The image of the nursing mother is romantic: a smiling, relaxed woman with a clean baby head nestled at the breast; the only sound, a satisfied suckling. At least, that’s what it’s supposed to look like.
“I always heard breastfeeding was supposed to bring you closer to the baby, but I felt nothing but irritated,” says Janene Loucks.
After Lamaze classes and a hospital birth attended by a midwife, Loucks was interested in natural mothering. “I figured I’d try nursing when I left the hospital, but you have no idea what it will feel like,” says Loucks.
“Everything I’d been told about breastfeeding wasn’t happening,” she says. “My baby was always hungry; we were not sleeping, my boobs were 14 pounds, I was leaking everywhere. And I didn’t feel like he was getting enough nutrition.”
Loucks followed up with lactation consultants at the hospital, and she got suggestions about holding her baby and how to build up milk supply. After a frustrating first seven days at home, she came back to the hospital with her newborn son.
“I took him to the one-week weight check, and he’d lost some ounces,” she says. “That was the only time I felt guilty. I was doing ‘the right thing’ but he was losing weight. Then I was pissed.”
Against what she considered popular advice, Loucks began supplementing feedings with bottles of formula. “I would still nurse, just not that often, and eventually he weaned off the breast in one month. I didn’t even try nursing with the second child.”
Unfortunately, Loucks experience is not uncommon, says Cecilia Zwick, a veteran lactation consultant at Deaconess Medical Center. “A lot of the moms come into breastfeeding thinking this is a glamorous thing and that you can just put the baby to the breast and it happens.”
Nationally, just under 70 percent of new mothers initiate breastfeeding at the hospital, and in spite of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation that women breastfeed for one year, only 17 percent nurse exclusively for six months.
Zwick and her colleague Michelle West say the number of women who initiate nursing at Deaconess is higher than the national average — closer to 90 percent.
“Of course we’re hoping every mom can breastfeed, but we don’t force our goals on new moms,” insists Zwick. “Women need to know there’s some pain involved. They may not want to bare their breasts in public, they don’t want to be tied down … they have concerns about pumping.”
“We encourage them to come back to us for help, and to reach out to and find other breastfeeding moms they can connect with,” says West. “We have to look at every individual.”
Hardly seems like the kind of attitude that would earn Zwick and West the ugly nickname “Nipple Nazis.” But they know they’ve been called that, and maybe worse. “We also hear we’re the lactating nurses, which implies something else entirely,” laughs West.
When you meet with an average of 12 new moms a day, raw with emotion and an impending sense of failure, West and Zwick take resistance in stride.
“We have just a short time with new moms, at most 36 hours,” says Zwick. “If they’re really giving us a vibe that they don’t want us there, we make sure they understand the science of the correct latch and holding, and we encourage them four or five times while we’re talking to them.”
“Trying to get in there when you know they don’t want you there, or you have an emotional mom who’s trying so hard, worried about meeting her baby’s needs,” adds West, “we have to do a good job of connecting to these people in the time we have. We cross our fingers and hope we see them again.”
Sometimes, even after heeding lactation consultants’ tips on skin-to-skin contact, reading babies’ cues and drinking gallons of water, nursing just doesn’t come together.
“With the first two babies, I nursed for a full year, co-slept, worked full time, pumped twice a day, and went home to nurse at lunchtime,” says Mindi Finch. But with the third child, nothing worked.
“I went to see a lactation consultant several times, and I did supplemental nursing where you drape a line over the breast and drip in a syringe of pumped milk, and I was trying to pump and still nurse every two hours. It was just exhausting,” says Finch. “I used to think that women who chose formula were taking the easy way out — that they didn’t know ‘breast is best,’ or we had different value systems. It’s so ingrained in you that the only reason mothers don’t nurse is because they don’t try hard enough.”
“I’ve walked into a [former patient] and I’ve asked how long she’d breastfed,” says Zwick. “She’d say ‘I only breastfed for two months,’ as if she’s failed, and I’d tell her ‘No, you did it for two months. You were a success!’”
“I had massive amounts of guilt,” says Finch, “and I wondered if people were passing judgment on me.” She followed the same bonding practices she had with her other children: using a sling, co-sleeping, proper positioning. “I even looked for the bottle nipple that felt the most like a boob,” she says. She laughs now but says she still hasn’t completely forgiven herself for not being able to nurse.
Loucks, however, never looked back. “I never had guilt, once I knew he was getting enough to eat. Maybe it’s because I just don’t care as much what other people think.”
“Nursing is not as black and white as a lot of people think,” says Zwick. “There’s a lot of gray. It’s OK to supplement — you can do both. There’s no straight, narrow line. You’re curving all over the place.”