Like most pregnant women, I had some pretty crazy dreams when I was pregnant with Sofia; surreal, vivid, jarring, Technicolor dreams that I would often wake from either laughing or crying out loud. I was certain that most of them were borne of my hidden insecurities about pregnancy, giving birth, and motherhood, and, for as much reading as I did in those months leading up to her birth, I felt as prepared for the delivery and motherhood as I was ready to tackle performing open-heart surgery.
One of the most memorable dreams I had was about two months before she was born. In the dream, I had gone into labor, and much to my delighted surprise only had to push for about 5 minutes and out slid a perfect baby boy with a full head of black hair! I was ecstatic that the birthing process was so easy, and started to get down to the business of breastfeeding. Once my beautiful baby boy tried to latch on I started laughing hysterically. “IT TICKLES!” I shouted. After a few more attempts I wrote off breastfeeding entirely.
I could not do it. It tickled just too damned much.
I woke myself up giggling and thought, wow, giving birth is going to be a breeze! This nursing thing, though, clearly requires a bit more thought. What’s wrong with formula? I was a formula baby, after all. And, I’m definitely having a boy. Everyone that sees my bump says so, and now my dream agrees!
Fast-forward two months, and flanked by a nervous husband, calm-as-a-cucumber doula, midwife, doctor and nurse, I labored for an agonizing total of 31 hours (4.5 hours of which was pushing) and I gave birth to a healthy baby… GIRL?
Shaking from worn-thin adrenaline, I nervously brought Sofia to my breast and she immediately latched on and started to suckle. “Success!” I thought. This breastfeeding thing is way easier than I’d anticipated.
Following the guidance of my parenting textbooks, I allowed her to nurse roughly 15 minutes on each side, burped her, and expected her to sleep for a few hours until the next feeding. The nurse whisked her away while I settled into my bed for a snooze. I mentally patted myself on the back and secretly judged other moms for complaining about the difficulties of nursing or getting sores and blisters from improper latching. Clearly, they hadn’t done their homework.
I was born to be a mother.
I had barely settled into a comfortable position when the door to my recovery room popped open. Why was there a screaming baby in the room??
“I think she’s still hungry”, suggested the nurse, and a very red-faced and angry Sofia confirmed her suspicions. Confused, I latched her on once again and followed the 15-minute 2-course meal as I had done before.
Only this time, she seemed unsatisfied. Fussy. Angry. She howled. What was going on??
Why wasn’t she following the schedule in the books? Didn’t she know she should be full and happy? By the end of that first day, she fed every hour and still seemed hungry. Or was she tired? Oh, there’s the answer – she pooped! Change her diaper! Good as new!
Nope. Still screaming. Still mad.
By the next morning, we had part of an answer: Sofia was jaundiced, and it was making her super sleepy. Maybe too sleepy to feed properly.
Even better, my milk hadn’t fully “come in” yet, and she wasn’t getting enough food from me when she was suckling. Everything I had read and prepared for didn’t prepare me for the possibility that my boobs wouldn’t work; that my body couldn’t provide the food that my baby needed to live. The nurse spoke in very low, sympathetic tones as she held out the plastic bottle of ready-to-feed formula.
I eyed it suspiciously. She may as well have been handing me a bottle marked, “poison” with a skull and crossbones on it. “Are you sure I have to give her this formula? Can’t we wait a little more for my milk to come in?” I pleaded with her as if I knew my milk were on the way; just stuck in a little traffic… it’s arriving any minute, you see? Can’t we just wait? She shook her head and explained the bilirubin levels to me again, stressing the importance of enough fluids to keep the levels going down. “Do you want me to feed it to her?” she asked.
“No, I’m her mother. I’ll feed it to her” I mumbled.
I read the ingredients on the formula bottle. The first few ingredients: water, milk, lactose, and safflower oil. Ugh.
When I think about it now, I was a bit overdramatic, sobbing while feeding my newborn formula. My husband, Matt, couldn’t do anything but watch and try his best to be supportive. “It’s okay. You and I both only had formula when we were babies” he reasoned.
But, by the time Sofia was born, I had set expectations that she would only need my breast milk and nothing else. I had read too much about the benefits of breast milk versus formula. “Breast is best, breast is best, BREAST IS BEST!” It was kind of my mantra. I had drunk the breast-is-best Kool-Aid and I felt like I was poisoning my one-day-old baby.
