The Boob Job
As you know, this week on The Strong Buzz, in honor of Mother's Day, I am taking us back to my first year of motherhood. This piece is one I wrote when I struggled with breast feeding. It took a lot of courage to write, I remember, because not breast feeding was so taboo in my Brooklyn neighborhood, but I wrote it anyway.
WARNING: This post is rated R. It contains information about breastfeeding that may be considered a bit graphic by some. Just wanted to warn you.
On May 6th, 2009 at 5:02 pm, I became a mother.
Emily’s journey out of me, thankfully was pretty smooth and painless (thanks to a great doctor and a long thin needle filled with some good stuff known as an epidural.) Labor was relatively short at 12 hours, and I had no complications during or after delivery. It was truly a lovely delivery experience, and for that I am very, very grateful. After her smooth exit (which I witnessed—wow—thanks to a full length mirror), I was on a high, completely enamored and amazed that such a beautiful (though squished) little baby had emerged from my body.
Prior to her arrival, Craig and I had taken a breastfeeding and baby care class to prepare us for how to handle a baby since the closest thing I’d handled to something her size was my cat Thumper. And even that had been a while. So we took this class where we learned about how to get the baby to latch on to my breasts properly so that she would be able to suck without tearing apart my nipples, how to wash her (no soap, just a sponge bath for the first few weeks), how to change a diaper, what to expect in terms of output (aka poop, which would first resemble molasses and then mustard, French’s, not Grey Poupon). We were as prepared as we were going to be without any real prior experience when we took her home from the hospital. Then we got home. And all hell broke lose.
One of the first things you realize early on after you’ve had your baby is that once they have made the trip from womb to world, they actually need to be fed. There’s no more automatic placenta feeder attached to them, so they’ve gotta get it from somewhere and someone. In my case, it was me, because as with most every Brooklyn mother, I had decided to breast feed.
The literature is pretty convincing: the boob milk is like liquid gold for the brain and immunity, plus it’s convenient and free. While all of that is true, the propaganda surrounding breastfeeding can get a bit much. Heck, they pretty much sell breastfeeding as the only way your baby has a shot at a decent life. They make the baby’s entire life seem dependent on getting the boob, so that if you decide not to breast feed you can be sure your baby will end up depressed and miserable, with a constant ear infection, a D average and no chance at college. Yes, it’s that amped up. And it need not be. It’s a decision to be made by a mother about what is right for her and it really does not need to be a process that makes anyone who decides not to breastfeed, for whatever reason, feel like a pariah.
In any case, while I wasn’t down on the guilt trip, I was going to do it. I wanted to breastfeed. I figured the milk is there. My boobs were comically swollen with it—I was on par with Salma Hayek. And I thought, hey, it’s free, good for Emily, so why not? Well, this is why not.
First off, babies eat very frequently when they are first born, and by frequently I mean about every 2-3 hours on average. Emily was a very good eater, and she wanted at me at least every two hours to begin with, and that’s round the clock, 24/7. Which translates to the mommy being a human milk machine with no sleep. Babies take about 45 minutes to eat, then you’ve got to change the diaper, and put them back to sleep, which means by the time you get them to sleep, you’ve only got an hour left to sleep yourself until they wake up again wanting to eat. An hour of sleep at a time doesn’t really work that well.
Aside from the round the clock nature of the feeds, the other issue was the latch, or as I prefer to call it, the chomp. These babies know what they want and they want milk. They’re hungry, and I don’t blame them. While I thought it was so sweet to have her nursing from me, I was not as fond of the pain, and the cracked nipples, and the blood. Sorry if this is TMI but my nipples were totally tartared. I could not believe what had happened to my body. Two days into the process was literally a bloody milky mess. I was in excruciating pain every time I fed Emily, and my sleeplessness, coupled with hormonal imbalance (the high from delivery had unfortunately worn off), and I was kinda pissed off. I wanted to give up completely. But I didn’t.
