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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

It's World Breastfeeding Week!

I've been thinking about nursing a lot lately.  Daydreaming about our little Noodle, and remembering those dreamy, snuggly feedings with my little guys when they were six months old.  And also? Remembering how awful it was before then.  Like seriously.  I don't share our breastfeeding story with new mamas because I don't want to scare them.  But since it's been on my mind, I'll share some of it here (and please keep in mind that this is only some of our nursing troubles).  I know there are some twin mamas out there (and singleton mamas!) who can relate to a lot of this.  (I should warn you that this is long. And sad.  And if you are a new, nursing mama, you should know that pain like this is not normal or typical.  If you are hurting, get help!)

The boys were born at 35 weeks, which ideally should not have been "a big deal", as we were assured by our doctors.  But for whatever reason, they had a lot of trouble breathing on their own.  A lot.  I'm not going to get into the NICU stay because I'd like to not cry on my keyboard right now.  But they did stay in the NICU, Jonah for 2 weeks and Owen for 3.  It was awful to be separated from them, and to have them be so sick.  And also to not be able to nurse them.  Once they were no longer intubated, the medical staff was very supportive of my pumping and bringing in milk (although at a certain point they did tell me the freezer was full up), but they were very nervous about actually having me nurse the babies; I was told that their oxygen levels would drop, they would exhaust themselves, etc.  Bad things would happen.   So I was only able to nurse each baby about twice in the hospital.  But I was faithfully pumping and saving all that milk in the freezer, and keeping my supply up.  I was determined that we were going to make this work.
My view.  We used to call this giant nursing pillow "the buffet table."

And when the boys were finally both home, we started in earnest trying to get them onto the breast and off the bottle.  We would nurse and nurse and nurse, and then when they seemed like they just couldn't nurse anymore we would 'top them off' with pumped milk.  They usually nursed for about an hour, drank a little bit from the bottle, and then I would pump whatever I could.  And from almost the very first day they were both home, it hurt.  It hurt so much that for that entire hour they were nursing, I would curl my toes in pain and cry.  It hurt so much that I actually remember the cesarean recovery to be a bed of roses in comparison.  Seriously, it was like having broken glass come out of my nipples.  Our wonderful doula thought it was thrush, and after much negotiation with our various doctors, we finally got treatment for both me and the boys.  And for about a day, it made things a little better.  But then it was right back to the searing, awful pain.

Meanwhile, I had two lactation consultants, a visiting nurse, several midwives, and probably three different OBs assure me that our latch "looked great".  So I figured it was just that I wasn't able to kick this thrush.  I ended up taking course after course of Diflucan, using Gentian Violet, cleaning obsessively with vinegar, putting grapefruit seed extract in everything.  Nothing made it better.  One day, I actually got so desperate for relief that I took some of the narcotics I had left over from the cesarean (doctors love to give me narcotics but I don't like to take them), and they made me spend the rest of the day vomiting.  Desperate.  This was the most painful thing I have ever experienced in my life.  And I've had broken bones, abdominal surgery, head injuries, car accidents, you name it.  This blew all of that out of the water.  Far and away.

Finally, when the boys were about 3 months old and I was in tears at a breastfeeding support group, the lactation consultant said, "Well, maybe it's not thrush."  Somehow, that idea hadn't occurred to me.  Or to any of the many, many healthcare providers I had asked for help.  She suggested that I ask my doctor to culture my milk and see what they found.  And, believe it or not, they refused at first.  I finally said that I was not leaving that office until they did a culture, and the midwife gave in.

And you know what?  I had a raging staph infection in my breasts.  It had been there for weeks and weeks.  I had been taking medications that are really not great for breastfeeding, course after course of them, for the wrong problem.  Three courses of antibiotics later (it turned out to be an infection that was resistant to several antibiotics, and also it turns out that I'm allergic to lots of antibiotics), the infection was gone.  I got a clean culture.  Aaaaand the boys were totally off bottles.


