My brother and I are both new parents. Recently, we had the following exchange:
Brother: How's sleep going?
Me: Great, actually. She's sleeping through the night mostly.
Brother: Jump off a bridge.
I didn't take it personally. Nearly a year after the birth of their first baby, nights were still terrible. You know, the specific kind of hell that only a newborn baby can unleash. You'd be a raging, cranky shell of a human if you never slept more than four consecutive hours for a year.
I'm grateful that my baby is a sleeper.
I'm reluctant to say this, but Arlene first slept through the night (aka six hours in a row) at five weeks old. I know. I KNOW! It wasn't every night, and we've had a few sleep regressions. If I were him, I'd tell me to jump of a bridge, too.
But here's the thing: Even though sleep was magical, breastfeeding was another story.
I'd read a lot about breastfeeding prior to Arlene's arrival.
I knew it'd be hard. Everyone says it's harder than they expected. I prepared for the worst, but what I got was so far beyond what I could've imagined.
"I hate to use this term," said one of the six billion nurses who waltz into my hospital room post C-section. "But sometimes it takes a while for your nipples to toughen up." She said it would get better. Everyone said, it gets better.
So I waited for it to get better.
And while I waited, my chapped, bleeding, bruised nipples started getting impatient. Which really sucked (no pun intended), because breastfeeding is relentless.
If you've never breastfed, here's the gist: For the first 2-3 months of baby's life, a breastfeeding mom gives baby the boob every 2-3 hours. If it's going well, it's only moderately painful and becomes much less so over time. You know, once the nips toughen up. For me, each session hurt more than the last. It's kind of like being forced to walk in a pair of shoes that give you blisters for 45 minutes, 12 times daily.
A week and a half after Arlene was born, a met with a lovely nurse for postpartum care. When she asked how breastfeeding was going, I showed what was left of my nipples.
"Oh dear, those are very cracked," she said. She suggested I apply some nipple cream, and then gave me a nipple shield. "Try this, it'll help."
I did. The clouds parted, and the sun beamed down from the sky and Celine Dion sang from the heavens.
Aaaaand I knowwww that my niiiipppps will go onnnnn!
I started using the nipple shield with most feedings. When things healed up, I tried feeding without it. The baby barracuda'd the crap out of my nips and I'd have to start all over again. I was a month into motherhood, and breastfeeding only got harder.
So, I hired a lactation consultant.
This a breastfeeding expert who came to our house. She helped tremendously in some ways, teaching me the laid-back method, which I still use. She encouraged me to ditch the nipple shield as soon as possible, and to not give the baby a bottle yet, warning it could diminish my supply or confuse the babe.
She also mentioned that she thought Arlene may have a tongue tie. That's when the thingie that connects your tongue to the bottom of your mouth is too tight. This can lead to a shallow latch and painful breastfeeding, remedied by a frenectomy, where the band beneath the tongue is clipped.
I know. Ouch.
"You can't just have that taken care of anywhere," she warned. "You should really go to a pediatric dentist that specializes in tongue ties. Here's a number for the only one in town I'd recommend."
In town was kinda pushing it, as their office was located in western Wisconsin (about 45 minutes away). But I was desperate. I called, and they couldn't get us in for almost a month. I took the appointment, hung up the phone and cried.
During the following month, I did everything in my power to keep breastfeeding.
I took Arlene to a craniosacral therapist, who gently massaged the baby's mouth, neck and head to improve her latch for $70 a pop. I asked all my mom friends for advice. I sent a bazillion texts to my lactation consultant.
Don't use the nipple shield-- it will only confuse your baby!
Use the nipple shield if it's working.
Don't bottle-feed your baby too often. It'll only make them lazy and less likely to return to the breast.
Give her a bottle and give yourself a break.
This only made me feel more confused and helpless.
And still, breastfeeding only got worse.
At six weeks postpartum, the baby fed for up to 90 minutes at a time (!). I ended up with milk blisters (Google it if you dare). She wasn't gaining weight. I did, however, catch up on every TV series and podcast that's ever existed in the history of the world.
I couldn't bare the thought of quitting. I produced enough milk to keep her fed and then some, but just couldn't get it into my baby's pencil-sharpener of a maw. I'd keep telling myself, "Make it one more week. It's got to get easier." And it just didn't.
Finally one night, I broke down.
"I want to be enjoying our baby, but feeding her hurts too much," I sobbed.
My calm, collected husband said, "I'm giving her a bottle and you're going to bed."
"But... but... but... I can't because it's going to ruin breastfeeding for her in the future!!!"
He essentially responded with a nicer version of go the #@$& to sleep.
From that point on, I did whatever it took to get me through the day. I used a nipple shield almost every time I breast fed. When that was too painful, I gave Arlene a bottle. We survived.
A week before Arlene's tongue procedure, I brought Arlene to the pediatrician for her two month checkup. The doc expressed concern that she hadn't gained much weight, and I mentioned the upcoming frenectomy.
"Her tongue does look tight, " she said. "We can take care of that today if you'd like. But if you prefer to go to the specialist, that's fine."
Wait. What?! Somehow in my crazed new mom stupor, it hadn't occurred to me that my pediatrician could do this in her office.
Yes. Yes! YES!!!
The whole procedure took three seconds, literally. The doctor simply cut the band with tiny scissors. Arlene cried, but honestly, her shots affected her more. It healed almost immediately.
Within a week she was eating faster.
My nipples healed.
I ditched the nipple shield.
At Arlene's four month appointment, she'd nearly doubled in weight.
This experience gifted me two invaluable lessons.
The first: Do whatever it takes to get you through the day.
Everyone has an opinion on how to best care for your baby. You'll get all sorts of input, solicited or not, from parents, doctors, specialists. What works for one baby may not work for yours. The first few months as a parent are really hard. It's about survival. You know your baby best, so take a page from AA and tackle it one day at a time.
The second: It's always going to be something.
At 14 months, my one-year-old nephew still isn't sleeping through the night. A friend's baby had GERD and couldn't breastfeed at all. Another had debilitating postpartum anxiety. Another friend's newborn spent a week in the NICU for potential sepsis (luckily, she's just fine); another's kid is allergic to eggs, dairy, gluten and peanuts. Another's is three-years-old and just started talking. And these are just the people who are lucky enough to have a baby in the first place.
The truth about babies is that they're hard.
You just don't know what brand of hard you'll get. But it really does get easier.