Against All Odds - My Breastfeeding Journey

When I had Blythe, I was the textbook definition of worst-case breastfeeding scenario.  I had all the odds stacked up against me.  Like many new moms, I was frustrated and angry.  I felt resentment against friends who were complaining to me about engorged breasts and how "messy" it was because they had milk spraying out of their baby's mouths.  I, on the other hand, was barely getting enough to keep up with my daughter's demands and I savoured every drop like it was liquid gold.

Thankfully, I am a fighter and I was not ready to give up on breastfeeding especially after learning how expensive formula was.  I fought and fought and fought.  We tried everything that was suggested to us by consultants, doctors and the online community.  After countless episodes of crying and consoling from my awesome husband, I can proudly say that I ended up breastfeeding my daughter for 14 months AND we had arm rolls and leg rolls to prove it!

I think back to my breastfeeding journey now and see it as one of those life experiences that I will remember forever.  It was one of the greatest struggles of my life and was the ultimate test of my patience and my determination.  I was challenged mentally to put my ego and ideals aside and do what was best for my baby.   Despite the battles, the outcome was positive and rewarding.  I remember the day I breastfed my daughter her very last feed, I was in tears because I knew I would miss it.

Many moms struggle with breastfeeding and each have their personal challenges and roadblocks.  This post is about my personal breastfeeding journey and how the best kept Chinese breastfeeding secret saved me.  I am sharing my story in the hopes that it may help some who are going through the same challenges I had faced.  I am here to tell you that it can work even though it may seem like you are tackling the impossible.  Here goes my story!  Warning...its a long one...

My Situation

Challenge #1:  I had a scheduled cesarian one week before my daughter's due date.  At that point, my milk supply had not kicked in yet.  I was no where near feeling engorged.

Challenge #2:  I have small boobs.  You know how research says that breast size doesn't matter when it comes to breastfeeding?  Well, that is not exactly true.  Your breasts are a reservoir to make and store milk and sure, you may develop more milk ducts over time that generates more milk but your reservoir is still limited in size and can only hold so much at a given time.  I've always had small boobs and while many new moms were out buying new bras because they can't fit into their normal ones, I didn't get to go shopping.  Having small boobs meant that after the initial letdown, I ran out of milk very quickly and my baby felt unsatisfied.  I had to pump twice as often as normal moms because my reservoir can only hold so much in between every pumping session.  More on this in a minute.

Challenge #3:  I have one inverted nipple.  I tried at least half a dozen different sized nipple shields but my baby was one smart cookie.  The slightest touch of the nipple shield to her lips would cause an immediate scrunching of the face and tongue-out get-that-thing-away-from-me action.  Of course, she was on her best behaviour whenever we visited the clinics and the nipple shield worked like wonders.  But when we got home, we quickly realized it was just a one-time deal. 

Challenge #4:  My daughter had a weak suck.  We brought her in for a frenectomy, as suggested by the doctors.  This is where a dentist comes in with a laser pen and cuts a small slit in the tissues underneath the tongue.  The idea is that this frees the tongue from the floor of the mouth and hopefully, gives the baby more mobility to suck.  Couple hundred dollars later (because Albert's health plan does not cover a frenectomy), we were back at where we started.  Unfortunately, the procedure did nothing for us. 

My Journey

Before Blythe was born, the hubby and I attended a breastfeeding workshop at the hospital.  Overall, the workshop was very positive and the consultant reassured us that all moms, regardless of age, size or structure, can overcome breastfeeding challenges when it is done right.  But I had a feeling my situation was different and so, after class, we waited until everyone had left the room and we approached her for a one-on-one consult.  She did an assessment of me, shook her head and told me straight up that I was going to have a tough time breastfeeding.  She didn't offer a solution and couldn't suggest anything I could do to increase my odds.  She simply shook her head and said "its going to be tough".  And that was that.  Talk about positive energy.

After Blythe was born, we went through the normal drills of going to breastfeeding clinics, listening to the opinions of various consultants and watching many many online tutorials.  We worked on positioning, massaging and tried various nipple shields to see if any would work.  And as with most first time parents, we were worried sick about whether or not she was dehydrated, hungry or gaining weight.  She would suck for ten seconds but after the initial letdown, the flow would stop and she would get impatient and come off.  We were left with no other option but to supplement her with formula.  I got extremely frustrated, impatient and disappointed with myself.  I was disappointed with the people around me.  "If one more person tells me to try fenugreek and blessed thistle, I swear I will smack them.  It doesn't damn work!!" was screaming in my mind.  Even though I was against taking drugs, I put myself on Domperidone.  We were desperate for a solution.

For the first four weeks, I continued to put her on the breasts for skin-to-skin and fed her as much as she would take.  And then we topped her up with pumped breastmilk or formula through a tube alongside my breast.  After every feed, I was on the pump for twenty minutes.  I averaged about 20 to 30 ml per pumping session.  One time, my mom was over and she caught a glimpse of the bottle.   "After 20 minutes, that's all you got?  Why bother?" she said.  That was a low moment for me.  Of all the people, my mom gave me a jab straight to the chest.  That was when I learned I was a formula fed baby and she knew nothing about breastfeeding.  To this day, I still cannot forgive her for the disheartening comment.  Yes, I am stubborn and I can hold a grudge.  But thankfully, I AM stubborn.

