Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Vanishing Finish Line

Before my son was born, I obsessed over the birth process. I read every book, every website, haunted message boards, practiced yoga and meditation, spent weeks drafting a birth plan, and so on. Then, the day came, and through an unexpected set of circumstances, I got my perfect birth. I was sitting there in the hospital, snuggling my squishy little 6lbs 15oz burrito and basking in the glow of having finally crossed the finish line, when I overheard a nurse saying "....his latching score is pretty low...."

Wait, what?

And it suddenly hit me that with all my preoccupation of how to bring this baby into the world, I hadn't given a single thought as to how I was supposed to keep the little squirt alive! Oh sure, I'd put a breast pump on my registry and somehow managed to pick up a couple of nursing bras, but had I read a thing about breastfeeding? NOPE.

Remember what the nurse said about his latching score? Yeah. Suddenly my boob was a "sandwich" and nurses were jamming my baby's face onto it, handing me a little tube of Lanolin and telling me that I might feel "sore" for a few days. I don't know about you, but when I hear the word "sore," I think of how my muscles ache after a long run, or how my toe feels when I stub it, or how my head feels when I bump it getting out of the car.

None of those is comparable to the feeling of having a tiny and adorable yet voracious little monster chew on your heretofore mostly-untouched nipple as if his life depends on it (because, in fact, it does). I told the nurses, "It hurts" and they said "It shouldn't hurt if he latches right." After a brief visit from a lactation consultant who assured me everything looked good, we were headed home. Where was the finish line now?

As I write this now, I'm looking over the New Mother's Nursing Journal that the hospital gave us and which we used for the first month of K's life to track feedings and wet/dirty diapers. Next to "Feeding Time" is a column for "Comments." Here is a sampling of what appears in that column in the first two weeks of my breastfeeding career:
This image and header by Susan Holstein Photography.

Hurts me!
Very difficult stop-start, painful
Stopped short due to nipple pain
Hellish feeding, so much pain
Bloody nipple :(
super-hungry, painful! :(
Ow again

.... and my personal favorite:


I told my husband that I would rather give birth ten more times than let our son near my nipple again (thankfully, I didn't follow through on that threat). I dreaded every feeding, and screamed and cried each time he latched. I remember being absolutely furious at the idea that this was supposed to be some kind of bonding experience for me and my baby, because I honestly felt like breastfeeding was inhibiting bonding. Worst of all, his weight gain was way behind where it should have been.

Craving some reassurance that this was just a phase that couldn't possibly last, I turned to my online mommy group for support. Upon hearing my woes, the more experienced mothers said: "Don't worry, the pain goes away after the first 4-6 weeks." I was horrified: I wasn't sure I was going to survive the next HOUR, so a month sounded like an eternity! The finish line seemed farther away than ever.

And then, when my little boy was only eight days old, this happened:

My memory of this period is so fuzzy (read: repressed) that I actually only remember one formula feeding, but the journal says he had several within a 24-hour period. With the benefit of hindsight and experience, I know now that I was on a slippery slope, seriously risking my supply and any continuance of our breastfeeding relationship. At the time, however, I only knew that I absolutely could not continue without sleep and a break for my poor nipples. I fed my sweet baby that first bottle of formula myself, crying the whole time, then handed him to my husband and went to bed. It could have been the end for us.

Fortunately, my very next entry in the book says "Back to the breast!" I wasn't dropping out of the race just yet. We visited a lactation consultant who noticed K's tongue tie and recommended we get it clipped immediately so that he could better transfer the milk (and it would be less painful for me). It took only a couple of days to get the appointment, but even that brief wait was agonizing.

After resolving the tongue tie, I was looking forward to the blissful and painless feedings that would surely begin.... and while it was a tiny bit more bearable, I still winced and yelped more often than not. My little boy was now two weeks old and still not back up to his birth weight. I knew that my supply was not our problem: our newborn was a heavy sleeper, whom we often had to wake to eat. I needed to get him on the breast more frequently, but I was terrified of the pain.

At the suggestion of a friend, I set up camp on the couch with a giant bag of trail mix and started watching through all of Doctor Who. I had decided to stop looking for the finish line, to stop looking beyond anything other than the current feeding. I told myself that my only job was to sit in one place and let my baby eat, with minimal flinching, if possible. And that's what I did, all week.

When K was three weeks old, my family came to visit. In a valiant attempt to do what normal people without newborns do, I accompanied them out to lunch and on the way, I stopped by the breastfeeding center to weigh my son. I remember unwrapping his skinny little limbs and removing his heavily wet diaper, praying he wouldn't pee on me. The numbers on the scale spun and settled: 6lbs 15oz. I had gotten my baby back to his birth weight.

It was a victory and a wonderful relief, but I decided then that it wasn't the finish line. "Heck, I might even go all the way to three months!" I thought. Recently, we passed nine months of exclusive breastfeeding. K has never had another drop of formula since that one day, his growth on-track and his health "perfect," according to his pediatrician. I don't know where the finish line is now - a year, two years? - but I no longer care. I'm too busy enjoying the journey.


  1. Love your honesty friend. Nursing is hard. But worth the fight!

  2. Missy, I had a similar experience to you. Everyone kept telling me that it shouldn't hurt if I was doing right but it DID hurt, a lot! All the lactation consultants I saw said the latch was good and everything was going great. So why did it hurt so much? People need to stop telling us it won't hurt if you're doing it right, it causes so much grief and self doubt. My mother in law told me it would get better in a few weeks and I felt just like you did, I didn't think I would survive that long! Somehow we made it through and are still enjoying our nursing relationship 15 months later. Thanks so much for sharing your story!

    1. I agree: I kept thinking something was wrong (and spent SO much money on LC visits) because it hurt so much, but it does seem that most women experience that pain for at least a few weeks at the beginning. There are some who don't, of course, but just anecdotally, they appear to be the exception rather than the rule.

  3. I had an awful (and painful and bloody) start as well. So glad you were able to get his tongue tie fixed and stuck with it!

  4. Missy I loved this! It is so reassuring to know that this feeling of overwhelmed defeat does not have to mean the end of a bf relationship with baby. Thanks for sharing this :)