Posted in Blog, Breastfeeding, Emotional wellness, Life as a mom, Mother, Shawna

The hardest job you’ll ever love

I never thought breastfeeding would be so difficult for me. I also never dreamed it could be so rewarding.

My mom nursed my sister and me well into our toddlerhoods effortlessly and I always thought I would do the same. My main reason for wanting a natural birth was so my baby and I could get off to a good nursing start. I read all the books, got all the gear, and braced myself for sore nipples and some awkward first weeks followed by years of blissful connection.

I did NOT prepare myself for latches that could take hours with both me and the baby sobbing and hysterical, did not prepare for a tiny, angry little 6-pound-baby facing engorged J-cup breasts full of milk that came in just hours and not days after she was born. I did not prepare myself for blood dripping down my tummy while my hours-old baby lunged at me, her lips smacking in a way that was nothing like any breastfeeding video we watched in childbirth class.

When the lactation consultant came to our house 26 hours after Quinn was born, she did the best and worst thing she could have done: Told me my anatomy (BIG boobs and flat little Hershey kiss-sized nipples) and the crazy cockeyed suck my baby had developed in utero meant that breastfeeding was just not going to happen for us without help. Not yet, anyway. She gave me a nipple shield, a thin piece of silicone that cups over your nipple and helps baby to latch correctly.

I was devastated. All of the books I read had emphasized the importance of the first few days, the danger of letting anything come between baby and the nipple.

But I was also grateful for a way to finally feed the tiny baby who still hadn’t slept and had barely eaten.

Still, I was obsessed with getting free of the shield. Every other feeding, I would try to remove it, and the struggle would resume right where it left off.

In the few hours a day that my baby slept, I obsessively surfed the net or paged through my nursing books, looking for a comforting word or two on the nipple shield. Instead, everywhere I looked was scolding and admonition: Don’t use it in the first few days and don’t use it for long or else baby will get nipple confusion and mama’s supply will dry up. My midwife insisted I needed to go cold turkey. A friend told me using the shield could impair my daughter’s language development.

I was panicked, and as the days using the shield rolled into weeks I was bordering hysterical.  I felt like I was racing against time and losing. I was so terrified and sad that I was doing harm to our nursing relationship that I didn’t realize that we were actually developing a great nursing relationship.

With the nipple shield, Q could latch and would nurse happily, though I sometimes had to use an eyedropper full of expressed milk to get her started. She was gaining weight really well, and always had the right amount of wet and poopy diapers. My supply seemed to be keeping up with her demand, too.

All day long, I was in a constant intellectual panic over the nipple shield, except when we actually nursed, usually tummy to tummy on our sides in bed, my hand on her fuzzy warm head and her big eyes on mine. The passage of time became irrelevant as I listened to her happy, satisfied gulps and felt my own breath growing shallower and calmer along with hers.

Finally, when Q was about eight weeks old, I gave up the fight against the nipple shield and accepted the breastfeeding relationship we had.

Quinn is almost 14 months old now, and she is still nursing and still on the nipple shield. We never had a supply problem and Q was exclusively breastfed the entire time. It’s not like we never hit hurdles, but we just kept on rolling. Gulp. Breath. Gulp. Breath. Gulp. Sighhhhhh.

Looking back now, I am just so sad at how much time I lost, at how many of the early hours I spent in a panic or angry at myself. I’m mad that all of the literature was so harsh when it should have been loving. I’m grateful for a dear friend in the medical field who told me very early on that recent studies show that modern nipple shields actually affect supply in fewer than two of every 100 women but that most docs and LCs just don’t know that yet.

My greatest sadness is all the times I thought I wasn’t REALLY breastfeeding. I saw that tiny piece of silicone  as a chasm seperating me and my baby when really she never noticed it at all. I wasted so much energy!

Somewhere along the line, in its uphill battle against a society that grossly undervalues breastfeeding, the breastfeeding rhetoric has gotten militant and exclusionary. The first six weeks are crucial, absolutely. Using formula or nipple shields or other breastfeeding aids can affect supply and cause latch problems, certainly. If they can, mothers should just breastfeed exclusively for the first six months at least, and I understand why the rhetoric strives to make that clear.

But the mother with a genuine problem is left feeling ashamed and guilty when she should be applauded for making a tough situation work.

Like my friend who has several milk ducts that never matured all the way so she could never get her supply up enough to exclusively breastfeed after six weeks. She had three babies, and nursed each one for two years, but she had to use formula and borrowed breastmilk to make it through. I think of her as a breastfeeding hero, but I know she feels guilty and sad.

I have other friends whose low supply meant lots of pumping in order to keep nursing going. They’d nurse their babies, give them bottles of pumped breastmilk and then pump some more. Some days, they had to give a bottle or two of formula. And in spite of these heroic efforts, they felt bad.

Unfortunately, I have many friends who gave up in the face of such guilt and frustration.

I am so grateful that I hung in there. I am grateful for the nipple shield, because as dedicated as I am, I’m not sure I could really have pumped every bottle for Quinn for the last year (you pumping mamas are amazing!!). Breastfeeding was the source of the most frustration I have ever experienced, but it has also been the most magical, important thing I’ve ever done for my baby and for myself.

If nursing is hard for you, please know you are not alone. There are millions of women all over the world trying to make it work, questioning if they should even bother. As someone who fought hard to keep nursing through lots of pain and misery, let me tell you that it was SO worth it! If you’re beating yourself up that you’re not able to give your child the exact breastfeeding relationship you pictured, please stop. That baby is grateful for the nutrition, the comfort, the connection. She doesn’t see anything else.

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  1. You did it! And it totally is *really* breastfeeding. Heck, I think it’s way more hardcore, really, the same way I feel about the moms who express pump exclusively! Dang! And yay for nursing 🙂 It is pretty awesome, in the end 🙂

  2. Thank you for this post. It could not have come to me at a better time. I am with a two week old beautiful baby, and struggling with the ‘ ideal’ breastfeeding. I have inverted nipples and my girl would not latch without a nipple shield. The shields were a gift from my sister, who had similar problems. She weaned off nipple shields at 2 weeks and that gave me the pressure to do the same. Like you, i pored through articles and every literature that exist just to get a validation that despite it, i am still doing a good job, but i received none.

    Now i am hopeful to continue our breastfeeding journey with nipple shields. The important thing is the process and not the tool used.

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