Yay, right?  Except that the pain was not better.  The boys were four months old, and I had been in an unbelievable amount of pain nearly every single day of their lives.  I cried at every feeding.  I dreaded having to nurse them.  I was really committed to making this work, but after four months of this, now that the infections were gone and things weren't better, I was disheartened and depressed.  I couldn't imagine how I was going to keep this up.

We finally decided to spend money we didn't have to hire a private lactation consultant to come out to the house and see what she had to say. It was my last-ditch effort, and if it didn't work, I didn't know what I would do.

And you know what?  This wonderful woman came out to our house and watched me nurse the boys, and within 20 minutes, we were nursing without pain.  Twenty minutes.  It was like magic, except that it was a latch problem.  After all that time and all those 'professionals' who told us it was absolutely not a latch problem, it was a latch problem.  Easily diagnosed, and easily fixed.  And that was it.  We had pain-free nursing for several months, until I developed chronic and recurrent mastitis, but I'll leave that for another day.  But the boys did go on to nurse for 20 months.  I kind of wish we had made it to two years, but weaning felt like the right choice at the time and I'm pretty darn proud of those twenty months.

The point is, we could have avoided so much of that pain.  And part of me is dreading nursing again.  But mostly?  I'm excited for it to be easy.  With luck, we won't have the NICU stay, the cesarean recovery, the infection after infection.  And there will be only one baby.  So. much. easier.  That is my mantra for this pregnancy: this time will be different.
We'll get to the fun part sooner this time.

And lastly, I don't judge other mamas.  If you tried to breastfeed and didn't get the support you needed or had difficulties you felt you couldn't overcome, I get it.  I really do.  I am sharing this because it's been on my mind, not because I feel the need to prove how tough I am or something.  I think a sane person would have thrown in the towel, although I'm glad I didn't.  I do think breastfeeding is best and I will support any mama who wants to do it, but I also believe that at the end of the day, you have to do what you have to do to be a sane, healthy mama to your baby.  But please, please learn from my mistakes:

1.  If you think you have thrush and it's not going away, please get your milk cultured.  Staph, it turns out, sometimes likes to present exactly like thrush.  And you don't want to be taking meds you don't need for the wrong problem.

2.  Get help.  Please don't try to go it alone.  We all need support and care, and it can be so, so hard just to feed your baby normally.  If you need to, pay the money to have a really awesome lactation consultant.  I promise, it will be worth every penny.

3.  Get help from the right places.  It turns out that most OBs, and even many CNMs, know very little about what a proper latch looks like, etc.  Also bear in mind that not all lactation consultants are equal; I learned this the hard way.  If you can, find one who comes recommended by other mamas.  If you can find reviews online, so much the better.  Do the research; it pays off in the end.



I’m celebrating World Breastfeeding Week with Natural Parents Network!

You can, too — link up your breastfeeding posts from August 1-7 in the linky below, and enjoy reading, commenting on, and sharing the posts collected here and on Natural Parents Network.

(Visit NPN for the code to place on your blog.)


  1. Oh lovely, I'm sure it's been hard for you to have this on your mind. It's hard for me to relive it, and I was only a spectator.Through so much of that time, especially the first four months, I wanted you to give up. I hated seeing you in so much pain that I could do nothing about. Now I look back, and I still think you're crazy, but it is an inspiration to know someone who is that committed to her principles. I love you, and you are truly amazing. And I know this isn't a bragging post about how tough you are, but truly, you are extremely tough.
    Folks, I was there. I saw the tears and the curled toes and saw her as she steeled herself for another round. This post make it sound mild.

    She is absolutely right - get help. Get second, third and fourth opinions if things aren't working. Nursing is beautiful and wonderful - at least it should be.

  2. I understand so well. So well. With my first, my girl, the pain was unbelievable. Everyone told me it would hurt for six weeks. Six weeks came and went and it still hurt. Two months came and went. It still hurt. No thrush, no infections, no latch problems just pain, pain, pain. And bleeding. And me crying and dreading every single feeding. That toe-curling? Yes. Exactly. I also sometimes bit down on my own hand to make it bearable. I hit three months and it still hurt. Every book and every consultant told me the same thing: done correctly, breastfeeding shouldn't hurt. I started to feel ike a failute, because obviously I was just too stupid to get this. But I kept going. Finally I read somewhere, in some random book, that sometimes, especially for fair-skinned women with sensitive skin, breastfeeding just hurts for a long time for no apparent reason. Guess who is extremely pale with sensitive skin? Yes.

