by Stephanie Seabrooke
My son was born on a hot, sun glazed summer day after a preternaturally easy labor. Though my early contractions were grueling, once the epidural kicked in a numbing bliss suffused my body and I dozed peacefully until it was time to push. He emerged in under an hour, his piercing cries filling the delivery room with the joyful electricity of new life. His weight was healthy, his Apgar scores were high, and he had ten fingers and ten toes. He was perfect. The nurse placed him on my chest and we locked eyes as a tidal wave of maternal love nearly knocked me unconscious. After a few minutes, I gently turned his head toward my breast so he could take in his very first feeding. I waited for him to make contact and start suckling so I could stroke his cheek and gaze at him with adoring serenity. It was a moment I had been fantasizing about for months.
But something was wrong. While my baby quickly latched onto my breast, I could immediately sense that he wasn’t suckling well. A few fingers on his warm, tiny throat confirmed my suspicions – he wasn’t swallowing.
“He’s just tired,” the nurse said cheerfully. “He’ll eat in another few hours after he’s woken up from the birth.”
As afternoon slid into night, my son continued to struggle with feeding. I could squeeze a few drops of colostrum, the rich, nutrient dense breastmilk produced shortly after birth, into his mouth every few hours. But it wasn’t enough. His pleading whimpers of hunger grew more insistent the next day, and the day after that. The three different lactation nurses I asked to observe him eating told me in dulcet tones that some babies are just stubborn and take longer to adjust to the mechanics of breastfeeding once they’re out of the womb. This explanation offered little comfort as my son flailed at my breast like a wounded bird.
He was discharged three days after birth, yellowed with jaundice and steadily dropping from his birth weight. At a follow-up appointment with his pediatrician the next day, I was told to supplement my meager dribbles of colostrum with formula until I started fully lactating.
“He should start eating properly once your milk comes in,” he said, and I clung to those words with frenzied hope. That night, as I watched my son greedily lap up Similac from a plastic syringe, his small angry fists relaxing as his belly grew full, we finally shared the quiet moment of contentment I had been longing for.
It didn’t last. The next morning, I awoke to hot, throbbing breasts and knew I had started fully lactating. I snatched my baby up from his bassinet and pressed him against my chest, eagerly awaiting the soft clicking sound of swallowing. But instead he stared up at me frantically, his pretty pink mouth twisted into a grimace as he struggled to grasp my nipple. I tried again and again to get him to eat, guiding his lips to my breast until it was raw and chafed and we were both weeping with exhaustion.
The next few hours were a flurry of panicked phone calls to the pediatrician until I was given a same day emergency referral to an ear, nose, and throat specialist. A quick finger along my son’s gums yielded a diagnosis for our week of misery.
“He’s tongue tied,” proclaimed the specialist. “That’s why he’s not able to suckle properly. It’s limiting his ability to move his mouth.”
Salvation came in the form of a laser in the corner of his office. It freed my son’s tongue in the span of about ten seconds. After the procedure, he attacked my nipple like a shark and drained my throbbing breasts as relief washed over me. My baby was breastfeeding. It felt like magic.
In the months since our initial ordeal, my son and I have settled into a blissful breastfeeding routine. I’ve learned how to read his hunger cues and time his feedings around errands and naptime. And he’s perfected his latching technique, which translates to shorter, more efficient feeds. During the quiet rapture of our 3 a.m. feeding sessions, I’m often overcome with gratitude for the fact that I’m still able to exclusively breastfeed him. It’s a privilege that many parents who choose to breastfeed don’t get to enjoy.
While the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that infants be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life, recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that only about half of babies in the U.S. are still breastfeeding at six months of age. According to CDC research, some of the most common barriers to continued breastfeeding include milk supply and latching issues, lack of support from medical providers, and inadequate parental leave from employers. Breastfeeding parents who have absorbed the ubiquitous “breast is best” mantra often find themselves experiencing guilt or depression when their bodies are unable to produce enough milk to adequately feed their babies, or when their infants don’t develop the ability to latch. While there are a variety of medical issues that can make it difficult or even impossible to effectively nurse, the pressure for parents to continue attempting to breastfeed at all costs can be overwhelming. The duress frequently comes in the form of well-meaning advice from nurses, lactation consultants, and pediatricians who continue to espouse the “breast is best” philosophy to exhausted parents who just want to see their babies fed and healthy, even if that means switching to or supplementing with formula.
Breastfeeding issues are further compounded by our country’s appalling lack of paid maternity leave. The U.S. is virtually the only wealthy nation in the world that doesn’t mandate even a single week of paid leave for parents who have just given birth. This means that most breastfeeding parents who are part of the workforce must head back to their jobs well before the recommended six-month minimum of exclusive breastfeeding. And since milk supply is intricately linked to consistent emptying of the breast, working parents who want to continue breastfeeding usually must pump throughout the day to maintain their supply. While the Affordable Care Act mandates that employers allow breastfeeding parents to take breaks throughout the day to pump for up to a year after birth, many of them report fear of reprisal from employers. This is especially true for lower income parents, who are more likely to work in hospitality or service industries that make scheduling time and finding a private location to pump virtually impossible.
While my initial difficulties with breastfeeding my son were harrowing, they were hardly unique. Many of my breastfeeding friends relayed similarly stressful early experiences, including all night attempts at latching, a plummeting milk supply, and bosses who expected them to pump in a broom closet. Eventually, we all found our own rhythm for keeping our babies healthy and happy. For some of us that meant continuing to breastfeed, and for others, it made more sense to switch to or supplement with formula. But the disparity among our nursing journeys made me realize that “breast is best” is an oversimplification of what nourishing a new life entails. What’s really best for baby is a parent who feels heard, supported, and secure in their choices. And until we develop an infrastructure that uplifts new parents instead of depleting them, breastfeeding guidelines will remain little more than food for thought.