Say the breast is best or die like the rest!

One month and one day old.  I wonder if they make Jedi robe towels kind of like that ducky towel?

I’ll admit, the title is a little dramatic, but Jen’s experiences with the heartache of trying to overcome breastfeeding hurdle after breastfeeding hurdle for the past month, coupled with my own experiences with the quality of some of the “advice” you can get online, makes me feel justified.

Let me say this up front: breastfeeding is amazing.  The bonding experience is wonderful; the nutrition is (slightly) better; the fact that your body produces a few antibodies that your child needs is fantastic.  If you can breastfeed, by all means do it.

Let me also say this up front: breastfeeding is hard work.  It removes dad from the all-important feeding aspect of the caregiving equation entirely unless you are pumping and regularly using the pumped milk; it requires a constant commitment or else some talented baby-juggling, because it takes longer to breastfeed and breast milk metabolizes faster, meaning mommy may be stuck unable to get anything done.  “But Tim,” you opine, “shouldn’t mom only be focused on the baby?  Other people can come help with the housework and the cooking.  Mom SHOULD be devoting her full time to the baby.”

Even one month in, that view just seems so naive.  The number of people willing to come help a new mom MIGHT be greater than zero the first week.  It might even be greater than zero the second week, but as time goes by, the number of people willing to come help a new mom rapidly declines until it reaches zero.  Even when people are willing to come help, that’s on their schedule, not yours.  If dad is working, there are 8.5-10 hours (depending on commute) every day where mom is on her own, and there’s only so much that dad can do between when he gets home from work and when it’s time for everyone to go down for the night.  Chances are good that those 8.5-10 hours that dad is gone are the same 8.5-10 hours that the people willing to help are otherwise engaged.  There are also about 4-8 hours every night where a breastfeeding mom is, by default, on her own.  Say what you will about how the breast is best, but I’m willing to bet that moms who bottle feed kind of like being able to roll over at 3 AM and say, “No, honey, it’s your turn.”

That’s a lot to get out of the way up front, eh?  As Jen and I have found out in the past month, breastfeeding is hard, and it is frequently hard for reasons besides the possibly-selfish-sounding reasons above.

When Morgan was born, an overzealous lactation nurse decided she had gone too long between feedings, so she had us try to feed her.  When Morgan resisted and started to fuss, the nurse waited until Morgan opened her mouth to cry and then grabbed the back of her head and shoved her face into Jen’s breast.  That was the last time that Morgan breastfed unassisted for three weeks.  She would scream, thrash, and pull away every time Jen offered her breast.  We had a little bit of luck using a nipple shield to help her latch on, but even with the shield, she would only latch on for a suck or two and then come off to cry.  At first, Jen was able to pump to meet most of Morgan’s feeding needs (she came up a few ml shy at each feeding), but then, about a week after we came home from the hospital, pumping quit working.  She went from producing 40 ml per breast to producing a total of less than 20 ml.  Suddenly, we weren’t making up the difference with formula, we were primarily feeding Morgan formula, and she still would not latch on and take the breast.

Like any concerned dad with a modicum of tech-savvy would, I went digging online.  I found breast-feeding communities online and asked for advice. We received a lot of good advice, although some of it wasn’t quite practical for our purposes (for example: “Have your wife just walk around topless so the baby always has access to her breast!” Thanks to the layout of our house, that would have either meant constantly flashing the neighbors or staying in the bedroom all day long, but the intention behind the idea was good).  We received a lot of support and concern with this first issue, but we also received some very bad advice.  Specifically, we had people telling us that, if we were really serious about breastfeeding, we would stop offering Morgan a bottle right away and only give her the breast.  I’ll get back to this piece of horrendous advice in a moment.

After about 2 weeks, Morgan started latching better, but only with the nipple shield, and she was always hungry after she “finished” with the breast (still rooting and crying), so back to the internet I went to praise her progress and ask for help making more progress.  As before, there was a fair amount of support and good advice, but the bad advice really came out this time around.  I had people telling me that I was messing up my daughter’s ability to breastfeed by trying to figure out whether or not she was full (to the point that I was even told that the only reason she wouldn’t breastfeed was because of my “misplaced anxiety” over whether she was getting enough), and I was told that we were too reliant on the nipple shield, so we needed to just throw it away, because if Morgan could latch WITH it, then obviously she could latch without it.  I was told the only reason Morgan wasn’t happily latching without the shield was that we offered the shield too much; I was told that Jen must just be holding her wrong, and that if she would just go to a La Leche League meeting and have other mothers show her how it’s done, that would fix everything, because our problems were probably just coming from not understanding the “mechanics” of breastfeeding.

Out of all the replies I received to my concerns that second time around, the only sound piece of advice was to be patient and keep offering her the breast without the nipple shield.

And that’s the only piece of advice I heeded.  That’s the only piece of advice I even passed on to Jen.  The rest I ignored as obstinately as I’ve ever ignored anything in my life, because it was, quite simply, ignorant crap given from a (well-meaning or not) stance of ignorance.

