The Reluctant Nurser

By Vanessa T

I chose this title because it perfectly described my daughter Madeline and me at different times during our pregnancy and breastfeeding journey together. During my pregnancy in 2003, many people asked me if I would breastfeed her and I answered honestly, that I was not yet sure how I would feed my baby. Where I grew up, everyone I knew fed their babies formula and my mom bottle-fed my brother and me. Breastfeeding seemed like such a private and intimate act and I felt embarrassed even talking about it with anyone other than my husband.

As time passed and I learned more, I became more excited to breastfeed my daughter. In fact, breastfeeding her was what I looked forward to most. It seemed right, healthier and I looked forward to having her all to myself for this special and vital aspect of our lives. My mom bought me a very expensive pump for when I returned to work, since I planned to keep breastfeeding until my daughter was at least a year old.

The big day came much sooner than expected. At the beginning of 37 weeks of pregnancy I felt the rumblings of birth. Madeline arrived quickly, just a few hours after the doctor ruptured my membranes. She was so tiny and was whisked away to a warming table and given oxygen while I recovered. I was desperate to nurse her, but I had no clue what to do. When she was finally given to me the nurse shoved her on my breast and declared success. I was told to wake her every two hours to nurse and to chart that, along with her outputs on a card in her plastic bassinet.

At the hospital things started well. She woke on her own every hour, made all the requisite wet and dirty diapers and the lactation nurse who visited us several times complimented me on our latch. She did give me a nipple shield and a bottle of sugar water when I explained that getting Madeline to latch was difficult. It also didn’t feel like she was sucking very much, but I had never nursed before and was not sure. The nurse reassured me that as my daughter’s mouth grew, it would get easier. I took her word that everything was fine and kept going.

When we got home things started to fall apart. First, there was the jaundice. Her billiruben levels were very high on the day of discharge and continued rising. This made her very sleepy and combined with the heat from the bili blanket, she was impossible to rouse. As a result, her outputs decreased to the bare minimum and I began to panic. Miraculously, my milk did come in on my first morning at home, but this only made latching her more difficult. In desperation, I began pumping milk before latching her in hopes that I would not lose my supply and that it might make it easier for her to latch on.

When we visited our pediatrician for her five-day checkup we found that she had lost over 10 ounces from her already low birth weight and was now just 5 pound 10 ounces. This combined with her lack of output and increasing billiruben levels won her the diagnosis of “Failure to Thrive.” The pediatrician insisted that we start her on formula immediately and I cried all the way home. All I wanted to do was nurse her and I was failing.

My husband is an eternal optimist and always motivated by a challenge. He immediately phoned the hospital lactation clinic and got them to see us immediately. The lactation consultants took one look at our daughter and knew that it was not “failure to thrive” as the doctor had pronounced. They told us that sometimes when babies are born a little early, but not premature, as Madeline was, they do not get the chance to develop the skill of sucking, which happens between 37 and 39 weeks. Since we encouraged Madeline to come out right at 37 weeks they felt that was what happened.

They instructed us on how to use a feeding syringe and a Haberman feeder, which is a special bottle designed to teach a preemie to suck, but does not cause nipple confusion.) I rented a hospital-grade pump the size of a sewing machine and they instructed me to pump every two hours, after trying to latch Madeline while my husband fed her.

It was so frustrating. Watching the milk that I wanted to feed to my baby going into bottles, which my husband fed to her. The disappointment I felt at every feeding when I would try to latch her, only to have her slide off without trying was overwhelming. My daughter was a reluctant nurser and I felt like I was to blame.

I remember this time as dark, bleak and lonely.

This went on for about six weeks. Instead of snuggling and loving on my baby and enjoying my babymoon with her, I was hooked up to a machine for 20-30 minutes every two hours, while my husband got to bond with her over a bottle. When I wasn’t pumping, I was either trying (and failing) to sleep or crying alone in the bathroom. Being a mom was nothing like I had dreamed it would be.

