Breastfeeding for Healing…my story of “feeding” three boys
By Megan Crosby
My breastfeeding story begins three years ago with my first pregnancy. The only way to describe it is beauty from ashes, pain to restoration, redemption and healing. When I found out I was pregnant we immediately went to The Birth Center. I always knew that I would have a natural birth and that I would breastfeed. Both of those were nonnegotiable. However, at 22 weeks I went into labor and had my sweet boy hours later. Yes I gave birth naturally, but not at The Birth Center and not how I ever thought would happen. At one point the doctors told me “if this baby is born today, which it looks like will happen, he has a zero percent chance at life.”My labor and delivery went very quickly. Just hours after they told me that, and he was born weighing just one pound. Although that day was one of the hardest days we have ever gone through, it was also one of the proudest moments of my life. I had fought as hard as I could to keep that little guy in and knew that now it was time to do something even harder, push him into the world.
Every mom is proud the moment they hold their baby for the first time, even at 22 weeks that was no different. I relished in every minute I had with him knowing that it wouldn’t be very many. As I held him I knew as a mom I would never get to see him take his first steps, never rock him to sleep, or never teach him to play ball but in that moment I wanted to teach him something…anything. So I chose to teach him unconditional love and joy despite what the world offers you. Death was going to steal him from me, but it wouldn’t steal my joy in being a mom so in those moments we made a choice to be at peace and joyful through the pain and we know he felt it. There are a lot of things that bring a smile to my face about the day Josiah was born, like his tiny little finger grabbing on to mine before he died, or being able to feel his little heart beating through his chest, but there are also a lot of things that bring tears. No one could have prepared us for the next day waking up without him, or going to a funeral home to pick out an urn, but the worst by far came four days later. After the funeral home I really thought the worst of it was over, I was wrong. My parents came down from Michigan to be with us and help. Secretly I think my mom wanted to make sure I got up each day and took care of myself. They took us out to eat one evening. As I sat eating my steak all of a sudden my breasts felt like they were going to explode. I had no idea what was happening and didn’t want to make a big deal because my dad was there. I thought maybe it had something to do with hormones or something from giving birth. Never did it even dawn on me that my milk had just come in…until my mom asked me to come to the bathroom with her and as I looked in the mirror there was milk soaked through my bra and shirt. The pain probably wasn’t that bad, but the heartache seeing milk coming from my breasts amplified the physical pain. My body was making milk for a baby I no longer could hold and feed. It felt like I had lost him all over again. This was single handedly the biggest reminder of what I no longer had, what I might never get again. I called the birth center the next day and they told me what to do to help dry up quicker and ease the pain. I froze. Somehow using cabbage leaves to dry up made it even more real that there was no baby coming to drink my milk. I chose not to do anything. I was engorged for a few days and just sat and cried. I hated breastfeeding in that moment. When I saw other moms with babies it wasn’t that difficult, but when I saw nursing moms with babies it made me so angry. It just seemed this constant reminder of the bond I would never get with my baby instead of something incredible.
Six weeks later I found out I was pregnant again! Totally unexpected and we knew this pregnancy would come with a lot of appointments, medical intervention and a lot of prayer. I had decided from day one I would do whatever it took to have this baby alive. By week 12 I had a cerclage put in, by week 16 they found out he had a vasa previa and his cord was attaching wrong and I started progesterone shots. By 18 weeks I was on at home bedrest and by 23 weeks I was on complete bedrest at the hospital. When we finally hit 24 weeks and our baby had a chance at life, they started sending the neonatal team in to talk with me about having a preemie. The one question everyone kept asking was are you going to breastfeed? I honestly didn’t think that was an option with having a preemie so it took me off guard. How could I think about breastfeeding when I didn’t even know how far we’d make it or if he’d live. His cord issue was actually life threatening. A few months ago the answer would have been yes, but I shocked even myself with my new answer. Usually I’d say something like “I just want him alive so whatever is easiest for him” or “I’ll try but if its to hard for him than no”. Then they began to tell me if he was a preemie I would need to pump. Hmmm. Hadn’t really thought about pumping before, but ok. I knew breast milk was best and had a few months to start telling myself we would try and do the best we could.
