My first child came after twenty-seven hours of labor and was born a slight shade of purple. My first thought upon seeing him as the doctor held him up in front of me was that he looked like a freshly hatched baby dragon. The most beautiful freshly hatched baby dragon that I had ever seen. He was a boy with a fuzzy head full of black spikey hair, and the biggest darkest blue eyes that I had ever seen.
I had never held a baby for more than minutes. I had never changed a diaper. I had never soothed a baby. I had never breastfed a baby. I had never even seen a woman breastfeed a baby. Breastfeeding was just something that I had planned on doing since I was very young, and a checkbox on a birth plan that no one had bothered to read.
I discovered that watching videos of women breastfeeding was a sadly inadequate way to learn, that books could not prepare you, and that when you were faced with instructions such as “hold it like a sandwich” and “bring the baby to the breast not the breast to the baby” and told about “cradle”, “football” and “reverse cradle” holds.. It could make a twenty-six year old computer programmer feel like a three year old trying to learn how to tie shoes. But while the shoes screamed at you. And if you didn’t manage to tie them the shoes would somehow declare you to be a Very Bad Mother Who Cannot Feed Her Baby.
I was shown “how to breastfeed” somewhat surly-sweet labor nurse who had annoyed me by offering an epidural a few too many times and then cheerily proclaiming “I’m sorry it’s too late for an epidural now, sweetie. But it’s time to push.” when I expressed that an internal exam was PAINFUL. (After 26 hours of unmedicated labor if something is painful it should be taken into context, I think.) I was told to offer my clean pinky finger to him to suck on first, then she offered him a bottle with formula which I swatted away, and then she jammed my breast into his face to show me how to jam my breast into his face.
(Later I abandoned the “jam breast into face” approach and adopted a much more appealing “Touch nipple to baby’s mouth until he opens to nurse” approach which worked better than trying to force feed a screechy.)
We were rather terrible at the breastfeeding thing- something that I now understand is perfectly okay. I look at early videos of me trying to convince my son to nurse, and I wince at how inexperienced I was and how I was doing Everything Wrong.
The turning point came when I carried my son down to the nursing station, gingerly holding him against the chest of my blood-stained hospital gown, and asked to see the lactation consultant that I had been told about during the hospital tour. Instead, the older nurse chastised me for carrying my baby outside of the plastic box that was his bed, and told me that if I was worried I could just give him formula. I never did end up seeing the lactation consultant and to this day I don’t know if the hospital really even had one.
We figured it out, my little baby dragon and I, in the wee hours of the night in the hospital bed all alone between the incessant blood pressure checks and poking and prodding. I awkwardly maneuvered my own breast into my mouth and sucked the nipple hard. I know now that a hard nipple isn’t necessary for breastfeeding, but it helped offset my ignorance a bit. He latched on. To the nipple itself, rather than to the areolae, and he chomped away merrily.
The first six weeks were bloody hell. Literally bloody. Cracked and chapped nipples, holding my breath when I latched him on, and a bloody hickey that resembled a second nipple from where he drifted off of my nipple and latched on a good quarter of an inch off target.
My mother who nursed three children back when such things were rare was able to offer two pieces of advice: You can do it. And use lanolin.
These bits of advice got us through the first six weeks of complete and total ouch and slowly my son learned to breastfeed. I learned how to support him in a way that made him not pull his head away. I learned how to hold the nipple so that he could find it. He learned how to latch on.
I struggled with the “normal” things. Mistaking growth spurts and supply stabilization for low supply. Pumping and being confused about the relationship between amount of milk pumped and what my baby must eat. Learning how to breastfeed in public with a cover. Coming to terms with breastfeeding discreetly without a cover. The random dirty look. Sleeplessness. A primary care physician who had weaned her own children and who repeatedly pushed me to wean mine for the oddest of reasons.
I struggled with a lack of support, with doing it all on my own, with trying to put my exhaustion and touched-outness into terms that could explain to someone else why I was not who I was before my child was born. I struggled with balancing computer programming with motherhood, and learned to balance my sleeping son on a boppy pillow while I worked, and to babywear while I did the dishes.
I conquered mastitis, stubbornly avoiding antibiotics and learning how to dangle nurse, how to use a soapy comb, and how to use hot water to get my milk flowing. Only the first of which I recommend now due to finding out years later that ice is a better solution (except for just before nursing when a hot compress is a good idea.)
When he was nearly five months old my back gave out and I parented through the rest of his first year in constant pain because the doctors that I spoke to said that a cortisone shot could impact my milk. (This was incorrect and unnecessary, I later found out.) I took ibuprofen, tylenol, and staggered through it, getting the cortisone shot for my back a month or two after we celebrated our first of three breastfeeding anniversaries before he self-weaned.
At eighteen months my son shared some of his milk with three different women who were not able to breastfeed exclusively. I was a “micro donor” and the small amounts of about 100oz helped those moms tide over until they found someone with a more prolific output than I was able to manage.
He and I reinvented the art of breastfeeding in some ways. We did not learn from others, we struggled along and managed to thrive and grow without needing to supplement. My experience taught me the value of being a part of a larger community of moms, and from learning through the experiences of others. To question the advice given by anyone, and to verify it and seek out all of the different opinions and facts so that I understood my decisions and my reasons for having made them.
With my little baby dragon, I learned to find and provide comfort amidst chaos and uncertainty.