Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Postpartum Series: Breastfeeding

First off, I have to say how incredible you guys have been to us. I felt like we were welcomed back with a marching band and red carpet. I could have never imagined this in a million years. Thank you for supporting this blog and our little family. We are grateful for each one of you and look forward to sharing life together in this new season. 

I hoped to get this post out earlier, and plan to write more steadily moving forward, but my husband works a crazy demanding job and this week has been particularly rough, which always trickles pours more of everything on to my plate at home. Thanks for sticking with me.  

This is our first post in a series that will dive candidly into my postpartum experience. I've had a rough year with quite a few struggles—and plenty of really wonderful times, too—that I'd like to share here. I am praying these words will be a comfort to some of you as you prepare for babies, or maybe if you're still processing your own postpartum experience. 

Do you remember when I first confessed to you back when I was pregnant with Lola that I was terrified of the idea of breastfeeding? Just the thought of milk coming out of me and a foreign little person sucking at me made me want to crawl out of my skin. I knew I wanted to do it—it was the obvious choice—but I wasn't excited in the least.

That controversial post was met with new mother after seasoned mother telling me how wonderful nursing is, the euphoric hormones, the bond. I caught a glimpse of myself rocking my little girl in the dark of the night nursing and experiencing complete elation. I could buy into it, maybe even look forward to that part. But everything else freaked. me. out.

Flash forward to Lola's 2:15 a.m. birth. It was long, hard and exhausting—39 hours of active labor, including three hours of pushing. It wasn't anything out of the norm, a typical first birth, but still had me barely keeping it together by the time she was heaved onto my chest. Despite those first 15 minutes of her life outside of my body being the most euphoric 15 minutes of my entire life, I was delirious. My legs were in stirrups spread up high while I got stitched for well over an hour, my hips were in excruciating pain, and I hadn't slept more than a couple hours in days.

Lola immediately began rooting at my nipples, but I wouldn't let her get close enough to latch on. I'd imagine for some women this might be the highlight of motherhood for them. I still wasn't looking forward to it. I couldn't even fathom attempting nursing while in that current state of circumstances. That fateful first hour postpartum was so unexpected and nearly worse than the thick of labor in terms of physical and mental exhaustion. I told my doula 'no' and she obliged with the stipulation that we would try once I was done getting stitched...

Praise God, the OB finally finished my stitches and my bed was refreshed with new linens. My backside was covered in dried blood, which my doula so sweetly helped clean off and I slipped into a fresh gown. We turned off the bright lights and I sunk into bed. Somehow my tiny little Lola made it back into my arms and Matilda, our doula, urged me again to nurse her. Again, I told her no. I needed a to rest for a minute. This was probably about two hours postpartum.

Thirty minutes later, she gently prompted again. I knew it was now or never, so I reluctantly agreed. Even after having just given birth completely nude with my nether-parts all up in everyones business, I felt really exposed. It wasn't a natural feeling to have my breasts out in open air. Matilda helped me latch Lola and she sucked gently a couple sucks at a time and then bobbed off. I wasn't expecting that.

We nursed every few hours throughout the rest of the night and by morning my nipples were beginning to get sore and bright red. Every few hours a new nurse would come in and attempt to help me. I was told conflicting advice left and right and each one seemed to have their own way of doing things. I had pillows stacked sky high all around me to support little Lola as we moved around like acrobats trying new positions.

At one point a rather brazen nurse came in to see me sobbing out of pain and confusion and told me that I needed to take charge of my baby, which meant holding her tight like a football and aggressively shoving her at my breast. Then later that night at 2 a.m. a very young nurse insisted I try the side-lying position. It was dark, I couldn't even see my tiny baby from this angle, and we'd hardly even figured out nursing in general. I cried and begged her to let me go back to nursing Lola in my arms.

By the third day in the hospital, I had been set up with a nipple shield, some just-in-case formula, and was given a pamphlet about the drop-in nursing help available through the hospital. I felt pretty hopeless.

Additionally, we were also dealing with the fact that Lola had only produced one wet diaper in 48 hours after birth. That was all anyone talked about. That was our world for her first week of life. I hardly remember anything else about my newborn. We had to supplement her with formula for her first week, which was devastating to me. I chose to view the formula as medicine at that point to help me cope.

We continued to nurse, but my milk didn't seem to be coming in. My nipples were in agony and Lola seemed to be developing a preference for the nipple shield over my actual bare breast since I was using it so frequently. Although I felt hopeless, I don't remember ever considering giving up.

