When A Baby Just Won’t Nurse

So here’s my disclaimer….the purpose of this post is NOT to make anyone feel bad about not breastfeeding, or to make anyone who tried really really hard to make breastfeeding work feel like a failure for not succeeding.  The purpose of this blog post is to share our journey, to share what helped us succeed in learning to breastfeed in spite of what seemed like impossible circumstances, and also to maybe give a little hope to someone who is struggling now.

JJ is our fourth baby.  She was born on June 26 at 8lb 10 oz (a very big baby for me!) and was very healthy.  The first time she latched, I KNEW something was off.  It was painful…not just uncomfortable, but painful.  But I was so tired from labor, and having breastfed three other babies figured I’d figure it out the next time she nursed, that I didn’t say anything to the midwives.  That was a big mistake.  Looking back, I feel like if I had spoken up immediately, we might have been able to address issues before they became bad habits.

JJ an hour after she was born

Well fast forward a few days.  We were not figuring it out.  My nipples had formed blisters that then ripped open, JJ was not having enough wet/poopy diapers, and the thought of breastfeeding made me want to scream!  To add insult to injury (literally), I sent Sam to town to find some lanolin cream to sooth my beat up nipples, and three pharmacies and a Walmart later, he called me saying he just couldn’t find any.  No one carried it in stock (oh the woes of living in the middle of nowhere).  So he went to the local farm store and bought some bag balm (meant for cow udders) and said that was the best he could find.  After some googling and discovering that bag balm was in fact a safe alternative, I lathered up my udders and found a little bit of relief!  Unashamed amazon affiliate link here for bag balm: https://amzn.to/2Bt3vaX

I sought help from our wonderful midwife, who came out to visit and we worked out a few issues.  Mostly, propping up the baby better with some pillows while nursing and shaping the breast better to help JJ latch on even if she wouldn’t open her mouth really wide.  She had a decent feeding for the midwife (kids always show off for the doctor.  Am I right?!), and we thought our problems maybe were passed us now.

They weren’t!  Mistake #2 was not calling the cavalry back immediately when I realized I could not duplicate the successful feeding we had just had when all the helpers were present.

JJ just couldn’t latch consistently.  If she got latched, it was either so shallow it would rip me back open, or it was too deep and she’d gag.  She wouldn’t open her mouth wide enough for a good latch.  She was chewing on the nipple, not sucking.  I wasn’t getting good let downs.  I had to start pumping and then feeding her with an eye dropper to make sure she was getting milk.  I sent Sam to the nearest town to find a newborn flow bottle and he could not find one, so we continued with the dropper.  In hindsight, this was probably a good thing.  I think a bottle would have just increased her latch problems.

To say it was stressful would be an understatement!  I felt like a failure in so many ways.  And I was so FRUSTERATED that, even with all my years of breastfeeding experience, I could not get her to nurse!

I scheduled an appointment to visit our midwife for more help.  If I had not nursed three other children, I probably would have given up.  But I KNEW I could breastfeed.  And I KNEW that breastmilk had lots of benefits beyond just nutrition.   In the end, if she just couldn’t latch, I’d just continue to pump for as long as my supply would hold out.  But I HATE pumping.  Everything about it.  The sound of the pump, the sensations, all the dang parts to be cleaned afterwards.  I really, really, REALLY, wanted to make breastfeeding work so I could avoid a year of electronic booby torture.  But if I had to pump, I would have!  Anything for my baby girl.

She brought in another midwife with lots of lactation training.  And had a doctor specialized in cranial sacral therapy come in as well to try a treatment on JJ to see if we could get her to relax enough to open her mouth all the way (side note: the C-S therapy was one of the coolest things I have ever seen!  She put a screaming baby to sleep in 2 minutes flat with a massage like technique over her ears).  JJ and I sat in her living room for almost 5 hours.  Working on everything, taking breaks.  Trying to figure out what was wrong.  It didn’t really get much better.  JJ would try to latch three or four times, and then would just get so frustrated she’d SCREAM and refuse the breast.

The decision was made to try a device called a Supplementary Nursing System (you can check it out here: SNS System on Amazon).  I would use my pinky finger and place it in her mouth all the way back to the soft palate where the nipple is supposed to hit.  Then I would thread the tiny little SNS tube along my finger, and as she sucked my finger the milk would come down the tube.  The theory was that this technique is the closest you can get to mimic proper latch and suckling without actually being at the breast.  When she was done eating, I would latch her on the breast.  She would be too full/tired to be interested in nursing, BUT it would reinforce to her that the breast was a ‘safe space’, not a place of frustration and anger and hunger.

She would eat 2 to 2.5 ounces every 2 hours during the day and 3 hours at night.  It was a vicious cycle.  I would pump for twenty minutes.  Fill her device, wake her up, feed her for about 30 minutes.  Then get her to latch and let her sleep suckle for another 30-40 minutes.  Put her down, clean all the pump and SNS parts, maybe eat something or take a bathroom break, then it was time to pump again!  There was no sleeping.  I would get an hour at a time at night.

And then I got mastitis because my pump wasn’t super efficient and wasn’t cleaning me out.  It was miserable.  Not to mention that I felt like a complete failure as a mom since there was literally ZERO time for my other children.  They spent most of the day watching TV.  Thankfully, my family helped out and took them for a few days at a time, and a wonderful lady from church came down and watched them one day at our house while all this was going on!

We took JJ to a chiropractor a couple of times, and that made a noticeable difference in her ability to open her mouth wide.  So now we could get her latched (yay!) but she still wasn’t sucking correctly.  So, at a little over 2 weeks old, Sam and I decided to go ahead and have her very slight tongue and lip ties snipped.  Our midwives and the lactation consultant had mentioned the ties, but felt that the ties were not severe enough to impede breastfeeding, but our doctor suggested giving them a snip and seeing if it helped.  So we did.

The change wasn’t immediate.  It took two more weeks before JJ was able to nurse at the breast.  But, at 1 month old, we were able to throw away the SNS!

I don’t think the tongue and lip tie clipping fixed the issue all on it’s own, I really think it was a culmination of all the things we had been trying.  And I DEFINITELY don’t think we would have been successful without the support of our midwife who spent at least ten hours over the course of 2-3 weeks sitting with JJ and me.  Encouraging us, monitoring JJ’s weight, giving hands on help, and bringing in other helpers when she wasn’t able to troubleshoot the problem on her own.  There are so many things that I love about homebirth, but perhaps the most wonderful one is the truly supportive post-partum care that a midwife gives compared to a traditional hospital-birthing doctor.

I took this “victory” photo after our first successful breastfeeding session. She was three weeks old, and it would be another 2 weeks before we were nursing 100% of the time.

JJ is 5 months old now and doing great!  We’ve had a little bump in our breastfeeding road when her weight gain slowed down at about three months.  But, having had another baby who had that same issue, I was able to troubleshoot that problem right away and get us back on track (read: more frequent feedings, and sleep eating at night to get as much milk in her as possible).

Breastfeeding is a wonderful thing.  It can also be REALLY hard.  The most important thing is to get GOOD help and support.  Find a lactation consultant or a midwife who can sit with you during feedings.  Make sure that you are getting plenty calories into the baby while you are figuring things out, and know that a baby CAN learn to breastfeed, even at a month old!