This post has migrated from my previous blog, because I really feel it’s important to include here. It was written November 22, 2012, about a month after my son was born. He’s my third child, but my first biological child, and my first experience with a newborn because I met my daughters when they were three and a half and five years old. This moment really shaped the person I am today, in fact the entire experience of pregnancy felt like my gateway to self-love. I so enjoy reading these kinds of reflections from parents, and I hope you can connect with some of your own early parenting experience through reading my birth story. xo
My sixteen-month-old son has an obsession. We don’t watch a lot of television in our house, so I’m not sure how this even came about. The little man is completely and totally in love with Lassie. I don’t mean the old black and white TV series, I mean a very specific made-for-tv movie based on the original novel. This film was made in 2005 and features a star-studded cast, including Samantha Morton, Peter O’Toole and Peter Dinklage. Lassie scores 93% on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer, and I’ve seen it about twenty times now, so I can agree that it’s a solid film. It’s feature length and my sixteen-month-old will watch it from beginning to end.
Not only will he sit quietly and watch this entire movie, but he also has favourite moments. We know these moments are popular with Noodle because he becomes quite animated and insistes that you watch, by grabbing you with his sweet little hands and often panting, which is his way of saying “doggie”. Every time his favourite horse comes on the screen he says “neigh neigh!” and he furrows his little brow whenever it’s a tense moment or tragedy strikes. He wants to watch this movie at least once a day, and we indulge him because, well, here’s why I’m writing.
I get a thick lump in my throat and a stinging behind the eyes when I witness how much my little baby boy loves this movie. It seems a ridiculous thing to get emotional about, doesn’t it? I don’t know why his love of Lassie affects me so…
It could be because I love dogs more than most people, and movies about dogs always make me very emotional. It could be because the little boy in the movie, with his serious face, prominent nose, and sticky-out ears reminds me of Noah. The little boy loves his dog and gets his heart broken. Maybe the film is making me realize that my own little boy is vulnerable and now that he’s old enough to appreciate film, he’s one step closer to being exposed to a world that can be quite cruel? Maybe his infatuation with the movie is making me aware of the depth of feeling that a tiny person can experience which is humbling? Am I depressed because my husband is allergic to pets and I don’t think our children (or I, for that matter) will ever get to enjoy a dog? Does his captivation with this movie mean that Noah is growing up quicker than I realize and I feel like time is slipping away? I’m not pre-menstrual, could I be peri-menopausal?
Now when I hear the soundtrack from the film, I feel this incredible sense of melancholy or perhaps its wistfulness. My son seems to understand every nuance of this story that he watches daily, and I’m amazed by this. I realize as I’m typing this that I want to witness him take in every amazing thing he will discover, but of course I can’t. Time is fragile and fleeting and I have such a short window where I get to observe him being moved, or delighted, or touched by the world around him. It feels like there is never enough time to breathe in all of his wonder.
Ah, hindsight you wicked bitch. You always arch your cunning brow at me, just before you drop the bomb that makes cringe and facepalm a la Homer Simpson.
Here at the homestead, we’re reading Pamela Drukerman’s delightfully written book “Bringing Up Bebe”. Do you know it? It’s a comparative analysis of French (from France) children versus North American kids, based on the author’s experience of French kids being much better behaved. It’s a great read, but there are so many ideas in this book that I wish I had known about when my fifteen-month-old son was in utero.
The biggest facepalm induced by this book thus far has been Drukerman’s revelation about sleep habits. French babies evidently sleep through the night at an early age, some as early as two months. Noah, who has co-slept with me in my bed since his first day home, and who also still breastfeeds, wakes multiple times through the night and he won’t go back to sleep without the boob. The boob is also how we get him to fall asleep in the first place when he goes down for the night. Nearly every moment of sleeping with his sweaty little head under my nose has been bliss, but honestly, as a full-time homeschooling mom, I need to start sleeping for longer stretches. I startled myself with my own haggred, dark-circled reflection the other day. Noah could probably benefit from a full night of sleep too, he’s taken to shrieking like a hell cat whenever anyone says “no” to him. Also, my (formerly) sexy grown up life could benefit from someone besides me putting the little monkey to sleep for the night.
The French take a little (approximately 2-5 minute) pause before attending to a crying infant, right from birth. They also get baby used to a mealtime schedule that matches the rest of the family once the little one is about two months old. The benefits here are multi-fold, but where sleep is concerned baby learns how to sooth himself to sleep when he naturally awakens from one sleep cycle to the next, and baby also learns to anticipate feedings within a natural daily rhythm. This isn’t jarring, or sudden, it’s just the way things go right from the outset. We’re all entitled to our own ideas about what makes sense for us and our babes, and these ideas really rang true with me. Trouble is, I’m about fifteen months too late to the chic French parenting party.
