Mammal to mammal

4 01 2013

In the past 3 months, I’ve learned a lot about breastfeeding.  I did a bunch of research before we started, of course, but you don’t know what you’re going to need to know until you hold that small, red-faced creature with the gaping, searching, hot little pink mouth, usually while it’s crying pitifully, up to the chest you’ve had for your entire life and never once used for something useful, and think “okay, now what?”

They tell you babies know how to do it–that it’s the only thing they know how to do, but right from the first that’s misinformation; babies know how to suck, if you put the right-shaped object into the right part of their mouth (pressed right up against the soft palate at the back of that little mouth, in case you didn’t know), and if you don’t do that, they’re just as helpless as they look.  And if you have the wrong nipples–I learned all about the words “flat” and “inverted” and “redheads, in particular, tend to have this problem”–then the little mouth does the best it can but doesn’t get very far, and most just ends up gumming Mum’s nipple into hamburger.  Fortunately, after only a day and a half of us groping around awkwardly with one another while the nurses at the hospital gave me disapproving looks and said “you’re doing it wrong” and “don’t let her do that” (but without showing me anything to do differently or how to feed her without “letting” her use the only mouth she had the only way she could on the only nipples I had to offer), the elusive lactation consultant appeared.  She took one look at my coloring–all of my clothes were still on–and said “well, you’re fair and red-headed, so that’s two strikes against you.”  Then she took the quickest of glances at the nearest nipple and shook her head.  “That’s not going to work.  You need one of these.”  And miracle upon miracle, she produced a Medela nipple-shield out of her pocket and handed it to me without a fight–apparently, the nurses had implied, these were magic but you had to try hard to convince the consultants to share them, because for some reason they were guarded heavily (later, we found out you could just buy your own for $3 at Babies ‘R’ Us, so I have no idea what the subterfuge was about!).  We put the shield on as an experiment–“see if she’ll take it,” she said, “although sometimes they need some–.  Oh.  Well, that’ll work fine, then!”  And voila: the first hurdle, how to get milk into the baby into the first place without reducing Mummy to a ball of bruised wincing every 2 hours, was cleared.

Pre-shield attempt at breastfeeding: trying to latch a newborn onto the equivalent of the seam on a beach ball.

Pre-shield attempt at breastfeeding: trying to latch a newborn onto the equivalent of the seam on a beach ball.

If anybody else is looking for tips with baby-induced chest-hamburger, here’s what the consultant taught me to do (and then I didn’t really need to much, because really, the hamburger process had only just begin, and all I really had were a few purple bruises that went away as soon as the reiteration stopped): when you remove the baby from the bruise, wipe milk all over it and let it air dry.  Then steep a tea bag for a few minutes, squeeze out the tea, and hold the warm thing against the nipple until the bag is cold.  Then let it air dry again.  THEN put some lanolin on to protect it from shirt-rubbing for the hour that’s left of your 2-hour gap between infant feedings.  Breastfeeding, I learned quickly, takes up a LOT of time.

The packaging for the shield says to use it for the first 1-2 minutes of a nursing session, then put it away, because the baby will draw the nipple out enough by then to have something to latch onto properly.  The internet research I did was full of people saying things more like “I used those the whole time for the three years my son was nursing.”  So we do occasional naked nipple experiments, but for the most part we’ve left well enough alone: with the plastic nipple in place, Evanny ate and grew, and you don’t mess with that combination once you’ve got it going.  For the first 2 1/2 months, those experiments had the same result every time: she would screw up her tiny face and push her pointy little tongue around my bare nipple in confusion.  “What is this warm pink thing,” her expression seemed to ask, “and where is my nipple?”  Only in the past couple of weeks have we succeeded a few times at starting a session with the shield in place and switching to going without it, and it’s never at my instigation: she’ll be flailing about, and she’ll pull it off, and if she’s interested in continuing to nurse soon enough after doing that (before the shape changes again and the little point goes down), I’ll put it in her mouth and she’ll go on nursing as if nothing’s changed–my guess is that she’s finally big enough and has enough mouth-mobility and suction to pull it into position, so it’s not confusing anymore, and as long as it’s making milk, she’ll take it!

The other thing I learned quickly about breastfeeding is that learning about breastfeeding involves reading–not necessarily learning, but definitely reading–a lot about newborn poop.  I’m not going to blog about those lessons; the internet is swamped with advice, narrative, and photographs.  Yes, photographs, of diapers full of poop, so new moms can hold their babies’ diapers up to the screen to compare and guess for themselves whether anything is wrong or not.  Easier than bundling the child into the carseat for a trek across town in the snow to the pediatrician’s?  Hell yes.  But not really something I figure anybody needs to read about until it’s exactly what they were looking for–and if you’re looking, Google makes all that stuff really easy to find.  But I learned about foremilk, and hind milk (for some reason, one of those is usually spelled as a compound word and the other as 2), and imbalances between the two, and ways to adjust the rhythm of which breast you put the baby to when to try to adjust for which amounts of what she’s getting.  Maybe all that learning paid off, and maybe she just outgrew the belly issue that sent me seeking in the first place about at the same time I got into a rhythm.  As with most baby-related troubleshooting practices, chances of each are about 50/50.

