It may not surprise you that long before I was pregnant, I already knew that breastfeeding was going to be important for my babies and me. For their health, but also our bonding and attachment. When I was pregnant, I started fantasizing about baby and me cozying up, him/her on my breast, the perfect fit, a beautiful image. I thought it would come easy and natural. I didn't read much about the topic and honestly, I was very judgemental towards women who chose not to breastfeed, or quit early on.
I still think that it's every baby's birthright to enjoy not only the health benefits, but also the pleasures of nursing, of this unique bonding with mom and getting to experience the sweetness of life. Although now, 9+ months into my breastfeeding journey, I have a lot more understanding and compassion towards mothers choosing to bottle- and formula feed their babies.
When Malcom was born after a physiological birth (I say this because medicalised birth, i.g. c-section, epidural and other interventions, can affect breastfeeding negatively) he had no issue finding the breast. We layed skin-to-skin and undisturbed during the golden hour (the crucial first hour after birth), and he slowly made his way to the nipple, using his instincts, sense of smell and sight (the reason why nipples are darker-coloured). It was beautiful to watch. I was relieved, but not surprised that he latched and started sucking. And so, the journey had begun. This couldn't be so hard, right?
Boy, was I wrong!
The first struggle started when after about 4 days my milk came in, and in abundance. My breasts were so tense that he had a hard time latching. Luckily, this was when my midwife came for a visit and she showed me how to extract milk with my hand, which we could then feed him with a spoon. By then he had been crying and getting more and more upset in hunger. The midwife also showed me how I could hold him. Because he had calmed down from receiving a bit of milk by spoon, and my breasts were less tense, he could now latch and drink! My relief was just as big as his, as my breasts felt like they were going to explode.
We experienced a few days where the nursing went well, besides sore nipples, which healed pretty fast, and the challenges of having a baby attached to you 24/7. Unfortunately this ease didn’t last long. When he was about 2 weeks Malcom started to have a harder and harder time latching and drinking. We went from struggling for a few minutes before he could latch, till 45 to 60 minutes of me trying out different positions while he cried and cried (and often me with him), before he would latch. Of course he always latched in the most impossible forward or sideward bends for me, which I then needed to stay in for another 20 minutes at least, not daring to move and break the latch. The relief of him drinking and crying was short lived and soon replaced with dread for the next feed, where the whole ordeal would start again. If I was lucky we got one hour of him sleeping or being at peace before he wanted to drink again.
While he drank or slept, I would watch every video I could find on breastfeeding, trying to figure out how to solve the problem. I asked a few friends and relatives that had breastfed if it was this hard for them. Their answer, unanimously: 'Yes!'. They told me to hang in there, as it's often hard in the beginning as the baby learned to latch and suck properly and I learned how to support him best. I told my midwife about our struggle, and got a few tips, but I already knew from the videos that those wouldn't help. While everyone told me it's a struggle in the beginning for many women, my intuition told me that this particular struggle was not normal, and that something was wrong. Especially because he had latched and drunk perfectly fine in the beginning, but now it got worse and worse.
I felt not taken seriously until our next appointment with the midwife where I showed her, while crying, how impossible it was for him to latch. Only after weighing him, and seeing that he had dropped weight fast, did she understand the severity of the situation. She looked at his mouth and thought it looked strange, so she booked us an appointment with a pediatrician for the next day. She also advised us to pump milk and try to bottle feed. Something I had of course considered, but held off since it's not recommended to start bottle feeding before the baby has learned to breastfeed with ease and your milk supply has regulated. I was afraid that once I went ‘bottle’ he’d never go back to the breast. But of course we couldn't have him drop more weight, so when we came home, the first thing we did was sterilize a hand pump and a bottle and tried. The ease and eagerness of how he took the bottle and drank now also had papa in tears of relief. It felt cruel that we hadn't tried this earlier and had let him struggle so much.
At the hospital, the next day, it soon became clear that there was something unusual going on with his mouth. After mány doctors examined his mouth they concluded that the problem was a cyst under his tongue. I'll spare you the gnarly details of the next week of hospitalization, but after they punctured and emptied the cyst, he could immediately drink with ease again.