I was a mess. I was a horrible mother.
In the hours and days that followed, I supplemented formula with each feeding and her bilirubin levels started to slowly decrease. But days turned into weeks and my milk supply refused to increase. Each feeding was a major production, starting with feeding 15 minutes at each breast, followed with a few ounces of formula, burping, diaper change, and then I finished off with pumping what milk I could squeeze out of my breasts, which, was shockingly little. At best, I was pumping out a half ounce after each feeding.
I felt like I was going crazy.
Sofia would fall asleep as soon as she got near my boobs, so I did what the books tell you to do: tickle her feet and chin, blow in her face, cold washcloth pettings. Undress her so she’s nice and cold and awake.
It was like my boobs were not so much a source of food as they were a huge dose of baby Ambien. If I put her down to sleep after she fell asleep at the boob, she howled because she was hungry. Once she had the formula she would happily sleep for 3+ hours. The less she suckled, the less my breasts produced and the more I had to supplement. It was a vicious cycle.
Between the feeding circus, post partum hormones, and lack of sleep, I was slowly going insane. I started to resent not having a mom around to tell me what to do and help pick up some slack. Every time the alarm on my phone bleeped, glowing at me with my programmed message of “feed Sofia”, I groaned. I couldn’t believe 3 hours had passed so quickly since the last time she fed. But of course, 30 minutes of that was breastfeeding, 10-15 minutes of formula feeding, and 45 minutes for pumping and cleaning all the pumping parts, which really only left me with about 1.5 hours to settle down and snooze until the next feeding.
I started to resent the alarm.
I wondered what would happen if I accidentally dropped my phone in the toilet.
After hours of online research on numerous websites and blogs (the best were La Leche League and KellyMom), and consulting with two different lactation consultants over the course of three weeks – one over the phone and finally visiting one in person (which involved serious manhandling of my boobs and Sofia’s head to get the latch corrected – turns out I was doing it wrong, after all) – my milk supply was still nearly non-existent.
I talked to my older sister, Kate (mother of two nursed babies), on the phone multiple times a day. She listened to my whining and was sympathetic to my plight, “mine didn’t come in until 5 days after I gave birth”. I reminded her that it had been two weeks.
Elizabeth, the on-call lactation consultant was more pragmatic. “Well, you’re doing everything right and it’s still not coming in. It will be okay if you have to switch to formula.” I didn’t want that to happen, but I was coming to the end of my rope. I was snapping at my newborn because she couldn’t get it together, and snapping at Matt because he didn’t have a pair of working boobs either.
I needed to think about my limits.
I set a plan with Elizabeth: if my milk didn’t come in by the end of the third week, Sofia would just have to be a formula baby. Perfect. What sweet relief to finally have a workable plan and firm deadline. My inner consultant rejoiced.
I sobbed quietly after hanging up with the phone with Elizabeth and clawed at my stupid, empty breasts.
On the third Friday after Sofia was born (deadline day), we went through our normal routine two more times: breastfeed, supplement with formula, burp, diaper change, pat her to sleep, pump, and clean up. Around midday, at her third feeding, something strange happened. She started feeding at the breast like normal: bored and reluctant, take it or leave it. After a few minutes, she started suckling differently.
Her eyes, which normally fluttered and drooped 3-4 minutes into each feeding, suddenly flew open and stayed open. The sucking grew stronger and I heard gulping. Like, formula-feeding-gulping. And it continued for 15 blissful minutes before she slowed down started to drift asleep.
I popped her off and burped her, and reached for the formula bottle. But instead of expectantly waiting for the bottle, she was fast asleep on my shoulder, milk dribbling down my back from her open mouth.
My milk had finally come in.
When I started breastfeeding, I told others that I would try to do it as long as I could – maybe 6 months, maybe a year? It was so hard those early weeks, and even after my milk came in, Sofia was what my second lactation consultant, Julie (the one they call the boob-whisperer at Piedmont Hospital) would call a “snack-n’-snoozer”.
She still loved to fall asleep at my boob after only about 10-15 minutes, and since I stopped supplementing after that magical Friday, this meant that she sometimes fed every 45 minutes. I religiously logged every feeding into a breastfeeding app on my trusty phone that tracked how many minutes she ate and which boob she ate from last, and at the height of her feeding frenzy in the first year, she spent 500 minutes a day minutes at my breasts.
