“Why doesn’t anyone talk about this?”
This is something I hear about breastfeeding all the time. Several friends have said things to me like, “I never knew how hard this was going to be,” or “No one told me my nipples would actually crack and bleed.” The good news is that people are more open about this topic than ever. I, for one, am an open book and I am regretfully long winded. But I want to share my experiences with breastfeeding my two girls so that people may relate or benefit somehow from my words. My two experiences were so different from each other, which I hear is common. I would never describe breastfeeding as “easy,” but I am grateful that my second experience was much better than the first.
My firstborn: Ollie
I had difficulty from the get-go with breastfeeding Ollie. She didn’t latch well in the hospital and they had me trying the nipple shield almost immediately. The nipple shield is made of thin, clear and flexible silicone. It mimics the ideal protrusion of a nipple and it is placed over the mothers nipple, clinging to the breast to stay in place. The idea is that the baby can latch on better to the shield than a flatter or inverted nipple, achieving success with nursing. Ideally, once breastfeeding is established the shield is discontinued, but some moms find they need it for longer term use.
Ollie was identified as being tongue-tied and her frenulum was clipped TWICE- once while still in the hospital and again about 2 weeks later. I met with lactation consultants multiple times, in the hospital and then through my pediatrician’s office. The nipple shield was effective in getting her to latch, but she still wasn’t emptying the breast during a feeding- even in 45-60 minute sessions. As a result of the feeding issues, Ollie was losing weight.
The pediatricians were unhappy with Ollie’s weight loss. I was recommended to pump after feedings to fully empty the breast. I’d feed her, then pump, then feed her the pumped milk from a bottle. They had me doing this within days of returning home from the hospital, despite my goal of exclusively breastfeeding for the first month. She had lost 9% of her body weight which made her doctors freak out, but they ignored the fact that she was born very swollen after a 10 hour labor that included IV fluids. Her 24 hour weight was 8 lbs 14 oz, which was likely a more accurate depiction of her true weight once the swelling dissipated. I was thinking, “this baby is still huge!” But I was also thinking that maybe I should be worried if the doctor is worried. With the addition of the pumped milk, she began gaining again.
I wanted to keep up the breastfeeding relationship, but after the first three weeks I began to only breastfeed during the day so the nighttime feeding process wouldn’t take as long. This was helpful for my sanity, as it allowed me to sleep for larger chunks of time. By the time I returned to work when Ollie was 12 weeks old, we had given up breastfeeding altogether. The last few times I attempted left her red-faced and screaming, and it was no fun for anyone.
For me, getting on a regimented pumping schedule was important, especially once I returned to work. I hear that this is not absolutely necessary for everyone, but if I didn’t stick to pumping every 5 hours I would get clogged ducts. They were painful and threw me into a fear spiral that I was going to get mastitis. I tried many strategies to relieve the painful, hard lumps in my breasts and only after getting on this strict schedule did they stop for good. The most effective strategies I used to unclog ducts were microwavable warm compresses by Lansinoh and breast massage. For more stubborn clogs I needed to use my manual pump (by Medela) and/or take a bath. At the time I didn’t think to just submerge my breasts in bowls of hot water, but I heard that is effective, too.
Exclusively pumping boosted my supply, and by the time Ollie was about five months old I was pumping 50 oz per day over five sessions. I was happy with this because my supply was predictable, I wasn’t getting clogged ducts anymore and I was building up a nice freezer stash. I was also exhausted. I was doing this every five hours around the clock, no matter when it fell. I was also filling up our freezer space, including the extra 13-cubic-foot freezer we had bought to accommodate my milk. That’s when I decided to cut down to pumping 3 times per day, every 8 hours. I did this at around the seven month mark. After the transition I was pumping about 30 oz per day which was pretty much the amount she was drinking at the time, though with the introduction of solid food at six months her daily intake of milk wasn’t always this high.
Over the next several months my supply did decrease further, and I realized when she was 10 months old that I was nearing the end. I was ready to be DONE with pumping, and I figured that my freezer stash would get her to the one-year mark on breastmilk and that I wouldn’t have to buy any formula. I was deathly afraid of mastitis (still) so I wanted the transition to be slow. I started to limit my pumping sessions to 20 minutes instead of 30, so as to not fully empty the breasts and encourage a decreased supply. I increased the time between pumping sessions gradually over the next few weeks and I pumped for the LAST time on December 31, 2017 when she was 11 months old. New year, new me.