The advice that French pediatrician and sleep guru Michel Cohen gives to parents well past the baby’s early months in his otherwise practical manual “The New Basics” made my blood run cold; tuck the baby in with a soothing bedtime routine, free of nursing, turn out the lights, close the door and return at 7am the next morning. Hells. To. The. No.
I did not wait 36 years and nearly ten months to make a person with my flesh and blood only to have him finally learn to sleep on his own by letting him wail himself to sleep in the dark all alone until the morning. Is this a super overly-emotional and perhaps a little impractical stance? Yes. Could my baby be developing potentially long-lasting sleep problems with our current routine? Science says yes. Do I think you’re a bad person or an evil parent because you left your baby to CIO? No, I truly don’t. I really, passionately believe that you have to find your own parenting groove.
So what happens in a house with three parents when our newest child co-sleeps and breastfeeds well past the first year? Our other two children, who were birthed by my partner, and who I met when they were three and five, slept in their own beds and were weaned before they were a year old. Interestingly, both were great sleepers, which in my books means they usually slept through the night. As you can imagine, the three of us came from different camps. Both my partners are science brains who put a lot of faith in medical studies, rather than in anecdotal evidence. I am from a more touchy-feely camp where I feel a little paranoid and mistrustful of science. Building a life with these pragmatic, brilliant minds has been a very positive education for me, and I like to think I’ve made them both a little more ‘granola’ along the way.
Collectively, we all understood that the time has come to help Noah develop some more independent sleep strategies. Nekky and Sarah believed that a firm approach would work the most efficiently. I think at least one of them was prepared to try the Cohen method suggested above. I wanted to wean Noah a bit more gradually and slowly try to transition him to the adorable toddler bed we just found for him. Reading ‘Bringing Up Bebe’ inspired me to consider speeding up this process a bit. I actually don’t remember what it feels like to get a full night’s rest, and I’m fairly sure that I’ll be a better mom once I can reclaim that. There will be less crying with my head on the desk at the back of our classroom, for example. I am not willing to try the firm line CIO method where Noah is alone to scream until morning. The ‘extinction’ method, as it’s called.
A very recent Australian study revealed that there is absolutely no long-term negative psychological effects associated with certain variations of the Cry It Out (or CIO) method. These variations include camping out with your baby as they cry, or periodically coming in to give them a pat and some soothing words. Both are only recommended for babies six months old and beyond. You can read the study here, and then read the American Pediatric Society take on this study here if you like. If you prefer more layman terms, I liked this article from Reuters.
I’m sharing all of this because my extensive reading was eye-opening, and frankly game-changing. I learned that trusted resources, like the renowned Dr. Sears family, have skewed research to support their own claims that letting babies cry is detrimental to their health. (Read this one, for more details). It seems everyone in the “parenting expert” world has an agenda, and one really has to be their own advocate when it comes to everything parenting related. Makes sense when you consider how individual all of us humans are, even the tiny ones! It also seems like this particular subject is seriously fraught with emotion. I posted an article on my personal Facebook page to see how my friends and peers approached the matter of baby sleep, and people had a LOT to say, including some pretty harsh things to one another!
Last night, daddy put Noah to bed in our room, in his play yard. They had a nice wind down with stories and gentle music, and then when it was clear that Noah was really tired, Daddy placed him in the play yard, explaining that tonight he would sleep there, and that Daddy would be right there in the room with him. Mama S and I fled the scene, mostly so I wouldn’t kick down the door to Noah’s room if I got overly-emo about things. We took refuge in a nearby cafe and tried to keep busy while we got frequent text updates. Daddy, who is the softest heart I have ever known, steeled himself for the fifty-minute onslaught that followed. Our baby talks, so in addition to the wailing, he was also calling “Daddy”, and “Mamma” at the top of his lungs. Daddy would occasionally remind him that he was right there, and that everything would be okay, and it was time to lay down and go to sleep, and then finally Noah sat down, settled in, and knocked out. That’s when we Mamas returned, and I bunked up in Mama S’ room for the night. While we were out, I was surprisingly calm about all of this.
