Guest post: No family should have to suffer to conform to breastfeeding ideology

Mother and her crying little son

Blogger Emilie Bishop generously shares her story of breastfeeding pressure and how it harmed her son and herself. She hopes it will bring comfort to the many other women who find themselves in similar situations.

I am the stay at home mother of a seventeen-month-old son, Jonathan, and I wish I’d found your blog when I was expecting him. It would have saved me so much anguish in his first few months. I know you hear some version of this story from countless women, but I feel compelled to add mine.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]I felt like my baby I’d longed for would die of starvation and dehydration because my milk was only a fraction of the volume it should have been.[/pullquote]

My husband and I were married just after college in 2006 and delayed having children until 2010 in order to finish grad school, buy a house, and enjoy some time together. I got pregnant the first month we timed sex (after being more lax about birth control for a few months before that), but I miscarried early on. We were sad, but I was 26 and healthy, so we figured it was just bad luck. Six months later, I had pelvic pain mid-cycle for the first time. Long story short, I was soon diagnosed with endometriosis and began a crazy roller coaster of hormonal, surgical, and crackpot naturopath treatments to control my pain. We tried to adopt a newborn through a private agency for two years, figuring my body was never going to cooperate in that way, but we were never chosen by a birth family. All this time, I heard from my obgyn and many other doctors that if I could just get pregnant and then exclusively breastfeed, I’d be period-free for over a year and my body would heal. So not only did I not have the family I longed for, the only sure-fire cure for my crazy disease was also being withheld from me. It felt like a cosmic joke.

Two days after Mother’s Day 2014, I got the shock of my life: I was pregnant. No fertility treatments of any kind, just what I believe to be a miraculous gift from God. Every test and ultrasound showed a healthy, growing boy, though of course I was worried the whole time. I had a lot of pelvic pain as he stretched out my body, but I figured that was from things like scar tissue that wouldn’t be hormonally-dependent anyway. I had no desire for a “natural” childbirth and I knew all the “trust your body” rhetoric was crap. My body was a mess—I knew better than to trust it! Knowing myself, I planned on an epidural as soon as I could. Being the breech child responsible for my mom’s first c-section, I knew that was a possibility and one I would make use of if needed. But I fell for the lactivism. I fell hard. I live in greater Seattle, where breastfeeding and obsessing over perfect nutrition are practically competitive sports. Plus, remember my doctor telling me breastfeeding would delay my period, so more healing time. In fact, we wanted to start trying for another baby as soon as my period came back, to spread out this miraculous healing I was promised (even though I knew by the end of pregnancy that near-constant nausea and fatigue are their own brand of illness, even if for a good cause).

My son was born January 20, 2015, weighing 6lbs 12oz, so smallish but full-term and healthy. We were in a “baby-friendly” hospital with mandatory rooming-in and mandatory visits from lactation consultants. But I was okay with that. I knew from friends that breastfeeding would be difficult at first, but if I just kept at it, we’d get the hang of it. Jonathan was placed on my chest and nursed quickly after a drama-free vaginal delivery (lots of back labor and an epidural, but no complications for him or me).

Poor guy got his nose covered and forgot to breathe, though, so my husband alerted our L&D nurse that he was turning blue. She dropped her charts and rushed to us, pulled him off my chest and held him under a warmer while smacking his back until he breathed again. I don’t blame our nurse for this (she was amazing and sings in our church choir with my husband), but my nipple bruised when she took him. He then promptly scratched the other nipple with his fingernail. So I had bruised nipple on the left and bleeding nipple on the right, plus a baby with a latch like a vice-clamp.

Our lovely L&D nurse was soon off her shift and replaced by first one and then a second nurse who got annoyed when I needed help latching him, but he just wouldn’t open his mouth wide enough, especially once I had a shield (see injuries). Lactation consultants thought he latched like a baby with a severe tongue-tie, but couldn’t find one. Our overnight nurse had me stay awake from 1-3 am with him skin-to-skin because he seemed cold, which left me even more exhausted and out of it. And every nursing session was painful and hard.

