Hi, Blog. It’s been a while. Part of that was down to a new baby taking up lots of time and energy, but unfortunately it was mostly due to how unwell I was for the GABOJ’S first couple months of life.
I never really imagined myself writing about a topic like this on a blog that is mostly about our trips and travels and cultural experiences here in Germany, but here it is: breastfeeding. This is, after all, my blog and I can write about what I want to write about. And frankly, breastfeeding, or rather all of the health problems it caused me over these past couple of months, has been the issue that took over my life for quite a while. So if this isn’t a topic of interest, you’ve been warned.
Let’s start at the beginning. I decided I would breastfeed our baby. It was a pretty straightforward choice as it is drilled into every new mother’s head from the moment she’s learned that she’s pregnant that breastmilk is best for the baby. I knew there might be some challenges, and I was expecting the usual relatively minor problems most new breastfeeding moms have to deal with. What I was not counting on, or even had any idea such problems existed, was a breast infection that landed me in the hospital for two days followed by an abscess. Yikes.
Things started off mostly okay. It was a little uncomfortable latching the baby on, and I found it pretty exhausting to have to do that every 2 to 3 hours, but his latch was pretty good and it was going okay. One challenge was that our GABOJ was a really slow drinker. He liked to spend up to 45 minutes sometimes on one side, which in the middle of the night was particularly tiring. My midwife wondered if, even though I seemed to be producing enough milk for him to gain weight, whether it was taking him so long to drink because there wasn’t a lot of milk flowing fast. I never experienced any engorgement or leaking as most new mothers do, which was another cause for slight concern that maybe he was struggling to get enough. So we decided I would try a couple of different supplements to attempt to increase my supply.
The first was called galaga. I took a dose of it while I was waiting on a bottle of bockshornklee, or fenugreek as it is known in English, to arrive in the post. It arrived shortly after I had taken the galaga, and I took only two pills that day when engorgement set in. It was three weeks after the little guy had been born. My midwife was really surprised as she had never seen a woman’s milk “come in” three weeks post-birth, but we after some time we figured out that was what was happening. I thought I was going to be lucky and dodge that particular breastfeeding problem along with leaking, but I guess the supplements had worked a little too well.
After a few days, the engorgement and accompanying discomfort cleared up and I hoped we were on our way to shorter feeds and breastfeeding working more smoothly. I was also getting a little better at positioning him comfortably, though honestly that is still a struggle sometimes even now as I find breastfeeding pillows with their shifting contents a bit challenging to manuver. (The My Breast Friend pillow is easier to use, so I’d recommend that, although the Mr. thinks the glue they’ve used for the pillow smells toxic.) Anyway, at some point one morning when the GABOJ was having a hard time latching on (he was often fussy in the mornings), he bit me on the left side. That side became sore, and continued to be sore over the next week or two. Then the real fun began.
I had never before heard the term “plugged” or “clogged duct” before I was right in the thick of breastfeeding. A plugged duct is an area of the breast where milk flow is obstructed. What this means is usually developing a hard, painful lump in the breast that hurts badly before and during nursing, and then hurts a bit less afterwards. Most plugged ducts resolve within 24-48 hours. The recommendations to help clear it are using moist, warm compresses before nursing, nursing frequently, and trying to nurse the baby so that his or her chin points towards the blockage. When I developed my plugged duct on the left side, I did all of these things aggressively to try and get it to clear up. The problem was that it would get better after a couple of days, I would think it was gone, and then BAM!, back again. I tried the above in addition to finally renting a hospital-grade electric pump in an attempt to get the plug out. This went on for TWO WEEKS before I finally started developing the symptoms of mastitis. Oh, you didn’t know that a plugged duct was only the pre-party fun? Yep, mastitis is the full-blown event.
So after the plugged duct haunting me for two weeks, I finally woke up one Sunday morning to find myself in quite a bit of pain and with a lovely red streak starting to develop on that breast. I was also feeling pretty worn out and run down, which was a bad sign as mastitis hits you like the flu. I called my midwife and she said I should head to the Missio where we had the GABOJ so they could examine me. While we were waiting for a doctor, the GABOJ got hungry, and I had to most reluctantly latch him on. The pain, when you are breastfeeding during mastitis, is pretty incredible. I had tears just streaming down my face from the agony, while patients and visitors were walking past us staring at me while I was feeding him. Some looked at me very sympathetically. A quick visual scan confirmed by a blood test proved positive for mastitis. I was told that I didn’t have to stay in the hospital as they couldn’t force me, but the doctor highly recommended for me to admit myself and begin receiving antibiotics intraveinously as it would help me recover faster. I was in so much pain, I didn’t hesitate in saying that I would stay.
