I've spent 60 out of the past 64 months breastfeeding. That's 5 years of my life. It hasn't been an easy journey... but it has by far been one of the most rewarding.
One full of pain, discoveries, triumphs and goodbyes... a journey that I am forever grateful for, and looking forward to continuing. So, in honor of hitting the 5 year mark… I thought I’d share a little the behind-the-scenes of what it looks like to nurse two tongue/lip-tied boys through toddlerhood, and how it has forever altered how I look at the breastfeeding relationship.
Let's jog back a bit shall we. It all started with my oldest. He came screaming out of the water and into the world exactly 6 days past his due date, and latched on less than an hour after his birth. My mom (who had breastfed both my brother and I) was there to assist, along with my midwife... and I felt instant relief when that first latch happened after a bit of awkwardly trying to figure out what to do with my hands. The next day or two followed and everything seemed to be going well. I had been able to express some colostrum in the tub (so knew that these things were actually working), my milk came in around day 2, and my little guy was already gaining back some of that initial post-birth weight loss.
But then there was Day 5. I was sleep-deprived by a newborn who took cluster-feeding to another level, my nipples were raw and blistered leaving me in toe-curling pain every time he latched, and I still couldn't figure out what to do with my dang hands (more like I felt like I needed at least three pairs to accomplish what was needed).
By some miracle when I turned to the inter webs, I discovered there was a local La Leche League meeting that night, so I packed up my baby and with my mama's help headed to the meeting (not before making an $80 stop at Buy Buy Baby to purchase ALL the breastfeeding comfort things).
The LLL leader was a lifesaver. She encouraged me, helped me with positioning, and gave me some tips to deepen his latch (and decrease my discomfort). She also mentioned a potential lip tie issue... but honestly I was so exhausted I completely spaced on that part. Fortunately, with the tips she gave me, I was able to go home, suffer through the healing process, and ultimately hit two weeks of nursing in what felt like a decent stride. We moved forward from there with confidence as I slowly learned all of the tips and tricks I needed to make life as a breastfeeding mama work for me: my trusty ring sling, lactation cookies (here's my favorite recipe), and a few trusty positioning tips that gave me the ability to discretely nurse anywhere without a cover (which my son hated). Because the Lord knows this extrovert was not about to lock herself away in a room for 12+ hours a day.
Yes, you heard that right. I literally spent 12 hours a day nursing in those early months: 30 minutes per side, with an hour break in between nursing sessions.
The schedule was brutal, but it worked for my little guy. He was gaining weight like a champ and thriving, so I didn't dare try to limit his feedings. But then somewhere around the 6 month mark I stumbled across an article that linked several symptoms he had, including the extended feeding times, to tongue and/or lip tie. It sparked the memory of what the LC had mentioned to me back when he was less than a week old, and instantly I knew. We ended up at Dr. Bailey Coleman's office less than a week later getting a full assessment and revision done - and just like that, his hour long feeding sessions reduced to about 15 minutes.
It was glorious. Suddenly nursing felt less like an all-consuming chore and became more of a sweet bonding time between my little and me... allowing this busy work-from-home mama to slow down and reconnect in the midst of a hectic day. I loved our time together, and didn't want it to come to an end anytime soon. But then my extra-verbal son disobeyed what had long been "my rule" --> You've probably heard it before: "If they're old enough to ask for it, they're too old."
As my precious 9 month old looked up at me and sweetly asked, "milk, please?" I wanted to eat my words. I had been saying that statement since I was a teenager (and obviously felt like I knew everything even though I knew NOTHING) - and though I had withdrawn a bit from the sentiment in recent years as I had watched a friend nurse her daughter past a year... I couldn't help but feel like a hypocrite. Was I really about to nurse my own child beyond the point that I had once deemed inappropriate?
So I did my research, and found out that not only were there immense benefits to nursing beyond infancy for the baby, but also to the mother.
Just the immune protection alone was enough to convince me, as my husband was in medical school at the time and seemed to bring every virus and bacteria on the planet back home with him, so I charged onward in my breastfeeding journey with newfound confidence.
When he was rounding 18 months, my husband and I felt called to go on a mission trip with a group from his med school, and taking our babe-now-toddler wasn't an option. I was terrified of two things: one, that he wouldn't be okay with out me (at the time he was still nursing at night) and two, that the separation would force us to wean before we were ready. But I knew that the Lord was calling us to go serve, so we signed up in faith... and truly the Lord was SO faithful. Not only did he finally start sleeping through the night a few months before the trip, but I was able to pump 2-3 times a day in his absence (while he drank good old cows milk back home with our parents) and go right back to nursing as soon as we returned. We never skipped a beat, and a whole new world of being able to maintain a breastfeeding relationship while still having a life separate from my son was opened up to me. The freedom in that was beautiful, and I believe a large part of why we were able to keep going.
