It's rare for me to do, but I'm about to get very personal with you and let myself be very vulnerable. Let's talk about birth and breastfeeding, and how a local nonprofit organization called Baby Cafe rescued me and my newborn baby when it seemed no one else could.
Let's start at the very beginning... As a pregnant woman I knew I wanted a natural birth and I wanted to breastfeed my daughter. They were decisions I had made long before my husband and I ever saw her tiny heartbeat on that big ultrasound monitor. I don't even remember why I felt so strongly about those two decisions, I just knew that is what was best for the baby after seeing countless research findings from medical journals. My childhood babysitter is a Doula who lives in Atlanta now and she was available by phone 24/7. So I chose a baby-friendly hospital, I had a fantastic obstetrician and I had a birth plan for a fetus who had been receiving top marks at all her checkups, so we felt like nothing could go wrong.
Well she was two weeks late. In the summer. And at one point our power went out and I had no A/C. Yowza. As a meteorologist I assumed the baby thought this was hilarious and wanted to see how I could keep a straight face on television when I told people it was going to be "a great summer day!" while simultaneously thinking about how I could Tetris my body into the break room refrigerator on my lunch break.
Well she gave us several scares in those last few days, so I went to the hospital to be monitored. I was declared as a high-risk delivery, and from that point I got the drugs I needed to induce and help both of us get through a very long and hard labor. I was able to deliver naturally, but not medicine-free, yet I didn't care at all. She was healthy, we survived, that was all that mattered.
So then why was I so heartbroken when she wouldn't breastfeed? I had been so flexible in my strong opinions when it came to our birth plan. But just hours after delivering a perfectly healthy 9-pounder, I couldn't feed her and it was devastating. It's something primeval that flares up in us as new moms, this instinctual need to care for your child. She was warm, she was dry, all she needed to do was eat, and yet I couldn't feed her. There was so much breastfeeding support from the hospital staff, and yet everyone had a different message as to why she wouldn't latch and it was all too confusing for my drugged, exhausted and hormonal brain to process.
Five different lactation consultants came to my hospital room while I recovered and said she must not be latching because she has a tongue tie (basically her tongue was attached too much on the bottom of her mouth and she simply couldn't open her jaw wide enough). But three different pediatricians came to my room and said she did not have a tongue tie and assured me that she would latch as soon as my milk came in because then it wouldn't be so much work for her. They theorized that she was just tired from the drugs and she would figure it out in just a day or two. "A hungry baby always eats, just keep trying!"
Friday afternoon (48 hours after delivery) I was sent home with a card that said to visit Baby Cafe for breastfeeding support on Tuesday. They said we would get through the weekend just fine, that I just needed to pump and spoon-feed the baby that milk and then I could go to that breastfeeding support group in a few days for free help.
Saturday night my milk came in. My baby girl still wouldn't latch. I didn't give up.
That weekend was among the scariest of my life. I was still trying to recover from birth, we were being hounded by visitors, I was in so much pain that I cried for hours, and still my baby wouldn't latch. We tried for 20 minutes, then I would pump for 20 minutes, then she would drink every drop and fall asleep... only to wake up an hour later crying that she was hungry and we would start all over. It was excruciating and exhausting and emotional. Still, I didn't give up.
Sunday evening I called a number for a lactation consulting group I found online and sobbed into some poor woman's voicemail that I needed help. I begged a stranger to come rescue me. I didn't care how much it cost, I just needed a home visit ASAP. (That desperate call was returned three days later, then I could never get a hold of her again). Still, I didn't give up.
Monday the doctor said my 9 pound baby was down to 8 pounds, a bit too much loss even though babies lose a lot of weight after birth, and that perhaps I wasn't feeding her enough. I cried that I was giving her everything I had! She encouraged me heartily to keep trying to nurse, but suggested that I supplement with formula. But I was being a very stubborn (and hormonal) new mom who knew my research. My body would produce exactly what the baby needed, I just needed to drink water, eat a healthy diet and keep trying to teach her to latch. I had formula in the pantry, so I knew my baby wouldn't starve, I would never put her at risk like that, but I wasn't willing to give up on nursing just yet. I knew I just needed some expert help and then my baby and I would figure this out. We just needed to give it one more day. We just had to make it to Baby Cafe. We pumped and bottle-fed and tried latching until it hurt so badly my skin chapped and bled. Still, I didn't give up.
Finally Tuesday came and my mom drove me and my sweet little newborn down to Baby Cafe. They were simply amazing. Though they weren't able to get her to latch that day, they gave me so much education and experience in just those first 3 hours that I went home energized and determined even more than before not to give up. Turns out she was crying because she was gassy (cholic) due to the bad latch. I changed my diet a bit more and we purchased a shield to help her think that I was a bottle. It helped a lot. But it was a torture device.
The women at Baby Cafe, the expert IBCLCs (lactation consultants) and experienced moms who attended, then worked with me tirelessly. They tried everything they could to get my baby girl to breastfeed, twice a week, for EIGHT WEEKS. For free! For two full months they helped me figure out how to pump full time and attempt latching with that shield to make sure my daughter was getting the amount of breastmilk she needed to gain weight on schedule. And wow did she grow! She sprouted like a weed, getting so tall so fast with a happy little belly full of milk. Every night I was in so much pain I was tempted to quit, but a few hours later I would wake up and think "Just one more day. We need to give this just one more day."
