After my daughter Saoirse was born, a nurse helped her latch onto my breast, and it was… the start of a painful, challenging experience that would take months.
She began sucking vigorously. “Good, this is good,” I thought, as my toes curled in pain and I fought the urge to rip her from my body. “Is this supposed to hurt this much?” One minute into this excruciating first session, I adjusted her latch. I was horrified to discover a quarter-sized bruise on my nipple. The nurse noticed, too, and said we should try the other breast. Soon after, I was sporting matching bruises on both nipples (with bleeding to top it off).
Our first visit with the lactation consultant made me feel somewhat better, but didn’t improve anything. I asked several times if Saoirse had a tongue tie. “No, she’s got a strong suck, she’s doing great. Here’s a nipple shield to protect your nipples, ‘cause they’re pretty flat!”. Um, okay.
The nurses suggested supplementing with formula. I asked to pump as an option, instead. The new routine began: nurse, pump, husband syringed milk into her mouth one millimeter at a time.
My anxiety was skyrocketing. When she slept, I would pace the hospital room, trying to shake the feeling of bursting out of my skin. Saoirse’s name meant “freedom”, but I felt trapped. We went home with instructions to nurse, pump, and then syringe feed every two hours, around the clock.
The next day, I was so tired and anxious. I texted my best friend, “I know I need to wake her up to nurse her, but I can’t do it.” She responded. “I know you’re tired. It’s so hard. You have to wake her up. She will wind up in the NICU if you don’t. The first two weeks are the hardest.”
At this point, I dreaded nursing. I would cry and cringe during latching, curling my toes the entire time. I had ongoing chest pains and anxiety. The cycle was never-ending. Nurse, pump, clean bottles and pump parts. By the time I was done, it was time to start all over. “Why don’t you just give her a bottle and sleep?” my mom asked. I cried some more.
We started to find relief during a doctor appointment. She watched us nurse, did a weighted feed, and talked with me about my feelings. She diagnosed Saoirse with an anterior tongue tie and clipped it in the office. This immediately doubled her milk transfer. She gave me a huge hug before we left and told me we would be okay.
We went back to the doctor and lactation consultations until Saoirse started gaining weight. We were referred to an ENT, who diagnosed a posterior tongue tie and clipped it. We began feeding therapy, craniosacral therapy and six-times-a-day tongue stretches. I nursed, pumped, and bottle fed around the clock.
My anxiety continued. When Saoirse was just 5-days-old, my chest pains that wouldn’t go away. On New Year’s Eve, we woke and bundled our sleeping newborn and drove to UNC Emergency Department. I thought I was having a postpartum heart attack. I cried the entire time we were in the ED, thinking of all the germs she was being exposed to. Five hours later, I was released with antacids and a clean bill of health. Saoirse slept the entire time.
At our next doctor visit, the doctor said, “I saw in your chart that you had an anxiety attack,” she said. Um, what? I made an appointment with the psychiatrist who treated me for prenatal anxiety. I learned my feelings weren’t normal, and I didn’t have to suffer through them. We doubled my anxiety medication, and I started therapy. Now I can see how my struggles with breastfeeding contributed to severe postpartum anxiety.
When I returned to work after maternity leave, my body didn’t respond to pumping like it did at home. My supply tanked. We somehow made it to June, and resumed nursing all summer. When school started in August, I supplemented with formula for my own sanity. Somewhere along the way, nursing eventually felt natural. I no longer give her bottles of pumped breast milk. Instead, I give her bottles of formula.
Nursing initially was the hardest thing I have ever done. My decision to provide formula rather than stress about my body's milk production changed my experience. My anxiety is under control, and I am able to bond and be present with her. I’m so proud of myself for realizing that I needed to prioritize my mental health. She is thriving and climbing all over, powered by both mama milk AND formula!