Breastfeeding Didn’t Come Naturally, and I Wasn’t Okay

When my newborn son wouldn’t breastfeed, I completely unraveled: breastfeeding didn’t come naturally. I had planned to nurse him for his first year and simply would not accept that this might not happen. The first few weeks (okay, months) with a newborn are tough no matter what, but his struggle to breastfeed took a huge toll on me and made those first couple months especially brutal.

The early days: beyond exhausting

Breastfeeding seemed to be going fine in the hospital, but once we brought him home everything went south. At first, he was too sleepy to nurse, and not even spritzing him with ice cold water would wake him up enough for him to try. Then, in a vicious cycle, he got dehydrated, which made him even sleepier, which made nursing even harder.

The only thing that I could think or talk about was why he wouldn’t nurse. Time was measured no longer in days but in the number of feedings. My mood was dependent solely on what I wrote down in my black notebook where I kept track of how each attempt at nursing went. One night I woke up to find blue ink on our sheets after I forgot to cap the pen, and to this day the stain reminds me of those chaotic first weeks.

I started pumping and giving him eight bottles a day. Before I would pump, I would try to nurse him, sometimes for up to an hour. By the time we were done with the nurse-bottle-pump cycle, it would almost be time to start it all over again. It was beyond exhausting. We kept that up for about two weeks until he regained his birth weight, and the lactation consultant said we could try to start transitioning him off the bottles.

baby drinking from a bottle

Pumped to get his bottle

“Can we just go one day without crying?”

By this time he was no longer too sleepy to nurse, but too angry to nurse, it seemed to me. He would thrash and cry and arch his body whenever I’d offer him my breast. It felt like he hated me, like he was rejecting me as his mom. It wasn’t physically painful, but every nursing session ended with me sobbing.

My husband did everything he could to support me but often felt helpless. As I fell apart he did his best to stay strong, but a person can only take so much. One day he pleaded with me, asking, “Can we just go one day without crying?” We couldn’t. I cried because I couldn’t breastfeed, and I cried again because I was making everyone around me suffer too.

Anyone—my husband, my mom, the lactation consultant—who tried to assure me that life would go on even if I wasn’t able to nurse was met with tears or fury. I felt completely out of control of my emotions. I honestly didn’t believe that life would go on if I couldn’t nurse; and if it did, it wouldn’t be a happy one.

It sounds extreme, and I know those intense postpartum hormones were partial to blame, along with my natural tendency toward anxiety and perfectionism. But I also think that hearing over and over why “breast is best”—in books, in prenatal classes, from well-meaning lactation consultants—put so much pressure on me that I felt like I was failing everyone, especially my son when I couldn’t breastfeed him.

Tongue tied?

We went to see a pediatric dentist who said that my son had a mild tongue tie, but there was no way to know if treating it would help with breastfeeding. This sent me into a tailspin as I agonized over whether or not to go through with the procedure. I spent countless hours researching tongue ties, endlessly scrolling through articles on my phone when I should have been getting precious sleep.

Then, when I had almost lost hope, my 6-week-old son miraculously started to get the hang of breastfeeding. I considered getting his tongue tie treated anyway, but my mama instincts kicked in and told me that it didn’t make sense for us. We were finally doing okay with nursing—we weren’t perfect, but I realized that we didn’t have to be.

Lessons learned

My son is 14 months old now, and we’re still happily breastfeeding. It was so much harder than I ever imagined to get to this place, though. When I was pregnant several moms told me that breastfeeding is really tough for a few weeks, and then it’s smooth sailing. I assumed that meant after a few weeks of learning the ropes we would settle into a blissful nursing relationship and every feeding thereafter would be snuggly and peaceful. I was wrong.

baby breastfeeding with mother

One of our snuggly nursing sessions

Despite the emotional toll it took on me, I don’t regret pushing myself so hard to make breastfeeding work. But maybe I only feel that way because we got lucky and it worked out for us in the end. I do wish I had been more forgiving of myself and realized that not being able to breastfeed didn’t mean I was failing as a mom. If I could give any advice to expectant moms who want to breastfeed, it would be this:

  • Trust yourself. You are the expert on what’s best for you and your baby. Even doctors and lactation consultants don’t have all the answers all the time.
  • If you’re feeling depressed or anxious, ask for help. What your baby needs most of all is a healthy mama.
  • It might not look how you pictured it. Some feedings will be calm and snuggly, and others might leave you with scratches. That’s normal.
  • Breastfeeding takes a LOT of time and practice. You and your baby both have a lot to learn, and it takes some babies and moms longer than others.
  • Even if breastfeeding doesn’t work out, it will be okay. You will be okay, and your baby will be so much more than okay because they have what matters most: your love.

 

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