When I was a little girl, I dreamed of the day that I would be a mama. I would wrap my dolls in blankets, hold them in my arms and pretend to nurse them just as I saw my own mother feeding my younger siblings. What I didn’t know at the time was that though God made the art of breastfeeding to be natural, He does not always make it come naturally!
This week is National Breastfeeding Awareness week, so I want to pay special recognition to the breastfeeding mamas in the world. There are many who have wanted to breastfeed and cannot for one reason or another, and there are some who chose not to, and that’s ok, too. This post is not one about judging whether or not one should or shouldn’t choose to breastfeed, but rather to give a hug of appreciation to my own mother and every other breastfeeding mother for nursing her children when it wasn’t always easy.
My own first experience began much differently than I had expected. I had envisioned the birth of my child, him being immediately laid on my chest & then rooting around until he found his milk. I thought we would cuddle closely as we learned each other and bonded in those first moments of his life, and though I expected there to be some struggle in the learning, I had no idea how much. Since God chose to send me little boy almost 7 weeks prior to term, the reality was that after a long night of labor starting around 1:00am, his birth at 8:42am, a quick hold of my newborn before he was whisked away for assessment, and then an entire day spent going back and forth from the NICU as my premature baby was cared for by medical personnel, I retired to my hospital room around 11pm that night and we realized that I needed to call lactation to help get me set up with a pump and supplies since my baby was not going to be feeding directly from the breast just yet.
And so, my first experience was not the sweet little mouth of my beautiful son, but instead the cold, hard plastic horns of a pump… every 2-3 hours… 24/7. Oh, my. Not at all what I had expected. Thankfully, my son was strong enough that on day two of his birth the doctors were willing to let us start practicing breastfeeding. We had so many struggles. His mouth was so small, his jaws were weak, he would start to suck and then forget to breathe, he would choke trying to swallow, he would latch and then immediately unlatch and fall off, he would get frustrated and impatient… I would get impatient! This was not at all what I had imagined! He had a feeding tube down his throat because he was hardly getting any milk from nursing, so after each practice session some milk I had previously pumped would be sent down his feeding tube… and then I would go and pump again. At first we were only allowed to practice once a day, then twice, until finally after a couple of weeks we were practicing at every feeding time. He was still so weak and not gaining weight well, so we continued with the feeding tube. One doctor wanted to fortify my breast milk up to 22 calories per ounce with human milk fortifier, insisting that breast milk was only 20 calories per ounce. However, I was adamant that I would not be using GMO laden fortifier unless absolutely necessary, so after speaking with a lactation consultant, we had my milk tested and sure enough, the samples tested 23-30 calories per ounce depending on the time of day the sample was taken. I was so very thankful that we did not need to fortify my milk! We were discharged from the NICU after 3 weeks and so excited to go home, but little did I know that the breastfeeding battle had just begun.
After a few days at home we went in to the pediatrician office and Josiah was weighed. He had gained 3 oz in 4 days. Not bad, but not ideal as they said the goal was 0.5-1oz per day. We went back home & kept practicing. All day and all night we worked on feeding. A week later we went back for another weight check. He had gained nothing in a week. Not one ounce. I thanked God that he had not lost any weight. Prior to his birth, my husband and I had decided that we did not want to give our baby pacifiers and that we would wait to introduce a bottle until closer to the end of my maternity leave. Because of his lack of weight gain and weak suck, the pediatrician advised that we go ahead and try a pacifier to help strengthen his jaw and that we would need to “top him off” with an ounce or two of pumped milk after feedings to help him gain weight. I was devastated… and anxious. I had read so much about nipple confusion caused by artificial nipple use with newborns. Yet, there seemed to be no alternative. They also thought my once ample milk supply had dwindled since Josiah was not nursing well. During the discharge process from the hospital, I was told that I no longer needed to use the breast pump throughout the day since Josiah was nursing, but I later learned that this was poor advice in our situation since he was not nursing well enough to keep up my supply. I started researching how to increase milk supply and began pumping after every nursing session, taking Fenugreek 3 times a day, making lactation cookies with oats, brewer’s yeast & flaxseed, and drinking many cups of mother’s milk tea. We also started co-sleeping so that he could night nurse frequently.
