Monday, November 9, 2009

Nursing Leah

I grew up with a mother who nursed all of her six children, the last three of whom were born at home. At the age of ten I was able to watch my youngest brother’s birth. My aunts and older cousins all nursed their children as well. That’s how it was in my family and that’s how I would raise my children. When I was fifteen I was diagnosed with a soft tissue sarcoma (breast cancer) which resulted in a mastectomy, my right breast and nipple were removed. I decided that I would still be able to nurse, after all if a woman could nurse twins with two boobs, I could easily nurse one baby with my one boob.

Ten years later, I’m pregnant and reading all the breastfeeding books I could find, dragging my husband, Andrew, to breastfeeding lectures, consulting with a breastfeeding specialist and attending La Leche League meetings. To add to my concern about having one boob, my only nipple was inverted. But as Andrew reminded me more than once; ‘it’s breastfeeding, not nipplefeeding.’ I was also practicing positive thinking and so was confident (most of the time) that nursing would come easily to me and my baby and I would have plenty of milk. Despite the breastfeeding specialist and various members of the medical community mentioning a drug given to women to increase the amount of milk produced. Not to mention friends and family voicing concern over whether or not my baby would be getting enough milk. I’m stubborn by nature so those nay-sayers were effectively tuned out.

Leah was born in late December, 8 pounds 13 ounces. After all the reading and advice I was given I was eager for Leah to self latch, and was allowing her to do so when the nurse bustled over and said “No, this is how you do it.” and pushed Leah’s face into my boob, which made Leah scream and refuse to try again. Eventually she did latch on and my midwife said she was latching well. She nursed for about an hour, I was surprised at how well and how strong she sucked. I remember how happy I was, nursing my baby. Nursing Leah tingled a bit and was a little painful, when I mentioned this to the mid-wife she told me that was normal but if it continued past three or four days to get help.
The first few days went well, even with her having jaundice and the nurses coming for three days to poke her. The first doctor advices’ us to give her formula to ‘flush her system’ because my milk hadn’t come in yet. A different doctor, the next day, after being told my milk had come in said to keep nursing, it was probably only breastfeeding jaundice and nursing will clear it up. The totally opposing opinions given by the doctors made me really mad.
By then, Leah had discovered how much she loved nursing, but I was starting to be apprehensive about letting her. I would hold her just centimeters away, hold my breath, count to three and then let her nurse; my legs straight out from the rocking chair, toes curled. She patiently kept her mouth wide open waiting for her mom to be ready. Sometimes I would count to three a few times; that wide open mouth scared me so much. I started calling her my little monster muncher.
I didn’t realize how much pain I was in until our one week appointment. That morning I discovered a scab on the side and one long crack the whole way across the top of my nipple. When we got to the office and went in to see the mid-wife (unfortunately, a different woman from when Leah was born) I burst into tears as soon as she asked me how things were going. She examined my nipple and was astonished that I had lasted this long nursing since the damage was pretty bad. Andrew was upset that I didn’t tell him I was hurting, but until that morning I thought it was normal. The mid-wife watched Leah nurse and said “Her latch is good, but, maybe you should give yourself a break and feed her formula for a day to let your nipple heal. Maybe buy a nipple shield too.” I’m still haunted by those words.

We went home that day with bottles, formula, nipple shields in varying sizes and me in tears. I was really apprehensive about giving her formula. I wanted to maintain my milk supply, and after all my research I knew it was best for Leah and myself. But, even through my tears, the thought of not having her latched on and sucking was appealing.
We gave her formula soon after we got home, and later when she got hungry again. I think it was three feedings in a row, at least six hours without nursing. After that we would nurse with the nipple shield for about ten minutes and then give her formula. When Leah was two weeks old we went to see the breastfeeding specialist. She gave us the proper size nipple shield and told me how to treat/medicate my nipple; lanolin, lanolin and more lanolin, going topless and airing out helps too. Once again, I was in tears the entire time. I felt like I was failing Leah by not being able to nurse her. I had done so much research and had such high expectations; I was expecting it to be easy and totally painless. The reality was so different; it was like battling cancer all over again, I had no idea it would be like that.

