mama story: overcoming hurdle after hurdle to nurse my little girl
Thank you Sierra Beckles Young of Middleton, WI for this gorgeous mama story!
There are an almost-insurmountable number of decisions for first-time parents. White noise machine? Wipe warmer? Sleep sack? Bassinet? In the midst of all of these decisions, one thing I was certain of was my plan to try to breastfeed. Unfortunately, all of my book-reading, class-attending, and video-watching could not prepare me for the many (MANY!) hurdles in those early days of breastfeeding.
Meconium Aspiration and a Week in the NICU
After 36 hours of labor, Audra was born – and she came out covered in meconium to everyone’s surprise. I held her for just moments before she was whisked away to the NICU because the meconium she breathed in had entered her lungs and was making it difficult for her to breathe. There was no time for skin-to skin. No time to enjoy that first breastfeeding latch in the afterglow of childbirth. In fact, I would not even get to hold my daughter again until the following day once she was more stable. As I was leaving the NICU that first day, a nurse popped a pacifier into Audra’s mouth. Another decision – to wait to introduce pacifiers and bottles after establishing breastfeeding – was taken away.
Back in the post-delivery suite, a nurse brought a breast pump into my room and reminded me that I would need to pump every 2-3 hours until Audra was able to nurse. When I woke up to pump later that first night, I could hear other families and their babies in the nearby rooms. Trying to figure out how to use the pump in a dark corner of the room while listening to those other sweet babies was not how I pictured the start of our breastfeeding journey.
Audra continued to need a nose cannula to help with breathing which made it impossible to even attempt breastfeeding right after she was born. She was bottle-fed donor breast milk until my milk came in (thank you so much to those who can donate!). The NICU nurses reminded me that my own milk was best for Audra – donor milk was pasteurized and lost some of the antibodies that she so needed to recover from the meconium. Lactation consultants walked me through breast compressions to encourage greater output and gave me tips on positioning the pump. So I pumped. And pumped. And pumped. Every 2-3 hours in Audra’s NICU room or our room in the Ronald McDonald Family Suites on the floor above the NICU. In between pumping and washing pump parts several times each day, I anxiously waited for the go-ahead to try breastfeeding.
At 4 days old, Audra was finally ready to try breastfeeding. We weren’t able to go home yet but at last we were getting back on track! With the help of a lactation consultant, she latched. But the latch caused toe-curling pain. In my excitement to finally breastfeed, I decided to try to ignore the pain. Surely this must be the temporary discomfort that I read all about and would quickly switch to a blissful euphoria? But the pain was incredible. Tears came to my eyes with each attempt to nurse and I switched Audra from side to side frequently in order to get some relief from the tight, pinching sensation of the latch, which was not easy given all of the cords and lines she had for various monitors and treatments.
The lactation consultants didn’t see anything amiss with her latch and encouraged me to work through the discomfort – reminding me that some discomfort is normal. But my heart told me that this was an abnormal amount of pain. Each session often left Audra and I both crying tears of frustration and (in my case) pain. Efforts to help Audra latch using a nipple shield were mostly unsuccessful. I began to wonder in earnest if I would make it to my short-term goal of exclusively breastfeeding Audra until she was 6 months old.
I continued to ask for help with our latch from the lactation consultant in the NICU without making any progress. After witnessing yet another painful nursing attempt, one of the nurses suggested having Audra evaluated for a lip or tongue-tie. A quick consult that day revealed a tongue-tie that “must be making nursing SO painful!” After discussing the potential long-term impact of the tongue-tie with one of the physicians, my husband and I decided to have it clipped. At 6 days old and with the tie released, Audra latched using the nipple shield and we were able to get through that first session with significantly less pain than earlier attempts.
A Little Encouragement
At 7 days old, we were discharged from the NICU and headed home. Although Audra could now move her tongue more freely, she had to re-learn how to use her tongue for nursing instead of bottle-feeding. I found myself overcome with anxiety about whether she would be able to transfer enough milk using her newly freed tongue. I also was not feeling confident about positioning her while feeding. So I continued to exclusively pump while we adjusted to being at home with a one-week old baby. My husband valiantly waded into the tongue stretching exercises that Audra’s tongue required in order to keep her frenulum from re-attaching – needless to say, she did not like having her tongue stretched!
Thankfully, my husband also knew how much I longed to breastfeed and encouraged me to schedule an appointment with the lactation consultant available at the clinic where Audra would have her 2-week check-up. I agreed this was a good idea – though I felt very nervous at the idea of trying breastfeeding again.
During that first visit, the lactation consultant was able to give me such wonderful advice on positioning and latching. She also determined that I did not need a nipple shield. With her help, Audra latched easily and comfortably. With a weight check before and after nursing, we were able to tell that she was transferring milk well. We were back on track! I scheduled another visit for 5 days later. By the second visit with the lactation consultant, we had successfully transitioned from no breastfeeding to 50% pumping/bottle-feeding and 50% breastfeeding. By the time Audra was 3 weeks old, we were 100% breastfeeding!
With the lactation consultant’s help, I also did some block feeding to address an overactive letdown and oversupply likely caused by a little over-zealous pumping during our NICU stay.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
We are now 7 months into this breastfeeding journey and Audra is nursing like a champ. We survived the transition back to some bottle-feeding after my maternity leave ended as well as pumping at work. My new goal is to exclusively breastfeed Audra until at least her first birthday.
If you and your little one are struggling with breastfeeding, it’s okay to feel stressed and even discouraged. Breastfeeding is incredibly hard work – physically and emotionally. Although our journey did not start how I imagined, I am so thankful for all of the support along the way and this time with my sweet girl.