Today my daughter and I are going to a breastfeeding support group.
Emily is 13 months old and we are doing fine with our nursing relationship. Em still enjoys her mama milk four to six times a day, and we are content with this. But when we get a chance, we like to pop in at this group. We meet up with friends, chat, and play.
While I was on maternity leave with Emily last winter, I had the good fortune of attending this support group, a free, but priceless, service provided by the hospital in which I gave birth to my daughter.
Prior to Emily’s arrival, I fantasized about breastfeeding her. With Jack, I had a lot of nursing issues. He had a tongue tie that went undiagnosed for several weeks, and my nipples got torn up by his shallow latch. Additionally, I burned off half my areola using a breast pump with flanges that were too small. True story.
With Emily, I imagined I was super-duper educated on all things breastfeeding. Her latch would be as light and tender as a butterfly alighting on my nipple, and my milk supply would be robust enough to nourish a small nation of newborns.
If you have read my previous lactation related posts-Badass Breast Feeding– Nursing with Teeth, or Cluster Feeding– Wise Words of Warning, or Pumping: the Agony and the Ecstasy– you already know that this was not the way things went down.
Like Jack, Emily had a very tight latch and a tongue tie. I was sore within hours of her birth.
Our lactation consultant, or as I nick named her, our Patron Saint of Lactating Mothers, was one of the first people to meet Emily. She held me while I cried in post-partum, hormonal frustration, and validated the fact that my nips were indeed red and raw. She advocated for me to get my breast milk cultured for infections, of which I had both bacterial and fungal. She also invited me to attend her weekly support group for nursing moms.
Although we attended group regularly, my nipple problems got worse. An open wound on my right nipple would not heal, no matter how it was tended to. I also had Renaud’s Syndrome or Vasospasms, a crazy-painful circulatory condition in which the nipple blanches after nursing then turns purple, and burns like hell. Some nights the burning was so bad it kept me from sleeping those precious few moments when Emily wasn’t on the breast.
At home, my nursing sessions were crying jags of devastation.
But at group, I was able to nurse nearly without pain.
How could that be?
I did a little research and found that our hormone, oxytocin, is miraculous. I believe oxytocin got a bad rap from its synthetic step-sister, pitocin which is used to induce labor, and causes the most demonic contractions known to the female race.
Oxytocin is a kinder, gentler hormone that we make in our own bodies. It does cause labor contractions, but it is also released by our brains during orgasm and when a person is cozy and comfortable, such as during a massage or cuddling. Oxytocin is also responsible for the milk release, aka, let down, when we nurse our babies.
This was an amazing fact to me– that our milk is let down not merely by our babies suckling at our breasts, but by a chemical reaction in our brains! Without this oxytocin release in the brain, breast feeding would be nearly futile because our milk wouldn’t let down.
The book, Breast Feeding Made Simple, by Nancy Mohrbacher, IBCLC (New Harbinger Publications, 2010) was a godsend to me. In it, Morbacher writes, “The oxytocin response triggered by both skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding may have many far-reaching effects. . . It causes a decrease in aggressive and defensive feelings, making you feel more open to the new little “stranger” to whom you have given birth. Oxytocin influences your mood, makes you calmer, and promotes a closer relationship with your baby. . . The effects of oxytocin may also help with relationships outside your family. This may be one reason why many breastfeeding mothers love the atmosphere of mothers’ groups, where those with high levels of oxytocin gather and befriend one another,” (p. 43).
BINGO!! Could our bodies be any more amazing?
Being at group calmed and soothed me. Emily and I made a lot of friends, with whom we kept in touch over the past year. When I see these women and their lovely babies (who are now toddling around on two feet!), I swear I can feel a surge of oxytocin course through my veins. In layman’s terms, I get all warm and fuzzy.
I was educated, organized and prepared when it came to breastfeeding. I bought the most recommended breast pump, milk storage baggies, and nursing bras. I was armed to the teeth with lanolin, nursing pads, books and apps on my smartphone. None of this prep mattered after I actually had those babies in my arms, looking up at me with hungry eyes.
I share these stories, because I’d like to save other women from the discomfort and depression of nursing issues.
I also share because I want women to know they are not alone. The postpartum days can be hectic and lonely. Fuzzy fantasies of nursing your little darling in the shade of a rainbow with little bunnies frolicking around you because you are such a mother-loving-milk-goddess can be rapidly dispelled as your hormones rage and sleep deprivation tortures you day and night.
My point is, as educated and prepared as you may be, there can still be pitfalls. Support is everything.
In nursing both of my children, I have had amazing support and guidance, not just from groups, but also from my family and my friends. Not every woman has this. After I had Jack, I was shocked at how difficult breastfeeding was, and at how much help and nurturance I needed along the way. I thought that I would be an old pro by the time I had Emily, but once again, I could never have continued nursing through all the pain, confusion, and frustration without a support network.
If you are a mom who is in toe-curling agony or just mild discomfort with your nursing relationship, my recommendation is to find a group and go to it. There is something powerful about nursing in a room full of moms and babies. You can often find a group through your hospital or local La Leche League.
In some more remote or rural areas, there may be very little access to in-vivo support groups. There are also a bunch of online forums, including groups on Facebook, where you can chat with other moms, post questions, and get a pat on the back when you need one. Two of my favorites are http://www.theleakyboob.com and http://www.thismilkmatters.org. They are both warm and non-judgemental places where you can share and care.
Even if you are just feeling somewhat isolated and disoriented with your transition to motherhood, these groups can help to connect you to a new network of peers who are experiencing a similar situation. And if you don’t like it, or it doesn’t help, find an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) to help evaluate your baby’s latch and give you some pointers.
When Emily and I get a chance to go to group now, she is far too curious and busy to actually nurse with me. That’s okay. It is still a blessing to see our Patron Saint of Lactation, and to talk about all the various challenges that arise with toddler-hood. It is also nice to meet new moms and newborns, encourage them, and let them know that nursing is so worth it in the end.
And I’m not going to lie; I ride that warm-fuzzy oxytocin high for the rest of the week.