I slept soundly until about 3am, when Noah usually wakes up. Sometimes he also wakes up at about 1am. I awoke on my own, not because the baby was wailing, but because I was a bit panicked by the complete silence. I tried to relax, and settle myself back to sleep with a fairly extensive foray into the Women’s Fashion boards of Pinterest. This eventually worked, and Noah finally woke for the morning at 6am. Daddy informed me that he also woke up at 12:30am and cried for about fifteen minutes before falling back asleep. I WAS SO KNOCKED OUT, I DIDN’T HEAR A THING!!
This morning Noah was in great spirits. He was certainly happy to see me, and he fed voraciously in the morning, which we told him was “breakfast time”. The little monkey actually laughed and clapped when he saw my breasts. My boobs felt like they were going to explode, and I slept like hell because I was so anxious, but I think this exercise went so much better than any of us imagined. I feel confident that tonight will be better, and I’m feeling very confident that we’re doing the right thing for our baby, with all of the love and care we can muster. I say this not to defend myself, but to share my truth with any of you who are struggling with sleep deprivation, and may be afraid to try new techniques.
Noah is napping solidly as I type this. In fact, I’ve heard him wake up TWICE now and mutter a little to himself before falling back asleep! I expect he’ll eat an amazing lunch at noon with the rest of us. I think tonight he and daddy will have more success with bed time, and I don’t feel like I have to run away from home while they get settled either. I’m looking forward to next week when we’ve established a new rhythm and, well, all of us will sleep like babies. Parenting high fives all around.
The following post is a detailed account of my initial experiences with breastfeeding. Skip this if you’re squeamish.
Glossary (for the non-baby-having readers)
Nipple: The little nub at the end of a breast. Usually two, in my case this became four
Areola: The area surrounding the nipple. Slightly darker than the skin of the breast unless you go all National Geographic like I did and end up with what look like deli slices
Latching on: The act of baby positioning himself on areola and drawing nipple all the way back to his soft palate without choking, bucking, coughing, punching or biting you
Let Down and/or Milk Ejection Reflex: The hormonal response of the milk ducts releasing milk after stimulation, usually from looking at your baby, or hearing your baby cry. In my case this reflex is triggered by; the wind, getting out of the shower, getting into the shower, hearing my kids fight, watching sad TV, singing or hearing other people sing, drinking hot liquids, looking at pictures of kittens, smelling baked goods, thinking about my feelings of failure, laughing really hard, and Daniel Craig as James Bond.
Lanolin: A natural ointment made from sheep oil to coat your nipples post-feeding and keep them from cracking. This product has been udderly (hahah) useless to me until only this week. It also happens to be the best lip balm I’ve ever used.
APNO: All Purpose Nipple Ointment is a prescription nipple cream to be used post-feeding that contains antibiotics, a steroid, Ibuprofen, and an antifungal but is somehow still safe for baby. Developed by Toronto breastfeeding god Dr. Jack Newman, this shit has saved us from formula feeding thus far.
Breast Pads: Highly absorbent disposable pads with an adhesive backing to line one’s bra and catch leaking milk.
Nipple Shields: A thin piece of silicone shaped like a nipple that covers the nipple like a little dome while breastfeeding allowing milk to flow through and providing the nipple with protection.
Standing here at the almost-two-month mark of new motherhood, I have often remarked that I wish someone had been completely frank about the various challenges I might face in pregnancy, labor, and with a newborn. I’m not sure yet if some of my mommy friends were seriously sugar-coating their experiences, or if we all hit a point where we find a rhythm, the pain goes away, and we are left with such baby bliss that all of the serious bullshit feels like a fuzzy memory. Whatever the case, I’ve taken it upon myself to share in candid detail some of my early postpartum pitfalls because I’m the kind of person who likes to be prepared for worst-case scenarios. Breastfeeding has been the suckiest experience of motherhood thus far.
Today my son is nearly seven weeks old, it’s Friday, and we’ve had three largely pain-free days of breastfeeding. This feels nothing short of a miracle. Notice that I haven’t said that these days were free of mess or horrifically awkward attempts at the so-called “womanly art” of feeding. Each attempt continues to be a frothy, violent, milk-soaked debacle unless I catch baby at just the right semi-sleepy moment. I must also be armed with an arsenal of props that includes bibs, burp cloths, saline solution, lanolin cream and super absorbent breast pads. We still feel very far from being able to pull this off in public with any degree of grace, but I’m grateful that we’re making little steps forward.
If you read my birth story, you’ll know that we had a very short hospital stay. In the moment, I was happy to be sprung early and sent home. In hindsight those additional 24 hours probably would have saved us from the agony to come because we would have been granted a visit by the lactation consultant on staff.
