Tuesday, March 11, 2008

My breastfeeding story

This is part of Sarcastic Mom's (Breast)feeding Carnival. Full disclosure: I wrote this about 5 years ago, and it was actually published on the Boston Parents' Paper site for a time.

My six-week-old baby was crying all the time. My ears were ringing from the sound. At night, my husband Arnie would take Jordan for an hour while I took a hot bath in our tiny green-tiled bathroom, trying to relax from another exhausting day of caring for an infant. I would close the bathroom door to crying, and when I opened it, I would hear the crying once again. It was endless; the baby was inconsolable.

I had two conflicting thoughts: one, it didn’t feel right in my gut that the baby was crying this much. Two, everyone was telling me that new babies cry a lot, and that you just have to deal with it. My brain cloudy with lack of sleep, I embraced the latter explanation, and after a while, started hardening myself to his crying. Arnie and I would even joke about his crying. It was all we could do to keep sane.

It is late afternoon in mid-September, yet the air still feels thick and sticky. The baby awakens in his basket-like bassinet, and cries insistently. It is time to nurse. I hold him gently in the crook of my arm, his tiny body nestling into mine, and he latches onto my breast. He starts to suck, and I feel the strange, familiar pulling sensation inside my breast as my milk lets down. I smell his familiar, sweet smell. He nurses for awhile, then becomes sleepy. I put my finger in his mouth to break the suction of his suck, hold his floppy head carefully, and turn him around to nurse on the other side. He nurses, becomes sleepy. Suddenly, he awakens, his brow furls, and his lips tremble, and he starts to cry. “Aaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!” His typically sweet expression is transformed into one I don’t recognize: his mouth is wide open, more square than round, his cheeks are pulled upwards, and his face turns red. He seems very angry. I put him over my shoulder and rub his back soothingly. I wonder: “What is going on?” The books say that the baby should act satisfied after a feeding. This is far from satisfied.

Everything I’d read and been told about breastfeeding indicated that it was a perfect system. “Breastmilk is the perfect food for your baby,” the “Introduction to Breastfeeding” instructor had said as we ate warm brownies and drank ginger ale in the cold waiting room which served as our classroom. “Your body will produce exactly the right amount of milk that your baby needs.” And I believed her.

I had every reason to believe that breastfeeding was working well for us. The pediatrician had examined Jordan three times during his first month of life, and each time, Jordan was gaining weight and developing normally. No one had ever mentioned that things could change so quickly, so I didn’t consider feeding problems as I wondered and worried about my crying baby.

One warm night, Jordan was crying and crying. I had breastfed him a short while earlier, and he was still crying. Arnie tried rocking him, carrying him in the baby sling around and around the house, putting him on his chest . Jordan continued to cry. Finally, Arnie went into the kitchen and started to boil some water in a pan.
“What are you doing?” I asked, following him into the kitchen.
“I’m going to give him a bottle of formula. I think he’s hungry.” He measured the formula into a bottle, and poured the hot water from the pan into the bottle.
“Don’t give him formula! I’m breastfeeding him!”
“But I think he’s hungry!”
“You are trying to undermine me!” I was crying and shaking. I remembered what all those breastfeeding teachers had said: once you started using formula, the baby would soon be weaned from the breast.
“He should be getting enough from me. It’s supposed to work perfectly! Don’t give him a bottle!”
“Okay, okay, if you think you know what you’re doing,” he relented. “But I still think he’s hungry.”
“What if I breastfeed him, and then he takes some of the formula? What does that prove?”
“Just forget it.” Arnie put the bottle he had prepared into the refrigerator. We didn’t talk about that night again. And Jordan continued to cry.

Soon after, we took Jordan in for his two month appointment with the pediatrician. My heart was pounding and I kept taking deep breaths as we walked down the narrow corridor towards the pediatrician’s office. I had written a list a page long, filled with the problems that we were experiencing with the baby: he wouldn’t nap, he cried all the time, he didn’t seem satisfied after breastfeeding.
“He’s eating, he’s peeing and pooping, he’s fine!” I said, trying to reassure myself.
“But he feels so light to me!” said Arnie.

The nurse placed Jordan on the baby scale, and there was the truth glaring us in the face. Jordan had gained just a few ounces in a month’s time. Something was very wrong. My heart fell into my stomach.

“Okay, what we have here is a hungry little guy,” said the pediatrician. She held him up gently on the examining table, and started feeding him a bottle of premixed formula. Jordan’s eyes got very large, and he drank and drank the formula. Pretty soon, he’d taken four ounces of the formula.

“We don’t see this very often except in Third World countries, but your breastmilk must not have enough calories in it, so he’s not gaining enough weight. He needs more calories than your milk is providing for him.” The pediatrician spoke very matter-of-factly, but my eyes filled with tears, and I started to cry. I was humiliated to be crying in front of the pediatrician, but the realization that Jordan had been crying from hunger – that I had essentially been starving my baby – was absolutely horrifying to me. Jordan had been hungry for all this time, and that was what he was trying to tell us! I couldn’t believe that my body had failed me, failed us.