Instead, I called in a lactation consultant, women who are certified to teach you how to breastfeed. Now, to be sure, they do serve a great function in that they really help women get the hang of breastfeeding. They come in, weigh the baby to make sure they’re getting enough food, and watch them feed so they can figure out what’s wrong. Slowly, with our LC’s help, Emily and I got the hang of it, but it took about 10 days. And until we got there, I was an emotional mess dreading the pain of every feeding (and there were at least 8 feeds in a 24-hour period). Plus, I was still tethered to Emily by my boob, so sleep was not happening. I was starting to unravel emotionally. I needed a break for one of the feedings. I needed Craig to give Emily a bottle. But tell that to a lactation consultant and you’ll get the evil eye.
My LC said I could not under any circumstances have Craig give Emily a bottle until breastfeeding was well established (about a month) for fear of something they call “Nipple Confusion”—where the baby favors the ease of sucking on a bottle over the difficulty of sucking on the breast. Now, this may be true in some cases, but in my experience, this was a load of crap. Emily didn’t care if it was boob or bottle, she just wanted food. She ate from both with eager ease.
We started her on bottle feedings at night two weeks in, after we had a visit to our pediatrician where I must have looked like something straight out of casting for Dawn of the Dead. I think the most sleep I had was about two hours at a time for three straight weeks. I was delirious. My doctor looked at me and said, “Andrea, you don’t look so good. Tonight you need to sleep. Your husband can give her a bottle. “But what about nipple confusion?” “Forget it, you need to get some sleep. Emily will be fine.”
And so we went home, I pumped milk (with the sensation of being a dairy milker on a farm running through me like an electric current), gave Craig the bottle for Emily, and I was set for a full four hours of sleep. YAY!!!
All was going well. I was in bed in peaceful slumber while Craig fed her the bottle, but then in the middle of my sleep, I woke up to find my t-shirt soaked with milk. My boobs were spraying all over the place like out of control fire hoses! I was practically drowning in my own milk. Not fun. I got up, toweled off, and had to pump it out to relieve the engorgement, and by the time all was said and done, I had gotten no sleep again. This, my friends, is the boob job. Once a milker, always a milker.
You see, the boobs grow (excuse the pun) to expect being let down at certain times of the day when the baby eats. They get used to it and when the release doesn’t happen the milk builds up and explodes through your nipples, resulting in the aforementioned milk geyser. So if you want to grab a few extra hours of sleep, or want to head out to the city for the day with some friends, you’ve got to pump the milk out (schlepping a pump with you on the subway is no fun), otherwise you leak and spray and it’s god awful. So if you want someone else to feed your baby you either have to wean off certain feedings, or be content to wake up and pump because there really is no easy way for others to help you feed your baby. After a while I hated feeling like I was a walking milk bomb. Something had to change. I decided breastfeeding was something that would have a time limit. I gave it three months. And then I would wean.
But how? I had no idea how to make my boobs stop producing milk. I was one of those women with a very plentiful milk supply. A blessing and a curse. One friend told me to quit cold turkey, but I couldn’t. There was too much milk. I could have started a milk farm. I should mention that I had a breast infection called mastitis and I had to make sure that I weaned properly without excessive engorgement that can be caused from going “cold turkey,” so that I didn’t get mastitis again. I had to have a gradual process, so I called my LC.
“You want to what? You want to wean?” she asked, like there had been static on the line. “But you’ve only been breastfeeding for three months.”
“Yes, I know, but I’ve had enough.” I said. I felt so guilty. Why was I defending myself? It was my decision. I was mad that she made me feel guilty. I had done three months. That was good. That was what was right for me.
“Well, you know the American Pediatrics Society recommends one year. You really are not giving this baby much of a chance,” she scolded.
“I, well, I am sorry, but I don’t want to breastfeed anymore,” I said, weakly, so mad at myself that I was apologizing to my lactation consultant. She didn’t have to pump every three hours. “Yes, I know, but I am done.” Then I waited for a reply. Silence.
“I can’t really help you. I think you should reconsider,” she said. She had nothing more to say to me on the topic. Nice.
I called another lactation consultant, who gave me the same condescending song and dance, and was very reluctant to explain how to wean properly, without distress to the baby or the boob. I was really confused and starting to get angry. All these women claimed to want to help you breastfeed, but they are so militant that they would not help you stop in a healthy way. Just as it should be my choice to start, it should be my choice to stop, but according to them, it was their choice as to when I stopped (which would be after one year at the earliest, which was not happening).
