Sunday, July 08, 2007

Weaning: My story (part 1)

When I was pregnant, a lot of people asked me "do you want to breastfeed, if you can?"

This question always struck me as odd. "If I can?" Why would I not be able to? I had researched breastfeeding quite a bit, and it seemed to me that except in very rare instances, a woman who had given birth would be able to breastfeed. Granted, the road might be fraught with difficulties. Granted, she might weight the various aspects of nursing, and of her life, and legitimately choose not to. But that wasn't really the same as "can't."

Plus, I did want to breastfeed - very much actually. I had told my husband that if we couldn't have children of our own, one of my key regrets would be never experiencing breastfeeding. I fully expected it to be difficult on many levels, but I had chosen that I would would remain committed, come what may. After all, if this was something mothers frequently could not do, the human race would not have gotten very far.

I still believe all of that.

But one year later, I have a story to tell. And it is a story much more complex than I thought it would be. It is a story closer to my heart than I was prepared for, and yet a story that has opened me up to judgment, and closed me off from support. I write this, now that this chapter has closed, to process my experience, to seek healing, and in the hopes that others will receive grace - and give grace - by understanding.

The day Asher was born was one that I will never, ever forget. As instructed, I allowed him to try his hand at nursing during the first hour of his life, as we were just getting introduced, during the period of alertness that newborns have in the first hour or so. And he was a pro. during our two day stay at the hospital I literally made an appointment with every lactation consultant that had a shift scheduled; I wanted to be armed with every possible suggestion, word of advice, and help possible. The lactation consultants were helpful, but they assured me I would do fine. They told me that I seemed anatomically perfect for producing milk, and that Asher was the best "sucker" on the floor. I produced so much colostrum (the highly nutritious early milk produced in the days before the full milk comes in) that Asher hardly lost any weight in the hospital, and so much milk that he had more than gained it all back by his one week appointment. He was eating all the time, and growing rapidly. We were in for a big boy, it seemed.

Breastfeeding was indeed fraught with pitfalls, and once I got home my days were consumed with nothing else but feeding my tiny, hungry child. I could not count for you the number of problems I encountered in those first 10 weeks. Plugged milk pores, plugged ducts, something called Rynauld's syndrome that caused horrible, excruciating pain around the clock, and this, and that, and the other. The plugged ducts I had were horrible, and fell into a nightmarish cycle. I would wake up early in the morning with a blocked duct, so severe that no milk would come out, no matter how hard Asher sucked or I pumped. I would literally shut down for the day, doing nothing for 24 hours but applying cabbage, ice packs, hot packs, massaging, and nursing, nursing, nursing, and taking Advil for the pain and to relieve the swelling. Asher, of course, would spend the day screaming, starving, nursing with no reward. Finally, towards the end of 20 something hours, the blockage would clear. Oh sweet relief. But not for Asher. Such a length of time without giving milk confused my body, and my milk supply would plummet for another 24 hours. Finally, by the third day, it would appear that we were stable again. For one, happy day, all would be well. And then, the offshoot of this balanced, fully producing day would be waking up to another plugged duct. And we would begin again.

This was horrible. This went on for weeks. I visited lactation consultant after lactation consultant. Each told me that my description did not describe how the female body typically responded to plugged ducts. And yet around and around we went. Armed with a full armory of herbal supplements and other items promised to help, Asher and I found no relief.

Additionally, between weeks 2 and 6, Asher entered into a season where he would scream unless being nursed. He had always loved to suck, to be near me. From the beginning he would latch on and the drift off to sleep, waking when I prodded him for a snack, and then back to sleep. We would tease him that he was "sleeping on the job." His preference, it seemed, was to relax at the breast all day, eating, sleeping, eating, sleeping. Between this and the plugged ducts, I spent the first two months of his life in my nursing chair. Looking back, I marvel at women who get out and about during those first days. I hardly managed to get dressed.

And yet, even with all that, I began to sense that something was wrong. My baby who started out growing so quickly didn't seem to be growing at all. He had not outgrown clothes or diapers, and looked no different to me. By week seven I was convinced of it. He had not had an appointment since his one month, and I brought him to the doctor for a weigh in. His weight was the same, to the ounce, that it had been a month previously.

I was terrified, but confused. He had all the signs of being well fed. My milk was letting down. He pooped all the time. His diapers were wet. And he nursed all the time. Supply and demand, right?

I was given instructions to come back in a week. And in a week I hoped to learn that he was growing, but slowly. This time, though, he had lost weight. I was told in no uncertain terms to buy bottles and formula on my way home, and to begin giving Asher the entirety of his daily needs via bottle, starting now. And obviously, I had no other choice. He had dropped to the 3rd percentile for his age; 97 out of 100 babies his age weighed more than he did - significantly more. I was concerned that bottle feeding would only decrease my supply, so the doctor suggested I nurse Asher for 30 minutes, then give him his bottle, and then pump for 20 minutes. Ideally, we could monitor how much Asher was getting, while maintaining and increasing my milk supply.

