Oh, breastfeeding. I had such high hopes for you.
It seems like every mother I know has had some problem with breastfeeding, with supply, with weight gain, with latch. I kind of couldn't believe all the drama: it's breastfeeding. You put the baby to the boob and it eats. Cavewoman did it. How hard can it be? I definitely didn't believe it would be difficult for me. Still, I tried to prepare myself. Just in case. I read all the books, and marked relevant passages. I hired a doula to give me tips. I visited lactation consultants, had my nipples examined, took lots of notes. I felt pretty confident that I could do it, that it would be easy.
And then Lulu was born two months early, and all of my plans and preparations went right out the window. We've had so many bumps on the road of our breastfeeding journey--SO many, and it's only been five months.
Bump #1: Prematurity.
I wrote in my birth plan that I wanted to try and breastfeed right away after Lu was born. I wanted to try the breast crawl, where the just-born baby is placed on its mother's chest and pulls itself up to latch onto the breast when it's ready. It sounded pretty cool to me. But when your baby is born at 33 weeks, they don't really give you a lot of time to try things like this. Lulu was whisked away the second she came out--I got to see her for about half a minute before she was rushed down to the NICU and attached to host of wires and monitors. I didn't see her again for four hours; I didn't get to hold her until well into the next day. I wasn't able to try to breastfeed for a few days after that, and by the time we tried it, we had missed that easy introductory period. We were already playing catchup. Only we didn't get a lot of time to practice, since Lulu was pretty badly jaundiced and couldn't be out from under the bilirubin lights for very long. And she was so weak and small that she couldn't really feed properly when we did get the chance to try it. Which leads us to...
Bump #2: The Nipple Shield.
Lulu weighed less than five pounds when she was born and within a day or two, had dropped down to four. She was tiny all over: hands that were too tiny to grasp, feet that were too tiny for the monitors that slipped right off, a mouth that was too tiny to latch on to my ginormous boobs. When we finally did get the chance to breastfeed, we needed a nipple shield, a flexible piece of plastic--a lot like the nipple that goes on a bottle--that is placed over the breast. It's usually smaller, narrower, and longer than an actual nipple, and a premature baby finds it easier to latch onto it.
I remember crying when the NICU nurses handed the nipple shield to me, being so supremely grateful that someone had thought to invent this marvelous device. We could use it for a while, the nurses said, and then wean off of it. But that's easier said than done. By the time we brought Lulu home, 15 days after she was born, she was bigger and stronger...and firmly addicted to the nipple shield. Trying to wean her from the shield caused her to scream and scream, presumably in order to alert CPS to the fact that we were trying to starve her. In the end, I stopped trying to wean her off of it. But as she grew, her mouth got too big for the shield. Then she wouldn't take the breast at all, which leads us to...
Bump #3: Bottles.
Lulu had colic. For four months. The only thing that came remotely close to soothing her was food. Tons and tons of food. I fed her as best I could from the breast, but it wasn't ever enough to sate her. So I pumped and pumped and PUMPED, and we gave her bottle after bottle after bottle. It didn't take long for her to develop "bottle preference," which is exactly what it sounds like: she preferred the bottle to me. It was easier to eat from the bottle. She got her fix faster, and didn't have to work as hard for it. Finally, she had had so many bottles that my supply of frozen milk was gone. Which leads to...
Bump #4: Formula.
We already had to give her four ounces of formula a day, doctors orders, to help with weight gain. And formula was so EASY. I didn't have to spend a half-hour hooked up to the pump. I could just go into the kitchen and mix a little powder with a little distilled water, dump it into a bottle. And voila: quiet, happy, satisfied baby. Four ounces a day became six, which became ten, which became thirteen. And then...
Bump #5: My supply dropped accordingly. I was giving Lulu so much formula that my body didn't need to make as much breastmilk as before.
The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding for two years in order to reap the maximum health benefits. I had wanted to do that. I had resolved to do that. But over the last week, I started to face the possibility--the very real probability--that, with the way things were going, we wouldn't make it to six months. And that made me so sad; it made me feel like I had failed my preemie, who needed the health benefits of breastfeeding even more than other babies. It was a relief that Lulu would take her bottle so peacefully, without screaming. But I missed breastfeeding. I missed the sleepy, happy noises she made when she was curled up with me, I missed the way she would put her little hands up under my chin and sigh. I had missed out on so much time with her, early on--I needed this bonding experience to make up for that loss. But every day my supply dropped more. I had a decision to make: use it or lose it. Breastfeed the kid exclusively or wean her entirely.
So J.D. and I replaced the bottle with a sippy cup, to be used in cases of emergency ONLY. We put the formula up on the top shelf of the cupboard, and resolved not to use it at all. We don't need to; Lulu is a tubby baby now, with Michelin-man style fat roles on her arms and thighs. I hooked myself back up to that blasted turquoise hospital-grade breast pump, the pump I had thought was so pretty in the beginning, the pump I hate now. I drank cups and cups of tea that tasted like licorice-flavored feet, and took so much fenugreek that my sweat now reeks of maple syrup. My supply bounced back all at once, right in the middle of the Safeway, so that I had to pay for my groceries with my arms carefully folded over the wet spots on my shirt.
Now, when Lulu hollers for her supper, I pick her up and wait patiently--as patiently as I can--for her to latch on. It takes a long time, and she isn't too pleased about it. She misses her bottle. She screams, she uses her tiny fingers to pinch me, her nails to scratch me, her feet to kick me while she thrashes in protest. I know, rationally, that it has nothing to do with how she feels about me as her mother. It's nothing personal. She just wants her baba back. I know that...but still, it's hard not to feel rejected, to feel like my child doesn't want this thing that I am trying and trying so hard to give her.
I try to be calm while I feed her, to sing to her and soothe her. But afterward, sometimes, I can't help crying out of defeat and pure tiredness. I wonder if we will ever get it right? In times of extreme pessimism, I know that we won't, that we'll be back to formula in a week, if that long.
But then, at other times, Lulu latches perfectly; she cuddles up to me and makes those happy noises that I love and feeds like she's been doing it like this all along. Sometimes we get it right, so right that I know I have to keep pushing. And it feels so right that I know all of this hard work is worth it, no matter what bumps are waiting for us down the road from here.