Wednesday, September 3, 2014

I am Dory. I am the mad hatter. I am a headless chicken.


I am breastfeeding.

There were many things I didn't know about breastfeeding.  I thought I was prepared. I had read everything I could on the subject, I had watched videos on what a proper latch looked like. I had learnt the advice of the breastfeeding evangelists by heart. So when Yu was born 6 weeks early, without having yet developed the ability to suck and swallow, our start was rough. Not so much as in difficult, but as in a long, slow, learning process* where I cried in desperation many, many times. Where I was -almost- ready to give up, but wouldn't, because I wanted to try as hard as I could. Even in the hardest moments I could still find the force to go on, so I did. There were tears of tiredness, tears of sadness, tears of disappointment at a dream that I might have to let go, after trying it all.

As soon as baby Y. was born I started pumping. 7 times per day, every 3 hours, to correspond with her feeding times, while she was still at the hospital. When they explained this to us, I, confused, asked Mark how I was going to do this. Schrodinger's equation had already well established the uncertainty principle stated by Heisenberg: no particle can be in two places at the same time, so how the hell was I going to be pumping at her feeding times while having her laying on my chest/ learning to latch as well.

It took a while for my tired self to understand that the timing did not have to be so precise. But I knew from my time working with dairy cows that if you skip a milking session or are late, the production diminishes.  There were many things I didn't know about breastfeeding and one of them was that breastfeeding makes you very, very tired (or maybe that was just the intense pumping schedule I was on). I can only compare the feeling to a 10-hour jet lag that just wouldn't get better.


 I would wake up at 5:45 to set everything ready, then be pumping by 6:00 a.m., then eat something, drink all the tea, oatmeal or rice milk, chicken broth, water, that I could. Schedule naps and snacks while at the same time trying to do a million things a day, to process the birth, to (not) understand. By 15:30 p.m. I was so exhausted that I would have to force myself to sleep, even-though my brain was still on. I got cranky and grumpy and anxious and irritable from such extreme tiredness. I was not a nice person.

We would visit Y. twice, sometimes 3 times per day at the hospital, where we would put her on the breast, weigh her before and after each nursing session and then let her take the rest of her meal via a nasogastric tube or a bottle. Sometimes, after having nursed for 25 min, the sucking would make her so tired she'd fall asleep, and when we weighed her she'd have drunk less than 5 mL. I did not want to and was not going to give up on her, but it was discouraging to see her try so hard and not get any measurable results. I remember a particularly dark moment, sobbing hopelessly in Mark's arms, when I thought she would never learn to latch and take enough milk to feed herself and imagining we'd have to be at the hospital until June. Or keep on pumping for as long as I could handle it and have her drink my milk from bottles.

 Now, 7 months and a half later, Y. is still breastfeeding. It's like at some point a switch turned on, and suddenly, she knew. This happened 4 weeks after her birth date, when she would have been almost 38 weeks.


Establishing a breastfeeding relationship is hard and we wouldn't have done it without the amazing support we had from so many people. There were all the nurses at the pediatric department during her hospital stay, always encouraging, telling me "it was going to be fine". There was the lactation expert from the hospital, who had a lot of experience on premature babies, who told us how to use a nursing pillow, which positions were best to try with her being so tiny (the rugby position that is), who told us to ticke her, to rub her cheek or chin or massage my breast to stimulate the sucking (breast compression); who recommended the use of a nipple shield at certain moments and of a Supplemental Nursing System for a couple of times too.  There were the doctors, who not for one second stopped trusting Y. And my mom and my mother-in-law who were there to comfort me when it was needed, to tell me to go-the-f***-to-sleep when no one could stand me, who made soups and tea and made sure I was eating and drinking enough and stayed well nourished. There was Mark, there were friends from high school who had been there before. It was Sol who told me that the rules for preemie babies were different, that even if she got bottle-fed she would still want to come back to the boob. It takes a village and it takes the right words at the right times. I am so grateful for my village.

I've heard stories from moms' who were told on those early days that their milk was "too thin". How can you ever, as a supposed expert, nonetheless, tell that to a woman who wants to breastfeed and is doing all that she can? A woman who is going through the sensitive, vulnerable period that is the puerperium? If vet school taught me one thing is that the composition of milk can change by modifying nutrition, water and food intake... And that caring for infants requires learning, even in some animal species (new gorilla-moms know nothing about baby-care, and so, they rely on culturally taught knowledge passed on by the older gorilla females in the tribe. Or they imitate by watching their older peers).