I should have realized we were headed for trouble when my very first attempts at breastfeeding left me with dark purple hickies on the tips of my nipples. Feeding didn’t feel exactly comfortable at first, it was quite pinchy, but I thought I was doing everything right. I bathed my nipples in naturally antibiotic breast milk and slathered them with some lanolin after each feeding. Despite these efforts, those purple hickies eventually became deep, bloody cracks. The cracks scabbed over because I was trying to be topless as much as possible, as per the Dr. Jack Newman website (this guy is supposed to be THE authority on breastfeeding) and thus, each time we fed, the scabs were ripped off afresh.
Soon the pain became unbearable. My nipples were red and inflamed, and I was popping Advil like some kind of junkie. This coincided with when my surge of postpartum hormones kicked in, and so I began to spiral downward into despair. With each attempt at feeding, I’d be in tears of pain and frustration. The baby would be stressed out. I would be swearing and sweating profusely. Our existing children looked on in horror. I felt like such a failure, and I was beginning to worry that I was doing permanent liver damage with all of that Ibuprofen. Showering felt like I was being slashed with razors and life was pretty damn miserable. Each night at about 8pm after the girls were in bed, I’d sit in the bathroom (having a sitz bath for my stitches) and sob. I really began to fear that this was the new normal but I was determined not to give up.
I showed our midwives the state of my nipples. Strangely, they didn’t have much to say about it beyond advising me to keep working on the latch. On a day when they were particularly awful (my nipples, not the midwives) the midwife who came for my home visit witnessed the horror, but nobody bothered to call me and follow up. This was about the time that my lovely next-door neighbour, a fellow mom told me about the Jack Newman all-purpose nipple ointment. This cream was apparently a miracle, but only certain pharmacies could concoct it, and it required a prescription. One of the moms at school who had been noticing my Facebook posts about breastfeeding let Nekky know that our neighborhood pharmacy could dispense the APNO. I called my midwives immediately and asked for a script, wondering with more than a little irritation why they hadn’t thought to mention this remedy to me. Hours later, when I had the cream, the irritation I felt with my midwives turned to anger as I realized how immediate the relief was. I was moments away from deciding breastfeeding was impossible, but this cream made all of the difference. Each new mom should be handed a script for the APNO before they get their baby because once you need it, you need it urgently.
Noah and I soldiered on for a week, using the APNO cream, but then the pain started to return. My nipples were so deeply cracked at this point that it looked as though I had four of them. The breast pump finally came out, and Noah was introduced to the bottle. He was still getting breast milk, but now there was an extra step. I was terrified that this meant he wouldn’t take the breast again. This also meant I was pumping all day long, and god forbid if I had anywhere else to be. A busy day meant I’d be up late into the night pumping to make sure all of our feedings were covered. I was also super emotional, and feeling like a failure because I couldn’t feed the baby the way I wanted to, so I was incredibly sensitive about the idea of anyone else bottle feeding Noah. Luckily, my partners were wonderfully supportive with this, and helped me explain over and over again to the kids why this was still a job for Mama C, even though it looked like something they could do.
I made a follow up appointment with the lactation nurse. She said she hadn’t seen nipples so bad in all of her eighteen years, and said she had no idea what I should do. I made her watch us latch. Part of my problem was panicking a little as the baby began to freak out with hungry wailing. I wasn’t patient enough to wait for him to present a nice, wide open mouth and was latching him on with too shallow a latch. I was also letting him hang out and pacify, which is great with healthy nipples because it stimulates milk supply, but in my case was bad news. The baby would grow sleepy while pacifying and would slip in his latch, resulting in a painful pinching. The lactation nurse recommended I try nipple shields, which were horribly awkward and painful to use. She agreed that if those didn’t work I should continue pumping exclusively until my nipples healed. I did this for two weeks. Then after two days of trying my left breast, then having to quit again I finally called my local chapter of La Leche League, the non-profit breastfeeding advocacy support group.
Ladies, if you’re having any trouble at all, or feeling remotely uncertain about feeding, don’t wait to ask for help, and go straight to the pros at La Leche League. I should have called them the second I noticed nipple hickies. They were quick to return my call, and the volunteer I spoke to was very sympathetic and encouraging. She emailed me some amazing resources, including the awesome Kelly Mom website and she also sent the dates for the next La Leche League meetings. They are next week, and I’m going to attend. I’ll let you know how that goes.
