Before giving birth, I had it in my mind that I would breastfeed. With my pregnancy being pretty easygoing in nature, I felt confident that breastfeeding would also follow suit. The naivety. I will say, I was lucky in the fact that my body did cooperate. My nipples were a good shape (weird to say but yes, that’s a complicating factor for some), my milk came in basically immediately and I had a solid supply. Despite all of those positive aspects I would not say breastfeeding came “easily” too me.
For me personally, I would describe the first few days of breastfeeding as a “honeymoon stage”. In Greece, after giving birth, it’s a mandatory 3-day hospital stay. Because my son was jaundice, we stayed an additional 24 hours. During this time, I was feeling pretty good about breastfeeding aside from that fact that it really fucking hurt in the beginning. Like a lot, and I have a pretty high pain tolerance. Maybe it was just because I wasn’t expecting it, so this is my warning to all the future breastfeeding mommas out there, PREPARE FOR PAIN! I know they say, if it hurts, you’re doing it wrong, but for real, there’s no way it doesn’t hurt for everyone in the beginning. Anyway, as I mentioned before my milk came in, I had a good supply and even better my little guy was an eater, def my son (iykyk).
The hospital I gave birth in had lactation consultants on staff throughout the day. Unfortunately, not all of them spoke English and my husband was not able to be with me 24/7 to translate as I was in shared room. I’m sure this seems weird to North Americans but it’s very normal in Greece. So, my “lesson” on breastfeeding and how to accomplish a proper latch was given by a stranger speaking a different language, pushing, and moving the baby around my breast with very little verbal explanation. The consultant seemed content with how he was latching and eating so I just went with it. In hindsight, I should have made sure I had proper direction and education with my husband present to translate.
As if the language barrier and first-time mom nerves weren’t enough, I also had to deal with my son being jaundice. As mentioned earlier, we had to stay an extra day in the hospital so he could bask in those dreaded UV lights. Any mother that’s had experience with a jaundice baby knows the evil torture of those lamps that keep your baby away from you for hours at a time. This situation is even more unbearable when your milk is coming in and you’re trying to establish a good breastfeeding routine. With my son needing to be under the lights as much as possible to get his bilirubin levels down, I had to start pumping. I wasn’t upset about pumping as it was in my plan all along; my husband wanted to share in feeding time. It was also kind of nice to do it for the first time in the hospital with someone experienced checking to make sure I was doing it right. I remember I was pumping 30ml of milk per session (3-4 days after birth) which the hospital staff said was plenty. So, I was happy with that. And like I said before, my son was a good eater so sometimes even after a bottle of my pumped milk, they would remove him from the lights and bring him to me because he would be crying for more food. Thankful for the supply I had.
We were discharged from the hospital after our son’s numbers were in the acceptable range. I couldn’t wait to get home. I anticipated our first night to be challenging but it actually went really well. He woke up every 3 hours to feed, which is typically what’s recommended for a newborn, especially when you’re trying to flush out their system while dealing with jaundice. My husband and I were tired but not totally exhausted. I should have known it was too easy and too good to be true. I went into night two, full of confidence when my honeymoon with breastfeeding came to a screeching fucking halt. My son was on my breast literally every single hour. I had intermittent minutes of sleep, my nipples were raw by morning, I was in pain, exhausted and looking for answers. I immediately 911’d my girlfriends the next day and learned he was most likely not feeding all that time on my breast but soothing himself instead. It was suggested to me that I introduce a pacifier. When I asked them how long breastfeeding would hurt like this, I hated their answers because they told me about a month. That made me want to cry even more than the pain from my nipples. I listened to my friend’s advice and tried out the pacifier. This helped a lot, but the damage was already done to my nipples. I think I made it to day 4 at home before I had the horrifying experience, when my son pulled off my breast only to see his mouth filled with blood. To my relief it was me who was bleeding. I took this as my sign of needing a break. I decided for the sake of my mental health and in order for my body to heal properly, I was going to exclusively pump for a few days. At that point, I reached out to a friend from home who was a lactation consultant and had a support group on Facebook. From what I told her, she explained he most likely had a shallow latch and that my nipple was being compressed between his tongue and the hard palate. A nice deep latch is further in where the nipple is being compressed between the back of the tongue and the soft palate. Lactation consultant Lynnette Hafken explains, “When a shallow latch happens, your nipple will be pinched, squeezed, abraded, flattened, or blistered from the excessive suction being targeted at a tiny area of the nipple rather than applied to the whole nipple, as well as the baby’s tongue rubbing it like sandpaper.” (Aborn, 2019) Now if that doesn’t just give you all the feels!
