Those of you who’ve submitted FFF Friday stories may have noticed it can take a looooong time for them to be published. It’s just a matter of the queue being ridiculously long; there is no shortage of hurt, anger, or conflict about infant feeding. But every story is equally powerful and important to share, no matter how long ago I received it.
Today’s post is one of those stories that has been sitting in my inbox for awhile now. When I re-read it today, I was struck by how palpable the love the author has for her daughter is. The description she gives of their bottle-feeding times made my heart skip a few beats. THIS is #bottlebonding. It’s beautiful, and it’s real, and I wish more parents were told that it is possible. For those of us who’ve done it, this seems like an obvious truth, but the negativity about formula feeding has convinced parents that they will miss out on an essential connection if they do not or cannot breastfeed. So if you feel that way, read this.
Happy Friday, fearless ones,
Today my baby girl turned 18 months old. A while back, her pediatrician had said in passing that he likes to see toddlers weaned off bottles by 18 months. At that time, it was a finish line and a time I would look forward to. I have hated those plastic bottles on my kitchen counter with a vengeance.
I was meant to breastfeed.I grew up with a La Leche League Leader, my mom. I remember those noisy meetings in our living room as I was trying to fall asleep down the hall as a little kid. I knew I was going to breastfeed. When I was pregnant, I had dumped out the cans of formula samples that had arrived in the mail swearing I wouldn’t give my baby that artificial stuff. My husband and I attended a breastfeeding class taught by the hospital’s lactation consultant. I remember asking the teacher if she would recommend purchasing a breast pump before the baby arrived or if it made sense to wait. Her response was that if you want to make breastfeeding work, you can. Go ahead and purchase one. I went ahead and ordered the pump through our health insurance and signed up for a few weekly calls from their own lactation consultants. It was ingrained in my head: breastfeeding was obviously the only choice if you had any desire at all to raise a healthy child. And then, 18 months ago, my body and my baby had other plans.
My daughter was delivered by C-section at the end of 37 weeks after a routine OB appointment. I was given 6 hours to pack my bag and meet the doctor at the hospital. I was really counting on those 2 or 3 more weeks to prepare myself for the baby. One item on my list was to read The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. Of course I didn’t get to it. In the recovery room, when the baby was first put to my breast she rooted, bobbed her head and nuzzled. But, she never latched on. The nurse was excited and said, wow- when she gets it, she’s going to be a good nurser! Well, we never got it. I had visits from the hospital’s lactation consultants who were just too busy to stay and help. Both implied that there was something wrong with my breasts and never questioned whether something was going on with the baby. I remember a stressful visit from a technician who shoved the baby’s face into my breast and handled me in a way that was extremely uncomfortable and very stressful. I was afraid to ask anyone else for help after that.
After the addition of a nipple shield given to me by the hospital’s lactation consultant, the baby finally latched and achieved some suction. However, the nipple shield restricted the amount of milk flow due to the limited number of holes. The baby had some wet and soiled diapers that we tracked consistently on the hospital’s clip board. However she continued to lose weight and when questioned, the pediatrician said it was still within normal range and keep trying to breastfeed without the nipple shield. “You’ll get it. It just takes practice.” No one else seemed concern, but I still knew that something wasn’t right.
We had some very long nursing sessions, with the nipple shield, in the middle of the night at the hospital. When a nurse came in to check on me, I told her that the baby had been sucking for about an hour and was still going. “Oh, she’s just using you as a pacifier. Let me take her to the nursery so you can get some sleep.” Yet, an hour later, around 2AM I was pacing the maternity ward halls because I couldn’t sleep and really missed the baby. I wish the nurse had asked me why I couldn’t sleep rather than just trying to tell me the baby was fine and I should go back to bed. We were discharged from the hospital with no real suggestions or advice about how to eliminate the nipple shield. Just keep trying.
I spoke to my mom who insisted I call a La Leche League volunteer and looked up the number of someone in my area, picking her out by her pretty name. This LLL leader was extremely patient with me and asked me what the baby’s tongue looked like. Did it make a little heart shape when she cried? Well, sort of. As a speech language pathologist, I had studied the anatomy of the mouth and knew what short lingual frenum would look like on a toddler who was having speech problems. I never really knew what an infant frenulum should look like, nor did I look at her lips.
The next day at the pediatrician’s office, I mentioned the tongue tie to which he said the baby’s tongue looked fine, but she was still losing weight. He said we could continue to breastfeed without supplementing, but return the next day for a weight check. And of course the next day she had lost even more weight and was now a shade of peachy yellow from jaundice. The pediatrician instructed us to supplement with expressed breast milk after each breastfeeding session. And he sent us home with some formula samples, “just in case your milk dries up in the middle of the night.”. He also put us in contact with a lactation consultant who generously came out to our house that evening. I don’t remember whether she held the baby or examined her mouth in any way, but she stayed for a long time and showed us some techniques to help the baby latch. We were able to do it (and by ‘we’, I mean me, my husband, the baby, our recliner, 13 pillows and a bunch of rolled up blankets.) We kept up the new techniques and the baby fed without the nipple shield for the whole night which was both exhausting and overwhelming. I’m not sure anyone slept.
By this point in the game, I was beyond anxious. While I was on the look out for post partum depression, the anxiety piece wasn’t in the forefront of my mind. I believe it started with the surprise delivery and just continued to mount. I couldn’t relax enough express any milk with the pump and it just became a vicious circle. The baby needed to be supplemented after each feed, but I couldn’t produce any milk.
