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Making My Breastfeeding Journey

Wendy McDowell
East Berlin, Pennsylvania, USA
From New Beginnings, Vol. 31 No. 2, 2010, p. 13

My breastfeeding journey has been a rocky one, full of disappointment and heartache, but oh what a happy ending! I've been a baby nurse for 12 years now and I can't tell you how many women I've encouraged and helped to breastfeed! In my career breast has always been best. Imagine my shock and disappointment when I had breastfeeding complications with my first child.

From the first moment she nursed, my nipples were cracked and bleeding. I worked diligently with the lactation consultants to try to improve her latch. I tried various creams, gel pads, and nipple shields for the first week or two but then I was struck with a terrible bout of mastitis. Knowing that this is extremely common, I forged ahead after seeking advice from my midwife and lactation consultant. I was treated with antibiotics, rest, and fluids. But, the mastitis never improved... in fact, it got worse.

The fever didn't stop and the pain was considerable, as the infection spread to both sides. I was started on a different antibiotic and began pumping when nursing was too painful. By about five weeks, I was on my third antibiotic and still very sick. I was terribly engorged and the fevers continued to rage, but I persisted, determined to get through this. At my fourth trip to the doctor, he told me that enough was enough and I needed to stop. After ruling out a candidal infection, he said that this was the worst case of recurrent mastitis that he had seen. I was sent for milk cultures and an ultrasound because he suspected an abscess. He even prescribed Parlodel to me, an old drug used in the past to stop lactation.

I was so disappointed! How could this be? I'm a nurse for goodness sake... I had to breastfeed! But, I unhappily took the drug and stopped nursing. I bound my breasts (not advisable) and used cabbage leaves to dry up my milk. I was put on a different antibiotic to treat the resistant strain of bacteria I had developed. Slowly I improved and after several weeks was feeling better... physically. But utterly devastated emotionally.

My next child was born four years later. I was ready this time. I was going to breastfeed her, no matter what! My family was supportive, but very concerned for my health. Prior to the birth, we decided (I very reluctantly) that at the first sign of mastitis, I would stop nursing. My milk came in on the third day postpartum and by the fifth day I was sick. The fevers, chills, and headache started along with the telltale red streak. My daughter tried to nurse, but couldn't get any milk. I tried to pump and was unsuccessful, despite the fact that I was hugely engorged. I used cabbage leaves to relieve the engorgement and started antibiotics. As agreed, I stopped nursing on day six. How could this be? Weren't women made to breastfeed? Why wasn't this working for me? I felt like a disappointment as a mother and a woman. Why couldn't I give my baby what was best for her?

Four years later, when we decided to have another child, I met with the lactation consultant immediately. Was there something I was missing? Could the first mastitis have caused scar tissue that was blocking the outlet of milk? I met with a breast surgeon who did an ultrasound. She did indeed see some scar tissue, but said it was worth another shot. So, my midwife, lactation consultant, and I began researching severe recurrent mastitis. We developed a plan for prevention, hoping that maybe it would buy me at least a month or two of breastfeeding.

When my daughter was born, I started taking a very low dose of prophylactic antibiotics. The plan was to continue this for about two months. Upon discharge I was told that three things were not optional right now, sleep, nutrition, and plenty of fluids. Those were the things I had control over -- the rest was left to faith. In addition, I met with the lactation consultants frequently to assess my baby's latch-on and prevent nipple breakdown. I began taking the supplement lecithin daily to prevent clogged ducts.

The first four weeks were rough. I was so paranoid about getting sick that at the first sign of night sweats, chills, or engorgement I would call the LC for encouragement. I should have put her number on my speed dial I called her so often! I analyzed my breasts every time I fed my baby, looking for any sign of redness, but it never came!

Imagine my shock and excitement when one month came, then two, then three! Each time I nursed my daughter I thanked God for this wonderful opportunity. I can honestly say that there was not a feeding that went by (even those 3 am ones) that I didn't look into her sweet little face and think I was the luckiest mommy in the world to be blessed by so much.

If you are struggling with breastfeeding, keep trying! There will be ups and downs; that's why we talk about a "journey." It's true that each baby and each breastfeeding experience is different. For me, the third time was the charm! That, along with the support of my family, a wonderful group of lactation consultants, and a lot of prayer! Now my daughter is a year old and my breastfeeding journey continues. And what a blessing it has been!

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