Zech was born at 32 weeks by emergency c section and I felt so helpless not being able to do anything for him I actually wanted to pump. I began pumping for him as soon as they would let me. The pump and I got off to a rough start though. The nurse told me to turn the pump gage all the way up the first few times or colostrum wouldn’t come out…well I did that and then I fell asleep while pumping due to exhaustion and meds from the c section. So I pumped on high for over 40 mins and it was my first time. It basically tore my nipples apart. Oh lots of colostrum came out…totally red and all bloody. The nurse told me it was fine. I kept pumping on high for days. Finally one of the lactation consultants in the NICU told me to turn it down. I had a hard time getting the right flange size for weeks. When you have to pump because your baby is in the NICU- they tell you to make sure you are resting and eating and drinking a lot not to mention not to stress because all of these will hinder milk supply. Well I would like to see one of those LC’s sleep, eat, drink and not stress while their baby struggles for life. I tried. I really did but I couldn’t sleep ever. I barely ate no matter how hard I tried. I would just forget sitting at his isolette. So, I never responded well to the pump and probably never ate or drank enough so my supply was always low. At the beginning it didn’t matter, he either wasn’t eating or was eating barely anything that I thought no big deal. I saw countless LC and none of them were any help. I had mastitis twice and basically had a clogged duct on my one breast almost constantly. Everyone in the NICU kept saying breastmilk is best…pump pump pump. But there was no support or help. By week four I was getting frustrated and still in pain. Zech was starting to take bottles finally and when I’d ask if we could try to latch him on, that was pointless.
Zech didn’t know what he was doing it didn’t come natural for him. Even drinking a bottle wasn’t natural and he always struggled to breathe and eat. I sure didn’t know how to help him and all the LC or nurses said was he’ll do it if he’s ready, other wise just give him the bottle and pump. Or even if a nurse was willing to try, if I wasn’t in there right when his care time was I would miss the feeding. They didn’t wait. Those babies are on strict unnatural schedules. Many of the nurses also scared me into thinking breastfeeding wasn’t as good as pumping and bottling because I would never know how much he is taking in and won’t know if he gains weight. I was terrified of him not gaining. That didn’t sound good. So he never latched. I had emailed Katie a couple of times and wish I had gone in to see her, but I kept thinking, I’ve seen every LC there is here what else can one more do. (Sorry Katie!!!).
At six weeks Zech came home. We had no plan except to keep pumping and how to increase his bottle feeds and some formula of neosure for when we needed it. They told me by how many months he should be taking four oz at a time and then 6 and so forth. I didn’t know pumped and breastfed babies should always only take 2-3oz. So since I already had low supply even by two weeks at home it was time to “increase” his bottles and made it harder to keep up with pumping. Not to mention he was on an apnea monitor and seemed to set if off everytime I would get all hooked to a pump. Finally by ten weeks I think he was taking 4 oz at a time and I was only making 2oz. To get up in the middle of the night when I already couldn’t sleep because I was listening for his breathing and listening to the monitor, to pump then make a bottle was beyond exhausting. I tried to latch him on at home twice, but he was so used to kangaroo care he just snuggled in and did nothing with the nipple and I didn’t know how to help him. Finally at 11 weeks and the third time I got mastitis (because I had a clog that never went away that I didn’t know was a clog- two different LC told me it was just firm from milk coming in) I had a complete meltdown and decided to throw in the towel. He was already receiving half and half for the past four weeks and I just didn’t think it was still worth all the stress. Drying up wasn’t hard. I don’t even remember feeling engorged or hurting. A few days later, once I was dried up completely, Zech had a reaction to one of the formulas we tried, which sent matt to the store (7 different ones) at midnight looking for formula like they had in the NICU to feed him. I cried. And cried and cried. I felt like a horrible mom for giving up. If I had just kept pumping I could have something to feed him, instead it was midnight and he wouldn’t take the formula we had in the house and I had no way to feed him. That was the worst feeling in the world. I had decided after that for my next one I wasn’t settling for anything. I was having a full term baby and I was breastfeeding.
