mama story: I wish I'd asked for help much sooner

Amanda Wagner.jpg

today's tender mama story is by Amanda Wagner of Madison, Wisconsin.

My son, Milo, was born at 12:38am the day after Christmas.

It was a short, intense, but wonderful and amazing natural birth. I had been mentally and physically preparing for months, and my labor was exactly what I had hoped for – I felt confident, strong, and empowered and was amazed at how me and my body just *knew* what to do. Milo’s birth has been the most rewarding experience of my life so far. 

I was able to start breastfeeding immediately after birth. I had a little trouble with getting him to latch at first, but the L&D nurses helped us out, and we had no other issues the rest of our day and a half in the hospital. 

Within the first day or two at home, I noticed some pain in my nipples and some cracks developing.

At our first well-check visit, the doctor (filling in for our regular doctor) checked the latch and also pointed out Milo’s tongue tie. We had the tongue tie clipped a couple of days later. The procedure took less than 10 seconds, and Milo didn’t even notice. The doctor also suggested that I maybe had an oversupply, based on Milo’s habits of only eating from one side at a time, and suggested I continue that. 

I had high hopes that this would make breastfeeding much more comfortable, but unfortunately, I was still having a significant amount of pain and the nipple cracking seemed to be getting worse. While I noticed that Milo seemed more comfortable in his latch, I didn’t think the tongue tie being clipped made a difference for how I felt. 

At this point, I felt like there was nothing I could do. I had heard so many people say “everyone’s nipples crack” and “it’s always painful when you first start breastfeeding,” and I didn’t want to complain about something that, supposedly, everyone goes through. A close friend told me her nipple cracking didn’t heal until 6 weeks post partum, so I kept telling myself that things would be fine if I could just make it to 6 weeks. 

In the meantime, the cracking on my nipples had gotten much worse. My mother-in-law, a Certified Nurse Midwife, ran into a lactation consultant during clinics one day who suggested that I use bacitracin after every feeding and put parchment paper on top to protect my nipples from drying out and scabbing. Anything that could possibly stimulate my nipples put me into excruciating pain – I avoided the water in the shower, I winced every time I had to take my dogs out in the cold winter air, and my husband wasn’t allowed to touch my boobs at all. The bacitracin/parchment paper seemed to be helping slightly, and I stubbornly kept telling myself that things would get better. 

I wanted to love breastfeeding so badly, and I just could not get myself there.

I loved some parts of it – extra snuggle time with my son, being able to soothe him, seeing him grow from just my milk. And I hated myself for the times when I didn’t want to feed him because I was in so much pain. After the high of such an empowering birth experience, breastfeeding made me feel so defeated. 

I made an appointment with the lactation consultants through the hospital I birthed at. The LC there helped me make some small adjustments to Milo’s latch. Concerned about how bad the cracking was, I asked, “Is this just normal nipple cracks?” She laughed and said, “I wouldn’t call those cracks; I would call those crevasses.” Not exactly the answer I was looking for, but I was happy to hear it wasn’t something much more severe. At this appointment, the LC did a naked weight before and after feeding to check how much Milo was eating. She suggested continuing to feed from only one side at a time, and we didn’t discuss supply or feeding habits in any detail. Milo and I continued on as we had been, and I hoped that the end was in sight. 

Right around 6 weeks post-partum, my mother-in-law very directly told me that I should not be having pain or cracking anymore and that I needed to see someone. I had my post-partum checkup coming up with my midwife, but she asked me to call right away to get a referral for a highly recommended family practice doctor who specializes in lactation. At my post-partum visit, my midwife echoed my mother-in-law’s concerns and told me that the doctor I would see was the best around – and warned that she’s not unkind, but very blunt. 

The next day was my first visit with the new doctor. After putting off getting help for so long, I was looking forward to the prospect of finally getting some relief. This visit was one of the hardest conversations I’ve ever sat through. My appointment was at 4:00 on a Friday and the doctor worked with us until almost 7:00 that night. I expected to assess the pain I was having and was actually really afraid that I would be told I could no longer breastfeed.

The first diagnosis: I had “severe nipple trauma.”

Having it stated in such simple terms was somehow so powerful. I was honestly embarrassed that I had let myself get so bad before getting professional help.