Fast forward a year... I was pregnant with my second son, and subsequently was dealing with a major nursing aversion due to hormonal nipple tenderness. My oldest could sense it... Every time he would latch on, I would involuntarily wince and he would almost immediately unlatch and apologize. "I don't want to hurt mama," he'd tell me with sad eyes. I knew our nursing journey was drawing to a close and it absolutely broke my heart. But I knew for my own heart's sake I didn't want to put a hard-stop to things on my own... so every time he asked (which was only every 2-3 days at this point) I would say yes if the time was appropriate, and then wait for the time he simply stopped asking. I'm honestly not sure when our "last latch" was. It was sometime in early fall, perhaps one morning after he had woken up and wanted his typical morning nursing snuggles as we both got adjusted to the sunshine and demands of a new day. I can't remember the specific details, but I remember soaking up every moment we had together in those final months before he turned 3 and his little brother arrived not long after. And when things ended it was on his terms, and that's exactly how I wanted it.
The four-ish month break before my littlest arrived was lovely. I didn’t have to worry about whether what I wore was easy to lift up/pull down and my little man was perfectly content snuggling with mama’s belly instead of “his nurses” as he affectionately called them. He would often tell me, “I’m saving all your nurse milk for baby Silas.” When Silas finally arrived, we didn’t miss a beat. He went straight to nursing as soon as we got settled into the bed after his birth, and I didn’t struggle nearly as much with the “what in the heck do I do with my hands?” sensation that I had the first time around.
But when day 3 rolled around, I knew something was off. The familiar pain of nipple damage was starting to creep in, and my milk hadn’t come in as robustly as the last time. I immediately called a trusted friend and lactation consultant, Montika Collins, and asked her to come over and help me troubleshoot. She came and observed us in our element, did a weighted feed (which revealed that he was transferring an adequate amount of milk despite my not getting engorged when my milk came in like before), and helped with positioning and deepening his latch. She also did a full exam to assess any potential lip and tongue ties, and sure enough - little man had not only a lip tie like his big brother, but a tight posterior (or hidden) tongue tie and cheek (buccal) ties as well.
We immediately made plans for body work (we saw Sonda Powell & Amanda Trosky at Optimal Health & Wellness) to help loosen things up in his mouth and began to discuss the possibility of being assessed for a revision. Praise the Lord, this combination of efforts was able to help us avoid any serious nipple damage before we could get a revision. And, after 5 months of only slightly painful nursing and wrestling with the insurance company to attempt to get them to pay for it (spoiler alert: they didn’t), we decided to move forward with a revision and post operative care (done with both Dr. Angie Naumann in Tulsa and Dr. Bailey Coleman in OKC who were our dream team in helping us navigate some minor swelling issues Silas had after procedure). Almost immediately after, Silas not only became a more efficient nurser, but he also went up in weight which was a huge relief for this mama.
So here we are almost two years post-revision and still nursing strong and completely pain free (except when I ovulate #becausehormones). Why do I tell you all of this?
Because breastfeeding is HARD. It takes commitment and grit like no other. But it also is made UNNECESSARILY harder by the cultural expectations and lack of understanding that mamas face in the U.S.
Lip & tongue tie is grossly underestimated in its impact on breastfeeding in the medical community despite numerous studies that point to the benefits of revision to the breastfeeding relationship (I know this because my handsome doctor husband did his residency research project on Ankyloglossia - aka tongue tie - and Breastfeeding after watching my journey with the boys and hoping to educate more docs on the topic). And understandably, many mamas are simply afraid of the procedure itself and the initial (read: annoying and slightly traumatizing) recovery period of having to do stretches and allow the healing process to do its thing. Did I enjoy having to make my little cry a few times a day while I stretched inside of his mouth to ensure things wouldn’t reattach? Absolutely NOT. But did it save our breastfeeding relationship? YES. And I’m only a small success story… I’ve known countless mamas whose babies who couldn’t latch AT ALL prior to revision or even bordering on failure to thrive because they couldn’t drink from breast OR bottle, and their revision changed the game for them. Is revision for everyone with a lip/tongue tie? No. But it’s worth getting assessed.
Aside from ties, breastfeeding is also made harder for U.S. mamas simply because of the cultural attitude towards it. Women should NEVER be ashamed for feeding their babies when/where they want to be fed. Heck, I once nursed Rhys upside down over my shoulder at Disneyland because I had a clogged duct and it was either that or Mastitis. #Easydecision
Mamas should also never feel ashamed for nursing their children beyond infancy.
I’ll never forget the time I heard a local doctor’s wife share that breastfeeding past a year was pointless because “it just turns to water at that point.” I don’t fault her… she was simply misinformed. But the reality of misinformation and ignorance out there is staggering. This fact sheet details all of the benefits of nursing beyond 1 year (2 years is recommended by the World Health Organization) and some of the benefits might surprise you. Do I advocate that EVERYONE has to breastfeed for as long as I have? HECK NO! Everyone’s breastfeeding journey is different, and above all, my utmost concern is that your baby is FED. But breastfeeding mamas deserve more support and information than they are currently getting… and that starts with sharing our stories, our successes, our struggles. There is immense power in a story… and I hope mine encouraged you in some way!
I want to know… What was your breastfeeding journey like? Did your baby have any tongue/lip ties? Have you ever been made to feel ashamed of nursing your baby in public or nursing your little past infancy? Share with me in the comments!
About the author: Brittany Fisher is an award-winning Oklahoma birth photographer/filmmaker at Micah Lynn Birth Stories and the editor of Birth OK Mag with a passion for serving mamas in their childbearing years. Her most important role however is being a daughter of Christ, wife to a handsome doc, and mama to two rambunctious and affectionate little boys who inspire her to drink #allthecoffee.