My husband called my mother who came immediately from Connecticut. A lot of that is still a blur- I didn’t know it was that bad. Finally, in a way that I don’t really remember, I was sent to bed with some medication and my husband and mother, armed with bottles and formula, fed the baby through the night. I think it was the first time I had slept for more than 30 minutes at a time for the past week. I was told that I should not feed the baby any of my breast milk because of the anti anxiety medication that was starting to help.
Slowly I lifted out of the fog and the baby began to thrive, regaining her weight and returning back to a healthy shade of pink. I think I cried every time I had to prepare a bottle for at least a week. The reminders of “breast is best” is EVERYWHERE. It just kept stabbing at my heart- on the formula container, on the coupon from Target (!), every other line on Facebook and in every baby/parenting book out there. I continuously recalled the lactation consultant who told me after class that if I wanted to breastfeed, I could. Well, I’m not sure I’ve tried that hard or wanted something to work that badly ever before. I just felt like my body had failed me and I had failed my daughter.
For some reason, I didn’t feel that I should keep seeking answers after 3 lactation consultants and a pediatrician told me that there really is no reason for the baby’s inability to latch (without the 4 adult hands and acrobatics that ensued). The pediatrician assured me that the baby was going to be ok when I questioned him (between sobs) about the differences in her life growing up on formula rather than breast milk. The psychiatric nurse practitioner that was helping me with medications for the post partum depression/anxiety, just couldn’t understand why it was so important to me to breast feed my daughter. “What’s the big deal?” she said. She doesn’t have children. At my 2 week check up with the OB, when I asked about ways to increase my milk supply, she said that pharmaceuticals don’t work well. And besides, she was raised on formula and she’s done pretty well for herself! This was not helpful advice.
Slowly, our family was establishing a routine. My husband returned to work and I began to venture out with the baby. The first event I remember going to on my own was a local babywearing group meeting. If I wasn’t going to have my daughter on my breast for feeding, I was going to have her as close to me as possible. I met some wonderfully helpful women and borrowed a wrap from their lending library. A few of the moms and newborns that I met through my prenatal exercise class were at the meeting as well. At one point I remember looking up and seeing at least 5 women nursing beautifully next to each other at the same time. I just held back tears. My daughter began to get hungry while we were at that meeting. Instead of mixing up the bottle of formula there and continuing to visit with other new moms, I said quick goodbyes to everyone and drove down the street to an empty spot in a parking lot to feed the baby. How ironic that some moms feel they need to find discreet places to nurse in public. I was afraid to bottle feed in front of my peers. Every where we traveled, when it was time to feed, I apologized to everyone as I mixed the formula. I spent so much energy trying to hide that we were bottle feeding- always aware when someone was taking a picture, I would do my best to get the bottle out of the shot. Instead of spending so much energy being embarrassed, I wish I had directed that energy at seeking answers from other lactation experts.
At some point during the first month, I looked up re-lactation on the internet. When we were home alone on a quiet calm afternoon, I put the baby to my breast, watched her bob her head as she unsuccessfully tried to grasp me with her mouth. The feelings of overwhelming sadness and anxiety came flooding over me. I guess this is it, kiddo. I will give you the moon, but I can’t give you my milk.
Eventually bottles just became a way of life, although I complained every time I had to spend money of formula. As I learned more about nursing from friends and lots of questions about tongue ties and lip ties circulated on Facebook, I was more alert when I looked in the baby’s mouth. Somewhere around 5 months of age, I noticed her lip tie. At her 6 month well visit the pediatrician said it wasn’t an issue and we’d wait to see what happened when her teeth grow in. (Soon we will return to the pediatrician for her 18 month well visit. It will be her first visit with both front teeth grown in with the tell tale gap between the teeth. I am already a bit anxious for the doctor’s take on that.)
Somewhere around 11 or 12 months of age, when she had a diet full of solid foods, the baby stopped taking bottles from my husband or her grandmothers. Somehow she had equated bottle with mommy as I was the primary feeder being at home during the day. At 12 months we changed over to cows milk and I rejoiced at never having to buy formula again. I figured we would slowly make the transition away from bottles to sippy cups. But then I realized that something strange had happened and I was starting to enjoy our snuggle time with the bottles of milk. She would have one before each nap and one before bed. It was our special time. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy feeding my daughter before this, but something started to feel different. Over the past few months, I have really started to pay attention to what was happening when I gave her milk in her bottle. She always sits in the same position on my lap, with her cheek against my breast. Sometimes she nuzzles in. She often takes my hand and puts it on her leg so I will gently rub it. She holds my fingers with one hand and twirls her hair with the other. She has never tried to hold the bottle herself (despite all those other acts of independence that come with toddlerhood). She will pause sometimes to say something to me and when she wants to drink more, she raises my hand that holds the bottle, never reaching for the bottle itself. It’s become a very special time for me to spend with her. I consider it an amazing gift that she has given me that I will always cherish.
Motherhood is far from an easy journey. I really worried about my daughter’s future without being breastfed and those fears still creep into my thoughts periodically. But then I look at her in awe of what an amazing little girl she is. To think, a child that has been on earth for exactly 18 months could teach a grown woman so much about love, making choices and finding the beauty in a challenging situation.
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