We eventually saw a lactation consultant who confirmed by a pre and post-feed weight that Lola wasn't taking much in from nursing, she also noted that Lola was a bit of a lazy nurser since she wouldn't suck very hard. She advised we keep supplementing with formula, but that I needed to pump around the clock in three hour intervals to get my milk to come in...start to start. This meant that after pumping for 40 minutes, cleaning the parts, then feeding what I pumped to Lola through our SNS while she nursed at the nipple, and finishing her off with formula, I was only getting one-hour chunks of sleep. I wrote about this in more detail in this candid and intimate post at two weeks postpartum.

Around day six, my milk slowly began to come in. Aside from one day of very lumpy breasts, I never had a rush of milk that left me with Pamela Anderson boobs like I hear some of my other friends describe. My milk DID come in though, and this is such an important detail to emphasize, although I wasn't able to realize it at the time. I was freaked about low milk supply and spent every second of those night feedings reading about how to increase my supply.

My lactation consultant started me on a few herbs, primarily fenugreek, which did give my supply a boost. This dance of herbs, nipple shields, and pumping around the clock lasted three weeks until our pedi pulled some strings and got us an appointment at Seattle Children's Hospital with an occupational therapist. The OT didn't really teach us anything new that we hadn't already learned in the prior few weeks, but she did do another pre and post-feed weight which revealed that Lola had taken in over three ounces during this nursing session—huge deal! She suggested we start giving Lola a pacifier to encourage her to practice sucking harder and sent us on our way.

I vividly remember coming home, plopping down on the sofa to nurse Lola, and feeling the biggest sense of relief. We had been exhaustively praying for this to happen and God so graciously provided. From that point forward I exclusively nursed Lola at the breast. I may have also continued to pump a bit to encourage my supply to be more robust, I can't remember exactly. But the fact that I could exclusively nurse her was the best news ever.

Lola was colicky—or at least a very fussy baby—for about the first four months. Funny enough, the only thing that calmed her was nursing. So we nursed...and nursed...and nursed for four months straight. I hardly moved my butt off the couch from October–February. I'm not exaggerating. We nursed constantly, otherwise she was screaming. There was one evening that we just had to get out of the dang house, so I watched a few YouTube videos on how to nurse a baby while in the Moby and we packed up and headed out. She laid horizontal in the wrap and I held her head in the crook of my arm while she snacked and comforted herself up and down the aisles of Costco.

In some ways, I think the nonstop breastfeeding was a huge blessing. She got a lot of practice in and also kept my low to moderate milk supply up with her constant sucking. I was still stressed though. I never felt my milk let down and she never seemed to be gulping milk—which was extra obvious when I would nurse next to mama friends that were shooting milk out at their babies. Her weight was steady at each check-up though, so I had to assume she was getting enough. I would also leak milk at night and often be somewhat engorged at most night feedings when she would go a few hours between eating. This was always reassuring to me.

We continued on at this pace for awhile until she started solids around six months. This curbed her need to nurse constantly a bit and gave me a much needed break. I also began to feel my letdowns and hear her sucking and gulping since my milk would have a chance to build up. This brought me a lot of peace of mind. I started to relax.

We spent the summer trying all sorts of fresh produce. Lola's favorites were blueberries and raspberries, of course. She likely ate her weight in blueberries over the course of the summer! And lucky for her, our first-year raspberry canes that we planted produced a few pints. So I would go out during her nap and harvest the ripe ones and she would chow them down as soon as she woke up. We had a ton of fun eating together.

Her nursing schedule from around eight to 12 months usually looked like nursing as soon as she woke, then after her nap, again around dinner, and right before bed. I would also nurse her as many times as she woke up at night—usually 1–3. She's always been one to wake frequently, but goes right back to sleep after nursing for 5–10 minutes.

Once I let go of the expectation that she "should" be sleeping through the night, I was able to realize that I didn't mind getting up to care for her. I was letting other people impose their experiences or expectations on our family, which wasn't right. In those early months, I heard so much talk about getting babies to sleep through the night that I figured that I had to somehow force Lola to do that. That wasn't her nature, and I eventually learned that it's totally normal for a baby to wake throughout the night to eat. I thought introducing solids might be the key to her sleeping through the night, but it didn't impact her sleep habits at all.

By this time we were champs. She became a lot more efficient and nursed for around 10 minutes at each feed, opposed to the 40–60 minutes it would take her in her first months of life. We nursed a lot in public and have never received any rotten stares or weird looks. But really, it's hard to tell when you're nursing your baby versus just cuddling them. Most days I wear a nursing tank top, so it all stays pretty modest.

