Published on September 3rd, 2013 | by Meg Lemke7
LATCHED: Meg Lemke on Breastfeeding Troubles (and a Toddler)
I had never felt anything like religious fervor before having a baby. But I was converted to the myth that there is a right way to mother. When my daughter was days old, and she could not latch at the breast, I wrote “God forgive me for giving her formula.” In the terrifying sweep of postpartum exhaustion, I had fallen. God forgive me. I wept and wept.
But, you know, she is a pretty good kid despite those artificial ounces that she desperately ate when we desperately fed her. In the hospital, after 29 hours of labor and coming up on 48 hours of a newborn who couldn’t nurse, we gave her a little tiny medicine cup of Similac. She was hungry.
This is not just a story about how I fed Lola formula and it was fine and everyone needs to calm down. That is also true. It is a mother’s responsibility to feed your baby. You do it the best you can.
My daughter is now over two years old and still nursing. Like, a lot. She is a nursling old enough to get stares even in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
We worked hard; I lucked out.
I was ultimately able to breastfeed because I forgave myself, in advance, if I ended up not sustaining the crazy effort it took for us. Mothers who told me they had made peace with supplementing taught me as much as the La Leche League leader who detailed her pumping exclusively for six months plus. The lesson of feeding Lola has been about acceptance and perseverance. It is a balance I hope to bring forward in my parenting.
I couldn’t think months ahead without panic attack, but I was able to take it day-to-day, hour-by-hour. Rock the baby swing with one foot while hooked up. Pumping sucks (ha). I “protected my supply,” as we say, while waiting for Lola to grow. Babies will crawl to the breast from the moment of birth. Lola did that; she just couldn’t attach. We mixed the egg-yellow colostrum-y milk I was getting with formula. We practiced nursing, a heartbreaking acrobatic exercise. My husband would sit with me and help and feel helpless. The best advice I got was to stay calm. (I wasn’t able to follow it).
Pumping 8, 10, 12 times a day, I was often just an ounce ahead of my baby’s appetite. I drank cups and cups of bittersweet fenugreek tea. We kept formula in the cupboard, but after the first week or so, never used it again. I would open the can and stare at it. I would stare at my baby. She would sleep and wake, every moment a new wonder in her world. I pumped once or twice in the middle of every night. I knocked over the pump and sobbed hysterically over spilt milk. It is a living food.
We fed her with that medicine cup, then a syringe, then a tube taped to her father’s finger (while I waited nearby, pumping) and then (messily) to my breast. Then a bottle, and I was so profoundly embarrassed by it—that bottle. Friends would stop to congratulate us on the street, and I would interrupt “that’s breastmilk in there.” I was sure they were wondering.
When Lola was a newborn and scrabbling at my chest, the milk coming in, leaking down, but she couldn’t manage to get at it, it felt like both a betrayal and a failure. I was angry, deep, deep in my heart, though I held her closer and loved her so thuddingly. Little small babies are like animals. They are animals. They make squirrel noises and they root and paw. (They do not really love you back yet; you need to feed them a while first).
The nurses at the hospital all had different tricks and ways of mashing me up and holding her sideways, but it didn’t take. We hired a lactation consultant who gave opposite advice. We used nipple shields, soaking them in warm water to stretch; sometimes they’d snap off and fly across the room. We cut Lola’s tongue at a flashy ENT in Manhattan; she was four days old. They put the baby to your breast directly after the snip, and the blood covers you. Nothing was covered by insurance. And her nursing attempts actually got worse after the procedure. They said Lola had to “get used to her new tongue.” Her father said to me “You never would have circumcised a son, yet you did this to her.” There’s a fad for frenotomy. Research and certainly anecdotes claim it helps many babies and mothers. But Lola may have just grown into herself. My husband, who has a tongue-tie himself, is sure she would have. (He nursed until he was three.)
When you carry your newborn skin-to-skin, lull them to sleep with your breath, you increase milk supply. I used to balance Lola above the pump’s flanges while it chugged.
Your children don’t always do what you want them to do. You love them. You wait them out. Nursing has been a pleasure for us much longer than it was a hardship. Lola wakes up now and she cries “Nuky! Milky SIDES!” (a phrase derived from “one side and then the other”). She laughs and does a little dance when I pull down the neck of my shirt. (Toddlers like routine; if I try to go under the shirt she gets p-i-s-s-ed).
