Sometimes I think I can trace all of my breastfeeding woes to the first time I held my son. Recovering after my C-section, I almost missed the "golden hour" after birth when babies are awake, alert and ready to eat. The nurse gave Sam to me, and he looked up with puffy newborn eyes as I placed him at my breast. But just as he was about to latch on, the nurse interrupted and removed him from my arms. "We need to take some blood from you," she said. "Can't it wait?" my husband pleaded. "No, sorry," she replied callously.
After the blood was drawn, Sam was given back to me -- fast asleep. That was my first experience with a medical professional failing me as a breastfeeding mother.
There is no one type of doctor who deals with breastfeeding. It's a women's issue, but OBs don't usually handle it. It involves babies, but many pediatricians are woefully uninformed about it; and because their first concern is the child, the mother's role in feeding is often pushed aside. A recent survey in the journal Pediatrics found that 36 percent of mothers reported receiving no breastfeeding advice from doctors, or receiving advice that was inconsistent with recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Women are often told to see lactation consultants, but what they can do is limited because they don't have a medical degree and often are not fully covered by insurance.
In my case, a chain reaction was set off following our initial breastfeeding fail. Because he had not fed, Sam became lethargic and jittery, a vicious cycle that left him with no energy to eat. He wound up in the NICU for low blood sugar. As I tried to pump enough to meet his needs, he was bottle fed and supplemented with formula. Lactation consultants were brought in with varying degrees of success, but for the most part, Sam couldn't, or wouldn't, latch. Discombobulated by postpartum hormones, I was not prepared for the challenge.
After Sam came home at one week old, I took him to his pediatrician. I had interviewed her before he was born, and she had seemed very supportive of breastfeeding. But, I learned that's easy to say -- actually following through is another story. As I told her of my desire to get Sam back to the breast, she said, "I don't think you'll be able to, but prove me wrong." I had no idea how to feed my son, and she had made it clear I was on my own.
The lactation consultant I went to couldn't help either. "Sometimes they just can't latch," she shrugged. Sleep-deprived and emotional, I felt defeated. It was too hard, too time-consuming, too stressful. There wasn't anyone else to help me. I was alone, unable to accomplish the most basic, primal of tasks: to feed my child. I was about to give up when one day, Sam finally latched on. He soon turned into a nursing champ, gaining pudgy rolls and growing to love the experience just as much as I did.
But another challenge swiftly followed. Sam had small amounts of blood in his stool, so his doctors told me to stop eating dairy, citing a likely milk protein allergy. But the blood continued. I talked to his pediatrician about doing an "elimination diet," avoiding common allergens to try to figure out what was bothering him. She reluctantly agreed. But after another week or so, the blood was still there, so his doctors pressured me to wean to a special formula.
As I persisted in trying to identify what was causing the blood, I took him to a pediatric allergist. After initially being supportive, this doctor then said to me, "Many children in the world thrive on formula. Can I ask why you're so hell-bent on breastfeeding?" Flabbergasted, I struggled to put into words why I was so determined. But how could I describe the bond we felt while nursing, the emotional ties we had gained?
I felt bullied by those who were supposed to be helping me.
Sam was happy and energetic, gaining weight and in no pain. I know doctors are the ones with the medical degrees, but I learned that pediatricians actually don't receive much training in breastfeeding. My mommy instinct, as well as the legitimate medical research I read, told me that the benefits of my milk still outweighed the negatives. I took him back to the pediatrician's office -- this time, the doctor we saw told me flat out that breastfeeding was doing Sam more harm than good. "He doesn't weigh enough," the doctor said. "But he has been small since birth. He's on his growth curve," I argued. "He might be losing iron from the bleeding," he said. "Then test him for iron deficiency," I countered, to which he inexplicably refused. He resorted to scare tactics, saying that I could be stunting my baby's development.
As I walked out of the office I knew I could never go back. I didn't want to hurt my baby, but I just couldn't believe that's what I was doing by breastfeeding him. This doctor had no interest in perpetuating the relationship I had worked so hard to cultivate. He saw a problem, and wanted to fix it, and it didn't matter if nursing was a casualty.
I didn't know how to find a new doctor who would support my desire to continue nursing. Luckily, a neighbor of my parents is a pediatrician, so my mother called to feel her out on the topic. When my mom told me the doctor didn't think I needed to stop nursing, I felt such a surge of relief I started crying. At my first appointment with the new pediatrician, she said, "I have never told a mother to stop breastfeeding, unless she wanted to. Sometimes the easy solution for me is not what's best in the long run for mother and baby." That's it, I thought. That's how doctors should be looking at this.
I also saw a pediatric gastroenterologist (a DO, not an MD, which might have led her to consider a more whole-body approach), who concurred with my new pediatrician. After I eliminated egg, soy and dairy from my diet for about eight weeks, Sam's diapers finally cleared up. We had made it through.
I have since talked to many new moms going through similar difficulties as I did. I've seen them cry as they say what a failure they feel like, how no one told them it would be this hard, how they have no one to support them, how their doctors say to just use formula. When they tell me they are weaning I want to yell not to give up, although I hold my tongue in case saying so would make them feel worse than they already do.
Many doctors say they support breastfeeding but then insist on supplementing (a practice which can reduce a mother's milk supply) as soon as there's a perceived problem. When the going gets tough, the medical community just doesn't know how to handle it. I'm not talking about pressuring women into breastfeeding -- that should be an individual choice. But if a woman desperately wants to nurse and thinks she can't because she doesn't have the resources or support of her child's doctors, there's something wrong. It's often due only to a mother's own advocacy and determination that she succeeds. Yes, I am hell-bent on breastfeeding. I wish more doctors felt the same.
World Breastfeeding Week is August 1-7. Tina Donvito a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Mamalode, Scary Mommy and Fit Pregnancy. She blogs at foggymommy.com. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.