On another note, I've struggled to lose around 20 pounds, and even gained 5 or so after giving birth (more on this in its own post). So I talked to my husband a lot as we approached her first birthday about whether I should wean her to try to lose the weight, since I assumed that I was holding onto it from breastfeeding. I wanted to continue nursing her through at least 18 months, but the desire to feel normal in my skin again was really strong. I went to a La Leche League meeting in October, around Lola's birthday and laid all of my thoughts out. I saw other mamas nursing their big toddlers and had such a clear vision that I wanted that for her and I.

That night I announced to my husband that I was going to nurse Lola as long as she and I wanted. And considering she's what I call a "nursing addict"—she loves mamas milk more than anything—I could see her going for as long as I would hold out for. He supported me, but chimed in saying that he just didn't want to see me taking it to a point where it was just habitual and purely for comfort, and making it something more than it should be. Which really means that he just doesn't want to see me nursing a five year old. I was okay with that since I assumed I'd want to wean her sometime in the year.

I did decide though to drop one of her feedings and begin a really slow weaning process right before her first birthday. We had already been skipping out on her second daytime feed every few days from busyness, so I figured that would be a natural one to eliminate. I stopped offering it and never heard a peep.

As of now around 13/14 months, if she asks for more than one feed during the day I'll often give it to her if the timing is appropriate, but it typically doesn't even come up. She's also started to mostly sleep through the night for the past month! So we are usually nursing 0–1 time throughout the night. My supply is definitely less robust than it was midway through the year, but at the same time it's also really stable. I always let down if she wants to nurse extra, but never get engorged if we go a long period. Sometimes if she nurses really close together—within an hour or two—it will take an extra minute for my letdown to happen. I really like the casual point we're at, and it seems to be working for Lola too.

One of my favorite parts about still nursing is that I don't have to worry about Lola's nutrition as much. She's beginning to turn a bit pickier with foods and while I try to give her a balanced diet, I always know she's getting the highest quality food available to her regardless of whether she only eats bowls and bowls of peas all day long.

I do plan to wean Lola though, and likely sometime in the next 3–6 months. Our next step will be to drop our afternoon feed. We already do some days, but I won't commit to it fully for probably another month. Then we'll somehow figure out how to put her down to bed without nursing and when she wakes throughout the night. Our last one will be the morning session, which shouldn't be difficult since she's easily distracted by breakfast.

I am sad to think of eventually putting this part of our relationship to bed. We've overcome so much and created a really wonderful bond. The quiet moments I get to pray over her while she nurses before bed will mostly be missed. But I know we can replace that sacred time with a new tradition. I can't believe we've already made it this far, but in the same breath, it feels like a long road travelled. I will forever be grateful to God for blessing her and I with the ability to breastfeed. It's been one of the biggest challenges I've overcome and one of the best things I've ever done.

All this to say, I hope you see that breastfeeding isn't easy for a new mom. At least in the beginning it's not. But I also hope you feel encouraged that those trials can be overcome. Arthur and I repeated to one another during the thick of it all that we totally understand now why people quit nursing. It's demanding and time-consuming. Every mama and baby are different and will face a unique challenge. A lot of my friends had over-supply issues early on which was just as stressful to deal with. Tongue-tie, reflux, and poor latch are also problems that I often hear about.

I thought I had low milk supply for so long, but really I had just the perfect supply. True low milk supply is actually really rare. My milk did struggle to come in, but once it did it always sustained Lola. It makes sense to me that everyone's milk varies in caloric content. I might just have extra dense milk, while another mom with milk shooting out everywhere could have much less caloric milk. Also, I hated pumping because it always left me stressed that I wasn't producing enough—still does! When I nurse her, she stops when she's done. And if she didn't get enough she'll let me know soon and want to nurse again. Breastfeeding a young baby is really as simple as that: nurse when they want. Sometimes I've even nursed because I wanted to simply connect with her and have a few quiet moments.

That's my story. I've learned a lot and have simultaneously built something with Lola that I couldn't have ever dreamt up myself. She trusts and is comforted by me so fiercely. I've learned to relax and savor more of the little moments. This is the first time in my life that I've persevered and actually overcome a big obstacle instead of giving up. God helped me. He carried us through this journey and I couldn't be more thankful.

p.s. I was given a genius tip somewhere along the way that you don't need to wash your pump parts every use. Just put them in a Ziploc and refrigerate them! I washed mine about every third day. Also, find your local La Leche League meeting. I've really enjoyed going for for technical and emotional support.

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