I wanted her to have breastmilk for as long as possible, especially since it was flu season. I realized that if I mixed breastmilk with cow’s milk, the transition could be longer and she could still receive the immune boosting benefits of my milk while adjusting to a new substance. Well, I don’t know if I introduced cow’s milk too soon (we started mixing at 11 months- I know the recommendation is 12) or if she was not going to tolerate it well regardless, but the transition didn’t go well. She ended up showing signs of intolerance to milk, though she was never diagnosed. Essentially she was constipated and started displaying a delayed histamine response: goopy eyes, fluid in ears and ear infections. She was hospitalized for bronchiolitis and RSV less than a month after my freezer stash of breastmilk ran out. The full story of her transition, her difficulties and all the milks we tried is a story for another day.
Her hospitalization made me wonder if I should have pushed it and pumped for longer. I will never know if this could have prevented the multiple ear infections she had in the following months. We very narrowly escaped ear tubes; the infections stopped when we eliminated cow’s milk.
Overall I am very grateful for the supply I had that allowed me to exclusively pump for almost a year. There are quite a few silver linings to exclusively pumping, and I tried to focus on them vs on being upset that I didn’t have a magical breastfeeding experience. I truly believe that each mom has to do what she feels works best for her and her family, thinking about everyone and not just the baby.
My second born: Maryn
I am happy to report that breastfeeding has been much easier the second time around, though Maryn is only two months old. Soon after she was placed on my stomach after being born, she latched immediately! I was so relieved. We discovered that- despite not being tongue-tied- her latch was narrow, meaning she wasn’t opening her mouth very wide. This resulted in her biting down closer to the end of my nipple which was painful, though she was successful in extracting the colostrum. The nurse recommended I try a nipple shield, which helped with the discomfort. When the lactation consultant came back the next day, though, she was able to teach me effective techniques in order to achieve a wider latch without the shield. As many moms may relate, it was easy when the lactation consultant was there but it was difficult to replicate the strategies she taught me once she was gone. I did my best. My milk came in fast this time- it was in before we discharged from the hospital! Maryn was feeding as she needed to and it was going well.
One thing that was worse this time was the cramping during breastfeeding- like period cramps times ten. The nurses did warn me, and it was crazy how it would come on specifically when I was feeding her. They said it was the hormones at work, triggering my uterus and cervix to contract back to their original places.
After I was discharged home, my nipples started to crack and bleed with feedings and the pain was horrible. For the first few minutes of feeding my whole body would tense up and I’d find myself holding my breath. I had “triple nipple” prescription ointment which helped, but the frequency of feedings (every 2 hours) was not giving me a break. I needed relief, so I started to use the shield again for protection. I did this for about two weeks and it helped- I have not needed it since. I also started using a silicone hand pump on one breast while I fed on the other, which helped solve two issues. First, my supply was excessive. I was engorged and needed relief, so I started feeding her on only one side for a whole feeding while I used the hand pump on the other side. This was effective in making me not feel engorged. It also helped heal my nipples, because then each breast was only being fed on every other feeding.
Once my supply regulated at around the two-week mark, I started feeding her the pumped milk in between breastfeeding sessions (before this I was freezing it). She would alternate breast, bottle, breast, etc. every 2-3 hours. That is pretty much the schedule we are on now, and I am loving it. It allows me to be out and about for longer periods of time without having to stop and breastfeed (if I time it right). It also allows my husband (and anyone else for that matter) to help feed her.
My supply seems to be at the perfect spot for me right now: I have enough to feed her, plus I am saving about 6-10 ounces of surplus milk per day. I know she is getting enough because her doctor is very happy with her growth curves. I do enjoy the bond of breastfeeding and I am so grateful to be able to do it this time around. With my return to full-time work looming just three weeks in the future, our current set-up is setting the stage for having to use my electric pump again.
Wish me luck! I will update as needed!
I breastfed Maryn for 15 months total, and we weaned very slowly. My overall breastfeeding experience with her was a dream compared to Ollie, and I continue to be so grateful for that. I loved being able to just pop her on for 5 minutes at a time, go soothe her easily in the night if she woke, and not have to always be planning for pumping and carting milk around. I am so glad I tried again to breastfeed after the semi-traumatic experience I had before. I look back at exclusively pumping and think it is not for the faint of heart. It is a huge commitment, and while I would do it again if I had to, I am not sure I would do it for as long because of the time commitment and effort involved (especially having other kids in the mix now).
I never did this with Ollie, but something that worked well for me and Maryn was dream feeding. This is the concept that you feed the baby while they’re asleep (i.e. wake them to feed) with the objective of extending their sleep by keeping them sustained for longer in the night. We would put her down for bed around 7 pm, and then around 10 pm before I went to sleep, I’d pick her up while she was sleeping in her crib and feed her. She would stir a little, latch without effort and eat for 5-10 minutes, and then I’d put her right back down without her making a peep. This doesn’t work for every baby, but I found that the nights I did this, she slept for longer before waking up hungry. This allowed me to get to one wake-up in the night versus 2. It helped me get a longer initial stretch of sleep at night and also allowed me to empty before bed without having to pump. From my perspective, it was a win-win. Eventually, I was able to eliminate this, but sometimes that meant having to pump before bed.