The thing that finally did it for me and got us breastfeeding successfully was moist wound healing. It sounds gross, doesn’t it? Its actually quite simple, and amazing. I quit the APNO and instead mixed up a simple saline solution. By this point my nipples were looking and feeling much better, and I made sure to have some milk stored in the fridge just in case. After each feeding I bathed each nipple in the saline solution for about a minute per side. The instructions recommended using warm saline, but I eventually settled with room temperature. After the saline rinse, I expressed a little milk with which I coated each nipple, and when this was almost dry, I applied a moderate amount of lanolin. This is working like a dream.
The Kelly Mom site also showed me how to latch. There I read the very sensible advice that all people, babies and nipples are different and so the “correct” latch is the one that feels the best for you. I tried the asymmetrical method where the nipple teases the baby’s top lip and then the baby is brought with an open mouth to touch bottom lip to the bottom of the areola and the nipple slides in after. It sounds complicated, but it’s not. Here’s more detail if you’re interested. My midwives and the lactation nurse were showing me a method where the baby is jammed onto the nipple in a more centered position and that really just wasn’t working for me. I felt a bit dismayed when I realized that this asymmetrical latch is what I tried first with Noah, which the midwives quickly “corrected”.
Kelly Mom also gave me an obvious, but very helpful method for dealing with my overactive milk let down which would usually choke baby and have him violently thrash about with my nipple still in his mouth. After latching him asymmetrically in a cross-cradle fashion, I seat him upright instead of have him lie in my arms. Gravity helps with swallowing – something you don’t think about when everything else is going wrong.
I’m lucky that this baby can move smoothly from breast, to bottle to pacifier. I’m lucky that I’m producing too much milk instead of not enough. I’m lucky that I’m anatomically structured well for breastfeeding and that the baby is also built to eat this way. I’m lucky to have great resources available. If I weren’t so damn stubborn I may have thrown in the towel, but I really wanted to breastfeed this baby as long as I can, and I didn’t want to give up.
That’s the advice I’d give to new moms; stick with it and prepare for the worst. I’m sure most people have a much easier experience with navigating breastfeeding, but I find it so helpful to know that there are many of us for whom this so-called “natural” act seems impossible. Hopefully by sharing our experiences and resources we can all get to a place where everything is working just the way we’d hoped.
This week has been wrapped in the familiar haze of a place I’d hoped to avoid for a few more years. A dear friend of my love’s is losing his father to cancer (I always, always want to capitalize that word) in New York, and tonight we embark on a midnight road trip, Thelma and Louise style to lend our love, keep his apartment warm, and probably stock his freezer.
These painful stories are not my own, but they are so much the same in their telling. Someone strong and vital, a real force in this world, much loved and admired, taken down slowly by wasting illness while his loved ones stand by feeling entirely helpless and exquisitely mortal.
His daughter was married in his hospital room before he was moved home to hospice care. They weren’t sure he would make it, and wanted to act quickly so he could share the moment. Martha Stewart writes about this here. I can’t imagine anything in the world more bittersweet – such important moments happening simultaneously. My heart is aching for people I don’t even know.
Because I do know. I know what the gentle fingers of death feel like when She is near. Not disease. Disease is cruel, and angry, and unfair. Death is the gentle release at the end of it all, and when She is close, I can now feel Her and remember Her, like an ancient Mother, folding us gently into Her darkness. The hardest part is witnessing our loved ones, and ourselves opening our arms to this visitor that we’ve been taught to fear since childhood – whispering her name to the winds to speed her imminent arrival along.
I’m packing for tonight’s long drive to the Big Apple. I’m making lists, and crossing things off, all while sitting my best friend’s nine-month-old boy Dashiell. He’s incredibly sweet in his disposition, like he knows my heart needs to be reminded of the overwhelming beauty of life. He is hope, and possibility and happiness in a solid man-baby chunk of dazzling smiles and delighted chortles. He naps eats and entertains like clockwork, and he is the most precious reminder of why we must all use every day like a precious gift before the Lady comes knocking. My own girls are far away,warming the heart and soul of their visiting grandmother and I am aching for them right now. I take comfort in the knowledge that they are probably inspiring the same feelings of gratitude in her huge heart right now.
The road trip flies by, the hours seem like minutes with my beautiful company and the comforting warmth of deep, fueling love at the other end. We are all for each other in this world we have carved out, and if one of us hurts, we all hurt.
New York City is the dazzling, outrageous boyfriend I left behind so long ago, and it fills me with joy to see him again. I stroll through the streets, delighted by everything I see, open and drinking it all in. I’m savoring every moment for those who no longer taste this feast