This time, the Mr. ordered a bed next to me and “admitted” himself as well. I knew I would need his help taking care of the baby, and also to help position him for feedings as I was exhausted, in pain, and had an IV in my hand. The GABOJ was back in one of the baby beds attached to mine like he had used when he was first born. Still, even with the Mr. right next to me almost the entire time, those two days were really rough for all of us. A hospital is never a great place to be as it is so noisy and disruptive (even with your own room), let alone when you are actually unwell on top of it all. The two good things, however, were that firstly we had a better experience with the staff this time around. It seemed like the nurses on duty had more time, and were more empathetic in general to what I was going through (though we still had to be very assertive about asking for pain medication. It still wasn’t stronger than paracetamol or ibuprofen, and I still wasn’t offered even that regularly, but at least this time we understood better that we had to be proactive in asking for it.) It was interesting because I was in a ward that was technically separate from but right across the hall from the post-natal ward, so we saw some of the nurses that had cared for me initially. They were all amazed at how much the little guy had grown and changed. The other good thing was the food. Seriously. The food at the Missio is pretty darn good in general, but when you combine that with exhausted new parents who haven’t had much time or energy to cook anything good, it was like heaven being served up on a plate at each mealtime. Well, that might be a bit of an overstatement….when my mother-in-law came to help us out for a few days after we came home from the hospital with the baby, now THAT was heaven served up on plate. That woman can cook! Anyway, by the time we left the hospital, I was a bit better but still really weak, and the lump was still there. I had to go a few days later for a check-up, and I began to become concerned that the lump wasn’t disappearing even after I had started taking the antibiotics and was doing my best to drain that breast. The doctors also found it a little concerning, and the following week they did an ultrasound and discovered an abscess. The doctor tried to drain it with a needle. She numbed it first, but even then I had some sensation and it was uncomfortable. She wasn’t very successful in getting much fluid out as it had thickened, and told me I needed to come back in three days’ time so she could try a bigger needle. Yippee.
Now I don’t want to frighten you, dear reader, particularly if you are a woman of child-bearing age who plans to have a baby someday that you want to breastfeed. But if you google “abscess” and “surgery,” prepare to soil yourself. Once my abscess was discovered, I started to go into panic mode thinking I might have to have the surgery I had read about. And while they knock you out for it, of course, the real kicker is that (if you don’t want to look this up yourself) they leave it as an open wound so that you have dressings you have to change every day (which is apparently pretty awful) as you are leaking blood, pus and milk on a regular basis. I love the internet, but seriously, in some situations it’s better to just turn off the computer and not have so much information at one’s fingertips.
Those next three days were spent doing a lot of worrying. When I showed up for my next appointment, the head doctor (the one who had tried to unsuccessfully suction out the GABOJ) examined me and he said that it appeared to be healing and we were better off to just leave it alone (God bless that man). I was so relieved to hear that not only would I not have to be jabbed with a bigger needle that day, but they wouldn’t do anything to it anymore. So no surgery. I also spoke with a lactation consultant I had worked with a couple of times before, and she also said that eventually the lump would turn into a chalk-like substance and my body would slowly absorb it. She said it could take months, maybe even years, or I might even have the lump the rest of my life, but that it wasn’t dangerous and I shouldn’t need surgery.
While I was in the hospital with mastitis, I had come to the decision to wean the GABOJ. It was a hard choice to make, and there were lots of tears, but in the end it was also a relief to just say “enough” and to make that decision to move on. I had had such a difficult time over the first two months’ of our baby’s life, and I was so tired of being unwell and unable to be the mother that I had envisioned for him. All of my time and energy was so focused on me and my problems, and I was sinking into a real depression. So I began to slowly wean the little guy. I didn’t want to go too fast for fear of causing myself more problems, so over the course of the next few weeks I began to reduce pumping and latching time. At the beginning I had a couple of scary lumps that were painful on the right side, but thankfully, the little guy was able to clear them up both times very quickly.
I’m now at a place where my left side is pretty much dried up. I could have dried up my right side by now, too, but since my milk production has been so dramatically reduced on the right side I’ve stopped having any problems with painful lumps and I’m latching the little guy on that side once every night. It’s going so well that I might continue to do this for quite some time as it means he’s still receiving a little bit of breastmilk, even if it’s just a small amount. I had the goal of giving him breastmilk for the first six months of his life, and although it’s much less than I originally intended, I’m proud of myself that I might actually still reach that goal.
Breast is best, and I would never try to dissuade any new mother from trying to breastfeed. Most women have only minor problems when they breastfeed, and some (like my mom) are lucky and have practically none. But I have to say that for me, formula has made all the difference to not only how I feel physically, but mentally, too. Over the past few weeks since I started weaning, things have gotten so much better. I no longer have constant health problems, worries, and I’m finally able to enjoy my little guy and being a mom to him.