My friend/consultant explained to me that on top of me being in pain from the improper latch, he might not be transferring enough milk. With all of us here being coffee lovers, she used this genius analogy: a deep latch is like drinking from a straw while a shallow latch that is like drinking from a coffee or a cocktail mixing straw. The baby could be getting some but it’s much harder and much more frustrating. With this additional knowledge, I took it upon myself to learn about some techniques like “nose to nipple” and the “flipple” or “sandwich hold” (click for video). Even though I/we tried really hard to master those, the latch still really sucked.
After about a week of being at home we had a home visit from the pediatrician. Due to our son’s jaundice and us still battling those bilirubin levels we were advised to supplement with formula in addition to the breastmilk he was getting. I wasn’t thrilled with this, but it was what was needed. To be honest, I actually started to welcome the break formula gave me from breastfeeding and pumping around the clock. I’d say around the month mark we started to have a solid feeding routine of nursing and formula from a bottle. I still wouldn’t say it was easy, but we definitely had a good rhythm going. Unfortunately, like all good things, this too came to an end. About two weeks later, at 1.5 months old, my son’s body started rejecting the formula out of the blue. He was crying in pain and my first terrified thought was colic. We soon realized there was a pattern to his pain, and it wasn’t all the time, only after having formula. He would have no reaction after drinking my breastmilk. After consulting the pediatrician, who explained it did not seem like colic, we began trying alternative formulas.
The formula we had been using was Hipp Organic. The pediatrician then recommended a hypo-allergenic formula followed by goat’s milk which both caused the same problem. After this, I decided that was it, and exclusively breastfed. His problem stopped and although I was extremely relieved, it was like I was back to square one again, needing to endure the whole chapped, raw and painful nipples experience. Eventually they toughened up and got used to the frequency of the feedings and used to being the soul providers of nourishment for my baby. I think by the close of the third month I finally felt confident and comfortable with breastfeeding. My baby was a little older and his mouth was bigger and able to fit more of my breast in his mouth. Things started to turn around. It was a long, very bumpy road but we made it. My advice is, be patient with yourself and your baby.
Something I think helped me get through those first months was a goal I had set for myself before I gave birth. I wanted to take breastfeeding 3 months at a time. I set that goal and told myself if I got there, I would try for another 3 months and so on. I remember having a conversation with my OBGYN about breastfeeding and explaining to her that I, at the very least, wanted to successfully nurse for three months. She responded by saying I really should breastfeed for six months. I could see her slight disapproval with me setting the bar slightly low, but I knew this is what would work for me. Those small 3-month goals saved me and allowed me to continue to nurse for 22 months!
Breastfeeding an almost 2-year-old was never something I thought I’d do. I always envisioned stopping once he turned 1 but at the time we were traveling in the States and Canada for the 3 winter months. I did not want to add any more drastic changes to our son’s routine on top of the environmental changes he was already experiencing. When we returned to Greece, we started building an addition on to our home. The construction was supposed to take 3 months, resulting in our son getting his own room. With this going on, I figured I’d wait because with him still sharing a sleeping space with me, it would be difficult to stop. As life would have it, those 3 months turned into 7 months. A couple weeks before he was about to move into his new room, I had really had enough. He was only breastfeeding for about 10 minutes right before bed and although he was very attached to the “boob” as he says, he didn’t really need it anymore. Obviously, this was a bittersweet time. We would no longer being having that daily connection and opportunity for me to provide comfort. It was also scary for me as I no longer had my secret weapon, my cure all that would fix any situation. How would I cope? What was I supposed to do now? As much as I loved feeding my son and was so grateful to provide for him this way, it was also starting to feel a bit like a relative that had overstayed their welcome. You love them and the time you spent together, but you’re also relieved when they go.
