It’s ‘World Breastfeeding Week’ so I guess there’s no better time to share my breastfeeding experience with Sebastien.
I’m not usually into manufactured consumerism “holidays” (who the hell decides it’s ‘watermelon day’ or ‘coloring book day’ anyway??) but I don’t believe an awareness campaign like Breastfeeding Week falls under the same category as something so trivial such as ‘underwear day’. I think there’s enough struggle, stigma, and expectation around breastfeeding that it’s important we share our stories. Not only so we can support each other and know we’re not alone, but also normalize breastfeeding in a world that still has people in it who think, “Ew.” (F*ck those people.)
So here we go…
I went into labor 16 days early with Sebastien and it really took me by surprise. I would say I was in shock during labor, while giving birth, and for a good 24 hours after. I was 37 weeks +6 days when he was born and technically that’s in the safe zone, but I just had it in my mind that I had two more weeks of being pregnant. My head was spinning with a mix of shock, adrenaline, and exhaustion, which I’m sure is common. Mix in the fact that it was after midnight and…
What a time to learn how to breastfeed!
Over our three night stay in the hospital, I had a few different nurses who all told me something different. I’ll never forget when one nurse straight up told me to ignore everything the last nurse had just taught me but when the first nurse came back on shift 12 hours later, she told me the other nurse was “new and didn’t know what she was talking about.” Then, 12 hours later the second nurse came back again and tried to convince me that she knew better and had more experience! It was like a competition between them but it was doing nothing for my confidence.
Now, to be clear, I think nurses are amazing who do such important work and I appreciated all of the nurses’ input. But I was also overwhelmed, confused, and stressed when each nurse would come in and completely dismiss and change everything I was previously taught to do. I left the hospital not sure if I was doing it right. All I knew was that the left side seemed to come more naturally to Sebastien than the right and he definitely had a “favorite.”
Through all that, I never got the chance to see a lactation consultant at the hospital either because the majority of our stay was over the weekend, and I guess they didn’t work weekends? I knew I had a breastfeeding class coming up with my prenatal (turned postnatal) class the next day though, so I was kind of relying on that for more tips.
When we finally got to it (an hour late, so not quick getting out of the house for the first time with a newborn), the doctor leading the class weighed my son and told me he was gaining like a champ. She also watched me breastfeed on both sides and told me he was in the proper position. Yay! Then I saw my regular doctor a few days after that and she confirmed the same thing. All was going well!
Until three weeks in and I got a horrible case of mastitis. I did so much reading when I was pregnant with Sebastien but out of all my research, for some reason I never once heard the term ‘mastitis’, so I had no idea what the symptoms were.
And boy, did I ignore them.
It started a few days earlier when I had developed a crack in my right nipple, most likely due to an incorrect latch. It began to hurt so much to feed Sebastien on that side that I would scream and cry every time. I also started to get major anxiety when I knew a feeding was coming, which was like 8-10 times a day, because his latch felt like glass cutting through my nipple. Or my nipple being slammed in a drawer. Or razor blades — you know what, you get it.
I knew something was obviously wrong, but all the information I was getting was to “power through” and that the best thing to do was to keep feeding him. I thought it was just a blocked duct that would work itself out through feeding. I had no idea it was actually an infected duct.
I put nipple cream on; it didn’t seem to help. I powered through feeds in agony; it didn’t get any better. I felt a small lump, so I took hot showers and tried to work out the blockage. That actually made it feel worse. Then, one day, on a Saturday, I had the shakes uncontrollably like I do sometimes when I get a fever. That is because I did, in fact, have a fever. I had no idea this was due to my breastfeeding problem, I assumed it might have been from exhaustion, lack of sleep, or that I was coming down with something unrelated.
We actually had company when I got the shakes, so I tried to pretend I was fine. ‘I’ll deal with this later,’ I thought. I didn’t want to be a rude host and I also really wanted to see our friends who I hadn’t seen in a while and show off our adorable newborn son. I should have cancelled and went to the doctor instead, but I didn’t. Ugh, and my doctor’s office even sees patients on weekends too. Come on, Bri!
After our guests left, which was hours later, I went to take a shower to ease the fever pains and when I looked at my right breast in the mirror, it was red and inflamed. I touched it, and not only was it hot to the touch, my previously small lump was now the size of a golf ball. I Googled “blocked milk ducts” and literally all the symptoms I had matched mastitis symptoms, the first I had heard of this. However, I told myself this was probably just a classic case of Web MD giving me the worst case scenario so I went to bed that night hoping it would be better the next day.
It wasn’t. But I still didn’t go to the doctor. My doctor was a 45 minute to an hour drive one way, depending on traffic, and I knew it would be another 45 minute to an hour wait in the waiting room. With a newborn, that takes a lot of planning and energy. On top of that, clearly I wasn’t feeling good and it was the last thing I wanted to do. Yeah, I should have just went…
I finally went that Monday because the situation was not improving at all. The doctor confirmed I had mastitis and put me on antibiotics to kill the infection. Ten days later, the lump was still there and not getting any smaller. I got another round of antibiotics. They didn’t help the size of the lump either. It turns out, I had left it too late and my duct had sort of sealed itself off. I was told that the antibiotics probably killed the bacteria, but the damage was done to my milk duct and it would have to heal on its own. Consequently, that also shot my supply even though I was painfully maintaining my feeds. I would simply not be working with a full tank on that side anymore, but I didn’t find that out until later.