When we reached five weeks, I was determined to take Blythe off formula.  I decided I would focus on pumping and only give her the breast as an "appetizer" if she so pleases.  I read that there are moms who exclusively pumped and bottle-fed their babies.  And as much as I loved the skin-to-skin time, I had concluded that pumping was my destiny because direct from breast was not working.  I scheduled it in my calendar.  My alarm would ring every two hours, twenty-four hours a day.  My life became all about pumping and yielding as much milk as possible.  I started multitasking and learned to be very productive while hooked up to the milking machine.  I carried my pump everywhere with me.  I pumped while eating, while working and while driving.  I pumped in the public under a nursing cover.  I was in all-out pumping mode.

While all of this was happening, my husband took on the important role of making me soup.  We came across a traditional Chinese recipe online that suggested Fish & Green Papaya Soup for breastfeeding moms.  He started making me this soup from day one and I drank it in place of water every day.  Initially, we weren't sure if it worked but I've always been dubbed the "soup bag" by my family because I love drinking soup.  I didn't mind it so much even if it wasn't contributing to my milk supply.

By eight weeks, that was when we started noticing a difference.  By this point, we had tried every herbal supplement and breastfeeding drug known to humankind.  I decided to stop the supplements and drugs and focus on taking just the Chinese soup.  My yield started to increase from 30 ml per session to 50 ml per session...and then to 65 ml per session...and then 80 ml per session.  By six months, my daily yield was up to 1000 ml.  I remember in one of my pumping sessions, I filled the bottle so much it past the highest mark on the bottle reading.  I took a picture of the bottle and the hubby and I celebrated that evening.  I knew we were over the hump.

I finally found a routine that worked for us.  Along with drinking my Chinese soup, I pumped and gave her the bottle during the day.  Over time, I delayed my pumping sessions to every three hours instead of two.  I reduced my night time pumps to only once a night and we were able to start freezing excess milk.  We continued this for 14 months.  My favourite part of every day was putting her on the breast right before bedtime.  Even though it was more of a treat than a meal, it was a moment I cherished deeply because it was the only time I got to physically bond with my daughter.

My suggestion to all breastfeeding moms out there - go with your gut and do what you think works for you.  The first several months will be a rocky ride but if you stick with it, you will eventually arrive at a solution and a routine that works.  My breastfeeding journey with Blythe was no walk in the park but in hindsight, this journey was a lesson that was preparing me for motherhood.  What's more important to being a parent than patience?  I sure learned a whole lot of that.  It has shown me that everything is 'figure-outable' if you keep beating at it and that not everything 'they say' is true.  It has taught me the importance of keeping my eye on the prize.  At the end of the day, my goal was for my baby to be fed breastmilk.  That meant putting aside my ideals of what a breastfeeding experience should be like, accepting my own body for what it can (and cannot) do and doing whatever is required of me to achieve that goal.

I wish all of you breastfeeding moms the power to stay strong and overcome your challenges.  To those who feel like it is the hardest thing in the world, I can tell you that it probably is.  With determination and perseverance, however, it can work for you.  And if after reading this post you have things you need clarification on, feel free to send me an email.  I'd be happy to share more.

Finally, I am ending this lengthy (sorry) post with a few resources that I found to be very helpful.  As mentioned, we researched everything to death.  Hopefully, this highly condensed list will make it easier to tackle :)

Resources I Loved!

The Chinese Soup Lady

For those who have tried all the herbs and drugs suggested by western doctors, I highly recommend you give this a try.  You have to be patient though and make it a daily ritual.  As mentioned, I started drinking this from day one, every day for all of 14 months.  My husband doubled the ingredients and made double the quantity suggested by the recipe, and I would go through all of that in one week.  Even when we were traveling and visiting family, we made an effort to stick with the soup.  It was a lot of work (thanks hubby!) and definitely not as easy as just popping a tablet but it was what worked for me and was totally worth it.

Kelly Mom

This was the website I turned to for solid breastfeeding advice.  I found it to be most comprehensive and addressed all types of issues, from insufficient milk supply to understanding how our body works.  After reading one of her articles about how to establish milk supply, I made the decision to pump on a schedule.  It was a personal struggle for me at the time because my intentions was to be able to bond with my daughter and breastfeed her directly.  Everything about the birthing process was unnatural because we had an involuntary c-section.  Breastfeeding was the one thing I was hoping could be natural and something, I thought, I could control.  However, she was not getting what she needed from me and I knew I had to do what was best for her.

Stanford Breatfeeding Video

As I said, we watched many many tutorials and went on many many forums.  This was the one video we felt was most useful in teaching us how to establish a proper latch.  Included in the video are also massage techniques on how to get more milk to the baby's mouth.  During the first couple of months before I decided to exclusively pump, I tried these techniques and our feeding sessions did get longer (although it was still not enough to fill up my baby).

Update April 7th 2018:  After publishing this post, many mommy readers reached out offering suggestions on products they've had success with that I could possibly try for baby number two.  After doing some research myself, I picked up the (1) S1Plus Spectra Electrical Breast Pump and the (2) Philips Avent Niplette.

I've read many great things about the Spectra breast pump including its super quiet motor, "suckling" massage mode and its hospital strength pump.  I am excited to try it out once baby arrives and will be sharing my experience then.  

The Niplette is intended to draw out flat or inverted nipples.  Ideally, you're supposed to wear it during your second trimester and over time, your nipple will eventually stay out.  However, given that I didn't find out about it until my third trimester, I will only be using it after baby arrives.  Again, stay tuned for whether this was a yay or a nay for me.  

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