Once I was back to work, I’d feed her around 6:30 am and then I pumped once during the workday around 11am, meaning I could go about 4-5 hours between emptying. This is something I feel I trained my body to be able to do without complications, but I will say that most moms must empty more often than this in order to keep their supply up. I feel grateful that I could produce what she needed without having to pump more than once at work.
Weaning with Maryn was easy (please don’t hate me, I know I’m lucky). Shortly after she turned one, I started nursing her less often, and soon I was only feeding her first thing in the morning and right before bed. I no longer needed to pump at work during the day, and those two feedings were my only “empties” of the day. I was surprised I had any milk in there at all, because I never felt full anymore and my breasts were getting that “deflated” look and feel that moms know all too well. She was drinking the milk we had stashed in the freezer, and toward the end of that stash we stretched it out by mixing it with almond milk. I was worried about milk sensitivity like Ollie had, hence the dairy-free option. In the end, when that milk was gone we didn’t really continue giving her milk at all. Now at over 2 years old, she drinks (and tolerates) whole cow’s milk in cereal and before bed, but she has never relied on it for significant nutrition or calories since she weaned from breastmilk. It turns out, if they’re eating enough food and drinking fluids like water, they don’t NEED to be milk drinkers at all. As a millennial who was raised with the “Got Milk?” campaign ingrained in my brain, this was a foreign concept to me at first.
The last time I fed her was uneventful. One morning, I just didn’t do it, and she never asked for it or looked back. I monitored for symptoms of fullness or clogged ducts, but I didn’t get any and that was that.
My third-born: Charlie
Nickname: Cluster Chuck, affectionately, due to his tendency to cluster feed beyond anything I experienced with my first two children. He gave us a run for our money, and has been the most demanding so far regarding feeding.
Charlie latched in the hospital within a half hour of being born, and it felt magical and easy at the time. I was so grateful. By the next day, though, my nipples were already sore and I was having trouble latching him deeply. He had a shallow latch like Maryn, and they told me he had a “slight” tongue-tie. We ended up not correcting the tongue-tie because his latch was “functional,” but it meant that breastfeeding him was painful. He also wanted to feed often, which didn’t help get a break from the pain. I tried using the nipple shield to protect my nipples from the chafing, but it felt like more trouble than it was worth because he was so wiggly and kept knocking it off. I used the Triple Nipple prescription ointment after every feeding and it helped immensely.
Eventually (around the 2-week mark I think), the pain subsided and I didn’t need the cream anymore. His latch continued to be shallow, but it worked for us. It only hurt in the very beginning of feedings, and he was gaining weight nicely, so I didn’t worry too much about it. Unfortunately, though, he was cluster feeding most days, which meant for sometimes 2-4 hours he would fuss and cry every 20 minutes, and the only thing that would comfort him would be nursing. We tried all the soothing tips from “The Happiest Baby on the Block,” to no avail. It was exhausting. My husband felt helpless because he couldn’t soothe him, and I felt so spent, drained and touched out. This went on for weeks, but it seemed that once he hit 12 lbs things got better. He started having longer stretches of sleep around the 6-week mark, and was less fussy during his awake times.
At the time of writing this, he is 4 months old and I can easily pop him on without pain to feed him. I am glad we didn’t clip his frenulum because it seems like he didn’t need it. He is gaining weight like crazy (nearly 17 lbs at 4 months). He still eats every 3 hours or so around the clock, so sleep for mama is still a struggle. Every baby is so different. But he is fed and happy, and that’s what really matters. I hope to continue with breastfeeding for a year again this time, but we will see. I am willing to follow his lead while keeping my own sanity a priority.
Breastfeeding-related products I have used:
Breastmilk storage bags
Organic cotton washable nursing pads
Dr. Brown’s bottles
Nursing tank tops
Breastfeeding night light
Medela Freestyle pump– insurance paid for half the cost; it was SO worth the extra money to have a portable pump. If you are exclusively breastfeeding, it will save your life.
Spectra S2– Insurance covered this for my third baby. It is a plug-in pump.
Silicone hand pump– Bumblebee brand
Silicone hand pump– Naturebond brand (I have both)
Silicone hand pump- Haakaa brand (don’t have this one but I hear they all work great)
Mother’s Milk Tea
Freezer– We didn’t get this exact one, but it’s similar