I call this entire mastitis ordeal, from 3 weeks to 6 weeks postpartum, “the dark weeks”.
Not only I was going insane dealing with the excruciating pain but at the same time, it felt like my son was Always. On. My. Boob. because for those few dark weeks, he literally was always on my boob (crying and swatting at me, usually.) When he cried, I would cry too, just from feeling so exhausted and frustrated. I thought he was just using my nipple for comfort half the time, but now I know he was trying to get more milk because now I know he wasn’t getting enough, due to the mastitis. Aghh, this broke my heart and made me feel like a failure as a mom but the scariest moment was when I went to get him weighed and he hadn’t gained enough.
I was referred to a breastfeeding doctor who took me in right away and helped me do the best I could with what she confirmed were my “one-and-a-half milk-producing” breasts. I have to tell you, this doctor was a saint. First of all, she didn’t judge me for being a moron about my mastitis and she also told me it’s okay to top my son up with formula. Those were the magic words I needed to hear.
I want to make it clear that I had no pressure from anyone but myself to fully breastfeed my son. It was my goal and I was determined to see it through. (I’m stubborn. Classic Taurus.) One time my husband, Nic, gently told me, “If it’s too hard, let’s consider alternative ways to feed him.” I bit his head off. That’ll teach him for trying to make my life easier!
Thankfully, my breastfeeding doctor taught me the correct way to feed Sebastien. Just as I had already suspected, he was a pro on the left but struggled with the right. We fixed that.
F you, right boob!
Then, she put me on a plan to start producing more milk, working with what I have, and topping up with formula. At one point, I was taking Domperidone (which can help with milk production), pumping, breastfeeding, and formula feeding. It was a lot. Sadly, I still couldn’t ever pump enough to get more than one feed ahead of Sebastien, but at least with pumping and formula, Nic could finally help feed our son and give me a break once in a while. (Damn you men, and your non-milk producing chests.) I eventually gave up pumping after two months to make things more simple and just stuck to breastfeeding and formula. I hated pumping anyway, I felt like a cow.
Shortly after our initial appointment, I went back to the breastfeeding doctor and Sebastien was back to gaining a healthy amount. I could even tell the difference just by looking at him, his little face was starting to fill out. Plus he wasn’t fighting me during feedings anymore, and I could actually start to enjoy the experience! I ended up going back to see her to monitor our progress several more times over many months, even when Sebastien started solids. She also helped me ween slowly over time without getting mastitis again, which can happen.
After my mastitis at 3 weeks postpartum, I made it my goal to breastfeed until 6 weeks. I don’t know why, I guess because to me, in that moment, it seemed impossible to get to that point. Once I hit 6 weeks, I set my new goal at 6 months. At 6 months, I figured, why not make it a year? Sebastien was the one who decided he was done breastfeeding at 11-and-a-half months, just two weeks before his first birthday. You know what? Let’s round that up to a year, close enough! I’m proud of myself, it honestly feels like one of the biggest accomplishments of my life looking back.
During the dark weeks, everyone in my life told me it was okay to give up if I wanted to, but they also encouraged me and supported my decision to keep going when I made it clear that’s what I wanted to do.
I think that was key for me, knowing I wouldn’t have been judged either way.
Even though I’m done breastfeeding Sebastien now, I’m still not completely done with my mastitis case. When I was first diagnosed, I had to get an ultra sound on my breast to see what was going on with the lump, which turned into several ultra sounds to monitor the size of it and to make sure it was getting smaller over time. I’ve lost track of the amount of ultra sounds I’ve had since then, but the important thing is slowly, but surely, it’s gone down. My last ultra sound was right before Sebastien’s first birthday. On his second birthday, I’ll have to get another one, so it’s still not over. I can actually, 21-months-later, still feel a trace of it. GO AWAY ALREADY.
I do worry that if we have another baby, it will affect them too but there’s really no point in worrying since I can’t change it now. I do know that if we’re lucky enough to have another child, I will be going straight to my breastfeeding doctor, no matter how I’m feeling. Lesson learned, I will be on top of it before sh*t gets rough!
The other important lessons I took away from this were to:
- listen to what my body is telling me and trust my instinct when something is wrong (denial, much?)
- take care of myself (because how can we take care of our babies when we’re not well ourselves?)
- and ask for help! (I was trying to handle everything on my own for too long.)
It seems so simple now.
One more thing I want to add, which is unrelated to my mastitis ordeal but related to breastfeeding, is that in that first year, I breastfed in public a lot. Sometimes with a cover and sometimes without. I read so many stories online of mothers getting verbally attacked for doing just that so I prepared myself, just in case. I knew exactly what I would have said if anyone ever approached me and told me to “cover up” or “go somewhere else.” I was ready! (For the record, I would have said, “Go f*ck yourself.”)
However, the only thing I ever got was supportive smiles. It was such a pleasant surprise. Not one person gave me a disgusted look. Not one person was creepy about it. Everyone just smiled to let me know I didn’t have to feel uncomfortable or apologetic. A simple gesture, but it meant a lot!
My wish is that the same could be done for every mama, everywhere, every time… because you just don’t know the hell they could be going through. We’re all just trying to feed our babies around here, the way we decided works best for us! So next time you see a mother breastfeeding, bottle feeding, or pumping, just f*cking smile. 🙂
xo – Bri
[photo credit: Leina Wade Photography]