After we got that sorted, it was time to start learning about breast-pumps and bottle feeding–the devices were simple enough, with a little coaching from an experienced friend, and Evanny’s experience with plastic nipples made her use of the bottle-nipple not even a minor bump in the road (she literally didn’t even look confused, she just drank the milk, although it involved a little coughing and sputtering the first time, solved when we learned that our trial nipple had the wrong-sized hole), but timing is a constant concern: how to work pumping in between feedings so that there’s milk to pump but then the milk the baby needs isn’t all in the bottle when she’s hungry (compounded by the reality that it takes two hands an a free half an hour to do the pumping, which doesn’t work when the baby’s awake and I have her alone, and by the way she doesn’t nape).  So I spend a lot of time calculating while I’m doing other things, and not much time pumping.  Still, there are 30 ounces or so of milk safely preserved in the freezer and a few in the refrigerator for when we need a sitter Saturday, so we’re getting enough of a hang of it to survive so far.

All of the logistics are thus pretty occupying, and they don’t leave a lot of reflection-time for thinking about how one feels about all of this, at least early on.  Even the shields, salvation that they are, are logistical intrusions: I have to make sure I have one wherever we are, cleaned and ready to use, or else we’re traipsing through the house trying to find one.  And when transferring a sleeping baby into her bassinet and out of your bed, one has to ninja-twist one’s own body up first, which often involves the shield falling off, and it’s clear and doesn’t weigh anything, so it doesn’t make a sound when it falls.  So they’re wonderful, but there are moments when I resent the heck out of them and wish for normal nipples so that this process could at least be as always-at-the-ready as it’s advertised to be.  At three months, though, we’re starting to get into little rhythms, starting to have a sense of what never works and what might sometimes work (I don’t expect to ever get to “always”), and it’s freeing up brain cells, a few at a time, to let reflection back in.

I do sometimes bemoan the ball-and-chain nature of being a breastfeeding Mum: I can’t be without her for more than 2 hours without planning and pumping ahead, and even then I have to time the hours well; feeding her in the middle of the night takes an hour or two rather than the 15 minutes it would take for her to drain a bottle; I’m often stapled to the couch or the bed for 1-2 hour stretches with no real warning; I always have to leave the family after dinner to seclude us in the bedroom to nurse in the dark until after Caleb’s bedtime, so I’m no longer involved in the story-and-snuggle; I can’t really reach over her head to do much on the computer while she nurses, and she’s distracted by too much noise and strange voices, so most video is out… it’s a bit claustrophobic sometimes, really, and it does, literally, steal things from me–and not just all the moisture in my body, so that I’m constantly thirsty, the fifth of all of my nutrients, so I’m constantly hungry, or my mobility (I can’t interrupt to go to the bathroom without making her cry, stirring her up, and starting the road to bedtime all over again–and I’ve been drinking all that extra water!).  Really, considering all of that (and oh the back aches, because no matter how many times they say “bring the baby to you; don’t bend yourself to the baby,” sometimes you just can’t, and holding a ten-pound deadweight off-balance in your arms and clutched in a fixed position against your body, it turns out, isn’t really any more comfortable than the bending–but I can’t spend all day every day lying in bed alternating sides!) it’s amazing that I don’t hate breastfeeding.

But I don’t.

My mom waxes lyrical about it being physically pleasurable, but it’s more prickly, to me; the only real pleasure is when it makes a too-full breast stop aching (which isn’t to be under-rated, but isn’t itself a reason to like a thing).  Other people get all sentimental about the miracle of being able to sustain a life with only their own bodies, which I have to admit is pretty damn cool.  But I’m not consumed with that either–and when nothing else will pacify her, and Daddy’s at his wit’s end (and jealous and mad because he has nothing to offer her at all), I’m not smug about my ability to cure her woes and make it better.  I don’t mind doing it (most of the time), but it’s doesn’t feel like the sort of victory some of the cheerleading online makes me suspect it is to some folks.  I think I like that we can do it at all–even before I knew my nipples were problematic, I had suspicions, and I’ve heard (and read) plenty of stories from people who just weren’t successful.  So there’s the simple accomplishment of being able to do something that’s supposed to be natural and timeless and easy but often isn’t.  And the granola-chick in me is quite pleased about the natural aspect, certainly: I love that this food is free, that it’s incredibly healthy, that this is the one time in her life when I don’t have to worry, at all, about what she’s putting in her mouth and whether or not it’s good for her or secretly carcinogenic–as long as the silicone shield is as safe as it’s purported to be, that is.

Asleep on the silicone nipple: Evanny modeling her attachment to the only real "natural" she knows.

Asleep on the silicone nipple: Evanny modeling her attachment to the only real “natural” she knows.