So I decided to speak to a nurse at my doctor’s office instead. She too was very evasive about answering my questions and then finally said, “You haven’t been doing it long enough.” Are you kidding?
Then I headed to the bookstore and bought a book I thought would probably be the key: “The Nursing Mother’s Guide to Weaning.” Not so fast. That book too, if you can believe it, was not a guide to weaning, but a guide to why you should NOT wean. I was apoplectic and ready to call Congress (not that they would have helped). How is it possible that a book about how to wean gave not one piece of advice on how to do that? I could not believe that no one would help me figure out how to make my breasts stop producing milk. I was furious.
Finally, I called my friend Stacey, who has four kids. I knew she would be able to help. And she did. She told me how she did it. “It will take some time she said, but this is how I did it: remove one feeding every three days, working back from night to morning, and don’t pump if you can help it. Your breasts will adjust.” She was right. It worked. I weaned one feeding every three days, letting the milk build up until my body learned not to produce any at that time. It was a slow process, it took a month to wean, but by four months my breasts were back, much smaller and a lot less attractive than they were in their role as doppelgangers of Ms. Hayek’s, but they were finally all mine again! All mine! Hallelujah!
A Practical Guide to Breast Feeding
If you decide that breastfeeding is right for you and your baby, here are a few items that you should make sure to have on hand:
In the Hospital: Nurses will give you the choice of either having the baby in the room with you, or bringing the baby to you every three hours for feeds. I originally told them to leave her with me but after three hours of not sleeping, and listening to her every breath and sound, obsessed with whether she was breathing or not, the next time the nurse came around I sent Emily to the nursery so I could actually get some sleep. Do yourself a favor and maximize your sleep in the hospital. You won’t get much once you are home.
A Nursing Chair: I got one by Dutelier, but any brand that is comfortable for you will do. You need a nice wide gliding chair to feed your baby in ‘cause you will be spending a lot of time in it (and sometimes sleeping in it).
Netflix/DVR: You’ll be breastfeeding a lot at first, as I mentioned, and I recommend putting your nursing chair in the living room or where you can watch TV. I DVR’d the entire season of In Treatment and watched an episode during every feed. It helps a lot with the boredom and the unpleasantness of being up all the time. Load up your Netflix cue with movies or series, it will help. If you happen to live in a beautiful place where you can put your nursing chair facing your gardens or woods, that will work too. Point being, put it where you will be happy with what you are looking at whether it’s the TV, your roses, or your favorite painting.
Nursing Station: Next to you chair set up a little table with Purell, burp cloths, tissues, and a glass (or pitcher) of water. Breastfeeding makes you VERY thirsty. I had to drink gallons of water a day. Don’t get dehydrated. Always have your water on hand. Lip balm is useful, too.
Medela Pump-in-Style: The most efficient pump on the market. Forget hand pumps, you’ll be there all day.
My Brest Friend Breastfeeding Pillow: Far superior to the Boppy, this one offers better back support and a flat surface for baby to rest while feeding.
Nursing bras: Get a few at Target. They are cheap and good.
Attire: I got a few Glamour Mom Tank Tops (glamourmom.com) which were great for breastfeeding. But otherwise, just invest in a few v-neck T-shirts from Target. They stretch down and you don’t have to drop a ton of money on nursing wear.
Lansinoh Cream: Essential care for cracked, painful nipples
Lansinoh Pads: Think maxi pads for your boobs. Will prevent embarrassing milk sprays in public places.
Hooter Hider: For breastfeeding in public – I really could never get the hang of this. I was always suffocating Emily, but most of my friends loved theirs. I just got over being modest really quickly.
Playtex Drop in Nursers with Slow Flow Nipples: These mimic mother’s breasts the best. Recommended by doctors and nurses and yes, even lactation consultants!
Earth’s Best Formula: You will need formula, so have a can on hand just in case. Mix with filtered room temp water and you won’t need a bottle warmer.
Here's to our mothers.