I was crushed, on so many levels. I feared for Asher, for the harm that might have been done to him, for the problems he might have that caused this. I can't begin to even describe what it felt like to realize that I was starving my child; that with all my efforts and perseverance and trials I was failing; I was failing at the thing I cared for and valued most.

Asher and I made the 50 minute trek to the doctor's office weekly after that. The first week after he began drinking formula, he grew over a pound, and more than an inch. On the one hand, this thrilled me - the problem was the lack of food, not something actually wrong with him. On the other hand, this pummeled me - I really had been starving him.

I have no idea when things started to go wrong, when my milk supply became insufficient. Looking back, I wonder about the month where he screamed and cried around the clock and wonder if he could have been hungry? But no - I know he was growing up until his first month checkup, and he stopped crying and began laughing on his six week birthday. The dates do not match up, but yet I know this mystery will always haunt me.

Even as I purchased the bottles and formula I was adamant that this was just for now. I also bought a $250 electric pump, and I was determined to bring my milk up, even if I had to pump all day.

And pump all day I did. This began a miserable schedule in which I would mix and warm a bottle, then nurse Asher, then feed Asher the bottle, then sit him in his bouncy seat while I pumped. And pumped. And pumped. Then, change Asher. Then wash and sterilize bottles and pump accessories. Then put Asher to sleep (in the sling, so I couldn't pump during his naps). Then he would awaken and we would begin again. Day, and night. I did this for months.

And that is not all I did. I was popping all varieties of herbal supplements, drinking liters of water, eating platefuls of healthy food (lovingly prepared by my wonderful husband, as I obviously had no time or opportunity to feed myself). I visited more lactation consultants. I purchased a contraption that allowed Asher to drink the formula through tiny tubes while nursing, allowing the "supply and demand" to remain true to life.

And yet, pumping even several times a day would produce only one or two ounces a day. My supply was not going up. Instead, it was actually going down.

To be continued...
This story isn't over yet...please come back tomorrow to read part two.


Beck said...

Not. Your. Fault.
Breastfeeding is HARD. It IS. I've had three kids and breastfeeding has been hard with EACH ONE OF THEM.
Your baby is so sweet...

bubandpie said...

Oh, honey. This post is just gut-wrenching for me to read in a very literal, visceral way - I have tears in my eyes and aching breasts just reading your words.

Kimberly said...

This post hits me hard, in so many ways. I experienced similar heartache, but under a different set of circumstances. You've expressed yourself beautifully as always. I often wonder when you first book is coming out.

Amy Jane said...

Sweet lady, I am so sorry you had to go through all that confusion.

While I can't agree with a blanket statement that BF is hard (any more than I can agree with a blanket statement that is is "easy" or "natural") I know it different for everyone, just as each baby is unique.

I'm so sorry your unique experience ended up so frightening and negative.

Snoskred said...

Wow. Putting these aside for weekly wrap up, Catherine, and can't wait to read more tomorrow.

I always have a hard time with people who judge, and people who judge others on this particular issue are the very worst of all in my opinion.. :(

I am so sorry you did not get the kind of support you - ALL - mothers deserve. Regardless of how they feed.


Mama Sarita said...

Thank you so much for sharing your story. I had some difficulties nursing my first child and then had a great nursing experience with my second that turned bad fast when man puppy started rapidly losing weight due to undiagnosed reflux. I can relate to so much of what you have posted here.

I look forward to reading the second installment. (and a big hug to heart ached to read that)

Karen said...

Catherine, grace for you as you remember all this. I'm crying remembering my struggles with LP, which I have not yet found the courage or strength to write about. And I'm crying for your weeks with Asher wondering what was going wrong and feeling scared.

thailandchani said...

Definitely not your fault, of course. There is a cruelty attached to some cultural expectations with very little tolerance for differences.

And I'll definitely be back tomorrow to read the remainder.



Rachel said...

nice to meet you as well. your baby is BEAUTIFUL. <3

Jamie said...

Catherine, thanks so much for sharing. I've been mulling over my experience too. It's been hard to quantify what this year was like, but it helps to hear your story. Looking at G's birthday coming up, and reviewing the fears, pain, surprises, and delights of this year, I'm thankful we've made it this far, and you too!

Catherine said...

Beck, B&P, Kimberly, Amy Jane, Snorskred, Mama Sarita, Karen, Chani, Rachel, and Jaime:

Thank you. For listening and understanding and feeling with me.

leah said...

This post made me cry. I also had a really hard time and felt horrible, by the time I had my second I did not pressure myself quite so hard and breastfeed and suplimented from the beginning, it was so much easier and I lasted seven months - three longer than number one.

Atwood-Family of 3 said...

My milk supply issues were a complete fault of my own, not realizing she was hungry and that's why she was crying and not feeding her more often. It crushed me too when I reached the 6 month mark and reached sort of a point of no return-where the supply had been down for so long that nothing I did could bring it back up. And it crushed me too to give her the first bottle of formula, then to see her weight and growth go way way up after supplementing with formula and to realize that maybe my baby was crying sometimes because she was hungry and maybe that's why she was so tiny and didn't grow so fast...