Monday, 8 August 2011

The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding

This month's book is La Leche League's The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding.  I have read this book before, after my first son was born.  A lovely neighbour of ours stopped by one day and dropped off her copy for me to borrow.  I ended up buying my own copy because it was such a valuable resource (and I love having my own copy of books so I can go back and re-read them).

Breastfeeding is an art, and as far as artforms go there is probably no more womanly one at that.  I knew without a doubt that I would breastfeed my children, even before I knew all the benefits of breastfeeding for both baby and mommy.  It just made sense to me.  Why would a woman buy food for her baby when she could make the best stuff for free?  It seemed like a no brainer.

What I didn't know, was that breastfeeding isn't always easy right off the bat for a new mother and baby pair.  I didn't read much about it before I became a mom.  I always just assumed it was natural, that it just happened.  That baby would know what he was doing even if mommy didn't.  I remember sitting in my child education class at North York General, 1 week before my son was born, and the teacher asking for a show of hands who was planning on breastfeeding.  Most mothers put up their hands.  Then she just kind of waved at us and said "Don't worry, it's easy.  You'll all be fine".  At that was that.

After my c-section, when my son was finally in my arms, I remember looking at him and thinking, "What do I do now?  Do I feed him?  How do I do that?"  I looked to my midwife for answers, and unfortunately she didn't have any for me (bless her she was sweet, but I could tell she was inexperienced and lacking in confidence).

My first attempts at putting my baby to the breast were unsuccessful.  I just could not get him to latch on.  For my entire hospital stay I couldn't feed him.  I was surprised at how foreign it was to me, and to him.  Neither of us knew what we were doing and we were both frustrated as a result.  I was also frustrated at the lack of support at the time.  Midwives, nurses, doctors, no one there seemed to be able to help (or want to help for that matter).  It was the weekend, and there were no lactation consultants around.  I hand expressed my colostrum and gave it to him from a tiny cup or syringe, and just kept trying.  After two days we thought we had a breakthrough when a more senior midwive came to visit and was able to get my nipple in his mouth, and he seemed to latch on briefly, only to lose it again.  But it didn't stick.  We figured we would have more success once we were in the comfort of our own home.

That first week was horrible.  My milk came in, and my son was still not latching.  I was in so much pain, and I just didn't know what I was doing wrong.  The engorgment made it worse because he just couldn't get on since my breasts were too full.  When the midwife visited us she suggested pumping a bit first to soften them up, and we thought that was the trick we needed and would be fine.  But every night I would lie in bed in frustration, trying over and over again to latch him and then expressing and feeding him by cup or syringe when I was too exhausted to try anymore.

I cried and cried.  It was the most horrible time.  I was in pain, I was hormonal, and worst of all I felt like I was starving my child.  My nipples were sore and cracked from the poor latch I was getting from him.  Finally on the Thursday after he was born, when he was almost a week old, my husband called a lactation consultant out of desperation.  We just went online and looked one up randomly.  She spoke with me right away, and said she would make it down that evening, but until then to do nothing but sit on the couch, skin to skin with my baby.

That afternoon our other midwife who had been on vacation visited.  Finally, she was able to help us latch him on.  Her advice was much more specific than the previous midwife had given, and we were finally getting a sense of what we had to do to get him latched on.  After she left I was able to latch him on successfully for the rest of the afternoon.  When he was feeding properly, the pain was gone.

I cannot tell you have relieved I felt when I saw he was latched on and feeding properly.  It was one of the most joyous moments for me as a mother. 

The lactation consultant arrived a few hours later.  She was fantastic, and actually she confirmed what our midwife had discovered too, and that was that all this time I was positioning him wrong to get him to latch on.  Even though I was trying different positions, I wasn't getting his head in the right spot so that my nipple went to the back of his mouth.  I was trying to direct his head straight onto my breast, instead of more upwards and then moving him onto the breast.

Of course all of this was in the little bit of literature that I had read prior to birth, but that stuff was useless when I didn't know what I was dealing with.  I needed someone to show me how to do it.

Our second midwife and the LC were both fantastic, and I was so relieved to find out the problem wasn't something that couldn't be fixed.  Rather it was very simple, and I just need some proper support and guidance.

It still blows my mind to this day that neither the first two midwives who saw us in the hospital and at home, nor the nurses who attended us, nor the doctors who checked in on us were able to show us what was such a simple little trick so that we could breastfeed effectively from the start.

I didn't know at the time, but I now know how important breastfeeding support is.  Knowledgable and experienced midwives, lactation consultants, and even doula support can help make sure this crucial aspect gets off to the right start.  I wonder how many mothers gave up breastfeeding early on because they didn't have the right support, saying it was too painful, or that they didn't have enough milk.

We did not have any major breastfeeding problems.  It was just a matter of positioning.  And from the moment that the LC left our house onwards, we never had another breastfeeding issue again.

When I first had the realization that I loved pregnancy, birth, and babies, becoming a lactation consultant had crossed my mind as well as becoming a doula.  But when I looked into it, it seemed a little less attainable.  I would have had to go back to college and taken nursing first I think, and then complete the training in Toronto.  Being a doula seemed more fitting to me.  But I have never forgotten my early experiences breastfeeding, and would love to offer breastfeeding support as well.  I am thinking that I will include training to be a breastfeeding educator and counsellor when I complete my doula training.  I may also look into what is involved in becoming a La Leche League leader in my town.  I don't think there is one here, the nearest one being 1hr away in Barrie the last time I checked.

The woman who lent me the book initially attended regular LLL meetings and had invited me.  I never made it out though I wish I had.  I think that having the support of other breastfeeding moms really is invaluable to a nursing mother, especially a new one.

When my second son was born, I felt so much more confident when it came time to breastfeed him.  He latched on almost immediately.  I could tell our latch wasn't perfect right off the start, but it was easily corrected with some patience.  It felt so good to get it right from the start, the second time around.

I have enjoyed wonderful breastfeeding careers with my sons.  I nursed my older son until about 14mos.  I had planned on continuing longer, but I was already pregnant and it just seemed like I had very little milk left.  He was rather indifferent which made the decision to stop easier, as he didn't even seem to miss it.  I think I could have kept going if I wanted to.  Knowing what I know now all I would have had to do was just keep doing it.  But stopping when we did felt right, and we were both happy with the decision.

My second son is over 15mos now and he still nurses 3 times a day.  Sometimes he is less interested, and sometimes it feels like there's not much there.  But we are still both enjoying the quiet time we spend together when he is breastfeeding, and I don't feel any need to stop any time soon. 

I feel strongly that every woman who is able to do so should breastfeed her baby.  It is one of the greatest gifts you can give to him or her.  I respect the choices that some women have to make, which often include formula feeding instead, though I may not always understand them.  If you can do it, why would you do differently?

Breastfeeding support is yet another reason I would love to be a doula.  My suggestion to any woman who is thinking of breastfeeding their child, is to arrange support before baby arrives.  There are so many great resources and so much support out there for breastfeeding mothers if you know where to look.  Midwives, lactation consultants, doulas, and even other nursing mothers can all offer advice and support.

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