Among the breastfeeding community, there is this idea that if you CAN breastfeed but don’t, you must be a horrible parent.  Maybe it’s the husband’s fault for overthinking things, or maybe it’s the mother’s fault for not being willing to be a glorified milk carton 24/7, but clearly, something is wrong with you.  The community is very sympathetic when someone CAN’T breastfeed, whether because there is no milk supply or because of insurmountable issues, but even there you occasionally see the community ganging up on the wrong people.  I saw a post from a mother whose infant had been classed as “failure to thrive.”  Her pediatrician wanted her to start supplementing with a little formula, and she was looking for advice because she didn’t want to feed her baby formula and he was “only a little” below where he should be.  Almost to a person, every single reply told her to find a new pediatrician because hers obviously had no idea what he was talking about.

So with this in mind, I wanted to actually address some of the advice I received and explain why it was so horribly bad.

Stop offering your baby a bottle right now and only give her the breast: 
At the time we received this advice, Morgan literally would not take the breast (with nipple shield) for more than 60 seconds at a time.  I think Jen may have gotten her to stay latched for 5 minutes once.  Jen could sit there with her for an hour and she would cycle through sucking, thrashing, and screaming the entire time.  Or, we could get a bottle ready, feed her, burp her, and have a mostly content baby (she gets gassy sometimes).

Babies cry.  It is known.  There is a difference, however, between crying and screaming. Morgan screamed when we tried to breastfeed those first few weeks.  It’s all well and good for someone who has never had a serious problem breastfeeding to say, “just stop giving your baby a bottle right now,” but they aren’t the ones who have to have that dagger plunged into their hearts over and over again for hours on end when the baby won’t stop screaming because she’s hungry and, for whatever reason, won’t take the breast.  If we had taken this advice, would Morgan eventually have taken the breast?  I’m sure she would have.  Eventually, if there’s only one option, anyone will take it, but it would have required starving her and traumatizing her to make it happen, and it would have made every single feeding a battle.  We weren’t willing to do that.  It was breaking Jen’s heart every time Morgan screamed at her breast.  I would have had to have been some kind of monster to say, “Well, you’ll just have to deal with that until she gives in and takes your breast.  I’ll be off at work while you listen to her scream all day.”

Don’t overthink things! The only indicators you should use to see if your child is getting enough milk are the number of wet/dirty diapers per day and whether she’s gaining 3 ounces per week:

That second sentence is the rest of what people said when they told me that my over-analyzing was messing up Morgan’s ability to breastfeed.  Now, I do realize that bottle-feeding can provide a greater sense of fullness than breastfeeding, but there is a difference between a cry that says, “Hey, I’m not quite full yet,” and rooting that turns into crying that turns into screaming because your baby is still hungry but won’t suckle anymore at the breast.

There’s a great indicator as to whether or not your baby is done eating: when they’re done, they don’t scream at the fact that they’re not getting more milk.  As a corollary to that, there’s a great indicator that you are overfeeding your child: projectile vomit.  The first time she suckled for a long time at the breast and still wanted more, I gave her too much “extra” formula.  She vomited almost as soon as I pulled the bottle away the last time.  After that, I was more careful, and only fed her until she was content.  One Linda Blair moment was enough for daddy to learn his lesson, believe me!

You’re too reliant on the nipple shield/you offer it too much.  If your baby can latch with it, she can latch without it:
How can you tell you’re receiving advice from someone who has no idea what you’re going through?  They speak in absolutes.  “Throw it away.”  “If she can do X, she can do Y.”  If we had thrown away the nipple shield, Morgan would have been exclusively bottle-fed in less than a week.  Any mother giving advice should know that it’s never a question of if a baby can do something.  Of course a baby can latch.  It’s an evolutionary instinct, for crying out loud!  If a baby won’t do it, however, you can’t force them to.  We kept offering Morgan the bare breast first and the shield second, and just a few days after receiving this horrible advice, she started latching on to the breast.  Now she only needs the nipple shield if she’s tired or cranky, and we only supplement her with bottles when I’m giving Jen a break.  Patience and perseverance did the trick.  This advice would have destroyed any chance we had at breastfeeding.

You’re holding her wrong.  Get another mother to show you how it’s done so you can “learn the mechanics”:
This was one of the most innocent bits of bad advice we received, but that doesn’t make it any less bad.  We were shown how to do things at the hospital, and we were shown several variations.  Jen had the mechanics down pat.  That didn’t change the fact that Morgan hated doing things “the right way.”  It took a lot of time and patience for us to find a way that worked for us, and it didn’t look very much like “the mechanics” at first.  If you’re having trouble breastfeeding, changing the way you hold your child is not likely to be a magic bullet.  No, it takes time.  It takes patience.  It takes sitting up near tears yourself as your child screams.  When you find the “right” position, there’s every chance that it won’t be very similar at all to what you were shown in the hospital.  As Strongbad says, “Everyone is different.”

This first month has been an amazing experience, and Jen and I are learning new things each and every day, but the biggest thing we’ve learned is that there will never again be such a thing as “normal,” nor is there any one “right way” to raise Morgan.  What works for someone else may not work for us.  What works for us may not work for other people.  As we progress, we are learning to trust our instincts and to trust Morgan.  Even if she can’t talk, she can tell us what she needs better than I would have imagined.  Jen can understand her better than I can, but I can still figure out ways to calm her and care for her far better than I could a month ago.

And that’s my advice to other new parents about breastfeeding and about raising your own geekling in general: listen to the advice, sort the wheat from the chaff, and then trust your instincts.  Evolution has given you an amazing set of instincts and tools when it comes to taking care of your child, and you should trust your instincts.  You are the only person who is with your child as much as you are.  You are the only person who sees your child as much as you do.  You know what to do much better than you may think you do.