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My Complicated Relationship With Breastfeeding

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I never thought one of the first things I wrote about motherhood would be about breastfeeding. Nor did I think that piece would include the word "nipple." But, as a breastfeeding, first-time mom to a 3-month-old, nipples are never far from my mind. In fact, I've been utterly consumed with mine ever since my son Cody was born.

Why? Because breastfeeding is hands down one of the hardest things I've ever done. There comes a point in nearly every day that I want to quit, and that point usually comes around 3 in the morning...

I'm lying in bed after nursing. Cody's back in his crib, snoring. All I want to do is sleep, but my breasts are throbbing and I'm sobbing. The tips of my nips are white; blood flow's been cut off again. This is known as nipple vasospasm. I think nipple strangulation sounds more like it. I tell Cody's dad I'm "done. I can't do it anymore. The pain is worse than labor; it's simply inhumane." I declare that I'm going to quit. He says he supports my decision. I say there's no way I can quit. He says he supports my decision.

What a good guy. And what a wild ride breastfeeding has been. I've never been so determined to do anything, or so ill prepared. I was so preoccupied with getting ready for labor and delivery -- watching graphic birth videos, taking classes with Tyler, practicing my "hee-hee-hoo"'s -- that I remained in denial about almost everything that was to follow. And what followed was this: in an unexpected turn of events, Cody had to be rushed to the NICU right after being born. This meant he did not get to nurse during that golden first hour after birth, missing out (initially) on the nutrient- and antibody-rich pre-milk, called colostrum, and on that precious time to bond with mom. Breastfeeding as soon as possible after birth increases increases the chance of continued and successful breastfeeding. We were not off to a great start.

Fortunately, Cody took to the breast almost immediately the next morning, and the lactation consultant ordered me to pump after every time I nursed. In my deliriously tired, drugged state, this felt like a cruel joke. I thought this lactation lady was as mean as she was crazy. Now, I know better. After lots of pumping and visits to the NICU to nurse, my milk came in strong, and it did not take long for Cody to become addicted. His frantic, siren cries of hunger would come to a complete halt as his heart-shaped lips closed around my nipple and he cuddled in close. He'd suck feverishly at first, and then lazily, as his eyes rolled to the back of his head and his whole body sunk into mine. His eyes shut as the corners of his mouth turned up into a satiated, sleepy grin. Drunk on milk, he made the silliest faces and settled into the deepest sleeps, arms spread above his head as though surrendering. One thing was clear: this boy loved the booby!

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After two days in the NICU, Cody was discharged and Tyler and I were given a chart on which to track his feedings and bowel movements. We were told he'd need to eat every one to three hours, for about 10 to 20 minutes. It sounded easy enough. But this is when things got dicey. I fed on demand, as I'd been instructed to do, but the demand seemed awfully high. Cody was giving hunger cues -- or as we like to say, doing "the booby dance" -- every hour, on the hour, and his feedings lasted 45 minutes or more. You can do the math, but basically this amounted to no break between feedings and no sleep for me. I stared at the chart in disbelief. This couldn't be right. But it was, according to everyone I asked. (And I asked anyone who set food in our room.)

"Some babies take longer to eat than others."

"He'll come off the breast when he's ready."

"It'll get better with time. The first two weeks are the worst."

And oh, they were. But things didn't get better. Cut to three weeks postpartum: I'm sitting in my glider chair with Cody. He's resting on the Boppy pillow, his mouth around one of my nipples, where it's been for the last two and a half hours. From what I read online, this is called a "cluster-feed." Seems more like a cluster-you-know-what to me. The pediatrician says it could be a growth spurt, which should last only a couple of days.

A few days later, the "growth spurt" isn't over and Cody and I hardly leave my room. I eat all my meals while nursing, spilling crumbs on top of his head. My nipples are red and raw and I can't get any relief. When Cody latches on, it feels like a piranha clamping down, or shards of glass shooting into my skin. Tyler starts giving him expressed milk at night; pumping isn't as agonizing. I worry that my son will have psychological damage from seeing me cry every time I feed him. I believe that only sick, masochistic people could actually take pleasure in breastfeeding. I wonder how I'll ever be able to enjoy my baby when he's attached to my boob all day.

