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Braving breastfeeding

October 03, 2011

After my son was born at Winnie Palmer Hospital in 2008, my sister-in-law visited and congratulated me. She said to me, "Welcome to the best job in the world!" I remember feeling happy, excited, scared and exhausted all at the same time. As I was recovering from the physical events of labor and delivery, I was ready to tackle one of the first of many challenges of becoming a new mom: breastfeeding my baby.

We know that breast milk is the best option for feeding our babies. Extensive research over time has demonstrated that breastfeeding provides multiple benefits for the baby, mother and our communities. These advantages include health, nutritional, immunologic, developmental, psychologic, economical, social and environmental benefits. Breastfeeding decreases the incidence of many infectious diseases (such as ear infections and diarrhea), and other studies suggest decreased rates of sudden infant death syndrome, diabetes and obesity. Mothers who breastfeed also experience many health benefits which include decreased postpartum bleeding and decreased risks of breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Breastfeeding also facilitates bonding for the infant and family.

Since I obviously had no personal experience with breastfeeding before my son was born, I participated in the prenatal breastfeeding class at Winnie Palmer Hospital to learn the basics of breastfeeding. We learned about the benefits of breastfeeding, different breastfeeding positions and how to determine if the baby had a good latch or not. I learned how to tell if my baby was getting enough breast milk by monitoring his wet diapers and stools. I read a book about breastfeeding and bought an electric breast pump. I felt ready to breastfeed, and all I needed was my baby to be born.

After my son was born, I nursed him within 2 hours of his birth, and placed him skin-to-skin on my chest. I breastfed him for about every 2-3 hours during the first 24 hours of his life. He was so sleepy and exhausted (just like mom!), and sometimes it was very difficult to wake him up for feedings. He also didn't have the best latch at first, and my nipples became very sore and painful. I almost started to dread when his feeding was due, because tears came to my eyes almost every time he latched on to my breast. Our lactation consultant was very helpful, and she gave me some hydrogel pads and lanolin to help with the pain, but the discomfort did not completely go away.

Over the next few days, my son was shrinking. We expect babies to lose a certain amount of weight after they are born because newborns are made up of a lot of water, but my son had lost a little bit more weight than our pediatrician was comfortable with.  We increased the frequency of breastfeeding to every 1-2 hours to help him gain weight. I had never done anything every 1-2 hours every day before, and it was hard. And exhausting. I felt like the human milk bottle, and I wished my husband could actually breastfeed our son so I could sleep for longer than 2 hours at a time. Even though I knew that breastfeeding was the best for our son, I was so tired and there were many times that I wanted to stop. I thought maybe I wasn't doing it right, and maybe I couldn't do it at all. I started to feel like a failure as a mother, and as a pediatrician. How could I encourage new mothers to breastfeed their babies for one year, when I was struggling to do it for one week?

Every time I felt like giving up, my husband would encourage me to continue breastfeeding because we both knew and understood the multitude of benefits that breastfeeding can provide for our baby. I would nurse our son, and my husband would help put him to sleep. Then I would rest, and when it was time for his next feeding, my husband would change our son's diaper and bring him to me.

Since I was a first-time breastfeeding mom, it took a little while longer for my milk supply to increase. After my milk supply increased on his fifth day of life (and I remember the exact hour that it happened), he started to gain weight. I still had some discomfort during feedings, and I remember a close friend telling me that somehow, the pain goes away after a couple of weeks. I didn't believe her at first, but she was right. After about 3 weeks, I put him to my breast for a feeding, and I felt no pain at all. I started attending the Mother-Baby TEAS (TLC, education, and answers) held at the Orlando Health Education Center. I was able to bring my baby, and it was wonderful to meet other women who were experiencing similar joys and challenges of being a new mom. The nurses and lactation consultants at the education center were always available to help us and answer our questions. Even though I am a pediatrician who is confident about diagnosing ear infections and other diseases, I still needed help and practical advice about breastfeeding and how to help my baby sleep better at night.

My son and I started to get the hang of breastfeeding together. We were in our groove, and I loved holding him during our feedings. He would close his eyes in a "milk-coma," and drift off to sleep in my arms. I watched him gain weight and round out, and felt so proud that he was growing well because of my milk. Then I realized how convenient breastfeeding truly was for our family. We went to pick up my husband's car from service, and the car wasn't ready yet. Our son became hungry, and I was able to nurse him as we waited for the car. I didn't have to worry about running out of formula, or not having a bottle with me. We flew to visit my parents, and our flight was delayed at our layover. Again, we didn't have to worry about running out of food for our baby or being unprepared. I loved feeling confident that I could nourish our son, just as long as we were together.

Then after 2 months, I came back to work at Arnold Palmer Hospital. It was hard to leave my baby, but I am so thankful to work in an environment that supports breastfeeding mothers. I had to plan extra time to pump breast milk before morning rounds, and then after noon conference. Pumping at work wasn't always easy as our days can become busy, but I felt happy that I was still able to provide breast milk for our son while I had to be away from him.

I breastfed my son for 10 months, and my daughter for 11 months. When my breast milk supply decreased and I had to stop breastfeeding, I felt sad and struggled with the guilt for not being able to breastfeed for one whole year as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Then I had to remind myself that any amount of breast milk that a mother can give to her baby is a wonderful gift. Breastfeeding my children has been one of the most amazing chapters in my life as a mother, and I do miss that unique time that I shared with my children. As I look at my son as he learns to write his letters, and my daughter as she is learning to walk and climb on furniture, I know that we have many more special moments to share in our futures together.

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