The baby was only 3 days old when I received the phone call. It was from a dad and I always know I’m working with a great family when dad is on the phone for the new mama who needs breastfeeding support. And it probably also means that they’re in distress.
The new baby girl, Sofi, was chomping at the breast every time she’d nurse. I knew this meant that mom was in pain and that the baby wasn’t getting much milk (or colostrum, which is the first milk), either. I started asking questions about the baby’s birth.
Birth center with midwives. Uneventful birth. First baby. 18 hours of labor. Mom had lots of great support. Baby born in the water.
So far, I didn’t have any red flags other than the baby was chomping at the breast. And mom was ready to give up.
She’d already seen 3 lactation consultants (professionals who assist a new mother with breastfeeding) and they all told her that she just needed to toughen up her nipples. Mom was in tears trying to nurse.
When I asked if the baby had been suctioned after the birth, the father said, “No.”
In the background, I could hear the mother yelling, “YES! They did! And it was AWFUL!”
I asked if they’d be willing to try something a little unconventional. At this point, since no one had slept for days, they were willing to try anything. I agreed to go to their house to see them.
When I arrived a few hours later, little Sofi was crying and in grandma’s arms. I had a flashback to when my oldest son was a newborn and I probably looked like they all did: tired, overwhelmed, heavy with the realization that parenting wasn’t quite meeting their expectations.
I asked the parents to come sit together with their baby on the couch and tell me the story of the pregnancy and birth. Little Sofi was laying on mom’s lap and dad’s arm was around his wife. Mom began, “I’ve always wanted to breastfeed. Since I was a little girl, I’ve dreamed of growing up and breastfeeding. Not having a baby. Breastfeeding. So the fact that I’m having so much trouble right now is just unimaginable. I’m ready to give up. I’m exhausted. This is painful and it isn’t getting any better.”
I used the Story Sharing process I learned from Ray Castellino and helped the family to slow down and connect with each other. I supported them to share the story of Sofi’s birth. And then I encouraged them to tell Sofi her story. And we watched with anticipation as the baby, who had appeared to sleep when her parents were telling her story, began to wake up and move as they told her story. She showed her story through the way she moved, the sounds she made, and her cries. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
Babies show their stories on the journey to the breast, according to Ray Castellino’s research with BEBA (Building and Enhancing Bonding and Attachment- www.beba.org). Even newborns show the story of their birth in the way they move to the breast. Attention and understanding of what you’re looking at makes a world of difference here. What may seem random is actually purposeful as baby repeats the sequence of the birth as he journeys to the breast. Every time. Parents just need some instruction for how to set up for the baby to show his story and how to support one another in the process.
As Sofi moved toward her mother’s breast, I watched as the parents realized that she was actually moving through the sequence of things that happened during the birth. When she reached the breast, I told them she’d probably get very fussy and probably would cry. I encouraged them to tell her the part of the story when she was suctioned at that point and allow whatever feelings they were all having to come up. Allow Sofi to cry and be with her in the process. Cry with her.
After a few minutes of everyone crying and softly talking to the baby, Sofi latched onto her mother’s breast and began to nurse for the first time without chomping. Her mother cried with joy!
After a few minutes of nursing well, Sofi began to chomp again and her mother took her off the breast. We all felt somewhat disappointed, but slightly encouraged by the few minutes of breastfeeding going well. I suggested they continue to repeat the process of letting Sofi show her story at least once a day, and feed her by whatever means necessary in the meantime. But regardless of who fed her or how she was fed, every time anyone went near her mouth, they needed to talk to her about what happened with the suctioning, that they were sorry that happened, and how feeding is going to be gentle now.
The amazing thing is that within 24 hours of our time together, baby Sofi and her mother were happily nursing. But most importantly, mom felt connected to her daughter and felt like she was able to mother her new baby. They connected in the process of story sharing and she began to feel more competent to be able to care for her daughter. Indeed, the relationship was intact and off to a connected start. When I checked with them a few months later, they were a very happy nursing pair!
But what I realized is that this family, with this mother who wanted so much to nurse, wouldn’t have had the same outcome if they hadn’t randomly found someone who could support them.
While I’ve always felt that each mother needs to make her own decision about how to feed her baby, I became very aware that I was still judging those who were bottle feeding. This mother, the one who wanted to breastfeed more than anything, would have been a bottle feeding mother despite her deep desire to nurse. Even though she wanted to nurse more than anything else, it was a random sequence of events that landed me in their living room right after I had learned about Ray Castellino’s process for supporting families. What if all that hadn’t happened? How would the mother feel about her baby? What would have happened to their connection? And that, my friends, is much more important than how a baby is fed.
I’d honestly love to see every baby in America happily breastfeeding. The benefits of breastfeeding are well-known and numerous and we hear all the time that “Breast is Best,” yet new parents are undersupported and undermined at every turn. Whether it is inadequate support at the hospital, a lack of understanding about how a child’s gestation, birth, or experiences after birth can affect a baby’s ability to nurse, incompetent care from doctors who are trained about breastfeeding from formula representatives, lack of information about the risks of not breastfeeding, or other extenuating circumstances, sometimes it feels like a small miracle every time a baby is able to nurse at all.
Breastfeeding can be an incredible way to connect with a baby. Or it can be one of the most frustrating experiences imaginable when a baby isn’t able to nurse well. As we celebrate World Breastfeeding Week, let’s remember that each mother-baby pair is on its own journey. Let’s have compassion for each other, no matter how each family decides to feed the baby, whether breastfeeding lasts for one feeding or is measured in years. And let’s keep expanding our efforts to increase support for families to connect with their babies through breastfeeding and to educate our nation about the benefits of breastfeeding.
Parents want to make the best decisions for their new babies. Let’s remember that we may not know the whole story. Educate with compassion. We’re all on our own unique journey.
How did you choose to feed your baby? If you chose to breastfeed, was it like you thought it would be? Were you able to do it? What obstacles did you encounter? Were you able to overcome them? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below, if you’d like to share.