Breastfeeding was something I always dreamt of doing when having my own children. No one ever needed to convince me that breast is best, or the special bond that emerges from the closeness that only comes with your baby on your breast. However, I never expected the difficulties I would face once I actually began to breastfeed.
With Dimitri, my breastfeeding experience started off great. We worked towards a fairly good latch with only mildly sore nipples at the beginning. He fed frequently during the day and slept well at night, waking only once to feed. Dimitri was gaining weight very well and was thriving. Things seemed great.
However, a little before his 3 month birthday, problems began. I had blocked milk ducts that inevitably led to mastitis. This was a huge shock to me, as it rang an alarm that I was “doing something wrong”. I managed to get through my mastitis with no antibiotics, however, Dimitri stopped thriving. People began to worry me when pointing out that he looked thin, and upon weighing him, we confirmed that he had indeed stopped gaining weight. Heartbroken, I immediately began supplementing with formula and gradually, Dimitri weaned off my breast by 6 months.
Reflecting on my first experience, I learned a few things:
1) Most importantly, I had not formed a proper support system. I had no “village” of help. Other than George, there was no one there encouraging me to breastfeed. I never visited a lactation consultant and never went to any meet-up group. So I felt alone… isolated. I never could have imagined just how many women went through what I did, yet overcame it with the right help.
2) I never knew that babies generally don’t gain as rapidly once they hit 3 months and that breastfeeding doesn’t give you the perfect linear uphill weight gain. There will be waves, and overcoming mastitis clearly led to a bump on the road.
3) I was unhappy. I probably had a small case of postpartum depression, as I was continuously crying. I was not living the moment and mainly felt exhausted & sleep-deprived. I was not eating well and certainly not enough. This led to rapid weight loss for me and unlikely imbalanced/improper milk for Dimitri.
These problems were carefully analyzed when I was pregnant with Iliana, so I felt confident that I would get it right the second time around. Things would be perfect. BUT, every baby is different and Iliana posed her own challenges.
Iliana was born with guns a-blazing! I was in active labour for less than 30 minutes and she came in 2 pushes. While Dimitri was born very sleepy (likely from the epidural), Iliana was ALERT (I wanted no epidural this time around)! She was born with her thumb in her mouth, happily sucking away. When I first put her on my breast, I was impressed! She latched really well and gulped away. She was also gaining weight quickly.
But things went downhill quickly and I developed probably every textbook breastfeeding problem that exists. I had decided to feed Iliana on demand, never expecting that she would sleep 8 hours straight during her first few weeks of life! However, she did, and my engorged breasts quickly blocked up. My blocked milk ducts once again led to mastitis, so I started feeding her in any position possible to unblock the ducts… cradle, cross-cradle, lying down, upside down, hands & knees, etc… We became a circus act. I stopped focusing on how good the latch was and I severely damaged my nipples. The wounds were enormous and every feed became unbearable. I would tremble every time I had to feed her, not knowing if I had the strength to go on. Because of the open wounds, I also developed thrush. And, at two weeks, Iliana was now only gaining about 11g a day (well below the 20g minimum). Through all this pain & frustration, I knew not to give up. It was time to get help and develop a support system – my “village”.
1) I called a lactation consultant, Dr. Valerie Lavigne, who told me how to try to naturally get rid of mastitis, through epsom salt baths, massages, hot/cold baths and constant feeding/pumping.
2) I went to the nourri-source group meet ups after speaking with a lactation consultant – Julie. She ensured my latch was good and then, upon seeing a nurse, I was given an APNO cream and a feeding tube. Their recommendation was to minimize feeding from my left breast, which was severely wounded, and to pump instead (the nurse actually looked at me and asked me how I was still going on with that wound? Her caring words and concern led me to finally break down in tears and thank her for acknowledging just how difficult & painful of an experience I was having)
3) As my mastitis would not leave, I ended up on antibiotics. Once better, I visited Valerie (who is also a chiropractor) and she performed an ultrasound on my breasts to remove the blocked ducts. The instant relief was incredible. While still in immense pain from my nipples, I was one step closer to healing!
4) My incredible friend & doctor, Helen, managed to help me get into the Jewish General Hospital Herzl Family breastfeeding clinic. I met an amazing lactation consultant there (sadly, I forgot her name). She not only gave me some great advice (for instant, the importance of taking care of MYSELF to be able to take care of the rest of my family), she also put me on the path to nipple healing. At this point, everyone had confirmed that Iliana had a posterior tongue tie and we were debating whether we should clip it (since it was likely the reason the latch was not perfect). However, by this point, my right nipple was almost fully healed, which meant that Iliana did know how to work well with the latch. Now, time to get my breast healed! At this point, Iliana was thriving, gaining approximately 35g per day – YAY!
5) George also contacted an IBCLC – Jennifer Welsch. She spent close to an hour on the phone asking numerous questions on the pregnancy, labour and birth process. It was fascinating how intertwined they could be with breastfeeding (yet so obvious once you think about it). My induced labour and extremely intense delivery could have led to some distress in Iliana and obviously, tension in her body. She ultimately recommended craniosacral therapy and referred us to, once again, VALERIE 🙂 Turns out she was the best at infant craniosacral. Back we went to her clinic and did body work on Iliana, releasing tension behind her left ear (which – not surprising – was the side all the damage was done).
6) Back at the Herzl, we kept working on my nipple healing. As there was still yellow pus, they gave me an antibiotic cream and a special “bandaid” called Mepliex. These were the key to finally closing my wound. Iliana was continuing to thrive – still averaging a weight gain of about 35g per day!
And now, here we are. Iliana is 13 weeks old today and weighs over 13 lbs. She is thriving and I am 100% healed. Breastfeeding is finally the experience I always dreamed it would be. It was an enormously challenging three months, but I feel like after overcoming such enormous obstacles, the rest will be just fine. I can finally put Iliana on my breast and enjoy the moment and the deep connection of having my baby near me. I can finally happily give her what was intended to go in her body and nourish her. The best source of food possible.
What have I learned through all this? I think the main thing is that I (like every single other mother out there) was always too hard on myself. When giving Dimitri formula, I felt in a sense that I was poisoning him. I thought I had failed as a mother and that my child was now doomed. I was horrified by this idea and never thought I would have to reach this point. Reflecting now, I finally forgive myself. We can only do our best and learn to grow from each experience. While still a firm believer in breastfeeding, I no longer judge any mother, including myself, for the choices made. We all have a story. Some are prettier than others, however no mother has raised her children unchallenged. What is it that counts then? I think it’s our intention. We all intend to do what’s best for our children. And sometimes we will fail, whether it is through losing our patience, temper or mind 😉 I have a perfect picture in my head of how I want to raise my children. Let’s just say that I have significantly strayed from this pretty picture many times in these past 2.5 years. We are human after all. Being human means making mistakes. My goal is now to simply minimize those mistakes and to be able to look at myself in the mirror at the end of the day, knowing I did the best I can. Hopefully, one day, my children will agree with me.