Motherhood

Milk, Sweat and Tears – What To Do When Your Baby Won’t Nurse.

Not being able to breastfeed your baby, when you really, really, really want to, is the worst feeling as a mother.

I have written extensively about breastfeeding over the years here but I have never done a complete round up post about our whole journey or written a conclusion to the saga. Today is the day.

My conscious relationship with breastfeeding began in 2002 when I attended a training to become a Doula. I established a (very negative) belief system right then and there that mothers who breastfeed are better than mothers who do not. I also created a belief that women who do not breastfeed fell into two groups: Moms who were lazy jerks and Moms who were duped by hospital and family and just didn’t know any better, also known as moms who were Booby Trapped.

When I made it past the first trimester with my pregnancy, dreams of nursing ensued. My plan was to nurse her on demand, till as long as her heart desired. That was the plan. I thought all I needed to do was make that decision in my mind and everything would fall into place.

It never even occurred to me that sometimes breastfeeding, in the traditional way, does not work out.

Somehow, someway, despite having experienced several miscarriages (which I now know were most likely from having a MTHFR gene mutation that makes it hard for my body to process folic acid among other things) my pregnancy and birth were near perfect.

I gave birth to her at home, in water and caught her with my own two hands. As I pulled her out of my body, into the warm water, I immediately brought her to my chest. She was not born into a sterile hospital room with 8 pair of nurses hands on her, rubbing her like crazy, or whisked away to have something shoved into her mouth and bright lights in her face. It was the peaceful, perfect birth I had dreamed of my whole life. Nothing about her birth set us up for breastfeeding failure. We had everything going for us.

And then I got my ass handed to me.

That first moment of lying in bed with her after I gave birth began a five month journey of desperately trying to get her latch. I say desperately in the truest since of the word. I was like a caged animal separated from her baby. I was hysterical trying to get her to latch and breastfeed like normal.

Something to know about me, to understand the particular kind of postpartum crazy I experienced: I have an extremely good work ethic. I do not stop until what I want or need to do is accomplished. I do not rest till my work is done. I am the opposite of lazy. Relaxing is hard for me, fun is hard for me. But work? I love to work.

On top of having a very strong work ethic, I am extremely determined and goal and action oriented. If I have a goal, I will do whatever it takes to achieve it. Do not stand in my way, I will not run you over, but I will politely ask you to get the F out of my way. Again, just more “normal” personality here. Ha.

And lastly, as I mentioned above, I had some very strong, negative belief systems going about what it meant to be a good mother. Having had a mentally ill mother, I was determined to not only give my child what I never got but to also go above and beyond to give her perfection. Anything less than perfection for my daughter was unacceptable to me.

These things formed in my mind to create an obsessive, compulsive need to get my daughter to latch. 

The perfect storm of us not being able to breastfeed like normal on the physical side of things included me having flat nipples, my daughter being severely tongue tied, and having really bad TMJ from her atlas vertebrae being knocked out of alignment at birth or at some point in my pregnancy, a upper palate that was not properly formed, and later I found out that she had a really poor suck reflex and low muscle tone in her mouth and tongue because she has Sensory Processing Disorder. SPD scrambles the nerve reflexes, makes coordination very hard and often children have it, have hypotonia (low muscle tone that affects SO many things).

So for five months, I did everything I was supposed to do (and more!) to get my daughter to nurse. Finally, at five months she latched and nursed and the joy I felt was indescribable. I had done it. I almost killed myself in the process, but I did it.

But did I rest at that point, thanking God for being able to comfort nurse and being able to pump copious amounts of milk (I bottlefed her for nutrition and comfort nursed her for emotional connection) and be happy with the way things were? Oh no. It was not perfect. Remember, I was going for perfect.

And so at 10-12 months I tried to make the transition to full nursing so I could stop pumping. That didn’t work out, but I was finally able to rest. Finally finding peace with the way things were and being able to sleep at night knowing I really did do everything humanly possible to get her breastfeed. NO ONE could judge me say I was lazy and didn’t try hard enough.

I pumped till she was 18 months old, and at that point I stopped because I had 6 months worth of frozen milk to get us to 2 years of bottlefeeding her my breastmilk.

I comfort nursed her for a long time, well into toddlerhood. We stopped way past what is average for American children and well within the world average for full-term breastfeeding.

Several things I learned from this experience:

– What I experienced was a particular kind of postpartum depression called postpartum OCD. Postpartum depression manifests in many different ways and not only in the most commonly talked about way of having horrible thoughts about your baby.

– What a big driver beliefs systems are. If you think of your consciousness as the tip of an iceberg and your unconscious beliefs as everything underneath the water you cannot see, you can understand why they are such a big motivator of your actions. If you want to change how you act, you have to change your belief systems. And yes, I no longer have the same beliefs about mothers who don’t breastfeed.

– Trauma comes in many forms. What I experienced was full on trauma. It took me years to heal and process this traumatic experience.

