I’d heard the adage “no two kids are the same” every week leading up to the birth of my second daughter, it seemed, but it wasn’t until her birth that those words sank into my bones.
Quinn was born in a hospital where I was supported by two doulas, a nurse, and a midwife. I felt disconnected from the birth (a feeling I did not recognize until the birth of my second) and it was the treatment I received immediately postpartum while still in the hospital that motivated me to seek out a home birth for any subsequent children I’d deliver.
I made good on that promise to myself in September of 2018 after a pregnancy marred by bleeding issues, severe hyperemesis gravidarum, an emergency wisdom tooth extraction, and salmonella from undercooked chicken. Our daughter, Iris, was born at home after a brief 2 hour labor into my hands on our bed before the midwife had time to arrive. It was everything I dreamt of save for the fact that my curious and eager 2.5 year old was sound asleep in the room next door at 7am. She and I had been planning all summer for the moment when she’d help welcome her baby sister into the world but she slept through the commotion just a few yards away that Saturday morning.
Iris was smaller than her sister but like Quinn she didn’t let out a cry until after she’d looked deep into my eyes and studied my face.
That’s the extent of their similarities.
Quinn never cried unless she was hungry or exhausted.
Unless Iris is directly entertained, she’s screaming.
All. The. Time.
Several weeks into getting to know Iris I noticed she favored a certain breast while nursing. I casually mentioned to my husband that it might benefit her to see a chiropractor in case she had a wonky neck from the rigors of being pushed out of a small enclosed, warm room into the vast, cold world. In a rare moment of vulnerability he agreed with my woowoo ways and said, “Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.”
When she was five weeks old Iris, Quinn, and I flew to Upstate New York to stay with my mother for several weeks. I hadn’t had much extended direct help with my kids since my dad and aunt had left after staying a week downtown to help us adjust right after Iris was born, but once they both left Colorado reality set in and I quickly realized I was in over my head.
I knew I wasn’t going to have the easiest time handling a newborn and a toddler when I threw together the first Village event in March of 2018, and if not for the women I connected with that day and the friendships I cultivated in the months leading up to Iris’s birth, I probably wouldn’t be here. My postpartum experience after Iris was ugly. I’d just had a baby with my new husband who was becoming a parent for the first time himself and coming from a completely different culture he had no idea how I needed to be supported. We were ill-prepared.
Coming to any one of the meet-ups and events and seeing the familiar faces of Colorado Baby customers, oftentimes with bags of hand-me-downs, or Tupperware containers of freshly baked goods, or meals prepared without warning, that saved me. The way you all supported me in the months before and after I had my daughter has completely altered my plans for the future and I know I’ll share more about them later on.
While visiting New York my mother pointed out - the way only someone who isn’t living with a baby 24/7 could - the way Iris nursed and drank from a bottle just wasn’t quite right. I’d somehow grown used to the 3-4 hour screaming sagas that were happening every single night along with the constant drooling and leaking, and the vomiting, and the gas bubbles, and the angry baby growing frustrated at the breast and throwing herself off me. I posted in a local moms’ Facebook page asking for the name of a trusted lactation consultant and was immediately referred to an IBCLC in NY. Dianne Cassidy came to my mother’s home, listened to me describe our nursing issues, and after allowing Iris to suck on her gloved finger, showed me Iris’s lip tie and posterior tongue tie. She described the issues that would plague us if I didn’t have her ties revised soon: my milk supply will drop, Iris would lose weight from not eating enough, and once that supply goes away it’s difficult to bring back.
The mastitis I’d experienced the week prior to flying to NY was also a common occurrence with tied babies. I’d had clogged ducts and early mastitis with Quinn, but that was due to having mammary glands as powerful as a cow’s. I avoided ever needing antibiotics while I nursed Quinn through mastitis but this bout with Iris was so horrible, after three days I drove the both of us to urgent care and pleaded for antibiotics. I later learned I’m allergic to penicillin. I cannot catch a break.
To have an IBCLC acknowledge every single one of our breastfeeding issues offered the most healing validation. I hadn’t slept in months, my house was in shambles because I spent every waking minute so focused on trying to feed effectively, I hated the ground my husband walked on, I snapped at my toddler more often than I’d like to admit, and I felt entirely alone and unsupported in our issues. My baby was this prize I was expected to show off and parade around but nobody wanted to have anything to do with me. In the weeks leading up to her birth I was asked daily, “Are you dilated? Are you having contractions?” But when the baby arrived most of those concerned questions stopped and the focus went to how well the baby was sleeping, who did she look like, where did that little nose come from, it’s so cute!
"She doesn’t look anything like you, Emily!"
“Is she a good baby?”
“It’s so weird your belly is still sticking out!”
“When can we come see her?”
“Oh, wow, you must have a ton of milk!”
One person asked, “How are you healing?”
The truth is - I wasn’t.
I spend so much time around birthy people - doulas, birth educators, lactation counselors - I forgot that most people just don’t know what to say to new moms.
