Friday, September 21, 2012

My Experience with Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is not an easy walk through the park.

Instead, it feels like an obstacle course which you must complete while being totally sleep-deprived, hormonal, and while enduring the recovering pains from childbirth.  It's sorta like rock climbing...but so much harder, far less predictable, and never-ending.

The learning curve is steep.  It's all uphill.  And everybody and their sister is ready to give you advice as you make the scary ascent upwards.

Furthermore, everything is NOT in your control.  You're only part of the equation.  In order for this to work, there's another person that must cooperate and persist and hopefully not give up.  (And this is a challenge for any infant who's just been born and is thus very sleepy.)

And then there's biology.  Some things are just out of our control and are not possible.  And so, no woman should ever feel inferior about not being able to breastfeed. 

While all of these things are true, we must notice that all of these statements are also laden with scare-tactics.  Before a woman can even begin on this journey, she is told to prepare for the worst.  That is certainly no way to encourage her!

Everybody's experience with breastfeeding is different, I'm sure.  But I'd like to share with you, dear reader, my own experience in the hopes that maybe it might help you.

Although I took a Breastfeeding 101 course prior to delivery (and although I took copious notes), I forgot everything when our baby was born.  Although I brought my notes with me to the hospital, my eyes couldn't even navigate the pages, due to equal parts joy and exhaustion.

I tried my best, giving Liam ample opportunities to latch on, but both of us were soooo tired and soooo inexperienced.  Using the breast pump for 15 minutes revealed that I could only produce a few drops of clear colostrum.  And even that disappeared when Michael accidentally spilled it all while trying to get it into a syringe.

But then I recalled that a newborn's stomach is only the size of a walnut.  So even a few drops from me would be good enough for the moment.  Plus, babies are born with extra fat storage, and it's expected that they'll lose weight initially as both mom and baby learn to breastfeed.  The extra fat reserve is God's design to get the child through those first few days where food is scarce.

Liam's blood sugar remained consistently low while we were in the hospital, and while this concerned the nurses initially, I came to learn later from our pediatrician that this is absolutely typical and expected for a breastfeeding baby.

Of course, I didn't know it at the time.  When the nurses panicked, so did I, and I became easily convinced that we ought to give Liam 10 milliliters of formula in order to boost his energy level and give him more strength to nurse at the breast.

It did help, actually.  But even when he was more alert to breastfeed, I still needed the help of the lactation consultant.  How did I know if he was getting anything?  Were we doing this right?

She taught me a few positions in which to hold him.  She explained the importance of his neck remaining in line with his spine and not being twisted to one side or the other.  She told me to squeeze my breast in accordance with his mouth so that I was squeezing together from his nose to his chin, much like how a person would squeeze a hamburger prior to inserting it in the mouth.

She taught me to aim my nipple to hit the roof of Liam's mouth so that he would get a deeper, more effective latch.  She told me to set an alarm and wake him for feedings every 2 hours during the day and every 3 to 4 hours during the night.

And she told me to be on the look-out for these 5 things which would indicate he was doing it correctly:
  1. Jaw should be very open when first latching on
  2. He should have a full, fat cheek (there should be no dimpling when sucking)
  3. Just below his ear, you should see his moving jaw muscle.
  4. Just below his chin, you should see my breast skin moving.
  5. Listen for a swallowing sound (either “cha” or “gulp”)

Then she taught me how long we should breastfeed.  And I processed what she told me and made it into this simple chart, which I filled out for the first few days of Liam's life.  Please study it carefully, as it really explains a lot, I think!

Liam worked hard.  But when he got too tired to nurse, I'd use the breast pump to insert colostrum into him, using my finger and a syringe (so that he wouldn't get nipple confusion and so that he had to suck my finger in order to get anything).  We did this only once since getting home from the hospital, and it gave him enough energy to keep trying.

His persistent sucking finally convinced my body on what it ought to do.  And, three days after his birth, my milk finally came in.  I knew this because my chest became swollen and hard.  And, boy, was Liam happy!  He nursed ravenously and nearly without stopping one night.  It was insane for me!  I was so tired that I cried.

But on Days 4, 5, and 6, I noticed a pattern.  He'd feed for 20 minutes on one breast and then enjoy only 5 minutes on the other.  And then he would fall asleep.  Were we finished?

Since he met the "requirements" of successful breastfeeding as taught to me by the lactation consultant, I was convinced that his belly was full.

And so I'd lay him down, to which he would respond by promptly awaking.  Figuring his fussiness had to be about something else, I'd spend the next two hours entertaining him with walks around the house, diaper changes, various attempts at swaddling, you name it!

And while he wasn't overly frustrated or fussy, he was definitely in want of something, of which I could not imagine what -- and this something prevented both of us from sleeping.  And so, our days and nights blurred together as a series of endless sleepless hours.  After two hours of trying to figure out what he wanted, I would finally surmise that it was time to breastfeed again, and this he appreciated greatly.  (After all, it was what he wanted from the beginning!)

It wasn't until we visited the pediatrician for a second time that I learned that I must not stop breastfeeding until he is in a "food coma."  Like the naps people take after enjoying a Thanksgiving turkey, I was to feed Liam on demand until his eyes were so heavy that he wouldn't wake upon me setting him down.  If he did wake when I returned him to his bassinet, then he wasn't yet in a food coma and it was time to continue nursing.

Finally when I realized this, I was able to get him into that Thanksgiving bliss more regularly, and this then bought me more peaceful sleep time.  At about 14 days of age, we got into a great routine where no alarms needed to be set.  He automatically wakes for feedings during the day every 1, 2, or 3 hours -- and I indulge him for as long as he wants.

Now a nursing session takes the better part of a full hour, with a few gaps in between when he falls asleep, I set him down, and then he wakes up again.  But the full feeding then puts him out cold for a while, allowing me to finally enjoy fulfilling my own basic needs, like sleeping, eating, and showering!

So I think we're gonna keep at it.  God-willing, hopefully for a year.  But I didn't always think this.  Not long ago, I was ready to give up breastfeeding completely and switch entirely to formula simply because of the way it was exhausting my body!

Praise God, I think we've finally reached the top of this learning curve.