“This is what I want you to do,” said the pediatrician. “For the next week, give him as much formula as he wants. Use a breastpump, and pump instead of nursing him.”
“Don’t breastfeed?” I asked incredulously.
“Just for this week. We need to make sure that there isn’t a problem with his absorption of the nutrients from the milk. Once we are certain that the problem isn’t with him, you can go back to breastfeeding followed by a bottle of formula, to make sure he gets enough of the calories that he needs.”
“Uh...okay.” I was surprised, but I wasn’t about to go against her advice.

The nurse gave us tons of formula samples, little jars with nipples, packages, cans. We loaded everything into the stroller, and left the pediatrician’s office. I was shaken. I was trying very hard not to start crying again. Arnie helped me unload everything into the car, and gave me a hug. He was going to work, and I was going home to deal with all this. “You have to be strong for Jordan,” he said. I got into the car. Jordan was sitting in his infant seat making little happy noises.

I drove home slowly, tears flowing from the corners of my eyes onto my glasses. When we got home, I put Jordan in his playpen. He was in a great mood for the first time in a long time. He played contentedly there for a long while, looking at his black and white mobile, and eventually, fell asleep.

I put a box of tissues on the dining room table, and started to cry. I went through tissue after tissue, crying and blowing my nose. I could not believe that I had been starving my own baby! I felt terribly guilty. I couldn’t stop crying.

Once we started feeding Jordan formula, the change in him was almost immediate. He was happier – took naps – played alone longer – and drank formula like crazy. Within a week, he had gained almost everything he should have gained in the past month. During that week, I pumped instead of breastfeeding him, and realized that I was only able to pump two ounces of milk at a time, while Jordan needed four ounces per feeding. Now I understood what the problem was: it wasn’t that my milk didn’t have enough calories, it was that I wasn’t making enough milk to meet his needs. I met with a lactation consultant to learn ways to try to increase my milk supply.

After the week of feeding Jordan formula exclusively, I started nursing him again. First I would nurse, and then I would follow each feeding with a bottle. This routine took some getting used to, and feedings often took 45 minutes or longer between breast and bottle. But after a while, I accepted both the time factor and the fact that I was unable to breastfeed exclusively. I was grateful that Jordan lives in a time and place where his problem -- our problem -- could be so easily solved. Jordan thrived on the combination of breast and bottle, and we continued this way for quite a while. But I will never forget the feeling of horror that I felt when I realized that I hadn’t trusted my instincts, and had let my baby go hungry.


Anonymous said...

It's difficult to weigh all of the information that is available to us as mothers and figure out what is right for our child. The books, experts and our kids sometimes tell conflicting "stories". It's good that you were able to find a middle path that worked for your family.

Rebecca (Ramblings by Reba) said...

Oh bless your heart! I'm glad you were able to find a workable solution. :)

nachtwache said...

Being a mom can result in agonizing moments, when really we try our best. Some women want to breastfeed, but can't and then feel guilty.
We all make some mistakes, when "experts" give us wrong information, it sure doesn't help.
I like what Rebecca wrote.
Bless your heart.
I could feel the agony you felt, when I was reading your post.

Anonymous said...

I read this and identifyed.
My baby was not getting enough milk from me as she did not know how to nurse properly.
Luckily I Doctor found out early that she was "starving herself".

On the one hand we are told that there is not such thing as mother not making enough milk, on the other we must be aware that sometimes real problems can occur and must be treated.

I feel and identify with your pain

rbarenblat said...

Oh, Adena, what a story. There's so much here that resonates with me. Thank you so much for sharing it.

Zahavit said...

My third baby is 7 weeks old. With my first baby I had so much milk that my non-nursing breast leaked several ounces which I captured and stored for later use. I was the queen of breastfeeding. My baby got ridiculously fat on my milk alone. There was bit less milk going on with my second but no problems at all. And this time round it's just not been working. The baby cried and cried and cried. His weight gain was a little slow but just as I determined (with professional advice) to try and increase my milk production by eating as much as humanly possible I got ill and my appetite left me - I'm feeling better now but I'm also on steroids. So last week I saw a paediatrician who said "Your baby is fine. The illest person in this room is you. Your doctor saw fit to prescribe you some very strong medicine. You can rush around all you like trying to keep body and soul together but your milk is an organic measure of how well you are and you can't fake it. Offer the breast at every feed, and then, unstintingly, offer formula." I'm doing that now and my baby is a *lot* happier. I'm both horrified and relieved to be using formula. Thanks God there's a simple solution to this problem. But how sad to feel less than the total provider to my baby. Our feelings as mothers are so primal and there's so much maternal pride is bound up in breastfeeding. In my heart I sort of knew my baby was hungry but couldn't believe the perfect system was working perfectly this time. It's a tough lesson but it's making me grow up and start to accept that sometimes there's nothing beyond good enough....