    That time I cried because IT WASN'T IN MY HEAD. I wasn't doing it wrong. Sometimes it just sucks and finally someone said it. I felt so acknowledged.

    It stopped hurting shortly after three months and I went on to nurse her for 15 months. And (good news for you!) with my second, it hurt for about a day. Maybe two.

    I try to tell this story a lot because that message that if you do it right, it won't hurt is so pervasive. But you know what? Sometimes it just does.

    And I too won't judge anyone who quits. If I had a friend in my position, I would have told her to quit.

    But I'm glad I didn't.

  3. Wow Liz - I am just floored. What an amazing story!

    I keep finding more and more mamas who have run into these same types of problems and it is so tragic - but you are totally brave for keeping on, and I sincerely hope more and more people get to hear these types of stories and that they will help them before they need it...

    OH and I guess I haven't been paying attention cause I didn't know you were preggers - but have to say congratulations!! :D I hope it goes so much better for you this time around too! :)

  4. @Martha: You just made me cry again. Sob sob. I love you.

    @Cherie: Oh my goodness. That sounds awful. Truly. I'm awed and amazed that you stuck with it, and I'm so glad that it got better for you. And I hated that so much, when people would say that "if you're doing it right, it shouldn't hurt!". It made me want to punch them. Not only is it not entirely true, but it's probably the least helpful thing you could say to a nursing mother in pain.

    @Kelly: Thank you so much! I hope that other mamas can learn from my story, and in all these posts I've been reading about World BF Week, it's kind of horrifying to see these same things, over and over and over again. I wish our culture weren't so toxic to the nursing relationship, and I wish more mamas had the kind of support that they need. I wish you had had the kind of support that you needed. But we take that and we try to help others. I loved your post at NPN!

  5. Wishing you a spectacularly pleasant journey this time around! Your "buffet" comment gave me a chuckle :)

  6. You're going to find BFing one SO easy after doing two! Nobody will be grabbing anybody else's ear, you'll be able to focus on one good latch, nobody will be doing an alligator death roll while the other one bites you on the other side. Just oh so simple. I mean, still hard, but it will be like taking classes at the local community college after getting your PhD at Columbia.

    I should have had my milk cultured with the twins. I fought thrush and PAIN for 3 months. My midwives diagnosed thrush and Rx a pitiful diflucan course (after I had tried everything else) Finally got an urgent care doc to Rx a week long course that cleared it up. 3 months of pain for nothing. ARGH! Anyway, I suspect I also had some issues with vasospasm because it was keeping things warm that finally fixed the pain completely.

    I hate how it's this dirty little secret that BFing is hard work. People should expect that, and be allowed to be proud of their hard work too.

    Owen weaned himself at 19 months. I'm enjoying nursing the twins a lot less than with him. It was nice cuddle/bonding time with him. Now it hurts my wrist (twindinitis), nipples, and I'm just trying to keep babies from rolling off the bed at all times. I'm 6 months in and will probably make it 6 more with no issues, I hope, but we'll see how long I can do it after that.

  7. Brilliant post :) I love how committed to bf you are! I was told 3 weeks ago that I/baby have thrush, but various treatments have not worked.. I wonder if our problem might be similar to your's. A misdiagnosis?

  8. Zion,
    Thanks! That is frustrating for you, and I remember it well. It definitely could be something else, or it's also possible that you have either a really stubborn case of thrush, or that you keep getting reinfected. Have you both been treated? Also, it's important to treat pretty much everything that touches breastmilk or baby poop like toxic waste and wash it with vinegar and grapefruit seed extract. You're probably already on top of these things, but failing that, I would definitely recommend getting your milk cultured. If you want to chat about it, you are more than welcome to email me; I'm always happy to support another mama! GardenVarietyMama [at] gmail [dot] com