I remember reading a text from a friend who’d had her second baby two weeks before I had mine and she said, “I just stayed home with both kids by myself for the first time! All my family left and my husband’s at work! OMG. I didn’t know what to do!” I cried. The first time I was home alone with my kids was 3pm. I gave birth 8 hours prior. I was standing over the stove cooking an afternoon snack for Quinn while bleeding through a diaper. That is not something to be proud of.
I interacted with mothers with nursing problems every single day at work and through my various social media platforms. I thought I’d have breastfeeding under control with my second baby. After all, Quinn nursed until after her second birthday. Why wouldn’t I be able to nurse another baby with such ease?
“No two kids are the same.”
Ah, that again.
The next week I flew home to Colorado and scheduled a consultation with the first ear, nose, and throat doctor I found on Google. Whoops.
Before opening my daughter’s mouth, the ENT decided our nursing issues “would resolve themselves on their own”. My dissatisfaction with that answer was apparent; he immediately asked his colleague to offer a second opinion. This ENT read the referral letter the IBCLC had written and asked, “What does this word mean? ‘Revision’?”
Was I in an English class or a doctor’s office?
He decided then and there after looking at our daughter’s open mouth that she wasn’t exactly a good candidate for the procedure. He explained he didn’t deal with lip ties often as he largely viewed them as unnecessary.
“If you were to do this procedure, how would you do it?” I asked.
“She’d be put under general anesthesia and you wouldn’t be allowed in the room.”
My husband and I looked at each other.
“Thank you for your time. We’ll be leaving.”
If there’s one thing my experience as a single mom taught me, it’s that you can’t be afraid to stand up for your kids or what you believe in. Nobody else will.
I’d researched lip ties and tongue ties at length by this point. General anesthesia was not something I was interested in, to put it mildly.
What I hadn’t researched was which doctor we should’ve seen first. That answer came later after speaking with local GJ moms who’d experienced nursing issues and subsequent resolutions after lip tie revisions.
Dozens of sleepless nights, overdrawn arguments, and hundreds of shed tears later, I scheduled the revision with a local pediatric dentist who came highly regarded by trusted friends and colleagues.
Iris was just over three months old and like the warning I received back in November, my milk supply began to tank.
For several weeks I drove around the Valley picking up pumped breast milk lovingly donated to us by local moms. Most of those trips to Orchard Mesa and Fruita were done with tears in my eyes, a screaming, bored baby in the back seat, and an even louder screaming toddler who was so sick of riding around in the car for hours and not ending up at Chick Fil A.
The week before the revision a dear friend of mine whose baby girl shared a due date with Iris swapped babies with me and like magic (or science) her baby’s perfectly strong latch stimulated milk production from my breast, something Iris hadn’t done in weeks. I’d been using my Medela from 2015 to no avail. Even after power pumping for hours I wouldn’t experience letdown once.
This confirmed what I already knew in my gut: Iris cannot efficiently nurse from my breast and since I successfully nursed a baby into toddlerhood just a year prior I knew the issue remained with Iris, not my nipples or my mammary glands. A tangible solution was in sight.
Breastfeeding is about supply and demand. It has nothing to do with breast size, or the amount of dairy you eat (my husband swears this is a thing), or body fat composition. If large-breasted women made more milk by virtue of having larger breasts, no small-breasted women would be able to nurse their babies. And they do. I did for two years.
If a baby’s demand is impeded, the supply will be too.
Inverted nipples, flat nipples, a lip tie, a tongue tie - these will impede the demand and supply will inevitably be affected.
By the time Iris had her lip tie lasered she’d grown used to the bottle and I wasn’t producing anything from the pump. No matter how often I put her to the breast to nurse she’d grow frustrated with the lack of milk and she’d go right back to a bottle. Her latch improved immediately after the pediatric dentist lasered her top lip, a tie he described as “thicker than [he’d] thought”, but I wasn’t producing the amount of milk she needed.
Soon after the revision I made it my mission to increase my milk supply. I tried every supplement, dietary tweak, herb, cookie, and bar. I drank gallons of water. I did not drink gallons of cow’s milk. A lactation counselor friend recommended I switch to a Spectra breast pump because, as she said, all the tricks in the world can’t make up for an efficient demand. Heroically, an Instagram follower gifted me her Spectra S2 she’d used for just a few hours before transitioning her baby to formula not long ago. The night it arrived I was able to produce three ounces! Tears of joy christened my new Spectra.
Over the next two weeks our supply of donor milk dwindled. I panicked - I’d scheduled a three week vacation in February to see my parents and I worried I’d be spending our precious time together driving all over Florida and New Orleans looking for strangers’ breast milk.
I knew months ago when my husband asked in the middle of the night over the sound of Iris shrieking for hours and hours where he could find infant formula that I’d better keep something handy in case we ran out of milk. Ever the brand snob, I knew the best non-dairy infant formula on the market was the German brand Holle. Thinking of our upcoming trip to see my parents, my mother went ahead and ordered us a box of Holle goat milk formula. I did not want to spend my limited time with my family on the never-ending quest for donor milk.
Later that night I read an email from an Instagram follower who passed along some advice her lactation counselor had given her, a trick I hadn’t previously heard.
