The Reality of My Breastfeeding Journey
Being a new parent is exciting, but it’s not always sunshine and rainbows. Former patient and mom, Kate Zurenko, provides a first-person account of her breastfeeding journey and struggles.
This article was part of a short, month long Michigan Medicine Health blog series called #MommyMonday. From moms and dads to anyone who cares for an infant, check out other posts from this series like how to properly store breast milk and formula, what to know about mastitis, and common breastfeeding positions to improve latching.
When I played “house” as a kid, I used to pretend to breastfeed my baby like a “real” mom. There was no question about whether I wanted to breastfeed or not.
With my first son, breastfeeding went remarkably well from the beginning. So when I had Theo, I was confident and excited to breastfeed again.
I had no idea what I was in for.
Breastfeeding Theo started out on shaky ground from his first few moments of life. Looking back, I really needed time to get into a comfortable, quiet space for that first latch. But both the nurse and I were over-enthusiastic. The hustle and bustle of immediate post-delivery care was still occurring in the room, and honoring my wishes, the nurse tried getting him on my breast right away.
But something immediately felt off. From there I went on to face a variety of new and unexpected challenges breastfeeding Theo. And with those new obstacles came feelings of failure.
Challenges with my breasts, from size to nipple shape, made it very difficult for my newborn to get his mouth in the right position and latch properly. To this day, due to the weight of my breasts, I have to hold them while Theo feeds to ensure he remains latched.
I expected there would be a learning curve. I expected the process to take time, energy, and patience. But what I hadn’t experienced before was the bleeding, cracking, severely clogged milk ducts, and this new baby’s complete inability to latch on my left side despite our best efforts.
I did everything in my power to successfully breastfeed. I would pump the left side seven or eight times a day, for 10-15 minutes each and patiently try to latch him on the left during every feed. I became exhausted from the time-consuming cycle of feeding, pumping, and latch attempts.
To top it off, I was making so much milk that I leaked through almost 300 breast pads, which added to my discomfort and frustration.
During our visits to the pediatrician we received good news: he was gaining weight beautifully. The medical providers saw this as a mark of effective breastfeeding and said everything seemed fine since my baby was growing appropriately.
But I had to question: was everything really fine?
At these short appointments, and with his growth on track, it didn’t seem right to continue asking questions about myself. I felt isolated and alone. I wondered if other moms in my situation harbored similar feelings.
Finally, three months after Theo was born, I partook in Michigan Medicine’s breastfeeding support program to try and figure out how to improve our breastfeeding experience. Their physical and occupational therapists worked with both me and Theo. Right away, they assessed his latch as “aggressive and chompy.”
A strong letdown, combined with milk over-production, meant that Theo got enough calories without ever removing the hind milk in the deeper part of the breast. This made me vulnerable to clogged ducts, which made me feel sick and feverish.
Their solutions were life-changing. They used therapeutic ultrasound to break up the plugs and manual lymph drainage to improve fluid flow, which they taught me how to do myself. We learned that Theo's palate was actually higher than other babies, which aided in his feeding difficulties.
They did mouth stretching exercises on him, and there was a night and day difference in his latch after this therapy. Their support and expertise completely changed the trajectory for the two of us.
Reflecting back with some advice
With Theo almost one now, I wanted to share some advice with other moms embarking on, or in the trenches of, their own breastfeeding journeys:
1. Don’t rush into breastfeeding after delivery. Pause, take a deep breath and wait until you feel ready.
Whether you breastfeed right away or 20 minutes after birth, I personally feel this won’t make or break a bond with your baby. I wish I had breastfed Theo for the first time in a private, calm setting.
In addition, I wish I would have welcomed the option of having a lactation consultant come into my room at the hospital. Instead, I was sure Theo and I would get into a rhythm. Don’t let pride get in your way!
2. Remember that not all moms, or babies, are the same. And that’s OK.
Your experience is your own. Be kind to yourself and know you’re doing the best you can. I remember being jealous of moms that could breastfeed “on-the-go”. This was something that never worked for me and it felt disheartening.
Remind yourself that each mom and each baby is going to have a different breastfeeding experience.
3. Look for the positives.
My over-supply of milk caused many issues, but it allowed me an opportunity to help others and donate to Bronson Mothers’ Milk Bank. Knowing I could help another struggling mom brought me tremendous joy.
4. It’s easy to give all your energy to your baby, but check-in with yourself regularly.
Be aware of what you’re feeling throughout the day. Acknowledging negative emotions can be empowering and help you tune-in to your own body’s needs. It also prepares you to be a better advocate for yourself and your baby in the healthcare system.
You’re constantly learning as a new mom. Trust your gut, and speak up when something feels wrong.
5. Connect with loved ones or experts for support during calmer times when it doesn’t feel like your world is crashing down.
A venting session, call, or joke would completely turn my day around. In the thick of it all it’s difficult to take advice without feeling frustrated or hopeless. These moments might be especially hard for a mom struggling with postpartum depression.
Make time in those calmer moments to call or meet up with a friend or family member to just laugh, cry, or simply talk to help relieve that built-up stress.
So acknowledge your feelings daily. Seek help from an experienced lactation professional. And know that you’re never alone.
My breastfeeding struggle was real. Real, beautiful, and my own. And yours will be, too.
For help, contact our Lactation Help Line at 844-200-8894 with any questions or visit the breastfeeding support clinic. For information on how to donate milk or learn about C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital Milk Room, call 734-232-8833.