Immediately after Jai was born, I attempted to breastfeed him. Rather, he wanted to breastfeed after they put him on my chest. Even though I was caught up in the emotions of the moment, I couldn’t help but be amazed at his tenacity and instinct.
We worked through it together and he suckled a bit while the hospital staff bustled around us doing what needed to be done in those moments.
Nursing, while it may be a natural act, didn’t come naturally for me. I remember struggling to ensure a latch, that he was getting enough milk, and concern for nipple confusion should we need to supplement.
This week I am focusing on breastfeeding, the struggle to breastfeed, and why I decided to extend breastfeeding beyond the first year despite personal health risks.
Before going further, it is important that I make the following disclosure:
Better Fed No Matter What
While I will primarily be focusing on breastfeeding this week, I do plan to discuss formula feeding, both as a sole means of feeding a child and as a supplement.
My personal philosophy on the matter: a fed baby is the best kind of feeding for the baby. Whether you solely breastfeed, supplement with formula, or solely feed formula, as long as your little one is nourished and fed that is all that matters. I pass no judgment on a mother’s decision regarding how she feeds her baby. I recognize that some mothers aren’t able to breastfeed due to reasons beyond her control.
These posts are meant to be informational, though they are more anecdotal in nature based on my personal experience. I will be discussing the concerns I had early on about feeding and what information I found on the matter and why I arrived at the decisions I did. That being said, while I was able to make the choice to breastfeed and it worked out, I know that not every woman arrives at the same decision I did (or can).
These posts will try to reflect that as much as possible and provide a balanced view on feeding when possible.
MS and Breastfeeding
My MS was going to play a role in how I breastfed Jai, whether I liked it or not. I was already playing a dangerous game for my body by getting pregnant and opting to not take medication for the duration of the pregnancy.
While the pregnancy hormones would protect my body from possible flare-ups or damage, this wasn’t a guarantee. As soon as Jai was born, these hormone levels would drop significantly until I discontinued breastfeeding. Every day I breastfed Jai meant it would be another day that I would be unprotected from my MS flare-ups and possibly help progress the disease further.
I was faced with a choice: breastfeed until Jai and I decided to wean or switch over to formula so I could get back on my medication for my protection immediately after birth.
Because the nature of my MS is such that I don’t need to be on medication provided I am doing other forms of disease management, I could take the risk and breastfeed until I was ready to quit. But when I got my optic neuritis back in July 2017 and again this past April (it was in the middle of my stomach illness and various other colds going through the household), there were times where I wondered if MS was going to take breastfeeding away from me.
I expressed these concerns to my mother and Ash multiple times. They both reassured me that I had every right to continue to do what I thought was best and what I could handle. Ash was always concerned about my own health, but I my mother understood my biological desire to do what I thought was best for Jai.
I was worried that my neurologist would say that my long-term health would not be worth it and that I would need to wean Jai. Jai is almost two years old, so the idea of weaning him wasn’t unreasonable, but in my mind, I would be doing it before he was ready.
Fortunately, every time I visited my neurologist he reassured me that he would support whatever decision I made on the matter. He felt that I was healthy and safe enough that any minor flare-ups I experienced wouldn’t greatly impact my long-term health.
Other concerns that I had was that Jai wouldn’t take to breastfeeding or he’d be like me and allergic to my breastmilk.
When I was a baby, my mother had to wean me onto formula because I was having an allergic reaction to her milk. This was back in the early 1980’s and there wasn’t the same level of advocacy for breastfeeding as there is today. Had she known to change her diet, she could have possibly continued to breastfeed me.
When I got pregnant, I wanted to learn from my mother’s experience and do whatever I needed to breastfeed as long as I could/wanted. I figured that Jai would be our only child so this was my “now or never” moment.
I also knew that there were other factors at play, all this preplanning and moments of determination was nice, but that didn’t mean anything if he couldn’t latch or there was some other unforeseen issue that popped up. Admittedly, I never fully prepared myself of these possibilities, opting to believe it would all work out, but I should have at least accepted that it could have happened to take some pressure off of myself.
Planning & Prepping
In America, there is a push for new mothers to breastfeed their babies. This isn’t to say it’s a bad thing, but it does leave expectant and new mothers feeling inadequate in the face of possible breastfeeding issues or deciding not to breastfeed at all. There seems to be an imbalance in the message: breast is best (and that’s all you should feed your baby).
Like I previously stated, this isn’t my personal opinion on the matter. But there seems to be a judgment that happens amongst mothers and healthcare professionals when faced with the idea of feeding your baby formula or even considering supplementing with formula. The nurses in the hospital were not happy every time I asked for more newborn formula to supplement Jai, even if it was on the hospital pediatrician’s orders.
Because I felt the pressure of needing to breastfeed Jai from the get-go and I am the sort of person to be prepared whenever I am unfamiliar with something, I got Ash and myself into some breastfeeding classes offered by the hospital we planned to deliver in.
The class was…helpful?
Breastfeeding is one of those scenarios where someone can explain the concept to you a million times, but until you’ve actually tried, it’s really hard to “get.” This may be my personal issue, because I can imagine there are plenty of mothers who had relatively no issues getting their milk in or getting the baby to latch effectively. But it took Jai and me a solid 48 hours before we got a hang of the whole situation.
