Breastfeeding is not—as I’d hoped—like riding a bike or ice skating: you cannot simply pick it up again where you left off. Every child is different, and every breastfeeding process is different. I nursed my daughter who is eight with relative ease. Ok well, after the first three months of soaking my engorged breasts in hot water and applying grated potato and slippery elm poultices, she flourished and her immune system is much stronger than mine. In addition to being the perfect food, that adjusts quantity and quality based on the needs of the child; in addition to its amazing anti-bacterial properties that make it the best medicine for illness (even as a few drops in the eye, ear or nose for infections), I found nursing much easier in general than preparing formula, which I did often after the first year. Nursing meant no need to take bottles on the road. It meant having clean food at the perfect temperature all the time. It meant diapers did not stink! It made flying on airplanes easy, as my daughter had something to swallow and comfort her while equalizing pressure, and her meal was much healthier and tastier than any food available to the rest of us. The oxytocin that accompanied let down was indescribably pleasurable. Breastfeeding was something I longed to relive. The joy of this womanly art made me want to have another child.
My two-month-old son, however, did not gain weight properly. Like my daughter, he was full term, but small like I was at birth. He was born tongue-tied, so he slept at the breast after breaking my nipple open in desperate pursuit of nourishment. On day three when my milk was supposed to come in, he screamed all night and had dry cracked lips. We had to have a doctor cut the fiber that connected his tongue to the floor of his mouth when he was four days old. His tongue still revolves in the wrong direction and he doesn’t have the same sucking power my daughter did. Although the frenulectomy seemed to liberate his tongue for nursing, he’s not been able to empty the breast. I even had Ulla provide visceral manipulation for his tongue, which did enable him to open his mouth wider. But still, my breast did not have enough in it. Unlike other kids in the mother’s group, he has not doubled his weight in the first month of his life. His already large head is bigger and he has become longer; but his skin was hanging around his legs as if he were old and I could see his bones in his butt. In fact, he has no derriere, which makes me wonder how he can be related to me. I’m part of what is known on Mothering magazine’s website as the “lowsupplytribe.”
I’ve been reading about low supply, something that sometimes plagues women who’ve had breast surgery. I haven’t had the surgery, but the website has lots of good detailed information Is increasing production really possible? My friend tells me of “relactating,” or bringing back her milk when her child was sick and she’d stopped breastfeeding for three weeks. With this hopeful example in mind, I decided to pump in-between nursing and to nurse on demand. The thought of pumping after his marathon nursing sessions made me wince. I could never pump any volume worth freezing with my daughter until she was about 6 months old and had gained plump jowls and some extra rolls of fat. But after my doctor told me that my son was off-the-charts underweight, I fed him a bottle of formula made of soy and cow’s milk, to which he had an allergic reaction. I felt terrible. I decided I’d spend a month with the pump and the dreaded Supplemental Nursing System (or SNS).
Breast as lightning-rod: the Mind-Breast Connection
Breastfeeding flourishes when we are not stressed out and when we feel unconditional support. I struggled in the first month of breastfeeding with plugged ducts, as I had with my daughter, but assumed we were synching up. It was the holidays, and family tensions and the stress related to finishing up work before going on leave all gravitated directly to my highly sensitive chest glands. After one stressful phone call or after staying up late to finish working through a stack of papers, one breast would swell up and not release much of the precious fluid no matter how hard the baby nursed. Putting him on the breast proved excruciating. It is hard to remember how hard it hurt. But I remember confessing to myself and sympathetic friends that I felt that I was in hell, that I had a hot rock pasted on my chest and that this adjustment to nursing was proving more painful than my drug-free births themselves. After walking around and trying to sleep with a volcano inside my shirt, the skin would become red and sensitive. And finally, usually over twenty-four hours later, the pain subsided and I could latch him on without wincing. But post-plugged duct milk production had reduced significantly. So I had to nurse more conscientiously on that side to get it up to speed. Another friend described using only one breast for at least a year for her youngest daughter, as one of her breasts literally dried up when her child was sick for a few days.
Does the bottle curtail the breast?
I have been marvelling since this boy started nursing at how passionately he nurses. He delves his face into it. He will nurse ferociously even when it means he has to hold his breath. He occasionally bites. All the world’s a breast to him in that he sucks everything nearby, including my daughter and husband’s skin. Everything he encounters has value only insofar as it resembles the breast. Columbus, in his delirious joy upon stumbling upon the New World similarly compared his joyous “discovery” to a breast. Upon the new world’s superfice, the island he named Hispaniola sat perched—he said—like a nipple. Indeed, the New World did provide sustenance for the Old in the form of corn, potatoes, tomatoes, and chocolate, all native to this hemisphere. The Europeans—the bulk of my immigrant ancestors—at the breast of this nipple ferociously lashed out while latching on, in hopes of stimulating the flow of gold. My boy—even though he was born with a blue spot that indicates his indigenous blood from his father—does the same.
