Guest Blog: D’Anne Dougherty
One of my sweetest memories is of something I heard the day my daughter was born. It was my husband. He said, “Wow! How does she know how to do that?!”
He was reacting to the nursing my few minutes-old daughter was doing, even before being able to open her eyes. It had not been the birth we had expected, as is true with so many of us. Instead of the peaceful birthing tub in the dimly lit room, I found us in a surgery prep room in the other end of the hospital, with glaring lights and lots of commotion. Both my daughter and I were exhausted, battered and bruised. But there was this moment, after asking and asking, that my naked baby was put on my chest. I was too tired and out of it to think. There was an instinct that kicked in. It felt similar to the reflex to blink in bright light or to smile when you hear something funny. I found my hands putting my baby to my breast. And she latched on. I just laughed when I heard my husband’s comment. It was sweet and honest. He was in awe. Later, after some rest, I would be as well.
I kept my baby with me all the time. She slept with me, and I learned to make my breast available to her while we were sleeping. After some time, it didn’t even wake me. It was blissful.
Then we had our first “hiccup.” After such a rough entry, my little one was severely jaundiced, and had to be hospitalized in an isolette under the bilirubin lights for a week. Probably the longest week of my life. I was not allowed to take her out to hold her, and so she did not nurse that week. The hospital brought in a few different types of breast pumps for me to try, but none of them worked for me. No milk. I was engorged and in pain, and extremely emotional. I felt like I was failing my baby. My husband ran to the store and bought an inexpensive battery-powered breast pump in desperation. And it worked. I pumped and pumped and pumped. The nurses laughed at me as they collected the bottles over the next few days and stored them in the fridge, because they thought I was overdoing it. But somehow, I knew that I had to keep it coming. I fed my milk to my daughter with a syringe, and was grateful for being able to give her what I had to offer.
The day I was finally able to take my little girl out of the box and hold her and nurse her is seared into my brain. Never had I ever felt such relief. And she and I such nursing naturals! Now we could go back to our lovely babymoon of a life.
No. She wouldn’t latch on. She tried. She tried and tried. I moved her to many different positions, even the ones the nurses recommended that felt extremely awkward. Nothing worked. She grunted and cried. And I cried. A nurse came to me and let me know that this was quite common, for a baby to “forget” how to latch on after being fed by something other than a breast.
I was devastated. I felt so cheated. Why had no one told me this while I was sitting here all week feeding her with the syringe? Would I have been able to do anything different? What was there to do?
I was told there was nothing to do.
What a helpless feeling. My baby wanted to latch on. She wanted to connect with her mama in this most primal way, to be nourished by her as she fell asleep. And there wasn’t anything I could do to help her do it? I didn’t accept that. When we got home, I just kept trying and trying. Somehow I just felt that eventually we would get back there. I would let her keep trying, I would express milk into her mouth as she tried, and I would quietly encourage her. When she got too frustrated to keep trying, I would give in and give her expressed breastmilk with a bottle. As the days went by, the trying went on longer and longer, until the bottle wasn’t needed at the end anymore. We did it!!
I became a nursing pro. I wore her in a sling, and learned to wiggle my shirt up inside the sling and let her nurse while I was going about my business out in the world. After a while, I hardly noticed when she was nursing and when she wasn’t if I was busy.
I remember one day being at the checkout at a department store, and chatting with the 20-something man behind the register. I walked away and heard a sound from inside the sling from my baby. And I laughed. I felt rather cocky. Here my baby had been nursing throughout our little chat, and he had no idea.
And so it went, for what seemed like forever. But was actually only about 3 months or so.
Until we hit our second big “hiccup.”
It was just a normal day. I was taking a little break in the middle of the day, and sat down on the couch, listening to music. I pulled my baby over to nurse when she asked. She began to get very frustrated. She would latch on, nurse for a moment, let go, and cry. Over and over again. And the most disconcerting thing about this…I knew that cry. It was the hungry cry. How could this be? I could feel that I had milk. I had felt the letdown happen as she started. I had heard her swallowing. But now she was trying, and not getting any more.
I panicked. Every part of me just wanted to satisfy my baby. To help her to stop crying. I tried to tell her that I understood what was wrong. I understood the cry. I just did not know what to do about it.
I remembered after a very long and frustrating time of sitting with her and trying to nurse her, that I had bottles of formula in the kitchen. When we were discharged from the hospital, we were sent home with a small black diaper bag (kind of symbolically fitting, now that I think of it), full of small bottles of formula and coupons to use to buy more when those ran out. Thank goodness, I thought. I opened one, which conveniently came with a nipple. Which was handy in a home with no bottle-feeding supplies, for a person who had had no intention of ever using a bottle.
I gave it to her, and she gratefully and hungrily gulped it down and settled down. She smiled and fell asleep. I had such mixed feelings. What did this mean? How often was this going to happen? It seemed I was running out of milk! After only a few months? How could this be? What was wrong with me? What would happen to my baby?
This went on for several days. I was running out of formula. I had to face the reality: I was going to have to go to the store and buy formula for my baby.
I know there are worse things. I know there are mamas out there that don’t even get the three months that we had. But in that moment, as I sat in my new mama world, I felt like a total failure.
I did what I usually did when reality seemed too grim to be true, I called my husband. He asked if there wasn’t some sort of help out there for breastfeeders. And then I remembered La Leche League. I had become aware of them at a parenting fair years before, when I was representing a small private school. The idea seemed so foreign to me back then. A whole organization dedicated to breastfeeding? Really? Whatever for?
I called my local leader and asked for help. I heard one of the kindest voices I’ve ever heard on the other end of the phone. Soft-spoken, with an endearing British accent (the way she says “babies” still melts my heart), she explained to me that I was experiencing something that was extremely common for breastfeeding mothers and babies at around 3 months. She explained that my baby was going through a growth spurt common for that age, and that often there is a tiny, temporary gap in supply and demand of milk at this time. She cautioned me not to panic and supplement my milk with formula.
Whoops. I confessed it all to her. Now I was sure we were doomed.
She explained to me the concept of supply and demand when it comes to breastmilk. It turned out, the more demand there is, the more milk there would be. Period. So, by “supplementing” with formula, I was cutting down on the demand, and therefore decreasing the supply. She assured me that we could come back from this, and that it would just take a little trust and patience.
I remember hearing her describe one of the things I needed to do during a breastfeeding session as “gentling her along” while she and I dealt with our frustration as she requested more milk from me. I truly do not think I would have had it in me to trust that it was OK to hear my baby cry in frustration like that, and to work through it, had it not been for someone I trusted guiding me through it. For all the instincts I thought I had regarding this, there were none available to me for this particular issue.
I called this LLL leader, Angela, many many times over the next couple of weeks, needing to hear her explain what was happening, and needing her reassurance that we were working through our little “hiccup”. And that it would be worth it in the end.
And it was. My little girl and I figured it out. I ended up not only trusting the person on the phone, but also trusting myself as I saw things improving. And trusting my baby as she relaxed into our process. We could do this. We ended up having a happy breastfeeding relationship until she was about 3 years old, when it ended on its own.
I ended up being so inspired by this process, that I went on to take LLL leader training myself and joining a group in my area, where I made friends that are still in my life 10 years later. I was so excited that there was support out there for this, and so frustrated to think of all the mothers out there who give up, or feel like a failure like I did, simply for lack of information or support. I had a strong urge to just shout what I had learned form the street corners. I wanted everyone to know. Why shouldn’t they?
We have more instincts than we know. We are better at this than we know. There is more support out there than we know. It is worth it.