I knew I wanted to breastfeed before I even conceived my first child. It just made sense to me. But even as a practicing attorney, the science behind breastfeeding’s many benefits was really secondary to my decision; what I wanted first and foremost was to experience what appeared to me to be a uniquely precious way of relating to my infant son. What I didn’t know at that time was that, like most American moms, my best intentions were about to be trumped by an obstacle course of Booby Trapsand that a world of needless pain and struggling awaited me and my son after his birth.
Like most of us, I was in the dark about breastfeeding. I had no breastfeeding role models to whom to turn for emulation, guidance or inspiration. I didn’t know what questions to ask to be sure that I would get good breastfeeding care and advice from my prenatal care provider, at the bedside from hospital nurses and doctors, or from my son’s pediatrician. My mother did not breastfeed. My grandmothers did not breastfeed (OK one did but only for a couple of days until she was told to stop). I had only seen breastfeeding “done” by one friend who had recently had a baby – and she was my sole source of knowledgeable encouragement. It was she who recommended that I birth with a midwife and hire a labor and postpartum doula (coaches).
Nonetheless, I was determined to do my “due diligence” around this breastfeeding thing. Like the lawyer I was trained to be, I invoked my reasoning skills. I engaged the services of both a midwife (as opposed to an OB) and of a labor doula. They both said they were absolutely in favor of breastfeeding. Funny, but I don’t recall my midwife ever discussing breastfeeding with me beyond that. I took a childbirth education class that purportedly covered breastfeeding, but in actuality, it spent less than one hour on the topic. The pediatrician whom I interviewed about breastfeeding gave a very moderate and uninspiring reply along the lines of “whatever you want is OK with me.” I read a great book on the subject, given to me lovingly by my mother, Dr. Sears’ The Breastfeeding Book, By the time I went into labor, I really thought I had done enough homework and lined enough ducks up in a row who could lead me to the temple of breastfeeding. I had absolutely no idea that I was a sitting duck. Sound familiar?
I ended up having an unplanned c-section after 24 hours of labor and 3 hours of pushing failed to bring my 9 pound 11 ounce posterior-positioned boy down and out. We were separated immediately after he emerged and brought to me over an hour later. My labor doula and midwife peeled my gown open and put my son’s face to my nipple. He was woozy from the medications during surgery, confused by the strange journey that detoured him around the the bridge between life within the womb and life without, and disoriented from having been removed from my body and stripped of familiar smells, sights and sounds, and he was wrapped in a burrito blanket that constrained his movements. Needless to say, he didn’t latch very well at first. And that’s the way we began.
It took no time at all for his poor latch to rub me raw since I had no real idea what I was doing. Not one single hospital worker, neither nurse, nor lactation consultant, nor midwife nor MD assessed or instructed us, until the end of my three day stay there. In fact, there was no lactation consultant on staff at this facility — a question I didn’t know to ask when I was considering birthing at this major NYC hospital. It was only as I was about to be discharged, that my midwife looked at my right nipple’s color and size (fiery and red!) and gave me the number of a private lactation consultant who would be willing to visit me in the hospital before I left. I threw myself on that lactation consultant’s mercy, begging her to come and see me before they threw me out!
Gosh how I love that woman to this day – don’t we all those of us who endured needless hell while learning to breastfeed and who were then saved by an omniscient angelic figure like her in a time of crisis :) She was the first and only person to show me that what I was doing was not breastfeeding at all — it was nipple-sucking and hence why it hurt so much. I left the hospital with traumatized nipples but armed with evidence-based and correct information and a lot more confidence.
If someone like her had only been made available to me from the beginning, I would have been spared a lot more pain and tears. When I got home, I noticed what I thought was blood in his tiny diaper — it wasn’t. It was rusty dried urine, “bricking,” a tell-tale sign of dehydration I later learned and completely avoidable if he had been latched well! Panicked, and thinking he was bleeding internally, I raced to the pediatrician. She noted that my milk had not yet come in, and prescribed some formula for the remainder of the day (she disclosed at that visit that she hadn’t breastfed her twins). I went home exhausted and depressed, but not willing to give up. I gave him 2 ounces of formula and continued to nurse him, praying that the milkmaid would deliver soon!
By that night, my breasts were hard and swollen. I grabbed the hand pump I had standing by and began to squeeze and release — after all we had been through I felt that I had to be sure there was really milk in there! I squealed with delight when the yellowish-white liquid began to drip from my breasts into the bottle. I ran triumphantly into the next room where we had visiting friends and exclaimed “Look what I made! I made milk!” The friend had no kids yet and must have thought I was a lunatic .
But the challenge didn’t end there. Mother nature means business when she delivers, and when your boobs are the size of cantaloups and your baby hasn’t yet mastered a good, deep latch, he can be inefficient at removing milk. My engorgement continued, my nipples were still cracked, and I sat in tears for interminable hours with my feet perched on my nursing stool baby atop my nursing pillow, trying to get it right and refusing to give up on him or me. I sobbed to my best friend, Bettina, who was 9 months pregnant with her first, that this was the hardest thing I had ever done and that I felt like a total failure. I called the LC who came to see me in the hospital thinking I needed another appointment. That was the second-best call I ever made. She reassured me that we were trending in the right direction, and gave me the peace-of-mind I craved and the burst of confidence I needed to keep going.
