I always knew I would breastfeed my babies. I always knew I would love it. I knew I would get joy out of snuggling my baby while giving her the best food possible, and I would get to finally catch up on some reading since newborns spend a ton of time nursing. I am an OBGYN so I had some insight. I thought it was something I would be pretty perfect at doing. After all, I grew up surrounded by breastfeeding women in the early 1980s; in fact, I don’t think I ever saw formula until I was in high school, and a friend’s sister had a baby and fed with formula. The thought of using formula instead of breastfeeding never crossed my mind. Plus, during pregnancy, I heard my mom recount how lovely breastfeeding was, how she had such an abundance of milk that she leaked all the time and even donated milk to the NICU at Vanderbilt for premature babies. She recalled a sense of relaxation with the oxytocin surge and let down. So I was pretty sure I came from good breastfeeding stock and would rock nursing like my mom did. It was one of the things I anticipated with great excitement during my pregnancy! I couldn’t wait to nurse my baby girl.
I was 37 years old and eager to meet and nurse my baby girl when she arrived. She was full term, but tiny at 6 ½ pounds and perfectly beautiful. I was surrounded by love and support as I welcomed her to my chest. She latched on in the first hour of life just like I planned she would, but it was not at all what I imagined. It was awkward; I had a hard time getting her head in the right position. I was distracted by the discomforts after 4 hours of pushing. I was exhausted from 2 days of labor. I was hungry and the blood pressure cuff was going off every 15 minutes, making my arm throb. And it was painful! Really painful. It felt like razor blades in my nipple. She suckled for 10 minutes, and after she came off, I had a blood blister on my nipple already. I thought, ‘something is very wrong; this is not how it was supposed to go. Where was my oxytocin surge to flood me with joy and love?’ My breastfeeding dreams were starting to fall apart. Nipple soreness progressed to the point that I dreaded every feed as my nipples felt like there was a fire in them. At times, they bled after a feeding. Tears welled up in my eyes, and no amount of deep breathing actually helped. Cold gel pads and cabbage leaves did nothing. She fed every 1 to 2 hours around the clock and was relatively fussy between feeds. Her weight was border line, and we were going for weight checks almost every day it seemed. My pediatrician knew I was dedicated to exclusive breastfeeding so he never suggested that I give her formula because her weight gain was appropriate. (Confession: I secretly I hoped he would tell me I had to give her formula, but now I am glad he did not.)
Breastfeeding not only physically hurt, but it was emotionally traumatic to feel like I was destroying my own dream. I knew there must be something I was doing wrong or something wrong with her that we could ‘fix’. We had her checked for tongue tie; nope, she was perfect. We tried every purchasable nipple salve (and the APNO really did calm the fire-red burning nipple pain to some degree). We hired two lactation consultants. We even tried cranio-sacral therapy! I had a world of breastfeeding pillows at every possible feeding location. I drank tons of water, and I hate drinking water. I took Reglan. I drank Mother’s Milk tea. I stunk from taking Fenugreek. I even bought Motilium from overseas (note: I did get an EKG before starting it to make sure I was not at risk for cardiac death from a rare side effect). My husband was supportive but gone 3 nights; and well, he’s a man. My sister was supportive, but had never had a child nor breastfed. My mother was supportive, but she had to return to her home state after 7 days. My best friend was in another state and busy. When I heard people talking about the ‘oxytocin high’ from breastfeeding, I thought they were insane! High?!?! And I wanted to shoot fire balls at everyone that told me to “enjoy every one of these precious minutes.” Precious moments and excruciating bleeding nipples did not fit together for me. I felt pain, anxiety, and exhaustion; I worried I might drown her from all my tears pouring on her face as she tried to nurse. And mostly, I felt guilty for not loving it. I felt tremendous sadness and guilt for not enjoying nursing. I was supposed to love it. It was supposed to be great. Babies are very in tune to mothers’ emotions, and I was sure she could feel my sadness over it, which made it all worse. I wanted her to be showered in my happiness and joy while breastfeeding, not my tears of pain and anxiety!
Over time, the pain eased and then finally went away all together. It felt like that took forever, but I think it was just 2 months in reality. I needed fewer pillows. I needed less salves. I could sometimes have a free hand while nursing. She needed less bouncing. It got less frustrating. It got good. Then, it got great. I even looked forward to getting to nurse her as soon as I got home from work! Although we eventually had to supplement 1-2 bottles of formula a day when pumping at work failed to meet her needs, she continued to nurse until over 2 years old. The last year of nursing was pure joy for the most part; the pressure was off. We just continued to nurse because we both enjoyed that special time together. I was 14 weeks pregnant with my son when she weaned, and I was sad when this phase was over. We had worked so hard to get it right that part of me never wanted it to end, but it did.
That is our breastfeeding story. It is not alterable. It was not what I had envisioned. It was hard as hell. It gave me a lot of insight as an OBGYN as to what we are asking patients to do when we suggest and promote breastfeeding in today’s world. For some moms, breastfeeding IS glorious and easy from the very first moment, and I love hearing their breastfeeding stories! However, I wanted to share my story because I have found lots of moms who share a guilt for not loving breastfeeding. I want to tell these moms that it is OKAY to not love breastfeeding! You may choose to discontinue breastfeeding, or you may embrace an imperfect journey and persevere. For some of us, it is really difficult at first. It is okay to feel angry that it is so hard and painful. It is normal to feel isolated and at a total loss, even in a world flooded with support groups and online information. It is okay to need help. It is okay to need help with the dishes and laundry so you can devote more time to crying and deep breathing and figuring out breastfeeding. It is okay to need your mom or aunt to come over and help you learn how to massage your baby’s jaw to help her get a deeper latch. It is okay to need someone to cry to about how you feel like a failure for sometimes hating nourishing your beautiful child. It is okay to meet with a lactation consultant and get professional breastfeeding support even though breastfeeding is ‘natural’.
I really encourage my patients to consult with these professionals, especially in a world where we are often isolated from our female family members who traditionally would have been by our sides as breastfeeding warriors to help guide us through this journey. In hindsight, I think I would have really benefited from having a woman at my side during the first few weeks who could reassure me that this is a normal breastfeeding experience and it is common for women to struggle or even dislike nursing. I needed to hear, repeatedly, that not being flooded with joy can be normal and ok. I would still be a good mother. She would still know and feel my love.
I still have a twinge of regret that I was not able to somehow enjoy breastfeeding in the beginning with my daughter, but that is our story. I did my best, and I know she did her best too. We were an imperfect breastfeeding dyad; and that is okay. I am not perfect at anything really, so why I thought I would be a perfect breast feeder is a bit of a mystery. I am fortunate that breastfeeding with my second child was much smoother, and I finally got to read a book while breastfeeding! I mastered one-handed nursing! My two breastfeeding experiences were very different, but both were glorious in their own way. And that too is okay. It all turned out okay.
Rosanna Gray-Swain, MD, is a board-certified physician who specializes in obstetrics and gynecology. She is a member of BJC Medical Group and affiliated with Barnes-Jewish Hospital. To learn more call her practice, at 314-286-2620 or click her profile to schedule your appointment.