Before Tad’s birth I had visions of cozy winter evenings of nursing him on our living room couch. Roo and I attended a newborn care class that included a section about breastfeeding, and read several books on the topic. We bought a “snuggle nest” so he could sleep between us in bed in order to make nighttime nursing easier. We were nervous but excited.
And then Tad came along. He was born just before Christmas and, after a brief visit from the hospital lactation consultant, we were discharged from the hospital on Christmas Eve. Tad spent all of that night screaming. We tried breastfeeding repeatedly, and he seemed to be getting the hang of things, but then he would pull off and scream. Christmas Day, he slept all day, barely waking up at all. This was a relief, but all of the books that we were desperately poring over said that this wasn’t right. Because it was Christmas, almost anywhere that could have helped us figure this out was closed. We tried calling the hospital, and we spoke to the lactation consultant there, whose only advice was to tickle Tad’s feet to keep him awake. That didn’t work. He spent all of Christmas night screaming inconsolably. Roo and I alternately worried that 1) something was horribly wrong, or 2) this was just regular life with a newborn and we should expect this kind of crying all the time for the next few months. My milk came in, and soon I was engorged, which made it even harder for him to feed at all.
The next morning we had our first appointment with our pediatrician. We told her what had happened and I promptly burst into tears. Dr W was so sweet and reassuring. And she set us up with an appointment with a private lactation consultant that afternoon. She also gave Tad a little bottle of formula. The change was amazing. His whole body relaxed and he stopped screaming. The poor guy had been ravenously hungry, and unable to make breastfeeding work.
We saw the lactation consultant that day. She diagnosed “poor suck, swallow breathe coordination” and a weak suck. Roo and I joked about how it was nice to hear that “our baby doesn’t suck,” and in our sleep-deprived state that was hilarious. The lactation consultant sold us a fancy bottle to help improve his suck. She also labeled Tad a “frisky fritter”–an easily frustrated baby who will tell you immediately if there’s something he doesn’t like. I bought a pump and started pumping 10-12 times a day. This was exhausting, because it meant that even if Tad went a little longer between feeds, I had to wake up to pump. And sometimes wake up again an hour or two later to take a turn feeding him. I was able to get some milk, but not enough to keep up with Tad’s needs, so we had to supplement with formula. We were supposed to try putting Tad on the breast at least once a day. At times, this was cozy–a bit of the breastfeeding fantasy I had. But most of the time it was an incredibly frustrating process for both of us. He still couldn’t really figure things out, and without much frustration tolerance, would get really angry that he wasn’t being fed immediately. Somewhere in here (it’s all a bit of a blur at this point), we realized that Tad was screaming and arching his back with every bottle, symptoms of reflux. So we put him on baby Zantac, bought him special formula, and kept him upright after every feed. As he grew, the reflux symptoms returned and we had to continuously adjust his Zantac dose.
About six weeks into this crazy regimen, we took Tad back to the lactation consultant to do a “feed-weigh-feed”. The LC weighed Tad and then watched him feed. Even before she weighed him the second time (and saw how little he had gotten from the feeding), she said his suck wasn’t strong enough. She said that if we wanted him to breastfeed, we would have to do some mouth strengthening exercises several times a day. She started to demonstrate them on Tad, and he started screaming bloody murder.
I couldn’t imagine doing this to my child multiple times a day every day. Roo was about to return to work, and I would be home alone with Tad. I desperately wanted breastfeeding to work, especially after all of the effort we had put into it so far. But I was aware that I only had six more weeks of my own maternity leave left, and I wanted to spend the time getting to know my kid rather than fighting with him about eating.
In some ways it would have been easier if the LC had said that it was impossible for Tad to breastfeed. Then we would have been off the hook. Instead, we had to make a decision about what was best for our family. I’m an overachiever from a family of overachievers. My dad is a surgeon who also runs marathons. My mom has a PhD. I like to climb mountains–the steeper and more challenging the better. So I didn’t want to “give up” on breastfeeding. But Roo helped me put things into perspective. She wisely suggested that one of our roles as parents is to listen to what our kid is telling us about what he needs, rather than pushing him relentlessly to do/be what we want. And it seemed to us like Tadpole was telling us that breastfeeding was just not working for him.
I continued pumping for several more months. And I’m proud of that. I’m proud of the decision we made to listen to Tad’s need to be a bottle-fed baby. But I still feel the need sometimes to defend my decision. When mixing up a bottle of formula in public, I would want to explain to anyone around exactly why we had resorted to formula. Even all of the paragraphs above about how miserable and hard those first few weeks were feel like I’m trying to prove to someone that we had to do what we did. We didn’t have to. Some folks in the same situation would have pushed forward, and might have established great breastfeeding relationships in the long run. But for us, it wasn’t the right choice.
At the time, the breastfeeding struggle was one of the few things I knew about Tad and about my relationship with him. Our “failure” felt huge. As time has passed, the importance of those early weeks has faded, replaced with all of the new things I know about who he is, who I am as a parent, and who we are together.
But my disappointment about how this all played out still comes up at unexpected moments. At the pool this summer, 2 1/2 years out from our breastfeeding struggles, a stranger was calmly breastfeeding her newborn and I felt a sudden pang of loss that I didn’t get to have that experience with Tad. I’m a little bit mad at our next-door neighbor, for whom breastfeeding has seemed to come so easily. As we think about Roo hopefully carrying our second child one day, I hope that breastfeeding goes more smoothly for her. But I will also be horribly jealous if she gets to have that relationship with our baby.
This post is part of the Love Makes a Family Blog Carnival. Click here to read the next post in the carnival: http://inlocoparentis.wordpress.com/2011/10/03/the-opposite-of-disappointment/