– I am a perfectionist. It is now a daily practice to let go and not try to be perfect. Hello, my name is Stephanie, and I am a recovering perfectionist. 🙂

I wouldn’t take anything back – it made me who I am. I firmly believe that everything I have been through is God molding me so I can be of better service to women and children in this lifetime.

But!

If I had the chance to do it all over again, I would have just enjoyed my daughter more. None of it really mattered. If you hold your baby, look them in the eye, touch them, are responsive and tend to them (not leaving them to cry it out), then a deep and lasting relationship can be created. You do not need to nurse to have that. We’re both living proof of that.

Here is a list of all the posts I have written about my breastfeeding saga:

-What to Do If Your Baby Won’t Nurse. 

-Make Your Boobs a Happy Place

-Why My Daughter Couldn’t Nurse

Bottle Nursing

-Bottle and Boob

-42 Days of Pumping

How to Increase Your Milk Supply

-How to Really Store Breastmilk

-The First Time I Nursed in Public

-Learn to Nurse Laying Down 

-Can You Teach an Older Baby to Nurse?

-Big Switch, Part 1, 2 and 3

-Hanging Up the Horns and PPD

-Is Your Breastmilk Good Enough?

My friend Anne, of Doula-la-la Blog, had a very similar experience to mine and she has some very helpful posts on her blog as well.

-Our Nursing Saga

The things I most want mothers to know if you are not able to breastfeed and you are desperately trying:

– You are enough.

– You are a good mother even if you bottle feed formula, a little or a lot.

– You are a good mother, even if you stop trying and give up and rest.

That’s it.

Actually one more thing.

You are loved. I see you trying so hard to be a good mother. I can feel you from here as I type these words. I know you’re exhausted. I know your childhood was hard and you want things to be different for your child. You are my sister and I love you. Take a moment, close your eyes, and let that sink in. I love you and God loves you.

Milk, Sweat and Tears. What to do when your baby won't nurse.

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  • Julila
    October 14, 2015 at 1:14 PM

    This is a great article, and very encouraging. I had a somewhat similar experience. My baby, who was supposed to be born naturally ended up coming 8 weeks early due to my PIH and was immediately sent to the NICU for breathing difficulties (she got over them very quickly and is a very healthy and happy 18 month old now) and was started on tube and later bottle feeding, forcing me to be introduced to the wonderful world of pumping. I guess I would say that I had no preconceived notions about pumping because it honestly never occurred to me that I would do anything else but breastfeed. I found pumping to be the single most dehumanizing experience I have ever had, and hated ever second of the 5 months I pumped. And I was lucky: I didn’t have the sores or the milk supply issues my pumping -to-go-back-to-work mom friends had. When my little girl was finally big enough to suck properly I cannot explain how happy I was. I would have thrown my pump on the nearest bonfire if it hadn’t cost an arm and a leg and my sense of newly installed realism hadn’t kicked in to tell me that this was by no means the last time this could happen to me. Thanks for helping moms to see that what really matters is loving themselves and their babies!

    • Stephanie
      October 16, 2015 at 7:24 AM

      Thanks for sharing Julia! De-humannizing is a great word to describe it. I will never forget the time I took Penelope to our local milk farm when she was about 2 years and I saw the mother cows pumping in their stalls and I thought, oh my gosh, I totally understand them. It’s like I had a moment with those pumping cows and we deeply connected over our shared feelings about pumping. I felt just like them. A cow getting a job done.

  • Lindsay Jobe
    February 12, 2016 at 9:11 PM

    Reading your story tonight. My 4th babe will be 6 months old on Sunday. I nursed my other three well into their second year. But with #4, I have had very similar issues to yours. We actually did end up using the SNS til 4 months when I went to EPing and bottle feeding, except for still using the SNS and nursing when I fed him at night. We are now about 6 months and my little guy was just diving into my cheeks like he wanted to nurse, so I tried to latch him. He hasn’t latched in about a month and a half, and I want it so bad. He acted like I was trying to smother him with some foreign contaminate.
    I got this wild thought that maybe he COULD do it now. He has a high palate, had a tight toungue and lip tie (which were both repaired but his toungue tie grew back 2x), was underdeveloped at birth even though he was 1 day “late”, and who knows what other issues contributed. Anyway, I found your blog when I went to see if I could teach him to nurse again. I miss it. I want what I had with my other kids. I cry when I see animals nursing on tv, I’m jealous of my friends when they nurse their babies. I have learned SOOO much, and it is so crazy that we could have this issue. Anyway, I still feel like I’m holding on to something, but am I crazy!?!?!

    • Stephanie
      February 23, 2016 at 5:01 PM

      Not crazy, just grieving. It’s a loss just like a death. 🙁
      You can always keep trying, 13 month olds that get adopted learn to nurse, so it’s not impossible. But just try to keep it all in balance and snuggle and enjoy your little one anyway you can. Bottle nursing can be great boding, especially if you pull your shirt down and get skin to skin from his little cheek snuggled on your breast, just like in regular nursing.