I decided I was done, and went online to read about people who had decided the same. I sought solidarity. I needed support in my choice to stop the madness that was breastfeeding. I did not find what I was looking for. Instead, I found post upon post on blogs and online forums about how it does get easier. I found article after article about the amazing benefits that breast milk offers babies: increased immunity to illness and infection, increased cognitive development, decreased risk of a number of diseases. The more I read, the less certain I became that I was ready to throw in the towel. But, I had no idea how to combat my misery. Every day was a struggle and I felt myself falling fast into a scary depression that I hated subjecting Cody to. This was not how I wanted to spend our first month together and not at all how I wanted him to experience me. If I was going to keep nursing, I needed more inspiration. And if I needed for it to be tolerable, I had to get to the source of the problem.

I began reading everything I could get my hands on about breastfeeding. God knows I had the time, while chained to my rocking chair. And I enlisted the help of another lactation consultant who came to my home. Thanks to her -- a woman I now refer to as My Savior -- I discovered that my hungry little man was tongue-tied, and transferring minuscule amounts of milk at a time. Apparently, it had not been detected earlier because, unlike most babies with tongue-tie, Cody was gaining weight like a champ. (Which I suppose is what happens when you never come up for air!) After doing our research, we took Cody to a Frenulum Clinic, where he underwent a quick procedure to release his tongue. Nursing did not improve right away, like we were told it probably would. And in truth, it's still a challenge months later; old (chomping) habits die hard. But, the procedure completely changed Cody's efficiency and that's a huge deal. He doesn't have to work so hard to transfer milk, and nursing now takes 25 minutes tops, every two to three hours (not counting comfort nursing). I now eat my dinners downstairs and can enjoy my baby boy. We do so much more than nurse; we read and talk and play!

And I've come to really cherish the time I do spend nursing. I finally understand why it's considered a bonding experience. I find it amazing that I can nourish my son with my body, just as I did for nine and a half months. I love that I'm able to instantly soothe him and provide that safe, snuggly place to which he can always return. When he slides off my breast and breathes that sigh of satisfaction, pursing his milky lips and launching into the longest, most luxurious stretch, I think to myself, this is more than worth it. This is what keeps me going when the crack in my right nipple just won't heal and I put Lanolin on my toothbrush by mistake. This is why I set goals of "one more month" when I once again have mastitis and my bed smells like sour milk.

It's what makes me especially miss my beautiful mother, who I'm told breastfed my brother and me. It's a conversation we never had in our 18 years together, and now there's so much I want to ask her, so much I'll never know. I think of how different this journey would be with my mom by my side, with her sage advice, delicious humor, and boundless love. I also think about how cool it would have been to bond over motherhood, womanhood -- for us to know each other in this whole new way. No matter what my choices are as a mother, I know she would be proud of me, because that's the kind of mom she was.

Thanks to the Internet, I've connected with other breastfeeding moms who also keep me going. I've learned that I'm far from the first mom to have nightmares about her nipples. So many women face much greater breastfeeding hurdles than I have, and their stories simply astound me; they will move mountains to breastfeed their babies. And I also feel the deep pain of those who want so badly to breastfeed, but truly can't.

Breastfeeding is something I take pride in and take painkillers for. It's a love/hate relationship that I look forward to ending and fear losing. It feels like the toughest commitment I've ever made, but there is no one in the world I'd rather make it for than my sweet, wonderful, lovable Cody.

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UPDATE: I wrote this piece when Cody was about 3 months old, and boy, what a difference a few more months makes. At nearly 8 months old, I am so happy to report that Cody is still breastfeeding, and that it is going better than ever for the both of us! I never thought that I'd make it this far with nursing or that I'd come to love it, but I have and I absolutely do! I feel very fortunate.

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