I didn't really want to, but we were strongly advised to bottle feed after each time he nursed, which we did partially with pumped milk (I was already pumping to get my milk supply up which had dropped from his struggles with drinking) and formula. And we were put on a tight feeding schedule which I hated, I mean who wants to wake a sleeping baby in the middle of the night to feed him when we finally are all getting some rest?! But he needed to gain weight, and fast, so I agreed to try. My fears for formula, i.g. that it would set him up for bad health and allergies, were settled, as he loved it and till this day did not even get as much as a diaper rash.
Those first few months of Malcolm's life were by far the hardest of my life. I told Tolde: 'I much rather go through 10 more births than this shit'. As we were worried about Malcom, the cyst, his health, combined with sleep deprivation and a tight feeding schedule, which had me nursing every 3 hours, followed by bottle feeding. This meant sterilizing bottles and heating milk, followed by pumping so that I could bottle feed him as much breast milk as possible, and my supply would increase so he could eventually transition back to full breastfeeding, which was my goal. The hard work paid off though, as we could eventually, when he was about 3 months, stop the bottle feeding and so I could return to exclusively breastfeeding.
What was most stressful during those first months of motherhood, however, was that the cyst under his tongue kept filling up, making it from effortless to drink, directly after a puncture, slowly to impossible to latch within stretches of 2 weeks between punctures, till as bad as 2 days in-between. When the cyst filled up, I could still extend the period that I could nurse him by using a nipple shield. This genius invention didn't help me to shield my nipples from soreness, which by this time were fine, but helped to "extend" the nipple so it was easier for Malcom to latch, even with little space in his mouth.
I didn't enjoy using the nipple shield, as it literally felt like a shield between me and baby, and I thought a lot about how it would influence communication between baby and breast. Which is magical! For example, did you know that the breast milk adjusts in nutrients according to what the breast perceives the baby needs?! However, using the shield allowed us to continue breastfeeding, where otherwise we'd have to transition to exclusively bottle feeding during those times.
Malcom had the cyst removed surgically when he was 4 months old. Surgery was a horrible experience, but better than keep on going from puncture to puncture, as those happened with thick needles and without pain relief. He healed quickly. I like to think that was because of the breast milk and nursing which does sooo much for a baby's wellbeing in ways we can't even begin to understand. Since surgery, he was able to breastfeed without any problem, and we could finally ditch the hassle of combined bottle feeding. Yay! What an incredible reward after such a long struggle to keep on breastfeeding my baby! Since then, breastfeeding has become more and more enjoyable.
Recently I spoke to a neighbor who's feeding her baby with formula, since a few days after birth, because she couldn't make it work for them. It made me reflect on the insanity of my persistence with breastfeeding. One could say that I caused myself and baby so much suffering from not wanting to give up. I told my neighbour that I kind of envied her ability to let it go, and show compassion for herself during a time that’s already hard in many other ways.
Every time I nurse him now though, and see his innocent cute eyes stare into mine while he plays with my hair or clothes, my heart just bursts with love. I enjoy every bit of it, I don't even mind the night feedings now that it's so easy! Those moments are more than worth it and I am so happy that I persisted. I nurse, and intend on continuing nursing him for a long time. I do this as much for him, his well being, his future health, as well as my own. Every time I nurse, it invites me into presence, into love. Every time he latches is an incredible moment where we almost become one organism again, like when he was still in my belly. It took a lot of sweat, tears and persistence, but we now actually embody the beautiful image I fantasized about during pregnancy.
While our situation was unique and rare (only about 2 to 3 similar infant cases are known in Sweden so please don’t worry about this happening to your baby), the story of struggle with breastfeeding is a common one, with varying causes such as tongue ties, stress, work or lack of support. I've learned so much about breastfeeding along the way, things I feel every coming parent should know, and be supported with. Breastfeeding isn't something that "just works" like I assumed. Our ancestors likely saw other women nursing their babies and so learned from an early age, but for us modern peeps it's usually completely new. Breastfeeding is a learning process that takes patience and support.
May my story be an example of why it's often more nuanced than a simple choice to breastfeed or not. And may we show compassion to those who are for whatever reason not breastfeeding. And may we share our stories, our struggles and our gained wisdom. So that the next generation get's to have it easier and so more women and babies get to enjoy this sacred time of breastfeeding.
- For Swedish mamma's: boken 'Amning i nöd och lust' av Lin Dalén
- Podcast Badass Breastfeeding Podcast
- I also higly recommend not waiting with hiring a lactation consultant if you're struggling