The Learning Curve of Breastfeeding

The Learning Curve of Breastfeeding

Since we’ve been talking about nursing here this week, it seems like an appropriate time to dust this piece off that’s been waiting a couple of weeks for me to finish it.

I don’t remember how I ended up there; but recently I found myself at a site dedicated to promoting breastfeeding and from my quick survey it looks pretty good. I landed on this article about anticipating difficulties and realizing that there will be a learning curve.

There’s a lot of good advice here and I wish I’d had read this before I had Bella. Although I took a class beforehand and was 100% committed to breastfeeding, I was still unprepared. Had I not been so committed, I’d probably have given up. I had almost six weeks of cracked, bleeding nipples and very serious pain before Bella and I finally figured out how to make it work. During that time I was plagued with all sorts of self-doubt. I felt like a failure and I was terrified that I was letting my sweet baby go hungry.

Here’s what the article had to say on the subject of breastfeeding pain:

Learning Doesn�t Mean Hurting.

We have heard droves of women repeat the myth that the first two weeks of breastfeeding are painful no matter what. This is not true! Sore nipples and pain are not an inevitable part of learning how to breastfeed!! Rather, sore nipples and pain are almost always a sign of a poor latch � and a poor latch is usually both avoidable and correctible! Letting a lazy latch continue is tempting to a new mother who has struggled to get the baby on the boob for 10 minutes and is not being given proper guidance, but it is a lose-lose situation: a shallow latch usually means that your baby isn�t able to get as much milk � which also puts you�re your milk supply at risk (the more they take, the more you make and vice-versa), solidifies your baby�s lousy latching habits making it a harder habit to break them of, and causes pain and soreness. So what is normal? Yes, your delicate, newbie nursing breasts may feel uncomfortable as they adjust to the unexpected sensations of baby breastfeeding (not quite like the titilation�pun intended�that got you knocked-up in the first place!) but that feeling should dissipate as the feed continues, and should be non-existent (or near non-existent) once your milk supply is established (a couple of weeks) and you near the end of the learning curve. If you feel true pain � pain that lingers beyond the first few moments of a feeding and you would rate as a 4 or more on a scale of 1-10, take your baby off the breast � carefully� and re-latch him/her. (Note: you don�t ever want to pull your nipple out of your baby�s mouth�ouch!�but, rather insert your pinky in the corner of your baby�s mouth and pull back toward his/her ear until you hear the seal of the latch break.) Better yet: make sure you see the hospital LC, or if she isn�t available or providing enough help, call an outside LC (see our section �Your A-Team�). Please take this advice seriously, it doesn�t take long (24 hours or less) to go from a little sore, to a lot sore, to �I can�t take it anymore!� �which is exactly what has undone a vast number of well-intentioned moms. Don�t let this be you! Sore nipples are usually a simple problem that can be fixed. Not attending to them is like letting a major leak in your pipes go unrepaired; eventually the damage can destroy the foundation of your house.

Here’s the thing, though. I knew all that. I knew it wasn’t supposed to hurt. I knew her latch was wrong. And yet I was still helpless to fix the problem.

I laughed when I got to the line suggesting that you see a lactation consultant if you experience pain. I’d like to see an article address the problem I faced. It wasn’t that there was no lactation consultant to help me fix Bella’s poor latch at the hospital where I gave birth; but rather that there were too many experts giving me direction and advice. Every single nurse who came into my room tried to correct my hold and Bella’s latch. Additionally, I saw at least three lactation consultants. Every single one of them gave me different, contradictory advice so that I was overwhelmed and paralyzed. Not only that I was wracked with guilt.

When we got home I was still having pain. At our first pediatrician appointment he referred me to their in-house lactation consultant. She was nice, helpful, showed me how to do it and I got Bella latched on great with no pain. But the problem was that like anything physical getting a hold and latch correct takes a lot of time. You need to develop the correct technique and also need the muscle memory so that you can repeat the correct technique every time you do it. One or two appointments with a lactation consultant in the office where I wasn’t all that comfortable and not really replicating the situation I was in at home were not enough to correct the problem.