Yep, that’s over 8 hours a day.
I felt like the pictures of the mommy monkeys that you see in National Geographic: a baby monkey permanently attached to the side of her body, nipple in mouth as mommy goes about her business of foraging for berries, picking for mites, and jumping through branches of trees.
Only, I couldn’t do much while she was hanging onto my boob. I did, however, become best friends with my iPhone, and would expertly perform Safari searches on “what is normal breastfeeding?”, and, “when do babies start sleeping through the night?” with one hand, while cradling a half-sleeping, half-suckling baby in the other.
I was glad I never went through with flushing my phone down the toilet.
I used to wonder out loud to Matt whether my ass would become permanently flat because of the amount of time Sofia and I spent together parked on the living room sectional. We laughed because we both knew it was ok if it did (and it did, I’m really not kidding. I had to coax life back into my backside slowly, but that’s for another post entirely).
But the most amazing thing about my nursing journey is that I went from resenting it horribly to loving it dearly.
Just today, I looked back at the little notes I used to take on my phone to keep myself occupied as Sofia nursed and dozed. When nothing else could comfort her when she was colicky in the early weeks, a little nibble at the boob calmed her down. If she woke in the night and couldn’t be calmed, a short feeding would put her right back to sleep.
At three months young, she would pet my chest as she nursed, moving her hand back and forth across my chest as she fed, using the back of her fingers one direction, and then her palm going back the other way. She would grab my shirt in her fist or tuck her hand under my shirt just above the breast she was feeding from, and the other hand was almost always at my side, kneading the skin on top of my ribs and waist like a kitten.
At times, when she wasn’t hungry anymore but still alert she’d look up at me until I looked down at her. Once I looked at her, talked to her and smiled, she’d smile back, open-mouthed, with my nipple still in her mouth, a thin line of milk making its way down her cheek.
It melted my heart.
After she finished eating and was satisfied, she’d pop herself off, eyes closed, lips pursed with her bottom lip tucked under, blissfully drifting off to sleep. These were the moments that kept me going – “just one more month” at time. Through the 3, 4, and sometimes 5+ per night nighttime nursing sessions. Through the acrobatic nursing when she became more mobile. Through the biting when she was teething (and even after she got teeth – ouch!).
Until one day I looked up and she was an efficient 13-month old nursling, needing only 4-5 feedings a day (down from 12!), and it was time to think about weaning. I continued to feed her until she was about 17 months old – although by then, it was really only a single 5-10 minute nursing nightcap to put her down for the night.
Looking back on it now, after she’s been fully weaned for 5 months and cannot seem to stay still for 5 seconds, I sometimes miss those days of nursing and snoozing together. Those content, milk-drunk looks she’d get as she dozed off in my arms, so happy to be cradled in mommy’s arms. The way I used to smell the top of her head and study her long eyelashes and perfect rosy lips as she slept.
I’m so glad we had that time together, and so glad I didn’t give up.
I won’t say that Sofia and I wouldn’t have such sweet memories if she hadn’t nursed. I no longer think that formula is the devil, and believe that you can be just a good a parent feeding your baby formula from a bottle as you can from a boob. But, I’m glad we shared those months together figuring things out. Learning from each other and growing together. The patience I learned in those early days still sustains me today when Sofia tests my limits with her unreasonable toddler behavior.
So as I sat, contemplating what my first blog posting would be about, it was clear to me what it had to be. Of course it had to be about the hardest part of my first year of motherhood. Because, as I watch my belly slowly growing with baby #2, only 12 weeks along the way, I know that I won’t have the luxury to do as I did with my firstborn: to take our time and really get to know one another one-on-one. To wallow around on that giant sectional all day long, snoozing and snacking and web-surfing together.
Baby number 2 will have to share his or her life with a rambunctious big sister and get dragged around the city doing big-girls’ stuff.
So I consider myself pretty lucky in the end.
And after nursing several hours a day with me for many months, Sofia isn’t so bad off either.
Below are just a few links to websites and articles I found extremely helpful during my entire breastfeeding journey (after all, I did a LOT of surfing during those hours and hours of feeding):
This post was originally written in October of 2014, when I was just expecting my second baby, and I’m now finally getting around to posting it as my first blog posting, nearly a year later!