newborn’s best efforts. Dig fingernails into bedsheets while shockingly inelastic, toothless gums knead nipples until raw. Grit teeth and pray that baby gets full quickly. Baby does not get full quickly. Cry silently as burning in nipple matches searing inferno in vagina. Repeat all steps with second breast. Thirty to 45 agonizing minutes and two scorched nipples later, begin burping baby. Pat over shoulder for 45 minutes straight. Achieve elusive, sacred burp. Attempt to stretch numb fingers out of cupped baby-patting position. Nearly two hours of tickling, blowing, shoving, prying and patting; newborn is now wide awake. Adjust position and reignite vagina. Hum and rock for indeterminable period of time. Hobble to crib and lower drowsy baby. Absorb sting of disappointment as baby begins to wail. Pick baby up. Resume humming and rocking. Vocal chords now hoarse. Baby finally nods off. Place baby back in crib. Tiptoe to bed. Next alarm set to go off in fifteen minutes.

When our pediatrician announced at our third weigh-in that Sydney was finally gaining ounces, I could have collapsed at his feet and wrapped my arms around his ankles in heaving sobs. Sydney was barely two weeks old and I was exhausted. Our newborn’s naps were startlingly short (we were not blessed with a prolific sleeper), and each time she nodded off, there was the critical decision of whether to squeeze in roughly 20 more minutes of sleep, pump extra milk to store, or catch up on three days’ worth of missed showers.

“Alright,” our pediatrician instructed, “Continue nursing at least every three hours during the day, but you can relax the night feedings to on-demand. Eventually, down the road, we’ll begin to help Sydney phase out the night feedings.”

Even though Sydney continued to awaken from hunger pangs 2-3 times a night, I was grateful for amnesty from the strict night schedule. My biggest issue, however, was that I continued to dread each and every feeding regardless of the hour. My nipples were cracked. Every session burned as if I had an infection despite numerous examinations and reassurances that I did not. I attended a weekly breastfeeding support group and consulted lactation specialists. With no shortage of expert evaluations and well-intentioned advice, I was feeling frustrated and isolated in my own mental and physical torment. Every time Sydney began her hankering snivel, my eyes would well with tears and an angry voice in my head would grimace, “She’s already hungry again?”

These were not the celestial bonding moments I had envisioned.

The night before we turned a life-changing corner in our journey, I was seated cross-legged on our couch with Sydney resting in my lap. Haggard and hunched over with my right breast firmly locked in her torturous chompers, my elbows were propped on my knees and my face was buried in my hands. Carlyle sat beside me and softly rubbed my back. I was about to resign myself to indignant defeat, sulk all the way to the grocery store, tail resentfully between my legs, and sullenly load up on Similac … and it wasn’t because I was lazy.

“What can I do?” he asked gently. Without lifting my head, I sobbed into my palms, “Nothing! There is nothing you can do!”

But there was something he did. He is the reason Sydney and I turned that corner. And he is my definition of partnership.

Carlyle was one of very few expectant fathers present in a breastfeeding workshop that I attended before Sydney was born. As I began to wither under my own desire to avoid formula-feeding, Carlyle — despite his neutrality on the debate — started digging through various maternity advice columns. Battered by sleep-deprivation, I was simply trudging forward in blind survival mode and losing my will and ability to think critically.

As the rawness of each breast increased over the weeks, I had begun to avoid a rotation in nursing positions. Nearly paralyzed by the fear of the pain, I succumbed to a traditional cradle hold. I had heard that my nipples would eventually toughen up, and I unwittingly assumed that any continued variation would only delay the process. Instead I was allowing Sydney to beat the same bruised areas over and over. It was Carlyle’s suggestion to revisit the side-lying position that brought a much-needed reprieve.

In retrospect, a side-lying position seems like such an obvious solution — enabling Sydney to gnaw on less tender areas above and below each nipple and giving a break to the rawest surfaces on the left and right sides. While it didn’t entirely subdue the burning sensation that had been crippling my progress, I was able — for the first time in four weeks — to feed my baby without shedding a tear.

As Sydney continued to gum different areas of my nipples into submission, we rotated positions, and breastfeeding was at least bearable enough to continue from day to day. She eventually learned to suckle without chewing, but it would be a full six weeks before I could nurse without any pain and months before it was entirely without discomfort — except, of course, for the occasional bite. As much as breastfeeding is a part of nature, there was nothing about it that came naturally for either of us.

