Six years ago we brought our oldest son home from the hospital. Hours later, I sat in my living room, trying to help him latch. My cat plopped down in front of me and started lazily licking herself. She paused to observe my unusual struggle. I stared back at her, realizing that if she had kittens they’d probably just latch themselves on and get to it.
Here I sat with my advanced degrees, two visits from the hospital lactation consultant, and hours of YouTube videos on breastfeeding, and I couldn’t get this baby to eat.
I hadn’t taken any sort of breastfeeding class — we’d moved in the middle of my pregnancy, and the logistics were impossible. It didn’t seem like something I’d have to learn, anyway. I mean, it’s natural, right? How hard could it be?
Turns out, it can be very hard. I ordered my husband to bring me ALL the breastfeeding books. Exam day was here, and I’d done none of the reading.
When your baby is depending on you for nourishment, and you need to get baby’s mouth just so in order for him or her to access this nourishment, your anxiety will go through the roof. Throw in some sluggish weight gain (we had check-ins twice a week for a while) and lack of sleep, and the whole thing was a recipe for disaster — and postpartum depression. For the most natural way to feed a baby, it felt like the least intuitive thing in the world. To top it all off, it hurt like hell. I didn’t know much about nursing, but I did know pain meant we were doing it wrong.
At the time, visits with a lactation consultant weren’t covered by my insurance. Luckily for me, there was a free nursing support group nearby at Cambridge Hospital. (It still meets every Tuesday and Thursday from 10 a.m.–12 p.m.!) I’m not a “group” person, and I felt so awkward. But I was desperate. I’d honestly never whipped a boob out so publicly before (at least not while sober), and here was a room full of parents and professionals all set to critique my form and baby’s function. But it was not what I expected.
A lactation consultant sat with me and told me my baby’s latch was fine, and that folks with sensitive, fair skin like mine often found nursing extremely painful in the beginning. We were both learning, she reminded me. If we gave it some time, we’d both get better at it. As I cried silent tears of relief, she also gave me the permission to stop if I felt like it would be best given some underlying medical conditions I had to leave untreated while I was breastfeeding.
This was a stark contrast to the gruff consultants at the hospital who insisted this was best for baby, threw away his pacifier, and kept making my boob into a “sandwich” to shove in his mouth. They also kept suggesting I hold him like a football, despite my telling them over and over I had no clue how one would hold a football. (Do footballs squirm out of your armpit? Asking for a friend.) That day at the nursing support group reset our nursing relationship. We continued to nurse for over a year.
The caring help I got that day has stuck with me to this day. When I enrolled in my postpartum doula training, I found out that lactation educators are a thing. I worried that I wasn’t crunchy/huggy/teacher-y enough to teach and help with breastfeeding. But my own experience showed me how important it is to have help that matches your personality. And somewhere out there, parents were waiting for sarcastic, funny, and practical postpartum and lactation help.
Ironically, for a mom who struggled with nursing, I now teach new moms the basics of breastfeeding. But truthfully, hearing from someone who had to work hard to make it happen may have helped me through the darker times, too. I’m still looking for an alternative name for the football hold, though, because who even thought of that?!