We continued to give Leah formula after a few minutes of nursing. The amount of milk I was making was quite a bit lower than it had been and I was very adamant about keeping some milk. I had appointments with the breastfeeding specialist (BFS) weekly, she was very kind and helped me see I was doing the best I could.
It took a while but eventually my nipple was healed. I’m pretty sure I cried the first time I nursed Leah without the shield, even if it was for only ten minutes. Our routine was ten minutes nursing without the shield, ten minutes nursing with (sometimes longer because I loved nursing her) and then formula.

My goal was to wean Leah from formula as we built up my milk supply. When I told the BFS my goal, she was initially skeptical but told me to bring Leah in for a check up in four weeks. I went to my sister’s bridal shower shortly thereafter and forgot Leah’s formula, I nursed her the whole time (luckily I did remember our nipple shield, I think I might have done some serious damage without it) and spent the next two days entirely on the couch nursing Leah whenever she wanted. I had been thinking I needed to do that to build up my milk supply and I guess subconsciously I was ready. My milk as back!

We were still giving Leah about two ounces of formula in the evening. That’s when she was fussy, and we figured it was because she was hungry and for some reason my milk was gone by the end of the day. A few days later Leah and I went to a LLL meeting and Arie reassured me that my milk couldn’t ‘dry’ up like I was thinking it could. She mentioned that two ounces is only a fraction of what Leah needs and she was probably just tired or it might be any number of reasons babies cry in the evening. Another thing she told me which made me smile: in France, during the time of wet nurses, a law was passed that limited the number of babies a woman could nurse to seven. I stopped giving Leah formula that night.

At our next visit to see the BFS, she was below her growth curve, neither myself nor the BFS were concerned because she was still very happy and content. I think she was re-learning how to suckle, drinking from the bottle is much easier than nursing and she had to build up those muscles again. I remember worrying about how on earth can I help her re-learn that skill, and in a moment of clarity realized that continuing to nurse would be the best way. If she’s hungry she’ll suck, and the harder she sucks the more milk she’ll get. Leah was nine weeks old by now and after another four weeks of exclusive nursing she had gained a terrific amount of weight, a happy chubby breastfed baby.

Leah was only about 7 weeks old by the time we were nipple shield and formula free. Looking back it doesn’t seem like long, but at the time it felt like an eternity. I thought we would never be a complete nursing mother and baby. It was a daily battle: maintaining my belief that eventually it would all be over, reminding myself that I wasn’t failing Leah as a parent, being strong and not giving in to pressure that I might not make enough milk and/or my nipple couldn‘t handle nursing. Sometimes I wonder how things would have turned out if I asked for help earlier or if we hadn’t given Leah formula and just used a nipple shield. But, I don’t like to dwell on ‘what ifs’ and things have turned out wonderfully. I remember saying to my aunties that being able to nurse Leah was harder than giving birth to her. Now, when Leah is about to nurse she gets really excited and has the most wonderfully beautiful laugh. I love to hear it and every time I do I am grateful. Nursing Leah is the best thing I have ever fought for.

By Nicole Chatelaine


  1. I loved reading your story. Your willingness and determination to go for it though every thing you had been through even before you were pregnant is admirable! I thought breastfeeding would be easy, and for 6 weeks I stuggled with the pain you did - cracked nipples, bleeding, bracing for the pain, bc I was told I had a good latch. I finally went to get help, and found I didn't have a good latch and had to re-teach K all over again. It was so hard, but in the end here we are 5 months into it, and still only breastfeeding! Good for you for sharing this story, and keeping with it!

  2. That was beautiful and you are a wonderful wonderful mother!!

  3. I have alot of the same experiences you did with my first. Both of my nipple were inverted and she had a good latch. But every time i nursed i cried because i was in excruciating pain. It hurt becuase the tissues holding my nipples in were being streached... then i was cracked and bleeding because my nipples were used to being inverted. it took two months to be able to nurse without the pain. My mom didnt think that i would be able to stick with it, but to this day im still nursing my first (now 2) and my newborn!
    thanks for sharing your story!

  4. I am amazed at your strength and tenacity! What an amazing momma.

  5. Thanks for sharing your story.

    I love the bit about the wet nurses being limited to seven babies! Our capacity to nourish babies, nourish life with our breasts blows me away. I'm so glad you heard what you needed to give you confidence in that, and found the support to keep you going. : )