In honor of World Breastfeeding Week, Mothering is sponsoring a “Blog about Breastfeeding” forum, and this is my contribution. It’s the story of the first few hours and days of nursing my older son. He was a non-latching, sleepy baby. In retrospect, it probably had to do with the fact that I didn’t nurse him right after the birth, that he was all swaddled up when I tried, and that he had a tongue-tie. We probably would have benefited greatly from laid-back breastfeeding too (this method hadn’t been popularized yet). But none of that really matters. We got help, and we were fine. Still, the shock and devastation I felt those first days will always be with me. And it’s the reason I feel called to help other nursing moms. I will never forget my midwives, who called me every day until I got it right, and my doulas, who came and helped me the morning after the birth.
B. and me, in those first few days.
Crushed: My Non-Latching, Sleepy Baby
He’s born. The midwives put him on my chest. He’s bluish gray, but I’m sure he’s breathing, because he screams right away. It shocks me that there is a baby after all of this: the water breaking, the waiting, the contractions, the vomiting, the pushing, the pushing, the burning, the pushing. A baby? I’m disoriented and dazed.
My husband takes the baby. I deliver the placenta, walk to the bedroom. They’re washing the baby, I think. I’m getting stitches. Where’s the baby? My mother-in-law walks in the room with the baby bundled up in a towel. The stitches are done. The midwife says, Now it’s time to nurse the baby. I take him. This is the second time I’ve held him. I haven’t even seen his face yet. I don’t know the weight of him, the shape of him, his smell.
I put him next to my breast. Nothing happens. The midwife takes him and moves him closer. You have to press him in a little, she says, placing a strong arm against his back. I try. I don’t want to hurt him. He looks like he could break, easily.
The midwives clean up. The midwives leave. We’re in bed. I hold the baby near my breast. He begins to suck. I think he’s sucking. I count 15 minutes on the clock. We all fall asleep, the baby against my breast.
The midwife calls me the next morning to ask how nursing is going. Well, I say, he nursed right after you left. It didn’t seem like a big deal to me that he hadn’t nursed again yet.
Try to nurse him, she says. I pick him up, put him near my breast. His eyes are closed. He makes small, puckered movements with his mouth, but when I move him toward my breast, he just bobs his head around, searching, but does latch.
Can you call your doulas? she asks. We call our doulas and they say they’ll come over right away.
I know now that she was right. My baby was almost 10 hours old and he had nursed (maybe) once. I needed help.
But I felt – there’s no other way to say it – crushed.
Cori and Sarah (our doulas) come over at 10am. They walk in with their cups of hot coffee, sleep still in their eyes. 10 hours before, they watched me birth my baby, and here they are again, ready to help.
I’m going to make you a nursing throne, says Cori. She and my husband gather all the pillows we have in the house. She has me sit on the couch against our bed pillows, a pillow under each arm, and a pillow on my lap for the baby. We strip him down to his diaper and Sarah comes in the room with a damp paper towel.
Sarah has cold hands, says Cori, they’ll wake up the baby. Cori shows me how to hold the baby, tummy to tummy with me, my arm across his back. She shows me how to hold my breast, how to shape the nipple and tilt it up a little. Aim for the roof of his mouth, she tells me. I try again, but he still will not latch.
Cori asks permission, then takes my breast, puts her arm around the baby, and latches him on. He sucks for several minutes, then falls back asleep.
It is January and the room is brightly lit with winter light.
It feels to me that Cori and Sarah are sent from heaven.
Before they leave, I latch him on myself. He nurses again, for a minute or two, and falls back asleep.
The rest of the day is like this. Most of the time he is in a dead sleep. Sometime I can latch him on, but it takes lots of attempts, and there is a lot of frustration and a deep sense of failure starts to set in.
The midwife calls again. She is very happy that we are making progress. Still, she is concerned, and wants me to express some colostrum to feed the baby. She describes how to hand express colostrum over the phone. Make a “c” with your thumb and forefinger, press in toward your chest wall, gently roll your fingers together. It is reassuring to see the little golden drops of milk.
When I offer the baby my expressed colostrum on a spoon, he opens his mouth and laps it up. This is probably my lowest moment. There is a profound sense of disconnect to me, watching him drink my milk from a cold, metal spoon. He is supposed to be drinking from me.
I hand the baby to my husband and go take a shower, my first since the birth. Now that I am alone, away from it all, warm, clean water pouring down my back, the tears come. I can’t nurse my baby, I can’t my baby. I say it out loud. I scream it.
The rest of the days are less distinct than this first one. The screaming, the crying (mine, not the baby’s) seemed to help. Something opened in me. I could do this. I could try.
As it turned out, we both needed to be stripped down: skin to skin, no shirts, no bra. I needed to offer him the breast, not just wait for him to fuss. I had to wait for him to latch. I had to be patient. It took him a few days to wake up. It took me a few days to understand how to hold him, how to unlock his instincts to nurse. I don’t remember exactly how I did it. It was like a puzzle each time, except the way to put it together kept changing.
The days blended together, one into the other. We nursed with a pillow, without one. I was afraid I would never be able to leave the house because I could only do it topless. I was afraid of it not working while we were out. I was afraid of it always being this hard, this hit or miss.
And then sometimes I wasn’t afraid. A few days in, he nursed and I started to feel that tingly feeling that I know so well now. Letdown. The milk was filling up. I heard him swallow. Tears. Many tears.
The days changed to weeks, the weeks to months, years. I don’t remember when it got easier. Two weeks in? Three? When did that feeling of fear lift?
I never forgot the devastation I felt when he wouldn’t latch. Those first 24 hours still live in my bones. I became a mother then. The birth was easy compared to that first day. The birth was meditative, it was opening, it was me and my body doing magic. The first day of nursing was the baby’s mouth locked closed, my body lost, my milk stuck in my breasts, wanting out.
I will never forget. I will never forget how hurt I felt when it seemed I couldn’t do it.
I hear that pain in a mom’s voice when she calls in tears because her baby won’t latch, because it hurts so badly, because she’s afraid she doesn’t have enough milk. I want to rush to her (and that’s often what I do!). I want to fix it. I want her to know it will be over soon. I do what I can. She does what she can. Usually, in time, it gets better. Usually she enjoys nursing her baby for months, sometimes years.
I know the pain of nursing challenges is not something to be taken lightly. The drive to nurse our babies is strong. It is visceral. It makes up who were are. It is fragile. It can be mended.
Nursing B., 7 months