Lots of friends and colleagues are sharing photos of their early breastfeeding days to commemorate World Breastfeeding Week (which is this week). I don’t have any pictures to share.
After an uneventful pregnancy, a bout of norovirus tore through 2/3 of my family of origin on the day after Thanksgiving. I went to the Army hospital for IV fluids and was told I was in labor. It was 9 days before my “due date” and I had been banking on being pregnant at least another 2 weeks. Oops.
After a long-ish labor and unmedicated delivery, I had my baby on Saturday night. She literally came out of the womb rooting and moving her mouth like it was time to eat, but a nurse-in-training took her and practiced intubating on her the moment she was born. “What’s going on? What are they doing to her?” My spouse was too overwhelmed to answer. It would still be a little while before they let me hold her, but I put her immediately to my breast as I had been taught to do in our Bradley childbirth classes. I didn’t know if she was latched well and nobody seemed interested in checking for me — they were debating over whether I should be allowed to walk myself to my room (I hadn’t received any anesthesia, and this was a deviation from their usual routine).
Bryan accompanied her to her bath and I got settled in our room with my first of two very slow bags of pitocin, also standard procedure at this facility. Anna was swaddled like a burrito and asleep by the time she came to me. Bryan quickly fell asleep (it had been 24 hours since labor really kicked in), but I was up another 2 hours waiting for the pitocin to finish dripping.
Anna didn’t wake up at all that night. “What a good baby,” the nurses told me. We figured we should change her diaper in the morning. It was clean and dry. Visitors started arriving. She kept sleeping. “What a good baby,” everyone said.
Around dinnertime, I asked the nurse who had just come on shift “when should I feed her?” She was 20 hours old and hadn’t roused to feed yet. Neither my mother nor my grandmother had breastfed, and none of the people I knew who had ever breastfed were in touch yet. The nurse noticed “she’s looking a little tan.” I had no idea what that meant, but things started happening quickly.
Anna’s bilirubin was over 20 and rising. What we didn’t know yet was that her blood type (not rH, ABO) and mine were incompatible, and during labor, my body produced antibodies to her blood that passed to her and were destroying her blood cells faster than her brand new liver could clean up the waste products (bilirubin) of that process. At a bilirubin of 25, exchange transfusion is recommended. Hers was 22.
The family doctor I had been seeing before I got pregnant was on call that night. She was kind and gentle, but not terribly informative about what was happening. None of the books I had read discussed abnormal jaundice, the kind that is NOT normal and happens in the first 24 hours after birth. They brought in an isolette and bili lights to start helping rid her body of the bilirubin, which was sedating her, via her skin. One nurse brought in a bottle with ready-to-feed formula in a bottle. I started expressing milk every 2 hours like my life depended on it.
The staff nurses forbade me to pick up my baby or take her out of the isolette. They would stick a bottle through one of the holes in the unit and feed it to her.
The contract/hourly nurses were different. They’d encourage me to hold her, skin to skin, and let her be close to me. She’d bob her head against me, showing me that she knew where her food and comfort would come from. Sometimes, she’d latch on, but our discharge was dependent in part on her recorded intake, so I was hesitant to feed her on the sly lest her bottle intake didn’t look like enough.
We were discharged on her 7th day, Friday night. I asked the nurses if they thought we would ever breastfeed. “Lots of people pump milk and feed it from the bottle.” That’s not what I wanted to do. My commander’s wife was a La Leche League Leader and IBCLC. She answered my questions, but didn’t seem to really think I’d breastfeed since my return to work was imminent. Nobody felt as strongly about getting Anna breastfed as I did.
The next 96 hours were rough. I was overproducing and got mastitis, sporting a fever of 105 while at home alone (Bryan was on a gig). I’d try to get Anna latched onto what felt like cannonballs of fire, but she was gassy and fussy and there was blood in her diapers. I couldn’t walk from the living room to the kitchen without leaving trails of milk all over the floor. Milk-soaked receiving blankets and towels were all over the house. I hated sterilizing bottles and pump parts and storing milk. I just wanted to breastfeed.
Finally, she latched on and nursed.
Then she did it again.
She was breastfeeding around the clock, and I still had crazy oversupply, but I stopped expressing milk and sterilizing bottles.
At our appointment on Day 10 to check her bilirubin, the pediatrician had told me two things about breastfeeding. They were:
1. Given Anna’s rough start, our family had a “good set-up” for “spoiling” our baby and we should be especially careful not to let that happen
2. My breasts were too big, so I was overfeeding her by letting her nurse on demand. That’s why she had blood in her diapers.
I researched on the Internet and learned that maybe my subsistence on my mother-in-law’s fruitcake and a quart of cow’s milk a day weren’t my best choices. I learned about dairy intolerance in breastfed babies and took the dairy out of my diet. I had a new baby and my oversupply calmed a bit.
My co-workers needed me in rehearsals, even though I wasn’t scheduled to go back to work for another 9 weeks. Anna, after 9 days of feeding only from bottles, would not accept milk from anywhere but me ever again. I somehow managed to keep her alive for the next 6 months anyway.
I showed the pediatrician my now happy, rash-free baby, and he apologized to me for not knowing more. It was the beginning of my long, long journey of advocacy for my family’s health.
I continued working in an environment that feigned support but used my status as a parent–a breastfeeding parent–against me whenever possible. I got to know JAG lawyers and my rights very well. I educated the providers at the military healthcare facility where I received care by bringing books, articles, and having conversations.
I started helping other families breastfeed their babies. Breastfeeding underscored my parenting, and my right to breastfeed underscored everything else.
Breastfeeding didn’t come easily for me with any of my 3 babies. I breastfed through my 2nd and 3rd pregnancies. I tandem nursed. My 2nd baby had a tongue tie and my 3rd had severe sensitivities and a birth defect that would ultimately require major craniofacial surgery. I don’t think feeding in an alternative manner would have solved more problems than it could have created, so I kept putting one foot in front of the other and slaying the dragons in my path.