I never needed to see her again. We worked it out, he and I and I went on to nurse him for 22 months. I had triumphed over what Bettina and I have now termed the ill-fated Booby Traps, and I was inspired to help other moms avoid the same fate. I cashed in my legal hat for an LC hat, took a stellar breastfeeding education course, shadowed an IBCLC in a major NYC hospital, and embarked on a completely new career and journey.
I established myself as an independent certified lactation counselor, providing prenatal breastfeeding classes, postnatal home/hospital visits, hosting a support group for breastfeeding and pregnant moms. I even created a community group to better connect all professionals who worked with expecting and new moms to provide greater resources for new mothers – -putting the lactation experts in touch with everyone from family practitioners, to massage therapists, to chiropractors. I had found my passion and my calling.
Working one-to-one with moms was the most rewarding work I had ever done, but it was also the most frustrating and discouraging. Multitudes of moms were having botched breastfeeding experiences and it wasn’t their fault. The more I got and kept babies on the breast, the more moms were being sabotaged by their pediatricians, obs, hospitals, even well-meaning but uninformed family and friends, and were being disgraced and discriminated against in their communities, in stores, restaurants, and by their employers. My frustration and sorrow for these moms and for the state of breastfeeding in the US became a daily rant, which I naturally shared with Bettina.
The story of moms wanting to breastfeed and being set up to fail, was getting tired and old – and to be honest it was wearing on me personally. Together we said: Enough is enough! One-woman-at-a-time support is essential, but if we continue to force women to bear the brunt of a society that doesn’t intrinsically support breastfeeding, if we continue to beat them over the head with messages about benefits and not simultaneously remove the barriers, we are not going to solve this problem. We asked ourselves rhetorically: where is the cause for the foundation of human health – for breastfeeding? There wasn’t one! And so we began to devise a collaborative social marketing strategy that would take breastfeeding from the level of movement to bona fide Cause – like March of Dimes, (Red) and others, to leverage the winning combination of corporations, celebrities, media and consumers, and to be an effective and expeditious driver of cultural and systemic change. You can read more about the method and model of our madness here.
It’s in the name of those moms and babies who wanted to breastfeed and unnecessarily struggled, suffered, and gave up, full of guilt, blame, regret; who were too upset or too exhausted to raise their voice or write a letter when they were being actively Booby Trapped or discovered it too late; who both were deprived of breastfeeding’s lifelong risk-lowering protection against so many epidemic illnesses; and who both were robbed of a unique and unquantifiable enriching experience that can’t be bottled, that we founded Best for Babes to be the first Mainstream Cause for Breastfeeding.
Now we hit a bit of a hiccup along the way to getting the Best for Babes Foundation off the ground. When I weaned my second child, my daughter, at 22 months I discovered a suspicious lump in my left breast. I thought it might be a remaining clogged duct. No such luck. It was cancer. Invasive breast cancer. Turns out, it was also starting in the right breast. I literally hit the floor when the call came with the news. How could I who had dedicated her life to breasts be struck with bilateral breast cancer? I was 37.
I endured a year of big stuff — with a 2 year old and a 5 year old under foot, and 400 miles between me and my parents, I had a double mastectomy and underwent six months of chemotherapy. But I survived — more than survived. I wove that experience into the fabric of BFB and made it my mission, my raison d’etre, to see to it that we all have the chance to thrive, not just survive. And the only way we are going to get there is we focus on prevention as much as cure.
I am unabashed about my position that the Cure is not enough and that I won’t race for it; we need both treatment AND prevention. And that means awareness and action beyond the monthly self-exam for breast cancer, regular visits to the doctor, and yearly mammograms (which are more properly classed as detection than prevention). It means an unrelenting focus on ensuring and educating about real food (whole, unprocessed, organic, fresh and local at best), clean air, clean water, toxin-free products for home and body, and exercise among other things, and it includes emphasizing the miracle milk that jump starts it all!
A breast-less warrior I have now become. When asked whether my bout with cancer has dissuaded me from touting the benefits of breastfeeding I have always said no. If anything, my ordeal has made me even more resolute about raising awareness of the health promoting effects of breastfeeding for both mom and baby. Having breastfed two babies for a total of 44 months, I should have received measurable protection from breast cancer. On that score, I clearly was a statistical outlier. On the other hand, I was not breastfed myself and good evidence suggests that even girl babies who are breastfed enjoy a lifetime risk reduction of breast cancer of up to 28%! Which is not to blame my mother or any woman who didn’t breastfeed! We are all the product of our environment – of the influences and the information given us — most of our mothers didn’t breastfeed and we neither blame, nor judge them! My mother and I addressed the “guilt” issue in full public view last Mother’s Day in a series of posts we wrote together about Rebuilding the Circle and Helping Our Mothers Heal.
My passion and commitment to this cause to see that as many of us as possible benefit from the magic elixir of breastmilk has never been stronger. Breastfeeding and human milk are the foundation of human health – protecting us against almost every major health epidemic and providing an inestimable and exquisite experience for both mother and baby. Its just too good, too important, too relevant to be deleted from the equation of the human experience and for us all not to get behind the Mother of All Causes - whether you breastfed or you didn’t. Come on America, if we can do it for breast cancer, we can do it for breastfeeding!