It is, of course, blissful to stare into that little face as she concentrates on sustenance, as she closes her mind to the millions of sources of stimulation and new input around her and opens her mouth, running purely on instinct, drawing in what she needs to survive and trusting without ever having to think about “trust” that it will be there when she needs it.  And I’m a new Mum, so part of the bliss is the aesthetic pleasure of rediscovering, over and over, like every mother since the dawn of aesthetics has done, that this baby is beautiful.  I love to listen to her breathe, swallow, and even complain (this is funny and adorable; when we’ve made her wait, and she’s hollering before she latches on, she’ll keep hollering in the back of her throat, rhythmically, as she drinks for the first few minutes, until she settles down.  “Uurrgh uurgh uurgh uurgh uurgh,” she’ll say, and it’s best not to laugh, or she’ll pull back to glare at me, and spill a mouthful of milk down her face or my belly (depending on how we’re positioned)). I love to pet her soft face and her warm little head as she lies nestled against me.  I love her feet, kicking or twisting against or just lying warmly against my thigh when we’re horizontal; I love the tiny trailing warmth of her fingers against my chest as she falls asleep there (I could do without the tiny talons, though, and somehow her nails are never clipped enough for long).  And now that it works sometimes, I love the times she takes the silicone off and I can actually do it “right”–I feel better now that it’s possible, although I won’t feel totally good about it until (if ever) she can start from zero without the prosthetic intervention, and not just because it would take the pressure off of being terrified to forget it, leaving the house, and ending up with two full breasts, a hungry baby, and no way to bring the two together.

Beautiful mammalian miracle, un-diminished by the invisible prosthesis.  The tiny hands do have a way of stealing the show.

Beautiful mammalian miracle, un-diminished by the invisible prosthesis. The tiny hands do have a way of stealing the show.

But I think at its most basic level, what pleases me about breastfeeding is that it’s so human that it’s not, itself, corrupt-able by human practices, human cultural silliness, human ideals and theories.  All of that stuff is out there (breastfeeding going in and out of “vogue” historically, public bans vs. supportive environments for doing it, advocates and adversaries getting up in arms), but it only comes home if you want it to, and even then it would only matter to me.  For this little mammal, it’s not even a human practice, it’s just a mammal practice.  It’s evidence–in fact, undeniable proof–that the human animal is still animal, that for all of our making and building and designing and transforming, some parts of how Earth works stay just the same.  Mammals make milk, and milk makes grown-enough-to-survive mammals.  I like how, despite the computer screens and the bed linens and the space heaters and the other elements of our surroundings, when we nurse, this baby and I, we’re just doing the mammal thing, the same thing cats and foxes and horses and mice do with their new arrivals, the same thing mammals have done together since the dawn of mammals.

That, more than any other singular thought about miracles, attracts and fulfills me; that makes even the language of “miracles” seem like a belated human invention.  Humans were nursing their babies before language, before they were recognizable as humans. That’s “magic”: old, deep Earth magic, the kind so fundamental as to be simply interchangeable with “truth.”

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3 responses

4 01 2013
wonderhunters

What a beautiful post! Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. I, too, was given a nipple shield by a lactation consultant when my guy had problems latching, but sadly, my milk production never caught up with his needs. I wish I had read this post back then, however, because the only info on the Internet about nipple shields I could find was “don’t use them! Nipple confusion! Ack!” Which did not help my confidence as a newly nursing mama. I’m going to share your post with my online mama’s forum!

4 01 2013
Anonymous

Love the post! I had to use a shield with both kids! I loved that it solved the problem, but it does totally mean more logistics. I am STILL finding them tucked in bags and pockets here and there….a year after Varro finished nursing! Other than that, the only real downside was the messy “release” – when the baby pulls away, the shield still full of milk, which then….everywhere. But, small price to pay for being able to nurse for 15 months when your anatomy is apparently insufficient to otherwise make it work. 🙂 I also wasn’t over the moon about nursing in the rhapsodic kind of way I read about online, and often chafed at the enforced quietude. But, then again, it’s so rare these days to get quiet and stillness….as the kids are running around like little crazy people now, I sometimes think of those times in the dark fondly and look forward to the brief moments when they dash over for a snuggle! Always changing, those kids are.

4 01 2013
crashtacking

Love the post! I had to use a shield with both kids! I loved that it solved the problem, but it does totally mean more logistics. I am STILL finding them tucked in bags and pockets here and there….a year after Varro finished nursing! Other than that, the only real downside was the messy “release” – when the baby pulls away, the shield still full of milk, which then….everywhere. But, small price to pay for being able to nurse for 15 months when your anatomy is apparently insufficient to otherwise make it work. 🙂 I also wasn’t over the moon about nursing in the rhapsodic kind of way I read about online, and often chafed at the enforced quietude. But, then again, it’s so rare these days to get quiet and stillness….as the kids are running around like little crazy people now, I sometimes think of those times in the dark fondly and look forward to the brief moments when they dash over for a snuggle! Always changing, those kids are.

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