I fantasized about running away. I felt irrelevant to my family except for my milk production. I felt such deep resentment towards my husband that it came close to hatred because he was so good at handling her and I felt like he had stolen the role I envisioned for myself. I started to feel hatred toward my baby when I would patiently and hopefully try to latch her only to be met with what felt like no effort on her part. And every moment that went by I was closer to getting rid of the pump and using one of the many cans of formula now stored in our pantry. At least that way I wouldn’t feel like a cow. In retrospect it seems crazy to think that, but at the time it was what I felt of my role with my daughter.

Then magically, as easily as it never happened before, at around six weeks old Madeline latched on and nursed for a long time. I was still concerned she was not getting enough, so my husband followed up on the nursing with a syringe feed, but she did not take much. You would think that I would have rejoiced, at long last my goal was reached. And I did, for a moment, but this triumph was followed by weeks of paranoia. Now that she was getting her milk from me, there was no way for me to know that it was “enough”. We continued to track her nursing sessions and outputs. I have notebooks filled with logs and notes about when and how long every nursing session lasted. We continued to wake her every two hours around the clock as well because we were paranoid about her returning to “Failure to Thrive.”

The bili blanket disappeared, she “woke up” and initiated nursing sessions, I stopped pumping and returned the rental. Happiness now? Not really. Because in place of the every-two-hour pumping sessions came a baby who was now wired to wake every two hours or more often to eat. From the pumping, I developed an oversupply along with an overactive letdown. My poor baby was often choking with the spray of milk she would encounter when my milk let down. She developed horrible gas and green poops from an imbalance in my fore and hind milk. This led to projectile vomiting and endless crying. We saw several GI specialists and none had any answers except to switch to a hypoallergenic formula or eliminate allergens from my diet. After all we had gone through to get her to nurse, there was no way I was stopping, so I lived on rice milk; bland cereals; bananas; chicken; and rice. There was marginal improvement.

To top it off, when she was two months old she began drooling and showing signs of teething. When my milk let down, she would bite my nipple and by three months she had her first tooth popping through. Ouch!

Eventually we found a rhythm and by seven months old she was happier and vomiting less. I went back to work and she started eating mushed up table foods. But it was still really hard. We were co-sleeping, but the result was my husband was in another room and I was alone and awake all night feeding the baby. It was really hard and I found myself in some potentially hazardous driving situations due to my complete lack of normal sleep. I was also still suffering from postpartum depression and anxiety. She did eventually sleep better out of our bed, with some help from us and we went on to nurse until she was 3.5 years old and I chose to end it.

She is a brilliant, funny, compassionate and caring child.

She is so healthy and has barely ever had a cold, let alone anything more serious. She has never needed antibiotics and has never had a cavity.

Nearly nine years later I look back and wonder, was it worth it? I nearly lost my sanity and ruined my relationship with my husband to breastfeed my daughter. Would she be as smart or as healthy if I had not? How would our relationship be different if I had given in and stopped trying? I know that everything I sacrificed has affected our relationship. Would it be different if I had not given so much up? Or would I have guilt for not trying harder? I suppose this is the eternal question that is mothering- what if I had done differently, how would we be different?

In the end, we survived. I went on to tandem nurse her with her baby sister in complete ease. And now I’m expecting our third child and I know that I will be able to nurse this baby. But my experience has made me a much more tolerant person. When someone tells me “I tried to nurse, but…” I listen with open, sympathetic ears and compassion. I never second guess their stories because I have walked in their shoes and I know how hard it is no matter how it ends up.

Vanessa T. is a homeschooling mom of two; and she’s expecting baby #3 in May.

2 comments to The Reluctant Nurser

  • Thank you so much for sharing this story, Vanessa! What a powerful story that resonated with me so much as I also had difficulty and lost my sanity in the beginning. I share your confidence that this next baby will have an awesome breastfeeding experience.

  • Jody

    Wow! Thanks for sharing your story. I’m sure it will be an encouragement to moms who struggle or have struggled with breastfeeding. It isn’t always easy. Congrats on the new little one coming!

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