We nurse through the dawn, I dream during. She nurses down for (almost) every nap. We used to nurse all night, hour upon hour. She nurses her babies; her kitty; her dino; she fishes my bra from the laundry, wrapping it around a few times “by her own-self” and snuggles the dolly in. I nurse her on the subway, in my lap at dinner, or during the lullaby in our music class. She says “milky ’puter (computer), milky couch, milky floor, milky bed,” wherever I think to sit. She literally stands on her head and nurses.
I still feel like we just got this thing going; some days it seems it might never end.
I want to capture that sense. You turn around and they are grown.
When Lola was born, I went almost daily to nursing support groups. A clinical circle of folding chairs at the pediatrician’s, everyone stunned in post-partum narcissism, surrounded by each other’s worry and glow. I did the elevator lift to stop her crying—raising her slowly up and down. She was quiet—but she screamed again when I brought her to the breast. And the consultant told me she just didn’t know how to help me. I broke down. It felt like something was really wrong with my child.
The Tuesday group at the hospital, in an ugly back room, with an awesome Australian LC. You could weigh your baby before and after feeding—don’t change the diaper, it all counts!—and subtract the difference to see what they managed to take in. Comparing numbers with the other mamas, starting that cycle of sizing your kid up against their peers that never stops until you stop it. On Thursdays, a yoga studio where the consultant lectured us for a half-hour about politics–and Lola latched for one of the first times. My back against a rolled up yoga blanket, closing my eyes, remembering to breathe, the pain and the reversing contractions. The oxytocin hits like a deep sip of wine. I was finally (a little bit) calmed.
Before the first La Leche League meeting I attended, when Lola was a few weeks old, I wrote the leader because I was afraid to bring a bottle. But despite the ways LLL meets its stereotypes, there are more ways it doesn’t. She wrote back, “Please come… While you are working on the breastfeeding, you have to feed your baby. That is the #1 priority! So no one will dispute that.” La Leche League has a bias, and they honor a certain sacrifice. But while most clinics focus on ways to nurse efficiently, LLL teaches giving yourself over to the time it can take.
Time was what we needed. When Lola did start nursing, her latch was still shallow–I cracked and bled (and got thrush and vasospasms and blocked ducts). Then I still had to pump after every feeding. She would take 45 minutes or more to nurse and was hungry every 1-2 hours. I’d pump the 20 minutes in between. Sit dazed for ten. It was too much but it’s always too much when they are newborns, everything is too much. This was just our too much.
Now when we nurse it is a rest, a game, a ritual. What was claimed to be born natural, became natural. It took months, but got better when I stopped using the iphone app to track, when I learned to nurse her in the baby carrier and sling, when I could walk out the door with her latched. Lola’s first baby signs were “more” and “milk.” She learned to say “please” when I coached her to ask nicely for access. The beauty of nursing a toddler is that as insistently as they may want it, they don’t need it. It is an emergency when you can’t feed your newborn. Now Lola eats curry wrap and waffles and lentils and “cow-milk-in-cup, IN CUP. No! OTHER cup!” Nursing becomes a conversation.
It was mothers helping mothers that got me through. And fear of their judgment; shame and anticipated shame motivated me, unmistakably. I hate to admit how much. Breastmilk is best. I wish I could write that fact, without being sorry how much judgment it can carry. Best isn’t always an option. We need better support for mothers who are trying to nurse, and support when they can’t. We parent our “best” in degrees; we do the best we can.
When my daughter was born she was a revelation. I was so happy; but it was so hard. It was all worth it.
If you are having trouble nursing:
-Get help. Turn down advice that you don’t want. Opinions will conflict; be critical of received wisdom. It’s your child.
-Go to a (free!) La Leche League meeting and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Go when you’re still pregnant, if you can. Bring the leader’s number to the hospital.
-If you give birth in a hospital, ask to see the on-staff lactation consultant. Prepare a list of consultants you can contact if you need more help after you’re discharged. Comparison shop in advance. While I don’t dispute that lactation consultants should be paid as well as any professional, their services are rarely covered by insurance. (Nursing support should not be a luxury expense.) For homebirth, ask your midwife if she has LCs on call.
–Protect your supply. Practice. Time can often make the difference. Be patient with yourself and with your baby. Try to sleep when you can. Take it day-by-day.