On Zech’s first birthday I found out I was pregnant AGAIN! We knew the road ahead would be long but we were ready. This time I still needed the cerclage and the progesterone shots but wasn’t on bedrest, just modified and take it easy. I had emailed Katie right from the start and met with her twice before he was even born. I took the breastfeeding class at the birth center as well. I realized one of the reasons why I didn’t go in to see Katie with Zech when I walked into the birth center. I hadn’t been back since having Josiah and was terrified. Just being in there and meeting with Katie that day was healing and freeing from a lot of fears. For the first time since losing Josiah and fighting for Zech’s life I felt confident. Katie and I had a plan. If he was a preemie and in the NICU again or if we made it full term I felt like I knew what to do. I felt confident and prepared for the first time in three pregnancies, not to mention felt reassured having Katie in my corner. She was already more than just an LC. She helped me recognize my fears and became a coach, advocate, cheerleader, and friend.
Low and behold Eli became trouble from the start and decided to stay in until just shy of 42 weeks! A complete God miracle. Katie helped me fight for my vbac as well and how long to wait before going in. After having contractions at about 5- 10 mins apart for four days, Eli finally came into this world all natural. Having eli vaginally by vbac was probably another one of the proudest moments of my life. The next came just a few short moments later when they placed him directly on my chest. It only took him a few moments to find my nipple and latch on really big and wide. He was a pro. Me and him were meant to do this. In that one first latch so much healing happened. I knew breastfeeding was so good for him and me and I was so proud of us. He nursed for a good thirty minutes and then nursed on the other side till he was all snuggled and asleep. I thought for sure it was smooth sailing from here. I knew enough to know though that things can come up, the first few weeks are hard, I’ll be up every 2 hours and so forth. Well the first 2 weeks were actually pretty easy. It was our honeymoon stage I call it. My redemptive baby, redemptive birth and redemptive breastfeeding. I had a chance to just soak it all in and love on my baby.
At week three things started to take a turn for the worst. Eli came down with croup which landed him in AI and we found out that I have a very temperamental supply. Between eli getting sick and an oversupply at the beginning and trying to fix that, my supply actually tanked. Eli also just started screaming all day every day around this period. Up to 18 hours a day some days. I frantically started emailing Katie and attending group. Thankfully at 6 weeks we finally found out it was reflux. Because of his reflux, he wanted to nurse around the clock and mentally with an 18 mo old at home I just wasn’t prepared for that. We were back in to see Katie to come up with a plan to help all of us feel more balance and sanity. I finally learned to nurse eli in a wrap and that was one of the most freeing and life changing things for our breastfeeding journey. Katie also got Eli to fall asleep that day in her office and taught us tricks to use. Once we got Eli’s reflux under control and helped him nurse and sleep more regular (due to all the crying he literally never slept), within a few days he started sleeping 10 hours at night. I thought wow this is great he’s only 10 weeks old and sleeping through the night. So I let him. Don’t wake a sleeping baby…well maybe you should if you have a crazy milk supply! So I would wake up every morning with my breasts super engorged and hard. I had no idea there was a clog in them. After two weeks of full night sleeping and hard breasts, I came back for a Friday afternoon meeting just to say hi and have him weighed. It was then we realized he was starting to lose weight. We had a plan to feed more and get him back up. However on Monday, just three days later, I called Katie in a panic because every time he went to nurse he would just scream and come on and off. So I tried to pump and feed him that, and after a 2 hour period I literally got nothing out of the pump. Where did my milk go? I saw Katie that afternoon and that’s when she realized the huge clog I had. She helped me get the clogs out and had a plan to wake him up to eat even if he didn’t want to and get him gaining again and my milk up. However my milk seemed to get less and less and harder to feed him and every week he still wasn’t gaining. Between the night sleeping and the clogs, my milk had tanked. I had to start supplementing. I was panicking because we were about to travel to Michigan and pumps and bottles and formula were not in my agenda with flying with two little kids. I thought I’d just wrap Eli and nurse him all flight. Not now.