Over the next couple of weeks, we used a bottle with pumped milk after each nursing session, but still my little one was not gaining weight well. Each week he weighed a little more, but never the weekly goal and each day it seemed like his nursing was getting worse and we were having to give more from the bottle. The slow flow bottle nipple sent the milk out too fast and he would choke and thrust his tongue to stop the flow… but then he would do the same when he went to nurse & get frustrated that he couldn’t get his milk very well when nursing. It was the dreaded nipple confusion. I was a weepy mess. I thought I was going insane. All I did was nurse (for between 40min-1.5hrs at a time), pump, bottle feed, and wash bottle & pump parts. Pairing this with a premature newborn that couldn’t sleep due to the caffeine medication he was on (oh, and caffeine is also an appetite suppressant) and we had a recipe for disaster!!! At one point I added up that I was spending an average of 18 hours a day doing something feeding related. I was getting 2-4 hours of sleep, but only in 30 minute increments. The two left over hours were spent in a brain fog. This was not at all what I expected.
By late August, we knew something had to be done differently. I was absolutely determined to breastfeed if at all possible, but after 2 months of struggling, I was so weary. At the advice of a friend, we set up an appointment with a outpatient lactation specialist. If you want to nurse your newborn but are struggling with breastfeeding issues after you leave the hospital, I strongly recommend seeing an outpatient lactation consultant. The lovely consultants in the hospital are great, but most of them are only trained for helping directly postpartum. The outpatient consultant we saw was excellent & I told her that I believe God used her to save my breastfeeding relationship with my baby. During our appointment she gave me a lot of good advice on encouraging him to nurse & then recommended a different type of bottle nipple. We started using this new bottle nipple (the Medela Calma) and it changed everything because my son had to suck in order for this nipple to send him any milk. Without sucking, no milk dripped out. This nipple mimicked the breast a lot better than any other we had found.
We kept practicing, and slowly but surely Josiah started gaining weight better and taking more from me and less from the bottle. By mid October we were no longer using the bottle at all and he was gaining 8+ ounces per week. By November he was gaining an average of 10oz per week. Although it still took him about 30 minutes to nurse and he nursed every 2-3 hours, my heart was bursting with happiness that we were making such progress!
Due to the caffeine he was on as a newborn for Apnea of Prematurity (AOP) and also what we later found out were food allergies, my son has never been a good sleeper. He was still waking up to nurse 5-6 times a night at 7 months old (we did not know at the time it was because of severe internal itching caused by food allergies), and still woke up to nurse 2-3 times a night until 10 months old. Around 11 months old he started only waking twice per night, then once a night. As hard as I tried to implement routine, it took him until 10 months to finally fall into a predictable eating pattern/schedule.
These days, he is 13 months old, weighs 23 lbs, and he nurses an average of 6 times between 8am-8pm and then sleeps from 8pm-8am, waking once usually between 4-6am to nurse and then go back to sleep until 8am. It now takes him 6-15 minutes to nurse, depending on how hungry and/or distracted he is.
My goal was to exclusively breastfeed and for his primary source of nutrition to be breast milk until his one year due date (that is August 15, so we are less than 2 weeks away!!!). What this looks like for us is that he nurses 7-8 times a day (every 2-3 hours), and then has one decent sized solid meal in the evening before bath and bedtime (generally a meat and either veggies, avocado, or potatoes). Throughout the day I sometimes give him a bite of banana, melon, veggie, or meat, but not more than a bite or two. My plan is to start slowly weaning after his one year due date by offering two solid meals a day, then three, and eventually three plus snacks until he is completely weaned. People ask me how long I plan to nurse him and my answer is that I honestly don’t know. Since he is allergic to dairy, some tree nuts, peanuts, soy, and eggs, I feel that breast milk is currently a vital part of well-rounded nutrition for him. I would ideally like to move to only nursing in the mornings and at night by the time Christmas rolls around, but we will see what happens.
I also want to encourage you that though it has been a struggle, breastfeeding has gotten easier. These days I am very thankful that I can nurse Josiah in just a matter of minutes no matter where we are without having to plan and pack bottles, pump parts, pump, formula, have access to hot water, etc. It is very convenient and has also saved us a lot of money over the past year.
It’s been a difficult year and not at all what I had envisioned, but I am so thankful that we were able to make it through the hard times and make it this far. There were many times I thought we wouldn’t make it, but The Lord was my strength and He saw us through the trials. Those long nursing sessions were excellent for times of prayer and meditating on Scripture. I am thankful to Him for every moment. Nursing my baby is precious to me.
To all of you mamas who have made sacrifices to breastfeed (or tried), way to go! Thank you for all you have been through for the good of your little one/s! Being a mommy is not always easy, but the reward is so great! Happy National Breastfeeding Awareness week!