MOTHER: JENNIFER SBROCCHI
BABY: AVA ELINOR
MONTHS BREASTFED: 13 MONTHS
Looking back at this photo, I want to reach through the computer screen and give my two week postpartum self a huge hug and tell her that it's going to get better.
I'm a planner, type A by nature. Breastfeeding was important to me. While pregnant, I dragged Matt to a breastfeeding class because I thought it would be beneficial for us both to be prepared. I read a book, cover to cover, and highlighted noteworthy sentences. What I didn't know then, is that sometimes your agenda and your baby's agenda don't quite match up.
After having a wonderful birth, Ava was placed on my bare chest and the magical "golden hour" began. It was an amazing sight to see, my daughter moving her head side to side looking for my breast. Her tiny hands reaching around and her feet gently kicking my stomach. Finally, she found my nipple and latched on with little assistance. I was incredibly relieved. That first night I kept her close and attempted to feed her as often as possible. I was overjoyed and still riding high on the endorphins from just giving birth. I don't remember sleeping much. Some time in the middle of the night, we changed Ava's diaper and we were so happy to find that she passed meconium, the dark, sticky poop. Matt and I cheered (not much cheering now when there's a dirty diaper ha!). Things were off to a good start.
The next day I started to feel more and more pain when Ava nursed. I could tell her latch was shallow and I struggled to fix it. Unfortunately, I had a less than helpful nurse assisting in my recovery. She told me her latch was fine, but I should be hand expressing while I was nursing so my milk would come in. She demonstrated on me and she was quite rough. I didn't understand and instead of questioning her I followed her lead. I began to forcefully "hand express" while simultaneously breastfeeding. Ava got fussier, probably sensing my discomfort, making nursing more difficult. The climax of our hospital stay was when this nurse rushed into our room in the middle of the night and told us that Ava was extremely jaundiced, losing too much weight and she was taking her for tests. She also told us that we were probably going to have to extend our hospital stay and I would more than likely need to supplement with formula. She made me feel like the world's worst mother. I didn't understand what I was doing wrong. I spent the rest of the night crying until the pediatrician came the next morning. Noticing my bloodshot, puffy eyes, she was concerned and I relayed the nurse's message. The doctor laughed and said that was very much exaggerated. Ava's jaundice was at a normal level and she lost an acceptable amount of weight. There was no reason we couldn't go home. We left the hospital, my confidence and my breasts badly bruised.
My "milk came in" the second day we were home. I looked in the mirror and couldn't believe the size of my breasts. They were huge, hard, and HURT. I knew the solution was to breastfeed often but Ava had trouble latching due to the engorgement. I sent Matt out for cabbage leaves since they're known to provide some relief. I hand expressed (the right way, thanks to Laura of Bird Song Brooklyn who helped me when I got home) right before and after Ava's feedings. We somehow made it through the engorgement and I was relieved to find out at Ava's first check up that she gained weight.
My nipples grew increasingly sore and were almost cracked. I felt helpless as no remedies seemed to work. About 10 days after Ava was born, I decided to go to a breastfeeding support group near my apartment. Of course, my usually wide awake newborn was fast asleep as we sat among other moms nursing their babes getting answers to all their questions. I repeatedly tried to wake her, undressing her and stroking her, but she was in a deep slumber. Finally, with about five minutes left of the group session, Ava started to stir. I weighed her on the scale, got her to latch, and I winced in pain. The girl who ran the group was nursing her own child, glanced and said everything looked normal and the pain would subside in a few weeks. She was gracious enough to stay open for me and we patiently waited for Ava to finish. I placed her back on the scale and Ava took in a few ounces. I should have been happy but I left more confused.
Since I was determined and also very stubborn, I lived with the pain for almost two months. I convinced myself that everything was fine since Ava was steadily gaining weight. Every time my mom visited, I greeted her at the door sobbing. The days were difficult and the nights even harder. I was covered in my tears and sticky breastmilk at all times. Those early weeks were a blur, most of the time was spent on my couch trying to figure out the best way to nurse and do the least amount of damage to my body. I was running on empty. If I wasn't nursing Ava, I was desperately trying to fit in a nap when she slept. I barely ate, most mornings I'd have a bowl of cold overnight oats and not eat until Matt returned from work. Finally, I found a solution that eased my pain. After nursing, I would express a little of my milk and leave on my nipples to air dry.
When Ava was around ten weeks old, we found our rhythm. It was as if we woke up one morning and everything was completely fine. The soreness subsided, Ava continued to gain weight and I learned how to get rest while nursing (thank goodness for the side lying position!). I was still exhausted, but I was as happy as Ava in a milk coma. I was gracefully and comfortably bringing Ava to my breast and she was latching on in one simple motion. No more fumbling and wincing.
In hindsight, I should have hired a lactation consultant. There was no reason for me to be miserable trying to nurse my daughter. After completing my postpartum doula training, I recalled that when Ava was an infant she exhibited some of the signs of a possible tongue tie. 17 months later, I had her checked out and sure enough she was diagnosed with a posterior tongue tie and a lip tie. We chose to have her lip tie released. Of course I wish this was discovered early on, as we could have had a different start. However, I'm grateful for the lesson I learned, which is it's ok to ask for help. Looking for support doesn't mean that you're weak or a bad mother.
I'm also thankful that this story has a happy ending. Ava breastfed for a wonderful 13 months. The struggle was so worth it. I'll never forget those sweet moments after Ava nursed where she would glance up and give me her gummy smile.
I hope my story inspires other moms. Breastfeeding can be difficult and we don't always talk about the complications. Another thing I learned during my postpartum doula training is breastfeeding is right for every baby, but not always right for every mother. If you need to supplement, educate yourself on your options. Remember to surround yourself with loving family and friends and always ask for help.