I survived those early, crazy, chaotic days by making lists. I spent my time with my mind wanting to do all the things at once while my body was simultaneously demanding rest. I was running like a headless chicken. I didn't realize the tiredness, the lack of sleep, the hormones can affect your memory. I used to brag that I always knew which day we were on and what I had to do, no need of writing things down in an agenda, I was just so good.

Image source.

Then I turned into Dory, constantly repeating: "P Sherman, 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney" or else I would forget. I started carrying around a small notepad and constantly scribbling my thoughts, trying to stop them from disappearing forever. Either that, or doing the things right in the moment a thought crossed my mind. There was a time I was making myself a tea and I poured boiling water into the pot of sugar, just like the mad hatter.

There were so many things I didn't know. Believing everything the breastfeeding fundamentalists preach did me no good. There were tears over the decision to start using bottles to stimulate her sucking and swallowing abilities because, they said "you should never give a bottle or a pacifier before 3 months of age, otherwise the baby will get confused and lazy and will prefer those to the breast".  (Eventhough, for premature babies, it is OK to bottle-feed, as part of the learning process, as long as you combine it with lots of skin-to-skin time and practice opportunities at the breast). I didn't know that babies sometimes need to suck on something, even when they are not hungry anymore. My mom would try to use a pacifier to calm her down and I would feel like it was treason to the boob, afraid of the consequences, even when after putting her on the breast she would refuse it after a minute because she wanted the suction but not the milk that came with it.

Image via Tea Party girl

I didn't know that at the beginning breastfeeding can hurt and that pain does not mean you're doing it wrong. But that is what you are led to believe when the pro-breastfeeding evangelists say things like: "if the baby is latched correctly, it shouldn't hurt". It is true, if the baby latches on the nipple, not on the full areola, it will hurt, and the nipples may suffer. But it is also true that the let-down reflex, when the milk is coming down the ducts can be painful, particularly those first few times (weeks?). And, when you're feeding every 2-3 hours, feeling sore can be expected. I am not saying breastfeeding should hurt, or that you shouldn't be alert for signs of mastitis like stabbing pain or a fever, but that the opposite message can be confusing, even damaging. I thank my mom for telling me to toughen up and explaining it would get better, that this was just my body getting used to it. Pure lanolin and breast milk on the nipple after nursing eased the feeling away.

I ended up with a huge stash of freezer milk that I was not going to use because I am lucky to still be able to stay with her and I don't intend to wean her now. I am aware us being able to breastfeed is a blessing, and I can only be grateful for everyone who supported us during our delicate start, as well as for many factors that might have helped establishing my supply, such as the hospital-grade pump I used for the first couple of weeks. I was so happy to come full circle, as finally, last week, I was able to donate my milk to a mom of twins who needed it and whose babies' will hopefully enjoy it.


 For the record, I don't think, unlike this author, that breastfeeding is overrated, but, being there right now, I can say that it requires a lot of emotional support, good advice at very crucial moments, and, it goes without saying, good nutrition and hydration.

And while we're at it, here are some articles on the subject that I've found well thought of: 

-Here's an article, in Spanish, that talks about the gritty, sometimes difficult,  reality that breastfeeding can be: "La friega de amamantar a los hijos".

-Here's a great shot of Gwen Stefani breastfeeding and the wise words of acress Jaime King:

"These are the moments a mother lives for. Breastfeeding should not be taboo -- and bottle feeding should not be judged -- it's ALL fun for the whole family:).

"We all feed our children differently, but we are all feeding with love, and in ways that work for our individual circumstances and family dynamics,”



-Why a prejudiced world needs to see our breastfeeding selfies. 

 -And here are some great photos of women breastfeeding through history. 

* (though it was around 25 days)

12 comments:

  1. So much of what people say about breastfeeding can be incredibly confusing. The medical establishment has a pretty hard line on the statement that it will not ever hurt if you are doing it right, and yet even people who have super positive breastfeeding experiences are upfront about the fact that it hurts and is really difficult.

    It's almost like doctors either haven't been there and don't understand what is happening or are afraid to be upfront about the hard parts on case it scares people off, which ends up being a disservice to everyone involved.

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    1. Well, over here the nurses / medical staff were actually quite supportive, it was one of the nurses at the hospital who explained about the let-down reflex being painful and recommended the lanolin / Bepanthen and breast milk. Another one also noticed I needed a bigger cup for the pump and brought it for me.

