Milkmaker | Cristina Toff, co-founder, milksource
Reading about other moms' breastfeeding journeys helps us reset our expectations, learn about normal breastfeeding challenges and provides comfort that we're not alone during a time that can feel isolating for new moms. We're in this together.
Every mother's breastfeeding journey is different, just as every baby is different. But I had no idea how difficult breastfeeding would be in the beginning, and I hear that exact same thing from every new breastfeeding mom I spend even a few minutes with. It's a universal truth, but it's not something that seems to be talked about much (or at least as much as I think it's warranted).
When I think about how to begin telling my breastfeeding story, I flash back to a few days after I arrived home from the hospital with Noam. My mom was staying with us - helping us with the dogs and the house and everything in between - while we figured out this whole parenting thing and I recovered a little. I'm in my son, Noam's, nursery, it's nighttime - it's dark outside - and I'm sitting on the floor. I'm topless and crying. I'm in pain from engorgement, and I'm confused and frustrated and concerned and scared and the only thing that I could utter was ‘What can I do?’ over and over again.
My story starts in the hospital after Noam was delivered. My first time nursing him was that night, and I remember having no idea what I was doing. I mean, I knew what it was supposed to look like but I had no idea how it was supposed to feel or if I was doing it right. Did he know what to do? Was it working? He was born at 9:49pm, so it was very late and I was exhausted by the time we got to our room and I even tried for the first time. I remember the nurse telling me that I should nurse him, and I remember thinking 'How?' as I said 'Oh, yes, of course.' I thought back to the breastfeeding course I took but my mind went blank. As I stared at this new baby in my arms, all I could think was, ‘There is no preparation for this.’ I put him to my breast, he latched and I breathed a sigh of relief that it was in fact, I thought, working.
I remember getting home from the hospital and feeling like a wave had rushed over me. It's overwhelming being in the hospital, post-delivery and breastfeeding with so many people around you. But it's a completely different level being home, post-delivery and breastfeeding with really no one around you. No one to guide you or make sure it’s going well.
That evening crying in the nursery was probably the toughest day since having Noam. And now that I really think about it, it was tougher than any day following it. I felt defeated and helpless and confused, and those feelings - coupled with all of the other feelings I was feeling as a new, sleep-deprived, hormone-driven, overwhelmed new mom - were really tough. I remember thinking to myself ‘I’m not sure I can do this if this is how it’s going to be.’ I didn’t know if it would get better. Looking back, I didn’t know much. But I did know that breastfeeding was my commitment and promise to myself and my son, and so I persisted. That sentiment of not being able to do this - the one that made me question the single most parenting important decision I had made thus far and might ever make - is the reason I'm so passionate about breastfeeding education and support now. It’s the reason I’ve become a Lactation Educator Counselor, it’s the reason I'm working toward becoming an IBCLC and it's the reason I'm pouring my heart into milksource.
I remember going to the pediatrician's office on Friday - Noam was just 4 days old. As I walked into the room, boxes and bottles of formula lined the shelves - in plain sight, they were the first thing I saw when I walked in - and coupons for formula were placed on the countertop. Nowhere was there mention of breastfeeding, yet formula was everywhere. So, unsurprisingly, after weighing Noam with a scale that ultimately proved to be not calibrated correctly (therefore displaying his weight lower than it was), the pediatrician suggested immediately that I supplement with formula.
I told her definitively “No, I‘m not going to do that." and went home and cried. (I never went back to her.) To be sure, I wasn't upset that formula was suggested in and of itself. I was upset that there were no alternatives offered - like a visit with an IBCLC, like pumping, like spoon feeding, and no options discussed. She didn't even ask me how breastfeeding was going. I didn't feel listened to or heard, which made me feel not respected. And in those first few days when I'd never felt more vulnerable or scared, that was the opposite of what I needed.
My milk volume didn't increase until Friday (Noam was born on Monday), so up until then I was feeding Noam only colostrum (which is incredibly nutrient dense) - but not larger volumes of milk. No one had told me that sometimes it takes a little while for colostrum to transition to mature milk, so I questioned myself. What was I doing wrong? What was wrong with me? Was this going to work? Noam had jaundice, too, at this point, so it was really important that he was getting enough to eat and pooping enough to get rid of the extra bilirubin. Again, no one told me that jaundice was normal - that all babies have jaundice - and so, again, I questioned myself.
But that Friday - that glorious day - my milk increased in volume and creamy white milk began to flow. Noam's bilirubin levels had plateaued and were declining and he was nursing like a champ and everything seemed great. And then the next problem arose: I was incredibly engorged. Engorgement occurs initially when your milk rapidly increases in volume, and it can cause a lot of discomfort and pain if not relieved. I don't remember it lasting long, but I do remember it being so painful. This was (among other things, probably) what I was crying about in the nursery that night.
That weekend, I made the most important call I could've made and invested several hours of our time to make sure we were heading in the right direction: I had a lactation consultant come (two actually), who helped me work through the newness of nursing, checked on his latch and my positioning and made sure he was transferring milk well. I cannot convey the relief or confidence I felt following the visit with the IBCLC, and I really couldn't recommend seeing a professional enough.
Breastfeeding got so much easier after that day. They say the first few days are the most difficult. And they are - one hundred percent. I would say the first six weeks or so were the most challenging, though. Noam was a big baby - 8 lb. 8 oz. - and my delivery was a little rough. So my recovery was difficult and it took me a pretty long while to really begin to feel okay. I was sleeping very little. My hormones were shifting a mile a minute (and hormonal shifts are a very real, very powerful thing). My milk didn't increase in volume until day 5, which is within the normal range, but I was made to feel as though it was late and something was wrong (until I was reassured that there was, in fact, nothing wrong). And Noam and I were learning - for the first time ever - how to eat and how to feed. There was a lot going on, to say the least!
Once my body regulated a little bit - once the engorgement ended - and once Noam latched well and I understood how to best position him (football on a pillow while he was super small, cradle when he got a little bigger, side-lying as often as possible) and once my body adjusted to all of the changes heaped upon it, I was able to focus on the bond that we were forging and the beauty in sustaining my baby with my body and the discomfort and pain and second guesses and self-doubt, while still present, took a back seat to this kind of string of magical moments.
That is not to say there weren't surprising or exhausting or difficult days after that or now still today (though now they're few and far between). Cluster feeding in the early days and during growth spurts was exhausting - physically and mentally and emotionally. Wondering if he was getting enough - was his nursing every 2 hours normal? (yes, it absolutely was) or if I was doing enough (yes, I absolutely was) took a toll on my mental sanity at times. The idea (and act) of nursing in public - not of being exposed but of wondering if others would say something to me, if I would receive disapproving glances or comments - caused me anxiety at times. And the occasional bite, when he first cut a few teeth, that made me wonder if this was what the rest of our nursing experience would be like. But if there's one thing I've learned through breastfeeding, it's this: there are many, many challenges but nothing is impossible.
But those troubles were often overshadowed by the surprises and delights of nursing Noam. I reveled in the chipmunk-like noises Noam would make when he was searching for milk or latching and the way he scrunched his nose and the dimples on his chubby little hands when he'd grasp me tightly. My heart melted at the sight of his thankful eyes and the goofy smile that'd creep across his face when he was satisfied. I love watching him drift to sleep purely from my milk. And when he says ‘milky pees’ to ask for milk these days - well, my heart just about bursts.
Today, our breastfeeding story is as close to magic as I think I'll ever come. It's comical at times - I often find a foot on my face or a finger in my nose or mouth and it can be frustrating at other times as I attempt to set boundaries, but it's always just pure magic.