The Reality of the Matter
There were several reasons why it took us a while to get a hang of breastfeeding: it took a while for my milk to come in, my colostrum was particularly thick, and he struggled to latch (more about that in Wednesday’s post). While in the hospital, I requested the Lactation Consultant to come and show me what I was doing wrong. She’d adjust him, tell me to listen for a swallow, explain what I was doing wrong and how to fix it, and she would hurry out of the room to the next struggling mother.
It wasn’t until I relaxed and trusted the process that we were able to get the hang of it. There were more issues that popped up along the way, but at the beginning, I was optimistic that I’d be able to breastfeed Jai like I planned.
Working through the Guilt
Because I encountered a lot of cultural pressure to breastfeed Jai from the beginning through at least six months, I found myself feeling guilty every time I gave him a bottle filled with formula or even pumped breastmilk.
In the class, the nurses in the recovery room, and his pediatrician’s nurses all told me to never, ever give him a bottle nor a pacificer in order to avoid nipple confusion. They kept telling me that should I give him a bottle, even with breastmilk, would lead to him preferring the bottle and rejecting the breast and he would miss out on all the bonding, hormones, and milk benefits that he got directly from the breast.
As someone with MS and dealing with recovery fatigue, this was absolutely unreasonable to tell a new mother.
The best piece of advice I got after Jai was born (and I will probably be repeating this in a future post that’s how much I love it) was to do shift sleeping. Ash would watch Jai for six hours at night so I could get six straight hours of sleep and we’d switch around 3am so Ash could get six straight hours of sleep. With a newborn, you can’t go more than an hour or so without feeding them. This meant Ash would need to give Jai bottled breastmilk or formula if he finished the stockpile from previous pumpings.
While I would wake up full and ready to feed Jai immediately, I found that my supply was unaffected by the break. Jai was extremely happy to see me again and I was happy to provide for him.
I learned two things from this experience: Jai did not have issues with nipple confusion despite the narrative and that my personal well-being was more important than listening to the experts. By allowing myself to have six hours of uninterrupted sleep I was able to recover faster and bond better with Jai. My emotional well-being regulated quicker and I also bonded with Ash more: I forced myself to trust that Ash was capable of taking care of his son without me needing to constantly be present.
In fact, in the two weeks after Jai was born and before we switched over to the shift-sleep method, we were both miserable. Not just from being tired, but I was constantly snapping at Ash when he did something I perceived to be wrong (he wasn’t actually doing anything wrong). I was miserable with how angry I was with him, with myself, and with Jai because I couldn’t get a moment’s break.
I am not advocating going against or dismissing medical advice. I am saying that I learned to question the ethos and motivation behind the information given to me, something I originally learned as a graduate student.
I realized that the experts I previously encountered had placed a “one-size-fits-all” emphasis when it came to teaching breastfeeding, something you cannot do as an instructor.
Well, you can, but you aren’t a good instructor if you are incapable of being flexible or providing students options.
When I taught college I found that every student was different, therefore their needs were different. There were certain basic rules/facts that needed to be communicated, but my most successful teaching sessions revolved around finding ways to work with those foundational concepts differently until a student understood how to navigate the subject matter.
The same could be said for teaching and advocating breastfeeding. While there may be concerns about nipple confusion, supply issues, and other possible problems I haven’t mentioned, that doesn’t mean it all applied to me (or another mother). If I found something that worked to feed my child and keep me healthy in my recovery, then I should do that because a happy and healthy mother is better for a newborn than a miserable, drained mother.
Once I realized I was put in this general box (all new Western mothers are put here) and that the lack of flexibility is really just an illusion, I no longer felt guilty about how I fed my child. We supplemented formula until he started to reject it and we bottle fed until he rejected that as well.
I want to add this “too long; didn’t read” final thoughts:
- I am not saying medical professionals are wrong, I am suggesting that some of their educational techniques are ineffective and may be causing unintentional harm by not offering alternatives or at least hedging their comments to avoid putting guilt or pressure on new mothers
- Following expert advice is recommended, especially by healthcare professionals, but if a mother has found something that works and is a bit unorthodox, there shouldn’t be guilt placed on the mother for doing so
- Equal emphasis should be placed on a mother’s well-being (both emotionally and physically) as much as it is placed on feeding the baby. If a mother must supplement by giving a baby bottled breastmilk, then they should be told that is an option from day one and provide nipple recommendations to mimic mother’s flow
- While there may be some increased benefits to breastfeeding, offer alternative solutions to new mothers and reassurance that formula is a valid form of feeding. I would love to also see healthcare professionals trained to minimize the “tsk” reaction they give when a mother answers “we supplement” to the feeding question
I understand that this is a loaded topic and causes a huge divide within the motherhood community. I hope I made it clear that feeding the baby however is the best way to feed a baby (provided it’s safe and approved: none of that soy milk nonsense heard on the news).
I have touched briefly on my personal struggles with breastfeeding, but Wednesday I will detail my struggles further and discuss some other common struggles that mothers may encounter breastfeeding. I have heard from other mothers on the matter and I will be detailing some advice that they found helped them through the whole process.
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