Breastfeeding did not come easily for me and my son. Once I went into labor, the unexpected intervened. A fourth-degree tear meant I had to go right into surgery rather than spend the first hours of Miles’s life the way I’d imagined – huddled cozily in a warm, darkened room with my wife and baby, puzzling out our family’s new relationships and learning how to feed my kid with my own magical body.
Instead, Kristie fed him his first meal – a bottle of formula – while in another wing of the hospital, a team of doctors repaired my tear.
Let me make it clear: I stand firmly in the camp of “fed is best.” I didn’t think twice before consenting to formula being given to my son, but I still awoke from the fog of anesthesia excited to try to breastfeed my baby. I knew the same things all new mothers know – your body communicates with your baby’s (and vice versa) while breastfeeding; breastmilk provides important nutrients and antibodies; and nursing can save a huge amount of money when compared to the cost of formula. It felt like a no-brainer. I was all in. And I had never felt pain like that before.
My son’s latch was…powerful.
Especially so during his first few days earthside. Throughout the night and into the pre-dawn hours, both of us wailed as my nipples cracked and bled. The nurse who’d helped deliver him visited our room, as did two different lactation consultants. They each watched him latch and nurse, as my shoulders tensed and I squeezed my eyes shut against the pain.
They each pronounced that the problem was not with him, but with my nipples: They had to get tougher. And the only way to do that, they said, was to power through and keep nursing.
That was almost devastating to hear. Postpartum recovery is difficult enough under the best circumstances, but the thought that it would involve this kind of pain around the clock felt unbearable. Still in the hospital, I began to dread the moment when my son would wake up, howling for a meal that would cost me in suffering – a thought which, of course, made me feel even worse. What kind of parent was I to put my discomfort over his? Why wasn’t I better at this – physically and mentally, why wasn’t I tougher?
We forged ahead, exhausted and sore, until day three.
Miles had his first appointment with his pediatrician, and when she asked me how things were going, I answered with tears. After I explained the situation, she asked to watch us nurse. Again, I cried through the minutes I could bear to spend feeding. “You’re going to see a lactation consultant,” she said, “today.”
I steeled myself before the appointment. I thought I’d hear more of the same – that my body simply wasn’t tough enough.
My self-confidence was shot, and I was ready to defend the choice I’d made on the way to the office – I was going to quit breastfeeding.
Yes, I was in so much pain, but what I truly resented was the fact that my relationship with my son was being built on a foundation of pain, rather than tender connection. I wanted something better for us both. The lactation consultant asked me to nurse him as she watched. I took a deep breath and tried yet again. And again, the baby and I both ended up in tears. “If breastfeeding hurts this much,” she said matter-of-factly, “you shouldn’t do it.” This left me floored.
Someone – a professional whose job it was to help women breastfeed – was giving me permission to stop doing something that hurt me. Whether or not she knew it, she was offering the kindest possible thing she could: validation of my struggle.
Yes, it’s difficult for you, and no, that is not your fault.
I tearfully broke the baby’s latch on my aching breast as the lactation consultant opened a bottle of formula. Miles downed it, and then another; watching him, I could see that my baby was terribly hungry. I realized that more than anything, I wanted him fed. The lactation consultant didn’t necessarily mean I should stop forever, she explained. As my wife bottle-fed our grateful gulping baby, the consultant explained hand expression and nipple shields (two things never mentioned by the lactation consultants at the hospital), and showed me how to use her hospital-grade breast pump, which she was going to rent to us for $3 per day with strict instructions: No breastfeeding for three days.
“Relief” doesn’t even begin to cover it.
For the next three days, I dutifully pumped for fifteen minutes every three hours, waking when necessary to do so. We bought more of the same formula she’d given us in the office to supplement my supply. And my baby ate. On the fourth day, I cautiously offered my breast to my son again, reassuring myself mentally that if it didn’t work, that was okay. We could keep pumping and supplementing, and I knew now that he would thrive on that combination. Yes, it still hurt. But vastly less than it had before. During their three-day break, the open wounds on my nipples had healed.
Soon I was breastfeeding once a day; then twice; then as often as I could. As often as he wanted to eat.
I even started smiling while breastfeeding – and eventually the baby did, too. Miles is turning the corner on five months old now. I’m so happy that we’ve kept up with the feeding combination that works for our family – breastfeeding, pumping, and formula – and that the smiles have kept up, too.
Without the grace and support my lactation consultant angel offered on the third day of my baby’s life, there’s no doubt in my mind that I would have quit breastfeeding altogether. That, too, would have worked for us, and Miles would have continued to eat and grow well. But it wasn’t part of my plan.
Flexibility and adaptability are the unsung heroes of postpartum survival.
Any plan, once made, will almost certainly have to change, due to surprises like an unexpected tear, or a baby’s very strong latch. But whenever possible, new parents should have the support necessary to make their own informed decisions, and to craft the life they’ve been imagining with their newborn.
Every night at midnight I scoop up my sleeping baby and settle us into the rocker in his nursery, wrapped in the yellow glow of his nightlight for his dream feed. Every night I balance him on the boppy and ease him onto my breast, I’m grateful for that lactation consultant and what she gave me. Every milky smile, quiet moment, and nighttime feeding is exactly as I imagined they’d be.