The second diagnosis: Milo wasn’t growing as fast as he should have been.

I’m so glad that my midwife had prepared me for the blunt delivery, because it somehow helped me to keep myself from crying during that appointment. (Not the case as I write this now.) Milo’s weight growth had dropped from the original trajectory he was on. He wasn’t malnourished; he was hitting all the developmental stages he should have been; he was happy and healthy. He just wasn’t growing as fast as expected based on his initial growth curve. After almost two hours of watching me breastfeed, doing several weight checks, and asking tons of in depth questions, the doctor thought that I probably had an undersupply. I was sent home with a hefty list of instructions to follow before our next visit. 

I was devastated. I believed that feeding Milo was quite literally my only responsibility at that point, and I was failing.

I sobbed the entire car ride home. I had been so focused on finding a resolution for my pain that I had not prepared for hearing anything else. 

The next two weeks were rigorous. Milo had started sleeping through the night at about 5 weeks old, and so had I. (In addition to feeding from only one side at a time, the skipped overnight feedings probably caused my drop in supply.) I was instructed to go no more than 5 hours at night without feeding or pumping. I now had to pump after every single feeding to make sure that the breasts were being completely emptied, and then had to try to bottle feed any additional milk that was pumped to help get his growth back on track. I felt like I was doing nothing besides breastfeeding, pumping, and then bottle feeding. By the time I was finished, it was time to start over. In the end, this was definitely worth all the work, because it helped Milo to gain weight and it helped the doctor determine the best course of action to increase and sustain my milk supply. 

Despite how hard it was to hear the diagnoses, that doctor’s visit was the best thing that could have happened. 

The doctor encouraged me by saying how great of a latch Milo had, but also offered suggestions in positioning and other areas that would make our feeding sessions more successful for both Milo and I. She explained things in a way that was so much easier for me understand and implement. She never once made me feel like I couldn’t do it. 

Using a combination of some position changes and switching to using MediHoney on my nipples, the cracks finally healed at 13 weeks. I take a number of supplements to help with my milk supply, and I pump overnight and 4 times throughout the day while I am working to help keep my supply up. And I can finally really enjoy breastfeeding, even when there are challenging days. 

I was determined to stick with breastfeeding for as long as possible. I know myself and my stubbornness enough to know that I would have continued through immense pain just to be able to do it. While I am so glad I stuck with it, I wish I would have asked for help much sooner. There was a lot of physical pain involved in my journey, but the mental struggle has been just as much. I regret so many parts of this story, and I know I need to move on, but I have to consciously remind myself nearly every day to move past this. Why didn’t I ask for more help on latch/position? Why didn’t I ask Milo’s doctor or my midwives about my pain? Why didn’t I question when I was nonchalantly told to only offer one side at a time? Why didn’t I take a breastfeeding class? I felt a tremendous amount of guilt for not being able to provide for my son, and I felt like I was failing as a mother. I felt embarrassed to tell people that I had a low supply and cringed when people would ask how much Milo weighed. 

I was so lucky to have a supportive partner in this. My husband was constantly there for me – getting me anything I needed when I was breastfeeding, making sure I was eating and drinking, and always offering encouraging words. He was concerned for me from the very beginning. He suggested many times that I talk to his mom (a midwife), his aunt (a labor and delivery nurse), or a lactation consultant. I kept brushing this off, thinking that what I was experiencing was normal and that I would make it through on my own. I know that he was frustrated when we first found out about my supply issues, because we could have avoided some of this much earlier had I only asked for help. But despite his frustration, he was still so supportive of me and what I needed to do to heal. I feel like this was the lesson I needed heading into parenthood – listen to your partner, take help when it’s offered, and know that you are not alone in this. 

The best advice I can give to a breastfeeding mother, no matter what their situation is, is to talk to others, ask questions, and be okay with asking for help.

I put myself through so much suffering, physically and emotionally, when I had an endless list of resources available to me. Do not feel guilty, do not feel less, do not be embarrassed. The best thing you can do for your baby is to make sure that you are taking care of yourself. Unfortunately, I learned that the hard way, and I still struggle to keep that in mind every day. You can do this, but you do not have to do it alone.