Let me take a step back and touch upon the timetable of the weaning period. When he started solids at 5.5/6 months, we continued to breastfeed, usually 4 times a day. During this transition I had to pump a bit for relief. The pumping continued through my 7th month, 8th month only as needed here and there and by 9 months I didn’t need to pump anymore. When he was about a year old, we were down to three times a day for feedings when I came back from work around 3:30pm, before bed and if he woke up in the night, which he usually did. This same routine continued until he was about 18 months. We then were down to twice a day, before bed and during the night if he woke up, again, he usually did. At 20 months, he nursed only before bed but had started not to fall asleep right away. This is how I knew he really didn’t need this anymore.
His 21st month of life was our last month breastfeeding. During this month he started to get his “special milk cup” before bed and I would switch up his routine. Here’s the cup we used. There were a handful of times that I took him outside in his stroller to do laps and have him fall asleep without nursing. Other times we were out and about, needing to drive home at bedtime which also resulting in not having the breast. These were my little tests to see how he’d do with out offering the breast at all. Turns out, he was ok. About 2 weeks before he turned 22 months, we were still doing the ten-minute feeds at night if we were at home for bedtime. I started to tell him that soon there would be no more milk from mom, and he would have it in his special cup. I didn’t know if he could grasp this future concept or not but at that age, they seem to understand more than we think, and I didn’t want to blindside him. I felt he needed that warning. He was very attached to breastfeeding even if it was only a short amount of time at this point, his face would light up whenever it was mentioned.
At the 22-month mark, that was it. I was ready, he was ready. I was nervous about his reaction, but he did amazing. At first, he would ask to breastfeed saying, “milky milky” but I would remind him there was only milk from his special cup and his momma had no more. He seemed to understand this and had no more objections, laying back down without issue. He probably asked here and there for “milky milky” for about a month and then stopped all together. He is now 25-months old, and if he happens to see my bare breast when I’m changing, he will say “boob” with a huge smile on his face. There are also times when we are laying on the couch together and I’m wearing a V-neck shirt that he will try to get into my bra, touch my nipple and open his mouth like he’s going to drink. I say no, he giggles and makes it a little game. I know that attachment is still there even though he doesn’t ask. Cue now being pregnant for the second time and being terrified of how he will react to his sibling breastfeeding when the time comes. When I think about transitioning from one child to two and my son gaining a sibling, this is my biggest concern. If any mommas out there have suggestions, I am all ears!
Looking back on this crazy journey, never in a million years did I think I would breastfeed for so long. I am so proud of how I was able to provide for my son and for not giving up when we had such a rough start. Even though we had to get through some obstacles, and I had to learn the hard way a few times, there’s still not much I would change. For my second, I plan to breastfeed again, body willing. I don’t think it will be for as long, but I will set my 3-month goals with the hope of making it to 1 year. I feel like I’ll be more confident in decoding the suckle, determining whether the baby is actually feeding or just self-soothing. If he’s anything like his brother, I will definitely add the pacifier sooner and stock up on the real MVP of breastfeeding- nipple cream! These are some of my faves, Lansinoh & Earth Mama. I learned that you can also toughen up your nipple prior to giving birth/nursing by rubbing a rough towel back and forth over them after showering. Hopefully this will help make the adjustment process smoother. Going into it for a second time, I feel much more prepared and knowledgeable about the journey of breastfeeding. I’m ready to take on whatever is thrown at me and my boobs….I think.
Aborn, S., 2019. 6 Ways To Fix A Shallow Latch. [online] romper. Available at: <https://www.romper.com/parenting/how-to-fix-a-shallow-latch-because-it-can-make-breastfeeding-a-major-bummer-18716440>