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Coming Up Empty

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I have always believed I have a high tolerance for pain. My husband came to agree after watching me give birth to our son. It was a great labor and delivery, with no pain medications, and then a 9-pound, 12-ounce MacIntyre appeared.

I knew I would breastfeed because that’s supposed to be the healthiest thing to do—good for attachment and, let’s face it, costs much less than baby formula. It’s also supposed to decrease one’s chances of developing breast cancer, which runs too strong in my family. I wasn’t worried about the discomfort of nursing. As a former athlete, I know you just push through any pain.

After initial hugs, my husband cradled our newborn son while they stitched me up—for 45 minutes. Then the nurse placed my son on my chest, helped him latch on to my nipple, and he appeared to be feeding. It seemed so wonderful I didn’t stop him after the suggested 10 or 15 minutes on that side. When I did take him off the breast, my nipple was very sore.

A lactation consultant met with us the next day and again the following day before we went home from the hospital. I was not a natural, but I kept trying, and MacIntyre seemed happy.

We went home on a Saturday and my sister, a mother of three whom she nursed, came to visit on Sunday. My son cried a lot. She gave me that older sister look of “You’re not doing it right.” I kept nursing him, but he still seemed unhappy. At 5 o’clock Monday morning, I dialed the lactation hotline at the hospital. A consultant called me back and suggested we come into their clinic that afternoon.

My husband and I were glad to go so we could figure out if our baby was getting enough milk, if my milk had even come in, and if I was “doing it right.” Our appointment at the clinic began at 1 p.m. After working with us for four hours, one of the lactation nurses gave MacIntyre his first bottle of formula at 5 p.m. He was hungry and despite all our efforts, he did not appear to be getting enough milk.

They sent us home with a strange setup: a plastic nipple to place over my own and through which my son would nurse. Underneath the nipple was the end of a long, plastic tube through which baby formula ran from the bottle my husband would hold a foot over my head. We tried this for a few days, in between giving our baby some formula through a regular bottle. Also, after each round of attempted feeding, I would put the double-breast pump on my chest and pump for 15 minutes. This was supposed to stimulate my milk and yield some additional milk to feed my son from a bottle.

In the midst of all this, my breast became sore and I developed a fever. My doctor’s nurse told me to hang in there; my doctor called the next day, apologized for her nurse’s inaction, and told me to come in immediately. She started me on antibiotics for mastitis.

Did I mention my husband and I were fielding calls about job offers and interviews at universities around the country through all this? I even received one job interview call in the hospital. So the stress ran high.

About two weeks after my son’s birth, his pediatrician said it was OK to let go of the breastfeeding. It didn’t seem to be working and the lactation consultants decided my son did not have a good “latch” or a strong “suck.” So we put away the fake nipples, tubes and fancy Medela “Pump In Style” breastpump. We bought several cans of baby formula, and we took out all the baby bottles used as decorations at our baby shower. I cut a cabbage in half and placed the pieces on my breasts to try to reduce the swelling.

I cried often about the decision to stop. We felt so much pressure to nurse and I believed that if I didn’t, I wasn’t a good mother and I was taking the easy way out. The pressure did not come from my doctors or nurses; they seemed ready to support our decision.

Instead, outsiders felt the need to weigh in. One day we received a phone call from a woman in Pennsylvania whom we had never met: the daughter of a friend of my mother-in-law. She was calling to encourage us to keep nursing. And a security guard at a museum in Madison, Wis., where we lived at the time, observed me feeding Mac and asked why I was giving my baby a bottle. (I could honestly say I had nursed, and I certainly didn’t offer details.)

There were good parts, though. The best was that my husband could feed our baby as much as I did.

Seven months later I became pregnant with our daughter, and again I resolved to breastfeed. This time I would be better prepared. I knew my nipples would be sore. But I was an experienced mom and determined to make nursing work.

My doctor said to start pumping as soon as I got home from the hospital. So I would nurse our lovely 9-pound, 13-ounce daughter for 15 minutes on each side, then pump with the double breastpump for 15 more. Then clean up all the supplies, try to rest or “get something done,” and start all over again.

We returned from the hospital after her birth on a Sunday, this time in Fort Collins, Colo., where we taught at Colorado State University. Our son had two more weeks of the terrific home daycare he attended; we had five weeks before we moved back east so my husband could begin his job at Syracuse University, where I would teach part time.

So two days after getting home from the hospital, I put my daughter in her baby carrier and drove to the lactation nurses’ free clinic in town. I joined about 15 other new mothers as we nursed our babies around a long table. The nurses weighed the babies before we began; then we nursed, and they weighed the babies again to see how many ounces they had gained.

On the first visit, one nurse remarked on how much my milk had come in. My breasts were ready to burst. I sat down next to a first-time mother whose milk literally dripped from her nipples as she switched her 5-pound son from one breast to the other. I nursed my daughter Annie on each side for a total of almost 30 minutes. They weighed her again; she had gained one ounce. This was not going well.

I continued to nurse Annie and we followed up each time with several ounces of baby formula from a bottle. It seemed she was getting 2 ounces from me at a feeding and 2 ounces of formula. At least it was better than all formula.

And I loved the feeling of my child suckling at my breast, the warmth, the connection, the amazing way our bodies work. Four weeks after her birth, I drove to the Denver airport to pick up my other sister, who was visiting with her 6-month-old daughter, the baby she did not produce enough milk to nurse exclusively. (But our older sister had produced enough milk for her three children and the rest of the hospital nursery, she used to say.)

Back from the airport, my temperature seemed to spike. The doctor diagnosed mastitis, but this time the symptoms were worse. The next day, our pediatrician encouraged me to stop trying to nurse. The stress, the pressure, the time—we didn’t need to do this, she urged. I had given it a strong try, our daughter had received all those good early nutrients from my milk; let it go, she recommended.

Well, I’ll at least keep pumping, I thought. And so I would pump every few hours and produce about 1 ounce of milk, from both breasts combined. That would total about 4 ounces a day or one bottle for our growing baby. When we started driving east on her 5-week birthday, the breastpump would not work on the car attachment. When the car’s alternator died the next day along Route 80 in Nebraska, we knew why the breastpump had failed the night before. I continued to pump and give her the milk for another two weeks. As we started unpacking in our new home in Syracuse, and I pumped amid boxes and the late July heat, I knew that chapter was coming to a close.

I was disappointed that none of the books I read or doctors I asked mentioned that some women do not produce enough milk to sustain their babies. Eventually, I found one reference book that put the number at 5 percent of women.

It would’ve helped to know that breastfeeding doesn’t work for everyone. I really wish it did. But the most important thing is that 10 years later, my son is a healthy, strong boy, and my daughter is a healthy, strong almost-9-year-old girl.                              

Eileen Gilligan lives in Baldwinsville with her husband and two children. She remains a strong advocate of breastfeeding.

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York