"Here, try this, it's called the football hold," the lactation consultant said, moving my freshly born son to a side and angle that felt entirely unnatural for me. He was crying. I was screaming internally. None of this felt right.
My first baby had been born after 40 hours of labor that didn't progress. When his heart rate dropped, I called the doctor and said I was done. I had endured multiple miscarriages before getting pregnant with him. While I had been determined to have a vaginal birth, absolutely nothing mattered more than his safety. It was time to get him out.
The C-section was fine, and I imagined that breastfeeding would feel effortless compared to almost two days of laboring without pain meds. I was wrong.
I spent a year in therapy because of shame at my "failed" birth and my inability to breastfeed. When I went to have my second son at the same hospital, I went with formula in hand. I was not going to breastfeed. My thyroid disease prevented me from having a robust supply the first time, and my bout with PPD had been long. We found a formula that worked for us, and I knew that a happy mama meant for a happier baby (although I learned this the hard way).
Hours after my second son's planned C-section birth, nurses were pressuring me to pump. I'd halfheartedly attempted a few latches, but the baby couldn't get it done. (Eight weeks later we learned he had a severe lip tie and a minor tongue tie.) Every time the nurses came in, they nudged the pump closer to me and urged me to "just try." I felt guilty and could not say no. Thus started another breastfeeding journey that ended with feelings of failure and depression.
With my third baby, I was even more determined to do things the way I had learned was better for my mental health. I called the hospital ahead of time and told them that I would be bringing my own formula. I said I did not want a pump in my room, and that I did not want to be pressured to breastfeed.
The head lactation consultant was very supportive and even apologized for previous experiences when the nurses felt pushy to me. "They tend to think that a mom just doesn't know what she wants, fresh off of birth, with hormones and exhaustion setting in."
That struck me. Why wouldn't they assume that a mother knows what's right for her, and her baby? We don't trust mothers enough.
My third baby was born at 37 weeks with another planned C-section due to complications with cholestasis. There was no cry when she came out. I kept asking if she was all right because I couldn't hear her making any noises. "She's fine," everyone assured me, "just a slow starter." Her APGAR scores were both 8. I would get to hold her in a minute.
After 45 minutes, they said they were taking her to the NICU. I burst into tears on the operating table. No immediate skin to skin. Not even a good look at my third baby, my sweet little girl. I sent my husband to the NICU with her because I couldn't fathom her not having a parent nearby.
While I waited in recovery, no one mentioned pumping. While I sat in my room for four hours, alone, waiting for my legs to regain feeling, no one asked about breastfeeding in the NICU.
Once I finally got clearance to sit in a wheelchair and go to the NICU, my baby was eight hours old. I'd never been away from my other two newborns that long, ever. The moment I entered the NICU is seared into my mind. My tiny baby, hooked to cords and monitors, a feeding tube in her mouth, CPAP in her nose. I held onto her hand. She was here, she was safe, but I had never felt more defeated in my life.
"When can I hold her?" I squeaked, holding back tears and pain as I stood over her.
"Not while she's wearing the CPAP," the nurse said. "Maybe tomorrow."
That night, though, after the change of shift, the doctor removed her CPAP and said her lungs were strong. I got to hold her. I'll never get those first 12 hours back, but I reasoned everything had to be better from here. On day three in the NICU, they took out her feeding tube. I got to give her the first bottle and insisted that my husband and I would do all of the feedings.
The NICU ran on a 3-hour schedule, so my daughter was evaluated and fed at 6, 9, 12 and 3 around the clock. The only problem? Like my other kids, she was born with a robust appetite. She was always hungry before three hours had passed.
When my sons were infants in the hospital, I was feeding them in some capacity every two hours, if not more—urged on by nurses who said that feeding on demand was an essential part of mother-baby bonding. In fact, with my first son, when breastfeeding was not working, I was threatened at 3 am by another nurse, who said that if I didn't give the baby a little formula, they'd have to take him to the NICU. His blood sugar was one point too low. I fed him the formula, choking back tears.
But in the NICU, those mother-baby bonding and frequent-feeding rules no longer applied—and it was confusing and stressful for all of us.
After two painful nights where our baby cried for 30 to 60 minutes before we were allowed to feed her, I broke. I snapped at the nurse, in tears, and said, "My newborn is crying in hunger for over an hour, and I'm not allowed to feed her? If she were downstairs in the postpartum room with me, they'd be telling me to feed her. The only difference is that she's up here. She's hungry, she's able to eat, and no one can tell me that I can't feed my baby!"
But I'm a rule follower, so I couldn't just break the NICU schedule. I was scared that they'd deem me an unfit mother, which, in retrospect, is insane. Fearing being called unfit because I wanted to feed my crying, hungry infant?
The next morning when the doctor came in, he said he was moving her to a schedule that would allow me to feed her on demand, whenever she was fussy or I felt she needed it. I still regret that I had an emotional outburst at 3 am in the NICU, but in my own hormonal, desperate way, I was advocating for my daughter.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer that works for mothers and babies. We're all unique, but no one is more adept at figuring out what her baby needs than the mother herself.
Yes, we need medical care and experts. But many times this means asking why something is being done, or not done. In my case, I challenged the arbitrary nature of keeping my baby on the 3-hour NICU scheduled when my husband and I were right there, available to feed her. I'm so glad I did.
My baby is almost 11 months old and I'm still dealing with some traumatic memories from our NICU stay. But I no longer regret my middle of the night hysteria over her hungry cries, because it was the start of my journey doing what we moms do: making sure our kids are taken care of.
There is no match for a mama's intuition. Embrace your super power and believe in your strength.