At times when I found myself overcome with emotions over this struggle, I turned to journaling, and it was quite cathartic to just get those thoughts out of my head and try not to think them again. Here is a small excerpt from one of those really hard days:
"What people don't understand is there is a biological need to feed your baby. The sound of your newborn's hungry and pitiful cry physically makes your body ache. It is torture to hear her call out for me in need, and yet I can't save her. She now pushes me away when I try to get her to nurse... she has given up and she is starting to resent me for it. I am helpless and I am failing her, and I can feel that shame down in my bones."
Finally I asked for another opinion on why she wouldn't latch and one of the IBCLC's at Baby Cafe found she didn't have a tongue tie, but rather a lip tie! All my baby needed was a very simple surgery to separate her lip from where it was attached too far down on her gums and she would eat. I did my research and found that if my daughter did have this condition and didn't get it fixed, it could affect her later in life: making it harder to speak, eat and even kiss someone someday. She would have a large gap in her front teeth and an orthodontist would likely have to correct it when she was a teenager, something much more painful and traumatic than just taking care of it now as a newborn.
My husband and I then got a second opinion from a surgeon and indeed they said she had a lip tie and we opted to correct it. It was a minor and fast procedure and she healed quickly and easily. We kept going back to Baby Cafe for two weeks after that, spending the last few days of my maternity leave getting support and guidance from the experts and fellow moms there... but by then it seemed as though it was too late. She was used to the bottle and would never breastfeed. I almost gave up.
That is, until my last Friday of being able to attend Baby Cafe, suddenly she latched! I cried out in joy and startled her. But then she latched again. It was one of the most joyous and victorious moments of my life. It was so natural and comfortable and finally my inner cavewoman was satisfied that I could feed my baby. There was such a sense of peace at the end of that perseverance. We had done it!
Unfortunately my milk supply dropped significantly when I was separated from her by going back to work, so we ended up having to supplement with formula just a month after she figured out how to latch. But just like I was on the day of her birth, I was flexible with that decision. She nursed whenever we were together, and at night drank all the milk I had pumped throughout the day. The rest of the time I was comfortable that she was being well fed by her caretaker with a bottle of formula. She had the most important milk from me in the beginning, and I would still give her everything I had, but we didn't need to fight so hard anymore. We had won the battle, the rest of the war would be teaching a picky toddler someday to eat her vegetables!
So why am I choosing to share this personal story now? Well because Tuesday is "Give Big Kern", a special day for philanthropy across Kern County. As the organizers explain:
"This is a day for nonprofits to tell their stories and share their work. It’s a day for Kern County to come together with one voice of support for our nonprofits, big and small. On May 2, 2017, go to givebigkern.org to find your passion, donate to your favorite causes, pledge volunteer hours, learn about new nonprofits, and share the excitement!"
In full disclosure: I am not associated with Baby Cafe, this is just my testimonial as someone who has benefited from their services and wanted to share my story.
I stopped by recently to ask them how money donated to them during Give Big Kern would help them. Christine Starika, IBCLC, said everything they do for new moms like me is based on donations and volunteer hours. All the lactation consultants there do this work because they know the importance of breastfeeding and how it is the healthiest way to feed a newborn. But while it seems like the most natural thing in the world, feeding a hungry baby because our bodies were made to do this, it's way harder than that... for both the mom and the baby. I have never met a woman who didn't struggle in the beginning.
And keep in mind that I am a new mom that had the finances available to pay for an expensive home visit (if I had been able to find a private lactation consultant in that time of need). There are so many women in this community who have access to WIC and other programs to feed their baby, but that doesn't help with breastfeeding education and support.
Staricka told me the funding they receive during philanthropic efforts like this help them to keep going twice a week. But they can only meet from 10 a.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays, which is great, but it's not enough in their opinion. They want more, and funding could help them do that. Perhaps a evening session for moms who are struggling after returning to work full time. Perhaps more IBCLCs could join the team and help even more mothers in our community. The possibilities are endless, she says, if they can just get more funding. They had more than 1600 visits in the last two years, but they want more. As they say:
"With additional financial resources, we can do even more! We'd love to have a paid staff member to do marketing and outreach, open our doors for more hours and accommodate more families, buy a printer to print out resources for families when they are there. We have ongoing operating costs to cover, like rent for our space and supplies for our drop-ins. We could offer prenatal classes to local families to help them prepare for breastfeeding while they're still pregnant."
There are several organizations on that Give Big Kern site, all with powerful and moving stories of how they help people right here in Kern County. I could tell you about my experience as a volunteer with Junior League, and share the amazing experiences I have had with the League of Dreams, CASA, Garden Pathways, the Girls Achievement Program, to name a few, but their stories are better. So go take a look, read the testimonies, and if you don't want to make a donation, maybe consider pledging some volunteer hours. Because that's what makes this community so great, I've never met anyone in my eight years of living here who doesn't do at least a little something to give back!
And please find me on social media and let me know what you think of my story here, it's something deeply personal and I'd like to hear from you!