“You have flat nipples,” my midwife said, my breast in her hand. I was at my first prenatal appointment. “Are you planning to nurse?” she asked. I told her yes. “These might be a challenge,” she said.
I delivered my daughter in July of 2019. I had been asked if I was planning to breastfeedapproximately 85 times. I’d read the benefits of breastfeeding posters over and over. My insurance company sent regular texts urging me to give my baby my own milk. At the hospital breastfeeding class, we talked about overcoming every obstacle — flat nipples to tongue ties. “Yes,” I said, again, “I am planning to breastfeed.”
At first, I did. I didn’t panic when it didn’t come easy. A nurse helped me suction a nipple shield onto my breast, and a lactation consultant came in later and squeezed milk onto a spoon, putting it into my daughter’s mouth. “You’ll get the hang of it,” everyone said.
She started to become lethargic
At home, I didn’t worry when she didn’t want to nurse, or when my mom tried and failed to help us latch. I didn’t even worry when she got lethargic, started to sleep more, and uninterested in eating or being soothed. But my husband started to worry. His family lore includes a spinal tap in his early days, illness, and fever stemming from a too-small bottle nipple.
I called the after-hours nurse line for the pediatrician we’d never met.
I told the nurse what was happening. She didn’t mince words. “Do you have any formula?” she asked. There were samples in my cupboard. “Give it to her now,” she said. “I’ll call back.” I’d called the lactation consultant at the hospital, and she called next. “Don’t give her a bottle,” she said.
I shook the premixed bottle hard.
My daughter drained that ounce fast. I wept feeding her. I had failed to meet her most basic needs. Was I qualified to be her mom if I couldn’t tell that she was starving?
The nurse called again. We were waiting for a wet diaper that didn’t come. “Take her to the ER,” she said. In moments, we were on our way.
They feared she was dehydrated
As I watched the nurses nestle my 3-day-old baby into a blanket nest and insert a tiny IV, something clicked. Finally, I felt like her mother. They were about to put in the catheter when she peed on everyone. I’ve never laughed with such relief. They brought a pump, a sandwich, and a bottle. “If you hadn’t started formula when you did, she could have brain damage, or worse,” the kind doctor said.
Though I went to see the lactation consultant, rented and bought pumps, and stuck to a schedule, I only produced an appetizer. She never did latch. I tried everything for three weeks in August, which happens to be National Breastfeeding Month. I kept encountering pictures of women in white dresses, nursing babies in fields — the ultimate image of what I couldn’t do. Each visit, our pediatrician gave me formula samples. “You’re a good mom,” she said.
Three weeks later, I was in my midwife’s office with mastitis. “How would it affect you emotionally if you stopped?” she asked. I started to cry. “I think it would be the best thing.”
Much later, bottles in our past, the pediatric dentist looked in her mouth. “Did you have trouble breastfeeding?” he asked. I nodded. “I just want you to know it wasn’t your fault,” he said. As he left the room, I wept. I had no idea how much I still needed to hear those words.