A personal story of a breastfeeding journey

I always imagined birth would be wild and unpredictable, but breastfeeding was something I took for granted. As a seed-to-table chef, I was excited to start my baby on her journey of enjoying whole foods with nature’s first, most perfect food while simultaneously comforting her and creating a special bond through nursing. Her birth was long and tumultuous, but ultimately empowering…little did I know that the real adventure was just beginning.

Our birth was long and arduous, but I forgot all the hardships when I saw her perfect little face. In that moment, I was more in love and more terrified than I’ve ever been in my life. I had a sudden, primal need to bring her to my breast and she latched immediately. I felt our bodies melt together, like my bones were whispering “you were made for this.” I was elated.

The following night, my milk came in. Now when she latched, the pain was excruciating. I kept paging the postpartum nurse, who assured me it was normal and pantomimed a piranha to illustrate a proper latch. The next morning, my nipples were cracked and bleeding, my toes were curling with every latch and I was dreading every cry, fearful of feeding my baby. On our third day in the hospital just before being discharged, we finally had a visit from the IBCLC. She said the latch looked good, even though I was clenching the pillows with white knuckles and tears in my eyes. I mentioned how there was often a clicking sound and it usually hurt worse when that happened. No big deal, I was told, just keep going – it will get better.

We spent a week at Children’s Hospital for issues unrelated to feeding. Staff weighed every diaper and monitored every bit of her around the clock. I found this reassuring. Surely they would tell me if something outside the issues we were there for was amiss, right? When we were finally released, we were all in a daze…it was like we all had been reborn to an entirely new world. My nipples were deeply cracked and scabbed, but I was getting used to the pain. All that mattered was that my baby had a clean bill of health and was coming home 6 ounces above birth weight. This had to be success!

My baby nursed around the clock. All she did was sleep and eat. I marveled at how good she must be at nursing because she would come to breast and pass out moments later, then sleep in my arms and wake screaming for milk. My nipples continued to bleed but the painful engorgement was subsiding. Surely, this was progress.

We trekked across the water to her cardiologist appointment at 3 weeks old. We were there for hours, in various waiting and exam rooms through EKGs and an echocardiogram. At every juncture, we were nursing. My toes still curled in anticipation, but I was surviving, I was a pro. Finally, our cardiologist came in to go over all the results. He is a sweet and kindly man, talking with him feels more like a chat with my grandfather than a medical appointment – although he is also brilliant and an incredible doctor. He had great news for us – my daughter’s heart was showing less signs of abnormalities. We had been told there was a slim chance of her condition improving on it’s own and sure enough, that was happening! But before we could rejoice too much, his face became more serious. He sat down and steepled his hands in his lap. He said that he noticed me nursing throughout the day that I’d been in the office. I began to boil up with righteous indignation “It’s my right to nurse her wherever I need too! She’s hungry and I need to feed her.” He assured me that was not the problem, but, he said, he could see I was in pain, hunched over and tight-fisted every time. After checking the chart, he then dropped a bomb I was not expecting. “Even more concerning, she’s not yet back to birth weight. She’s not thriving. You’ll need to follow up with your pediatrician.”

Everything was a blur from there. The pediatrician said point blank, it’s time to supplement or risk baby’s health. I stood in the formula aisle and cried, overwhelmed with options, weighed down with a heavy blanket of sadness and failure. I texted my midwife who offered to find donor milk. We hired a private practice IBCLC to come to the house, I was shocked to discover that in our marathon 40-50 minute nursing sessions, my sweet baby was transferring less than half an ounce. It was a wonder she was able to hang on to 7 pounds, but made sense that she was making no progress towards her birthweight of almost 8 pounds. At that point, our IBCLC, the magnificent Melissa Bonghi, checked Baby Bean’s mouth and started speaking what felt like a foreign language…frenulums, tongue tie, restrictions, SNS, supplementation, feeding therapy, bodywork, revision, frenotomy…I didn’t really understand but gathered that I needed to find some higher level providers. She helped us rig up a temporary Supplemental Nursing System (SNS) and encouraged us to commence triple-feeding (nurse baby, pump, then feed baby what was pumped and any additional necessary supplement).

Initially, baby’s mouth was too tight to even properly take a bottle, so basically all day was spent nursing, pumping, using the SNS and even having my husband finger feeding to get enough milk into her to thrive. My milk supply, which had been plentiful at birth, had tanked due to inefficient suckling from baby. We made appointments at Seattle Children’s Hospital with the Infant Feeding Clinic, craniosacral therapy with Dr. Cavanaugh, and revision evaluation with Seattle Breastfeeding Medicine. Each appointment required time-consuming and expensive travel from the Kitsap Peninsula into Seattle, with a screaming, starving baby. It was the darkest period of my life. I had never imagined that feeding my baby could be so physically or emotionally defeating. I didn’t have words for it yet, I just knew that I was always on the brink of rage-filled tears, I lacked the desire to care for myself, and I was having intrusive thoughts of all the terrible things that could cause harm to my baby. I loved her fiercely, and the world was suddenly terrifying and full of danger. I know now these are classic hallmarks of Pospartum Mood and Anxiety Disruptions. All I knew at that time was that I was slowly drowning in the sea of mothering.

With the help of a hospital-grade rental breast pump (from Nurturing Expressions!), an array of herbal tinctures, triple-feeding, power-pumping, craniosacral therapy, physical therapy and a LOT of donor milk…at six weeks, my baby started gaining weight! We had a scissor-clip revision done at Seattle Breastfeeding Medicine with Dr. Maryann O’Hara at 3 months old, and that was the final piece in the puzzle. I finally was able to nurse without pain, the damage to my nipples began to heal, and my milk supply truly came in for the first time. On August 27th, at just shy of 4 months old, we nursed without tubes or supplementation and my baby was satiated. By six months, I was consistently able to nurse at breast, although I never was able to pump what she needed at daycare, so we continued using donor milk through her first year. Like the scabs on my nipples, the emotional wounds began slowly healing as well. By her first birthday, my Baby Bean was a chubby, giggling, well-nourished little human and I felt like I could finally breathe. We went on to have a successful and rewarding nursing relationship for over 2 years!

As I learned more about PMADs and lactation challenges, I became driven to increase access to resources for new parents to Kitsap County. I joined the board of Kitsap HOPE Circle, partnered with Tracy Corey to launch a Nurturing Expressions in Poulsbo, became a member (now co-chair!) of the Kitsap Breastfeeding Coalition, started working towards becoming an IBCLC myself, and began reaching out to folks in my community to help others feel supported through this tumultuous time. Breastfeeding isn’t always easy, and it doesn’t always come naturally. I am honored and humbled by the opportunity to walk with others through baby-feeding and parenting challenges. Whatever you are going through, you are not alone; I see you, I support you, and I hold space for you – you are exactly the parent your child needs.

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