Again, by that point I’d been shown so many holds, so many tricks and techniques by so many people, all of whom acted as if their method was the only correct one, that I just couldn’t remember and replicate the successful latch I’d achieved at the office at home on my own.

A huge part of the problem, frankly was the nurses. They meant well, I know. But it was so overwhelming to have a new nurse every time the shift changed who had her own take on the problem. If only they could refrain from having opinions and dispensing advice and leave it to the expert lactation consultant.

There was one nurse who when I was crying with frustration offered to take Bella to the nursery so I could calm down. I’m sure she meant well; but all I could hear was someone treating me like a child, criticizing my mothering decision, telling me it was too hard and I should give up. Had I been less sleep-deprived, less exhausted, less frustrated, had I not been recovering from c-section and experiencing major pain, then her advice might have helped.

The same nurse, sensing she’d upset me later came in and wanted to talk it over. I’d just got Bella to sleep and was hoping to catch a few winks myself. This well-meaning but ill-timed woman kept me talking so long that Bella woke up before I had a chance to sleep. Aaargh!

And this was at a hospital that was committed, or so they said, to making sure mothers were able to breastfeed. They did respect my desire to nurse Bella. They didn’t offer a bottle or formula when things got tough. They did have a lactation consultant on staff. But somehow they were missing a key piece of the puzzle. It felt like the consultant wasn’t available enough. She needed to be there for every feeding until mom and baby feel like they can fly on their own. And if hospitals really want to support nursing, every effort should be made to ensure the consultants are giving consistent advice and that the nurses do not act as impromptu lactation consultants.

Still, Bella and I did go on to have a very successful nursing relationship. She nursed until she was 17 months at which time I was pregnant with Sophie and Bella ‘s weaning was very gentle and easy.

Lucky for me the first time was the hardest. When Sophie was born she latched right on with no problem from the first second I held her in my arms. She nursed like a pro and I felt so comfortable with it from the start. The only problem there was that I had hemorrhaged after the c-section and it took forever for my milk to come in and she got a bit dehydrated and then had to be put on an IV for hydration. I had to schlep up to the Special Care Nursery on a different floor from my room every couple of hours to nurse her. Sitting in the rocking chair, trying to nurse her in a crowded room with lots of strangers around, unable to put up my hugely swollen feet. It was not ideal. Still, she nursed until she was 16 months old.

I remember while I sat there nursing Sophie there was a baby who was 28 weeks old in an incubator across the room. One day as I sat there nursing I heard the mother refusing to nurse her baby because she was concerned that she’d had some kind of painkiller (i think it might have been cough syrup with codeine) before giving birth and one of the doctors had told her it could be passed on to the baby through her milk. Despite that they were urging her to pump milk to be given to her baby. I didn’t say anything to her, it wasn’t my place; but I was taking extra strength painkillers after my c-section, having been on morphine for the first day. I knew that my milk, even with some codeine in it was much better for my baby girl than formula. The doctors thought it was safe and that was good enough for me. But how sad that they couldn’t convince that young mother to do likewise.

With Ben it was even easier. There had been only a one week gap from the Sophie weaned herself to the day he was born. The lactation consultant at the hospital kept coming by to ask me how things were going and had my milk come in yet. I tried to explain that he was my third baby and I’d nursed his older sisters well past their first birthdays and that in fact my milk already was in before he was born. Then I had some nurse try to tell me that because of that, Ben was not going to get the colostrum he needed. Save me from ignorant and well-meaning nurses!

I feel like now I’ve mostly got the nursing thing down. I am confident in my ability to feed my children. And yet even with a grand total of almost 44 months of breastfeeding, I can still be thrown for a loop by a baby who refuses the breast.

Wow, this started off as a focused response and sort of ended up with my rambling on about all things nursing. But it’s my blog so I think I’ll just let it stand. Anyone else want to share more nursing stories?


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