The next afternoon, we were sent home, 25 hours almost to the minute after Jonathan was born. We had yet to have a successful breastfeeding session without a nurse helping him latch, and he’d already lost 7% of his body weight. But I was told once we were home, we would relax and get the hang of it. I was exhausted and wanted to get away from the woman my husband dubbed “tiger nurse,” so I swallowed the Kool-Aid and we went home.

We spent the next night on the phone with his pediatrician on-call because he only had one wet diaper but several meconium poopy ones. The pediatrician couldn’t believe we were sent home with known feeding issues. I sobbed at feeding time, knowing it would hurt and wanting desperately to let my husband give him a bottle so I could finally rest, but I “knew” that would ruin it all, so we kept at it. He wasn’t a fussy baby—quite the opposite. We now know that wasn’t contentment, but lethargy.

On his third day of life, as my mom and stepdad were flying across the country to see us, we had a regularly scheduled appointment at the hospital’s breastfeeding center. We told our lactation consultant about the lack of wet diapers and painful feeds. Jonathan was down to 5lbs 9oz, having lost 11% of his body weight. He’d gone nearly 24 hours between each wet diaper, not adding one more for each day of life like he “should have.”

The lactation consultant weighed him after feeding and found he was only getting an ounce after twenty minutes and was probably burning more calories than he was taking in by nursing. To her credit, she got out a bottle of ready-to-feed formula, but he choked on the fast flow from the nipple. Alarmed, she had us readmitted to the hospital overnight.

My heart was breaking. Even after the nurses determined he didn’t need a feeding tube or IV, just supplementation, I felt like my baby I’d longed for would die of starvation and dehydration, or at the very least be compromised because my milk was only a fraction of the volume it should have been. We started a nurse/bottle/pump regimen that night (he finally took formula from a preemie bottle, the last step before resorting to an eye-dropper) that took nearly an hour each time. One nurse took him out to the nurse’s station with her between feedings so we could sleep, but I spent half that time crying. I had failed my son. I failed to recognize a serious problem, and I failed to make it better without formula.

Another long story short, by 2 months, I couldn’t take the nurse/bottle/pump regimen. My milk supply never increased, we never latched consistently well, and nursing took so much time and space and emotional and physical effort that I couldn’t just pull out my cute shower-gift cover and nurse him in public. We didn’t go to the mommy-baby group at the hospital or a lactation support group, though both were recommended many times. We rarely left the house around feeding time because I felt so ashamed and overwhelmed.

By 2.5 months, he was weaned and only taking the bottle. He went from a 5th percentile baby to a 50th – 75th percentile baby in just a couple months (height and weight). He was happy, I stressed less, but I still felt like a failure. What if I’d been more diligent about pumping after every single feeding (sometimes I just wanted to go back to sleep at 2am, so I did)? What if I’d taken the medications the lactation consultants recommended, despite being concerned about the possible emotional side effects in my already-fragile state? What if… He was probably nine months before I accepted that this was our story, that he was thriving and the method mattered far less than the outcome.

Oh, and my period came back, along with painful spotting in various places throughout my cycle. Interventions cause more problems than they solve. Nothing has been “healed” by pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding except the presence of my son healing the hole in our family. And he has brought us immeasurable joy. But could our joy have been undiluted if our hospital stay had been more focused on our health than on breastfeeding? Hell yes. He deserved a better start to life and we deserved a better start to parenthood. I’ve signed petitions aimed at changing the literature given to new moms, but it feels so small when I think that other new moms go through similar ordeals. My son has shown no sign of delay or abnormality, but that now feels like luck, not the care we initially received.

Thank you for advocating for a return to sanity in hospital standards and infant feeding protocols. No family should have to suffer like this just to conform to an ideology.