It may have been naive, but I didn’t really expect to have trouble breastfeeding before I gave birth. I’d planned to deliver in my home, with an awesome midwife and her team, and I figured that I’d trust my body and my baby and we’d figure out breastfeeding without too much difficulty. OK, yeah, actually, that was extremely naive. What actually happened, it turned out, was a freakishly long labor, which ended in a c-section, and what felt like a whole army of lactation consultants coming in and out of my hospital room. Those first few days with a newborn were as scary as they were blissful, and breastfeeding certainly didn't come easily. Through it all, there is one lactation consultant who sticks out in my mind, and it’s basically thanks to her that my son was able to breastfeed for a year and half.
To be honest, after my c-section, I more or less completely forgot about breastfeeding. The drugs were really hard on me, and the exhaustion from labor was catching up with me, so I was just mostly holding my brand-new baby and beaming and feeling really freaking weird. When my midwife came in to check on me, she asked if I’d tried to feed him yet, and I panicked. But she was totally calm. She plopped him on my chest, and he latched on that first time all by himself. It was an awesome and powerful, moment, and I felt like this whole breastfeeding thing was going to be no problem at all.
I had no idea what was to come.
The next time I tried to breastfeed, I couldn’t get him to latch on. I tried simply lifting him to my breast, in an approximation of the breastfeeding poses I’d seen other women use, but I had no luck. I tried laying back and putting him on my chest, in an attempt to recreate the magic of that first attempt, but that didn’t work either. Finally, I admitted I needed help. The nurse sent in a very kind and gentle lactation consultant. I remember that she had dark brown hair a lot like my older sister’s, and she managed to attach my baby to my boob. I said, “how did you do that?” in awe, and she tried to explain her technique to me, but I wasn’t able to recreate it.
As a first-time mom, my tiny baby felt strange and foreign in my arms, and maneuvering him was awkward. Watching these women — all of my lactation consultants were women — deftly and expertly position him only made me feel more inept, more useless.
In fact, no matter what I did, I couldn’t seem to get my baby to actually breastfeed. At that point, a pattern was established: I tried to feed him every two hours, and each time, I spent 10 minutes trying to get him to actually freaking latch, and then called for backup. I cannot overstate how incredibly lucky I was to be at a hospital that was basically crawling with lactation consultants. On several occasions, a nurse who had some knowledge of breastfeeding tried to help me out, and the nurses all had as much luck as I did. Each time, I'd sit there helplessly while a stranger literally put my nipple into my newborn’s mouth, and then smiled at me as if to say, “See, wasn’t that easy? You’ll be able to do it on your own next time, right?”
I felt like a total and complete failure. As a first-time mom, my tiny baby felt strange and foreign in my arms, and maneuvering him was awkward. Watching these women — all of my lactation consultants were women — deftly and expertly position him only made me feel more inept, more useless. After almost two days of trouble, I began to wonder what on earth we were going to do when they sent us home from the hospital.
And then, she came in.
She was older than all of the other lactation consultants I'd seen, and she had curly gray hair and glasses. Her demeanor was also completely different; she came in without all of the smiling and soft voices that the others used to try to comfort my nerves, but she was all business. She sat down in a spare chair, made herself at home, and said, “OK, so why don’t you tell me what you’ve tried and what’s not working.”
But then Heather did something that was even more radically helpful. She shrugged. In fact, she shrugged at me a lot, because as soon as I realized that she had the information I needed, I basically pelted the poor woman with questions.
Heather (which isn't her real name) was the one who immediately identified my baby’s problem. He had what was referred to as a “disorganized suck," which basically meant that he had the generally idea of how breastfeeding was supposed to work, but he had it in pieces, and was struggling to put those pieces together. He knew he wanted to be sucking (all babies have a need to suck) and he knew he liked boobs, but when he came to the breast, he'd get confused and suck on his own bottom lip. This turned out to be good news and bad news. The good news was that he wasn’t suffering from tongue tie, and this was almost certainly something we could get through. The bad news was that he needed a lot of help getting into good breastfeeding habits, so that he could get the milk he needed. That meant that the positioning really needed to be just right, and he needed a lot of guidance to be able to latch at all. Of course I, a nervous new mom who only new about breastfeeding in theory, wasn’t as good at those things as people who were professionally trained. By giving me a concrete and accurate explanation of the problem, Heather instantly helped me let go of my shame over needing so much help.
