Photo by Brooke Collier. brookecollierphotography.com
I started having dreams about nursing the first time I was pregnant and they continued, through the grief of losing our baby, and into the joy of my second pregnancy. In most of these dreams, I discover that I haven’t fed the baby yet and a significant amount of time has passed since its birth. I run to the baby and it latches on immediately. It isn’t awkward. It’s easy and comforting.
In real life, however, the thought of breastfeeding a baby was terrifying to me. While I completely understood the Breast is Best campaign and respected and supported any woman’s right to nurse in public, MY breasts were meant for looking good in low cut tops and, let’s just say it, for sex. I felt like putting my fingers in my ears and saying “la, la, la” whenever I saw another article about the magic of the boob juice. I found myself searching for a loophole, a “This just in…Formula is Fantastic!” way out. But I knew it was simply my selfishness getting in the way. And I knew that in the end, I would probably choose it for my baby, as long as it was possible.
About a month before I was due to give birth, my sister sent me a link to a video about how to get a baby to latch on. However, I couldn’t bring myself to watch it. Watching babies breastfeed gave me the willies. Like watching surgery on TLC, back in the day before it was all about Honey BooBoo and duck-people. I told my sister thank you and proceeded to ignore it for several weeks.
Mila entered the world screaming like a banshee and mad as a hornet. Her cries were adorable and overwhelming. And they didn’t stop for a good hour or so after she was born. The attending nurse told me to let her know when I was ready to try latching on, but assured me there was no hurry. We lay there, my girl and me, skin to skin, while her purple lips quivered and yelled about her disrupted life. All I could think to do was stick a boob in her mouth to quiet her down. So I told the nurse we were ready.
Boy was I wrong. Nothing says welcome to the world like frantically trying to force feed as much breast tissue you can fit into your poor child’s wailing mouth. The nurse coached me on squishing my boob into the shape of a hamburger and putting my nipple in line with her nose. It hurt. Oh, how it hurt. But somehow I didn’t care. This babe needed to eat.
The next twelve hours were a flurry of doctors and nurses checking in on Mila and me, diaper changes, deliveries of terrible hospital food, and chaperoned bathroom visits to help me fill my giant diaper with an ice pack. (Birth ain’t pretty folks. It’s straight up trauma for your hoo-ha). Interspersed were continued attempts to feed Mila. The nurses assisted, shoving my boob into her mouth, giving me tips, rubbing her cheeks, etc. But with each try, we didn’t seem to make any progress.
That night, a new nurse came on duty. She moved quickly, busily and was kind of brusque. I decided that her mother must have disciplined her with a switch when she was a child. After several times trying to latch, and her hands gripping Mila’s head a little too tightly, she told me that she wanted me to try something.
After a half hour, she returned to the room (which had since filled with several visitors) and announced loudly, “You have flat nipples, this nipple shield will help.”
Rather embarrassed by the public revelation of my failed nipple shape to everyone and their brother, I reluctantly tried the new contraption. The shield was basically a little nipple-shaped piece of plastic that had holes in it. And miraculously (at least it seemed to me), it helped Mila latch. But now that she could suck, I began to wonder if anything was actually coming out. The nurse reassured me that she was probably getting something. I wasn’t so sure and requested that the lactation consultant come see me.
Determined to figure this out in the meantime, I watched all the videos I could find, including the one my sister sent me. I was rather surprised to find that the image of the baby nursing did not disturb me any more. Though I was pretty discouraged at how GIANT the women’s nipples all were and the abundance of the milk that came gushing out. I felt like a failure. My nipples were small, and apparently flat, and squishy. Nothing compared to the swords those women in the video were wielding about.
I was also discouraged because every website I found warned against using a nipple shield as it could lead to “nipple confusion” and dependency. I could see Mila lying on the couch at the shrink’s office in the future – explaining how confused her mother made her by the nipple shield and that’s why she likes to torture animals now.
Meanwhile another nurse came on shift. She had a warmer spirit but very cold hands and each time she tried to help shove my boob into Mila’s mouth, I winced from the pain of my very sensitive nipples and her icy touch.To make things worse, the nice, cold-handed nurse told me there was a good chance that the lactation consultant wouldn’t be able to make it to see me. Which meant we’d be going home with a hungry baby and no check up until three days later.
I began to panic. I didn’t want to spend another night in that hospital with yet another nurse who was less than helpful. But what if my body didn’t make the “liquid gold” that all the videos kept talking about? Maybe I could have a nipple transplant, on account of their misshapen state.
Around four-thirty, however, a lady with helmet hair and lots of makeup poked her head in the doorway. She looked more like she was coming to sell me Mary Kay than to give me breastfeeding advice. But I was immediately relieved to have her help. She began by asking why I was using a nipple shield. I explained that the nurse told me that I have flat nipples. She rolled her eyes and said, “Your nipples are just fine.”
She then suggested that I hold my baby like a football, propped a bunch of pillows around us, and then assisted in shoving my boob in Mila’s mouth yet again. But like all the other times, it simply didn’t work. Mila wouldn’t latch on.
“Hmmm…” she pondered, then proceeded to inspect Mila’s mouth. “She has a little bit of a lip tie, which might make it tricky to latch on. Maybe you should continue with the nipple shield.”
Just then the consultant’s little phone/walkie-talkie thingy buzzed and she was paged to another room.
“I need to get going,” she said. “But let me show you how to hand express for now.”
She pulled a plastic baggy with a plastic spoon and notecard inside it from her pocket. Before she left, she showed me how to squeeze my boob so that tiny beads of colostrum would come out, then used the spoon to collect it, and spoon fed them to Mila who gobbled it right up. For the first time in 24 hours, I felt like I was doing something right!
But that confidence quickly faded after she left as I struggled yet again to get Mila to latch on with the shield. And by then it hurt so badly I was in tears. My sister suggested that I call my La Leche League leader. I hated calling people I don’t know, but I felt desperate. The call went through to voicemail and I left a weird, over-apologetic message.
“Hi. This is, uh, Detta Hogan and I just had a baby and I can’t get her to eat. My sister is a member of the La Leche League in Michigan and she told me to call you for help. Can you help? I don’t even know if this is a thing you do. Sorry if it’s not. Please call me back. That is, if it’s convenient for you. But we are going to leave the hospital tonight, so if you could get back to me soon, that’d be great…Sorry to bother you.”
© 2016 D. Willson