Our pediatrician saw the baby had lots of gas and projectile poop, and said he might have colic. We gave him probiotics, which he lapped up. Although the doctor said I could feed him a bottle, I learned that every bottle feeding will decrease my production.When my herbalist recommended that I give the baby some calming digestive herbal tea for the colic, I looked at my own bottle-supporting hand aghast. I knew in some sense, one hand was cutting off the efforts of the hand that would be inserting the “breast sandwich” later on. Part of my horror at downloading the Evenflo bottle into my boy’s gullet is that I identified profoundly with his desperate gulping on the receiving end. In watching him I realized I have trauma after being the receiver of bottles designed to deliver with maximum speed. I also got spoon-fed rice cereal after about three weeks of age. The baby’s mouth is made to suck, not eat from a spoon. My mom explained that in her day, they learned to try to “fill the baby up” so as to achieve the principle parenting goal: to get baby to sleep through the night. She had four kids; I was number three. I don’t know how she did it. She did not nurse any of us, and she received no support in her attempts to breast feed. Doctors misrepresented formula as equally good. Many women in those days did not want to risk deforming their breasts by having them sucked for months on end.
After that first bottle of formula, and his resulting indigestion, I resolved to try to make breastfeeding work for at least another month. I am on family leave for several months rather than six weeks, thanks to my union. I can try. But I did need some help, while I would try to increase the milk supply. At the mother’s group, women spoke of throwing out the extra glasses full of milk that they pumped out. I think I had thrown away milk in my freezer I’d saved for too long. I’d heard of women sharing their milk with each other in Peru, when one woman had too much and another not enough. Miraculously, my Lactation Consultant advised me of a veritable angel seeking to donate milk in her overstocked freezer. This lovely human being had been pumping upon returing to work, and had been on a soy and cow’s milk free diet because her son did not fare well with these in his milk either. I retrieved three gallon-sized bags of tiny servings of milk from her. My partner said: but we don’t know her. I said: do you know the cow or the soy plant that made the milk in the formula? If she gives this delicious milk to her son, I feel blessed to be able to give it to my son. By supplementing with the SNS, I saw my son’s thighs fill in. He stopped fussing and sucking his fist. He looks milk-drunk and at perfect ease after taking in the tiny tube along with whatever he gets from my breast.
The SNS, however, is a perplexing, devilish device to be used in between pumping. The pharmacy did not offer me the Lact-Aid, designed by a woman who longed to breastfeed and managed to do so with this properly engineered sac and tube. The SNS I’m convinced was designed by a man who was not himself breastfed. It uses gravity, so I often have to put the bottle under my chin like a tiny violin, to get it flowing. If the valve doen’t sit perfectly in the bottle, the milk I’ve worked so hard to pump out drips onto my chest in a torturous series of liquid waste. My son loves to grab the tubes, pull on them until they leak and rip them out of their taped-in position. Little pieces of the tape I use to fix them near my nipple appear in my hair, on my socks, on my son, on the table and chairs where we nurse. But while the yellow and white choker did shock the UPS man when I opened the door while wearing it, it affords me a chance to feed at the breast. Sometimes my production seems to be going up. But then if I sneak out of the house for more than an hour or two, it seems to drop again.
I’ve managed around five pumpings after feedings, rather than the prescribed seven called for in the breastmilk boot camp regimen. The lovely woman who donated the milk to my son successfully survived boot camp and she has been prolific ever since <http://fourfriends.com/abrw/Boot Camp/rt.htm>. I’ve used the bottle and an dropper on occasion to feed him what I pump, but using a method described to me as “baby-led” or “baby-paced” bottle feeding, which proved a revelation. The baby is not totally supine. The baby gets breaks to breathe. The bottle is nearly horizontal to keep the liquid flowing, but not gushing into the little mouth. He decides when he’s had enough. But even better is the warm, human nipple, even if complicated by tubes. I’m trying to make it through this night, and then this month, while I watch my son grow..
I don’t think I’ll use the SNS forever. It has been hard to accept that I’ll feed him what I can and finish with donated milk or eventually a tempered, homemade concoction of goat’s milk until he’s satisfied. Two things I’ve learned in this process: my lactivism should never produce judgement of the woman who for whatever reason needs to feed a bottle, including my mother, who had neither then knowledge nor support that might have enabled her to breastfeed. The first world again needs to learn from the third world, to generate community based, not-for-profit human milk sharing systems. Two internet webpages have begun to create these networks, locally and globally: “human milk for human babies,” www.hm4hb.net/ and “eats on feet,” http://www.eatsonfeets.org/, both of which link up women who are short in supply with those who have an abundance of milk. Both also provide an alternative to existing milk banks, which are prohibitively expensive and require a medical prescription. While neither of these sites helped me, I was lucky enough to found someone through a local, unplugged social network. I’m grateful to Park Slope Parents and to Sarah Blackwood whocreated this Tumblr site, so that while I’m in feeding the baby all day and some nights, I have something also to feed my mind. I hope these musings might nourish—or at least interest—some other mother.