      It's just what you read, the pro-breastfeeding groups, that go on and on about the "you are doing it right" (which I think is not an ideal way to frame things, it can leave many people feeling inadequate)

      And it is true, after a couple of weeks it does not hurt, it's even sweet. But nobody talks about the start, about your body getting used to it!

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  2. No debería estarte leyendo por mi encierro tesista, pero me encanta que estés hablando de estas cosas. Extraño coincidir para platicar en vivo, abrazos.

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    1. Nos volveremos a ver! Suerte con la tesis.., y ánimos y te chai o café al gusto.
      No sé porque muchas de estos temas no se hablan nunca, y si acaso los tips pasan de abuelas a madres a hijas, pero no son parte de la cultura general.

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  3. I agree with the Swiss wife, beautifully written! I nodded my head in agreement so much while reading. I too felt like giving bottles and pacifiers was treason to the boob. I also agree that breastfeeding evangelist make it harder for us because they give us unrealistic expectations. I don't know one single person who didn't have some pain in the beginning.

    I am so happy for you that you were able to continue nursing Yu. It's so hard in the beginning, especially for us with our own Moms so far away. The hormones, the sleep, just everything! I laughed when you said you started using a notebook, I did that too!

    How wonderful that you donated your milk. I've been thinking of doing that too. You are such a sweet Mama, Yu is a lucky girl!

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    1. Thanks :)
      Yeah, they should explain what to expect at the beginning, which is the hardest and most confusing part. Baby is tired and hungry and crying. But it is a vicious circle because he is too tired to eat and can not calm down because of it.

      Notebooks for the win! And yes, I am so, so grateful that in the end breastfeeding worked for us because it is something I really longed for and we are really enjoying it.

      :)

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  4. Ohhhh breastfeeding....you dark, beautiful, powerful, seductive, intimate, lovely, strange thing! It made me want to rethink my whole career to become a LC. I had such a hard time with it (though not as hard a time as you!) and my blog is filled with early posts about it. I want to go back and write about my relationship with nursing now, but I'm afraid it will sound like those smug posts I read in desperation when first trying to figure it out. The truth is, it is SO hard. So hard it makes no evolutionary sense! But now, I love it. It is effortless and beautiful and so worth it. But do I judge those who don't? Not at all!! I wish women could bond more over their choices and not be so polarized. I'm rambling...I guess I'm saying, I love it but I used to dread it and I understand whatever choice women end up making!

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    1. Yes, you are right. So much good advice at crucial moments is needed, and there is so much talking to do about it (the puerperium in general, how it completely shakes a woman identity, but not in the stereotyped ways, while remaining the same. It's like a snake shedding it's skin, getting rid of superficial layers to reveal a better self. Your last post describes it so well).

      Breastfeeding is hard at the beginning, but it turns into something so sweet. About the evolutionary sense... I think it shows that we are really a species that depends so much on culturally passed knowledge (like other apes, and some mammals, like killer whales).At the same time, it demands a lot in terms of time, ability to be well nourished... and your body responding. So, no judgement on women's choices. And I fully understand how different and unique each situation is. (Though yes, perhaps, on systems that do not tend to provide the needed support and advice: eg. in Mexico, who has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world (if not the lowest) and where formula (along with c-sections) are promoted like candy or something... because of commercial interests).

      And yes, it would really be nice if women could not be so polarized against each other. What one woman chooses does not invalidate another's choice.

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  5. te leo y parece tan fácil. yo estoy un poco asustada con el tema, deseo enormemente poder hacerlo ya que considero que es lo ideal aunque el miedo por el dolor y no producir leche esta..la voluntad sigue!

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    1. Te va a ir bien, verás. Si puedes contacta con una experta en lactación, sólo para que te apoye en caso de que necesites algún consejo. Si tu mamá va a estar ahí, también es invaluable su ayuda. No te preocupes, sólo duele al principio, mientras tu piel se acostumbra, pero la lanolina te calma y te ayuda. Toma muchos líquidos, come nutritivo, y no te desanimes. Tampoco dejes que te digan que tu "leche no es buena" o cosas por el estilo. Es normal que los bebés bajen un poco de peso los primeros días, y la leche a veces tarda unos días (3 o 4) en formarse, tu sigue persistiendo, y si quieres hablar más ahora o en ese momento aquí estamos, un abrazo!

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