But then Heather did something that was even more radically helpful. She shrugged. In fact, she shrugged at me a lot, because as soon as I realized that she had the information I needed, I basically pelted the poor woman with questions. How many pillows should I be using to prop him up? How often should I be pumping? Where exactly should my hand be? How long should I be nursing on each side?
She was right, and I didn’t want her to be. What I wanted was an exact formula (no pun intended), a perfect way to do things that would make breastfeeding easy and simple. Like an algebra equation, I hoped that if I simply put in the right variables, things would turn out in a very predictable and exact way. Perfect form would lead to perfect breastfeeding! Right?
Heather shrugged and said, “You watch the baby, not the clock. You’re supposed to be relaxed, right? How on earth are you supposed to relax staring at a damn clock?!?!”
Of course, she was right, and I didn’t want her to be. What I wanted was an exact formula (no pun intended), a perfect way to do things that would make breastfeeding easy and simple. Like an algebra equation, I hoped that if I simply put in the right variables, things would turn out in a very predictable and exact way. Perfect form would lead to perfect breastfeeding! Right?
Contrary to my hippie-ish ideology about just “figuring it out,” my trouble with breastfeeding brought out a deeper, truer part of my personality. I am uptight as all hell. I like rules, and I wanted Heather to give me a list of rules to follow that would make all of this work. But of course, that’s what all of the other lactation consultants had tried, and it wasn’t actually helping at all. Instead, Heather handed me a washcloth.
“Fold this up, and stick in under your breast,” she said, quickly followed by, “I’m serious! If you have large breasts, it helps so the nipple isn’t hanging down so far sometimes, plus it soaks up the sweat. A lot of the other girls, they won’t tell you that, because they don’t know that. But I know how to nurse with large breasts, OK?” She then, to my utter embarrassment, gestured from her big boobs, to my big boobs, and then back again.
She made me extremely uncomfortable, but she also offered the perfect combination to help calm me down and loosen me up, in addition to giving me valuable practical advice. I did put the washcloth under my boob, and it worked pretty great. She was no-nonsense and to the point, and she didn’t try to coddle me and constantly reassure me the way other lactation consultants had. She kind of reminded me of my grandma, only she was less like any of my actual grandmothers and more like the ideal. In short, she was absolutely perfect.
Heather was a huge help, but she was still just a person, and she could only do so much. Something about her demeanor, however, was massively reassuring to me. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it — that is, until my final day in the hospital.
The next time my baby needed to breastfeed, I took a deep breath and tried to channel Heather as best I could. To my complete and utter amazement, somehow I managed to correctly attach that child to my breast, and he breastfed happily. When I went to check the clock, I reminded myself that that wasn’t the most important thing, and I looked instead at this brand new little person I'd somehow created. Unfortunately, the next feeding wasn’t nearly so blissful, and I ended up again having to call for backup.
It still took us some time, both me and my infant, to get really used to breastfeeding. Heather was a huge help, but she was still just a person, and she could only do so much. Something about her demeanor, however, was massively reassuring to me. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it — that is, until my final day in the hospital. I was nervous to go home, because while me and the baby had gotten better at that whole latch thing, we still needed help every once and awhile. During a feeding session when we’d managed it without professional assistance, Heather hurried into my room. “Oh, good!” she said, “You’re still here. I’ve been thinking about you guys, and I wrote down a couple of numbers so you can make an appointment if you need to see a lactation consultant after you’re at home. You’ll probably be fine, but I’ve worked with these ladies, and they’re really good.”
That’s when I realized what the difference was: She wasn’t just going through the motions. For some reason, she really cared about us. And that made all the difference.