Thankfully, Katie is a wonder boob worker! Between pumping after every feeding, nursing around the clock, fenugreek and going on domperidone as well as lecithin to keep the clogs down, in just over a week my milk was back up enough to feed eli without supplementing! Between different clogged ducts, and illnesses from Eli or me, my milk supply constantly was a struggle. Every time Katie met with us and helped get us back on tract so that I could bresatfeed Eli without supplementing. He wouldn’t have done well if his “milkies” were gone. He is a boob man through and through. At one point I think I emailed Katie every few hours. So she got sick of responding to me and called. That phone call changed how I viewed nursing. She was honest with me and told me something that I needed to hear. I kept thinking nursing had to fit in this perfect mold and he should nurse so many times a day in so many hours. I kept waiting for it to stop being hard. Finally, out of love she told me “Megan if you want to quit you can I won’t push you anymore but you need to tell me that this is what you want. And if it isn’t you may need to come to terms with the fact that your nursing relationship may always be hard.” That was all I needed. I had to let go of this idea I had in my head of how it should look and just look at what we did have. I had a beautiful bond with this feisty boob loving little boy.
Finally by seven months I began to learn what I had missed the past two pregnancies. What I had believed before having Josiah but what I lost sight of after having two preemies. As I nursed Eli to sleep one night I began to realize that nursing is so much more than just food and boobs. Eli nurses yes because he needs nourishment and milk…but some days I think that’s just a bonus. He really nurses because he needs me, his mom. He needs love. He needs comfort and to know I’m there. He needs healing when something hurts or he’s sick. He needs closeness and warmth. And sometimes to just say Hi mom I love you thanks for loving me to. Nursing is a relationship not a meal. Now I’m a actually glad my 9 mo old still nurses like a newborn around the clock. I love it. If we hadn’t had all these supply issues he probably wouldn’t nurse this much and I’d miss it. That is what I missed with Josiah and why it made me angry, and also what I missed when only pumping for Zech and why I could disconnect and throw in the towel. With Eli mentally, emotionally and physically I had to do everything it took to keep this going. There was no towel to throw in. When Katie asked if I wanted to quit everything in me was screaming, but I needed her to ask it to push me to where we are now. He needed me and I needed him. And Katie helped make that happen. I had a lot of fears around weight gain because of Josiah and Zech and the “NICU way,” so when Eli started losing weight I was terrified. I didn’t trust myself and I sure didn’t trust Eli to tell me when he was really hungry. Katie lovingly pushed and stretched me to get me mentally and physically to where eli and I needed to be. She changed my whole view and thought process on nursing and its relationship. She loved me to wholeness and helped make breastfeeding stress free, a blessing and a bond with eli that I have longed for. We just recently went through a large supply dip due to a stomach virus, but this is the first time I haven’t freaked out and I am on my way to re increasing my supply again without having to contact Katie every second. Breastfeeding has healed me from so many fears, lies, hurt and helped me let go. I needed it to work this time to prove that my body was created perfectly for my baby. After my first two I used to use the words “my body is defective”. I really believed something was wrong with me and it was my fault I had preemies (which it wasn’t), my fault Zech struggled and Josiah was dead…but it wasn’t.
My body was out of my control but that didn’t mean it didn’t work. God created me and Eli perfectly and nursing proved my body wrong. It works and was made for babies, made for Eli! I’m proud of where we have come from and where I know we will go. Eli loves nursing, but he loves nursing because he loves me. And as long as he continues to love mommy and mommy’s milkies, we’ll stop when he’s ready. This time he gets to decide when to “throw in the towel” and my guess is it will be harder for me than him and hopefully we’ll be ready together.
Who knows maybe ready for another little nursling by then…