08/25/2013 09:51 am ET

The Breastfeeding Chronicles: My Son Didn't Latch Until He Was 4 Months Old

Lisa Gendron & Agroterra Photography

Emily's son is now a perfectly healthy toddler, but he spent his first month in the hospital with serious cardiac problems, unable to nurse because it was too much for his tiny heart. In the next installment of our month-long series on the true range of breastfeeding experiences, the 36-year-old from Providence, R.I., talks about what it was like when, after months of pumping, her son finally latched.

High Hopes

My expectations were that breastfeeding would go very, very easily. I was breastfed, I was surrounded by women with little ones who were breastfeeding and I didn't really see anyone have too much trouble with it. I took a Bradley Method birthing class before my son was born, and I felt pretty prepared for the nursing relationship.

The birth was fantastic. It was unmedicated (and long), but it was an amazing experience that I'm looking forward to again. [When we interviewed her, Emily was expecting her second child any day.]

We had no indications that there were any problems throughout my pregnancy, or immediately after our son was born. But then his pediatrician came in and took a look at him when he was probably three or four hours old, and heard something in his heart.

A Quick Turn

They sent him down to the NICU, did an echocardiogram, and saw that his aortic valve was almost completely closed. We spoke with the cardiologist who said he'd likely have surgery that night, or the next day.

They transported him in an ambulance to Boston Children's Hospital while my husband and I followed in the car. He was born at 6 in the morning, and we were at Boston Children's by 10 that night.

The next morning he had a balloon dilation on his valve to open it up. He was intubated to breathe and was being fed through a tube. I was pumping for him -- they had a heavy-duty pump in the hospital -- and they also added formula to my breast milk, because they wanted him to have extra calories. His heart was beating very quickly -- it was like he was constantly exercising -- so he wasn't able to gain weight.

When he was about 10 days old, they finally took the feeding tube out, but they continued to add formula and glucosamine to my breast milk, because he had to have it from the bottle.

A Sense Of Purpose

Pumping, in one way, gave me a sense of being useful, because it was the only thing I could do for him. But I also felt the need to be present. He was hooked up to all these monitors, and I couldn't hold him. I felt like I needed to be sitting by his bassinet all the time, with my hands on him, but pumping meant that I had to walk through this huge ICU to go get the pump, bring it back to his room, pump, bring it back out again, wash all the pump parts ... and do that every two hours. So I felt like I was doing something for him, but at the same time, I felt like it was taking me away from him.

When he was 5 weeks old, they were finally ready to send us home. The doctors wanted us to keep up with the same mix -- adding the formula and glucosamine to my breast milk. But the lactation consultants at the hospital knew I wasn't thrilled about adding formula to my breast milk, and they were able to count the number of calories in my breast milk using this machine -- it was amazing! They saw that I had more calories in my breast milk than a lot of people, so I could add less formula, which was great.

Making The Switch

When we got him home, I really, really wanted to nurse him. He was doing so well -- gaining weight, his heart rate returned to normal and there wasn't much of a need for him to continue to get the extra calories anymore. So I finally got the OK from his pediatrician to try and nurse him. But he had nipple confusion, and every time I tried, he'd cry.

I saw countless lactation consultants and I tried a supplemental nurser, which was a nightmare. But it seemed like he still had the instinct to nurse, because when he'd wake up from his naps on my chest, he'd kind of root around a little bit. So when he was around 8 or 9 weeks old, I started spending entire weekends on the couch with him, skin-to-skin. That didn't seem like enough time to get that instinct really going, so I eventually started co-sleeping with him, skin-to-skin, as well. And that's how it worked. He slowly started nursing during the night ... and then he began to nurse when he went to bed ... and eventually he started nursing during the day. He had his last bottle the week he turned 4 months old.

The Hardest Part

I really wanted him to nurse, and not just give him breast milk from a bottle, partly because of laziness on my part [laughs]. Bottles were a real pain. But the biggest thing, for me, was that he had open heart surgery scheduled, and canceled, several times. I felt like when he was in the hospital, in pain, and just out of surgery, that was the only measure of comfort I'd be able to give him. If I could be that anchor for him, I wanted to.

So when he would cry when I was trying to nurse him, I had this big feeling of hopelessness. I couldn't let him cry too long, because it was exercise and it would make his heart race. I would try and have him nurse for a little while, he wouldn't want to do it, then I'd go pump. And then we'd start all over again.

I couldn't find anybody who had the same experience I did, and I reached out to a lot of different places -- La Leche League; lactation consultants in the area and other moms of kid with cardiac difficulties. I had a tough time finding resources.

'The Best Feeling'

It's such an intimate relationship, breastfeeding. It's such a neat way to bond with a baby. Having said that, the big difference I felt with our son in terms of bonding wasn't really pre-latch and post-latch; it was pre-bringing him home from the hospital and post bringing him home. Before he came home, he wasn't really my baby. Other people were taking care of him.

Once he started breastfeeding, I had this great moment that I love. My parents live in Houston, and we were traveling to visit them. I packed a hand-pump, just in case. But I never pulled it out of my suitcase, not once, for the two weeks I was there. When I realized that, it was the best feeling. It was awesome.

Going Strong

He's just about 2 and a half, and he's still nursing a bit -- just a couple of times a day. I intend to let him self-wean after the new baby comes. When I was pumping, I definitely had a clear date in my mind for how long I was willing to go [laughs], but once he started nursing, I stopped having a clear time. There are certainly rules now that he's bigger -- we don't nurse in public anymore, for example. But I really want him to kind of take the lead in the weaning decision.

He'll continue to deal with his heart issues. His cardiologists tell me that surgery is still in his future, we just don't know when. But he's perfectly healthy. You'd never know there was anything going on with him, and he's really defied all expectations of all his cardiologists, so, who knows? He's doing great. People who I've spoken to, who I tell, "my son didn't completely latch until he was 4 months old," are just kind of amazed.

In celebration of World Breastfeeding Week (Aug. 1-7), HuffPost Parents participated in "I Support You," an initiative to collect photos and messages from mothers to each other that say we might lead different lives but we share wanting the best for our children. Find out more here.

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