It’s 3:00am and I’m punching the bed, counting the seconds before I can unlatch my son. This is the most excruciating pain I’ve ever felt, and it will happen again in less than two hours and every two hours after that.
I’ve been nursing now for over a year. If you catch me in public, “whipping out” my breast to calm my son, it might seem effortless to you. Please do not let my ease fool you. It was not always this easy, it was a long road fraught with pain, tears, blood, and anger.
I was cracked and bleeding before I even left the hospital. The lactation consultant called my son, O, a “lazy eater” because he wouldn’t open up enough to get a decent latch. I was told to squish my breast and “shove him on there,” but that didn’t work. I used lanolin by the tub, I didn’t wear a bra, I let them air dry, and all the other tricks. Yet less than a week in, I bought a shield to help with the pain. It helped in one area but hurt in another; a shield wasn’t our answer. When he was 10 days old, I took him to a support group where it was mentioned that he “might have a slight tongue tie.” I called the recommended ENT and made an appointment for the following Monday to have it snipped.
I held my tiny, less-than-2-week-old baby in my lap while a doctor held open his little mouth and snipped the lingual frenulum so tight that he couldn’t get his tongue out over his gums. There was blood, and tears, but he nursed immediately after and it was better. Not perfect, but better. I was told it would take a couple weeks for him to get used to it, and we had a follow-up appointment in four weeks. There was still so much pain, but the ENT brushed it off. He wasn’t trained in the mechanics of the tongue for nursing; he didn’t know what he was doing.
I started supplementing with formula when I couldn’t bear the pain. I nursed as much as I could, I pumped when I couldn’t, and I popped my after-delivery pain meds like they were candy. No one told me this was going to be so hard. My body was failing and I was pissed. I wasn’t going to be defeated. Nursing had become something primal that I was not going to give up on, and I was determined to make it work.
Those late night feedings were the worst. Exhaustion, dreading his cries for milk, the feeling of razor blades raking over my nipples, and his seemingly insatiable appetite were enough to send anyone over the ledge. On more than one occasion, overwhelmed by frustration and pain, I yelled at my son, screamed, “Why can’t you just eat right?” while he cried back at me. I was immediately wracked with guilt. He wasn’t hurting me on purpose, but I was broken and I needed help.
I started searching online, surely there was some explanation for this pain. I found that part of the issue was something called vasospasms cause by the trauma of the compressed nipple. Falling further down the rabbit hole, I found this video and a light bulb went off. This was my problem! His tie was not fixed correctly! I needed to find someone to do it right.
I found the tongue-tied babies support group on Facebook and found a preferred provider near me in their files. I was so relieved that someone could actually help me! My husband and I argued about getting the second revision done. He didn’t want to subject O to another painful procedure “just” so I could breastfeed. I worked hard to show him the research, all the things that can be impacted by an untreated tie. The deal-breaker was when my son spit up, and marbled in the milk and spit was a string of deep red color. My husband panicked, and I calmly explained that the blood wasn’t from him, it was from me. That is when it became clear that I was determined to make this work. We agreed to move forward with, at minimum, a consultation with the provider. I called and made an appointment. O was 11 weeks old, and I was returning to work that week. I was excited and terrified. This was it; this was the thing that would fix all of our problems.
The new doctor confirmed my suspicions: the first snip didn’t release all of the tie. He still had a very tight posterior tie and a lip tie. The procedure was quick. The worst part was his screaming while they held him down. They used a laser to cut the mucus membrane back and allow for more lift of the tongue. I chose to stay in the room while they did it, and my husband held me while I sobbed into his chest. Was I being selfish? Would he hate me forever for this? What if he refused to nurse?
My fears were quickly alleviated. As soon as they removed their hands from his mouth, he stopped screaming, and by the time I put him to my breast, he had calmed down. That first latch was life-altering; the difference was night and day. The feeling was completely new, and it no longer felt like he was chomping on me. He sighed and nursed for 15 minutes while we sat in the office chair. I spent the next 3 days nursing him through the discomfort, doing stretches to help the wound heal correctly, and ultimately being awash with relief.
I was worried that doing the procedure and then returning to work would sabotage our nursing relationship, that he would learn his new latch with bottles and develop a preference to them. That wasn’t our story, though. The 8-hour break from nursing him turned out to be a welcome one, for both my traumatized nipples to heal and my mind to disassociate his hunger cues as pain cues for me. Our bond grew, our nights got easier, and breastfeeding finally became about more than just food for him.
All-in-all, we saw two lactation consultants, two pediatricians, and one ENT who either misdiagnosed or under-diagnosed my son. If I hadn’t had the access to information online, I would have failed at my goal. I’m not the only one who has been failed by the medical community when it comes to breastfeeding and it breaks my heart. I often wonder what those early days would have been like if I’d had the knowledge I have now.
It’s 3:00am, I pull him close, let him latch, and stroke his skin while drifting back to sleep.