I used to take the herb myself before becoming pregnant to sort out some hormonal and stress issues but in all my research on breastfeeding issues it had never come up as a possible solution. I ordered a year’s supply of the herb prior to conceiving my daughter and at the prospect of taking it again I thought, “Why not? I’ve got 800 capsules of it in my cabinet.”
Two days before the Holle formula arrived there was just one bag of frozen breast milk thawing in my fridge. I’d been pumping with my new Spectra for weeks and Iris was inhaling all the milk I could muster on top of the donor milk we had left. I knew I could ask those heroic mamas who’d donated milk previously for more, but I felt embarrassed. How long could I keep this up?
The next day an SNS system arrived in the mail courtesy of Jeff Bezos and one-click-ship. I set it up with the remaining bag of donor milk and through mutual tears Iris screamed and screamed and refused to eat.
I posted on the local moms’ page once more asking for tips and tricks I hadn’t yet considered. They poured in like lava, like the milk I longed to see pour out of my breasts. A friend commented, “Close your eyes and take 5 deep, sloooooow breaths. Then visualize your beautiful baby girl’s big beautiful eyes staring up at you when she’s all nestled in (whether that’s at the breast or a bottle filled with whatever nutritious milk or formula that you lovingly procured for her) and know that her security and attachment comes not from what she’s drinking or how it’s coming in, but from knowing deep in her little body that you understand and respond to every little cue that she’s giving you.”
I sobbed long and hard. Big, fat, wet tears splashed across my steering wheel. I drove home, Holle sitting in the passenger’s seat, and I cried some more.
But something interesting happened when I went to bed later that night.
I realized I hadn’t offered Iris a bottle all day.
The next day I removed the Holle from the box and attempted to decipher the German instructions. Surely the day before was just a fluke. She was probably sleepier than I realized and not too hungry.
The Holle remained unopened. Another day passed. And another. And another. Soon when Iris was napping I managed to pump two ounces here and there. Eventually a full week went by without ever needing a bottle.
Still, she favored one breast. This was evident every time I’d wear horizontal stripes. One breast remained a full C; the other was a sad A. Not a cute, perky A. Sad, empty A.
I asked local GJ moms for a chiropractor recommendation and was referred to Valley Roots near the store on 6th. Dr. Jen delicately handled Iris and later that day I noticed she ate from Sad A with ease.
It’s been three weeks since the day the formula arrived. Iris hasn’t taken a bottle once. Currently there are six bags of frozen breast milk in my freezer. MY milk! Not a friend’s. Mine. In recent days I’ve woken up with the same full feelings on both sides I used to have when she was still a newborn. My breasts are still uneven, but both experience letdown and this morning they produced the same amount of milk into the Spectra despite their obvious difference in size.
This experience has been humbling: the birth, the postpartum experience, our nursing relationship. My first baby was easy. If she wasn’t, I probably wouldn’t have given her a sibling. Iris has tested me and taught me things about myself I didn’t know were there. I know I’ve tried harder than most people could - or would - to continue nursing. I was told many times I was being a martyr for pushing through and seeking out every possible solution. But I refused to accept the fact that “sometimes things just don’t work out”. I nursed a child past the age of two previously. I could do it again.
Throughout all of our struggles Iris did not receive a drop of formula. This isn’t an achievement - healthy babies are grown on formula every day. My choices as a mother - the decisions I make for my own children - have nothing to do with anyone else’s children. My decision to continue nursing despite the odds was for my baby and my baby alone. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dollars were spent on improving our breastfeeding relationship. I did not do that for fun.
Breastfeeding is of the utmost importance to me and I’ve been diligent in documenting and sharing this experience so the thousands of women who follow my various social media platforms know there are other options when things become tough. I was overwhelmed with how many women contacted me saying, “I had no idea donor milk was an option!”
It is an option! Most if not all states have some sort of candid milk-sharing program through Facebook. Human Milk 4 Human Babies has been a huge resource for many women looking to donate or looking to gather breast milk for their babies.
I tried it all: bottles, a lip tie revision, herbal supplements, diet tweaks, different breast pumps, nursing another baby, SNS, chiropractic. Had nothing changed or improved, I’d be giving my baby goat milk formula right now. Ultimately the breastfeeding relationship I did have with my daughter was marred by stress and anxiety and THAT affected my milk production. Cortisol is powerful. It can delay women’s menstrual cycles, it can harm pregnancies, it can physically affect unborn babies, and it can affect breastmilk production as evident here. I’d come to terms with having to use the German formula the day it arrived and I was satisfied with the effort I’d put into solving this problem. I knew when I held that box for the first time that I’d tried everything possible.
We leave for our vacation this week and I know I’ll relish the sunshine and good food without the stress of finding donor milk. I’ll enjoy my baby and my three year old. We’ll go swimming and I’ll nurse on the beach and I’ll wear a bathing suit over Not-so-sad A and Full C. And if I needed to bring the box of Holle, I wouldn’t think twice. Once I finally learned to let go a little bit, the problem resolved. I think I need to apply that lesson to other areas of my life, too.