When Sydney was around 14 months old, I was chatting with a close friend of mine about the formula-feeding stigma and the correlated detriment of mom-shaming. Jill holds a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education and a master’s in child and adolescent development and remains a strong proponent of breastfeeding despite her own disappointing circumstance. She had given birth to Anna 15 months earlier and had not been able to produce enough milk to exclusively nurse beyond Anna’s first week of life regardless of her educational background and loving diligence, assistance of lactation consultants, and every lactogenic food and home remedy she could find.

When a fussy, less-than-one-week old Anna finally experienced a satiated belly, full of delicious formula, she immediately became a different baby. Prior to supplementation, she could hardly be put down, cried endlessly and barely slept. When Anna came off the breast bawling after several attempts to suckle, Jill noticed her newborn’s starkly dry lips and tongue. Because Anna’s latch had been so great, it had not dawned on Jill that her baby had not been getting anything from either breast. She and her husband decided to offer an infant sample bottle to their distraught newborn, which Anna promptly consumed in its entirety and immediately slipped into a deep sleep. By the very next day, her lips were no longer dry, she napped pleasantly and seemed overall contented. Nearly six weeks later, Jill chose to switch entirely to formula when her final hope for sufficient lactation involved medication that she did not feel comfortable taking.

I shudder at the rare occurrence in which a well-intentioned mother reportedly starved her newborn to death because she didn’t realize that she wasn’t producing enough milk. Jill was careful not to pit her passion against the basic fragility of infant dehydration, but the sorrow and guilt that she was still experiencing over a year later was my voice of perspective. When the annoyances I often encountered while nursing seemed to outweigh the joys, Jill would remind me to be thankful.

Recalling her own previous judgement, she texted: “It’s just that I studied [breastfeeding] so much and even wrote papers on it! I was looking forward to that the most! I was such an advocate and hated when [mothers] didn’t do it! Yep! I was one of those … Then we went through what we went though … God works in mysterious ways. I feel that is why it went like it did … to humble me!”

While it is important to celebrate our individual and collective triumphs as new parents, it’s in the moments when our fellow mothers struggle with blinding guilt that we must remind each other of the veiled successes that often hold more value.

I breastfed for 17 months, but when you place Sydney and Anna side by side, no one can tell which baby is happier or healthier.

#FedIsBest

Image courtesy of Michelle Duquesnay Grant | Note: Postpartum double chin is even larger than it appears.

A note from Jody Segrave-Daly, Registered Nurse, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), Newborn Nursery and Newborn Intensive Care Unit Nurse, Founder of The Momivist and Co-Founder of The Fed Is Best Foundation:
I took the liberty of sharing your blog this morning before I had your permission. (Smile) Thank you! I also breastfed all of my babies, but as a NICU nurse and IBCLC, I see the deep despair of lactation failure and challenges every day, and the way ‘breast is best’ is being promoted is causing needless suffering and death. We can do much better promoting breastfeeding by providing a balance between promoting it and supporting families who cannot or choose not to. The Fed Is Best Foundation provides this balance that families are looking for and our grass roots organization is growing rapidly. Thank you again! Jody

What is The Fed Is Best Foundation?
According to their mission statement, the foundation is not against breastfeeding, but instead exists to push back against a pervasive narrative (“breast is best”) that new mothers are somehow failing their infants if they cannot or will not breastfeed, but instead resort to formula feeding:

The most recent data shows alarming trends in infant feeding, namely a rise in hospitalizations for feeding complications in exclusively breastfed newborns who don’t receive enough breast milk, including increasing rates of jaundice, hypoglycemia, and dehydration, which can threaten a newborn’s brain. All mothers who wish to breastfeed should be supported in doing so while ensuring their child receives all the nutrition they need to remain healthy and safe. However, through our research, clinical practice experience and the countless stories we’ve received since launching this campaign, we have found that mothers often feel immense pressure by society and by current breastfeeding protocols to only breastfeed their newborns, even when they do not have enough milk to do so. When they do, they often cannot gauge if their infants are getting enough. While mothers and health professionals are taught that it is rare to have insufficient breast milk, insufficient breast milk production affects at least 1 in 5 women in the first days of an infant’s life. Without enough milk, infants can starve, and starvation can cause brain injury leading to preventable cognitive and developmental delays and an increased risk of seizure disorders. The statistics are clear:

The Fed Is Best Foundation is here to represent and advocate for the millions of families whose babies have experienced complications under current breastfeeding protocols or who have been shamed for choosing any number of clinically approved and safe feeding options for their babies. We hope to educate mothers to be informed about the quantity and quality of milk their infants receive in order to prevent these complications because the brain will not wait for food. We hope to support mothers feeding choices devoid of external feeding agendas.

Originally published at MOMganized.com on February 6, 2017.

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