By Grand Canyon National Park via Wikimedia Commons

Why I Struggled to Find My Breastfeeding North Star

Posted August 27, 2014 by Katrina McCarty, MPA

Katrina McCartyAs a new mom, I found myself searching for a true guiding presence as I tried to make decisions about caring for my daughter and myself. I knew I wanted to breastfeed her and I assumed it would be easy. I assumed the stars would align and she and I would be deliriously connected and she would be nourished. I assumed a hungry baby and a food source were enough. Not quite.

I was happy and grateful when they laid her on my chest immediately after she was born. It was amazing to see her and in that moment I felt I had found my North Star. She tried to find her way to nurse. I thought that one moment was enough and that with this tiny gesture from her we would be cosmically connected in a very simple and profound way. Not quite.

My North Star got lost in the clouds. Some of the clouds were feelings of intense anxiety and fear. Some were just exhaustion. Breastfeeding was difficult. It was emotional. I wanted to give up many times. She didn’t latch on easily or comfortably. I was in pain and she was hungry. We didn’t know each other at all yet. At the hospital the nurses were supportive but their best advice was to “keep trying.” They offered pacifiers that I didn’t want. The breastfeeding class I attended was without my daughter so I didn’t learn. I asked to see a lactation consultant but never got to in the short time I was at the hospital. It was a series of missed opportunities for the hospital, for me and for my daughter, to teach and to learn and to be supported.

We left the hospital and headed home without a plan for how to try to continue breastfeeding. She and I struggled. More pain, more tears, more frustration. I felt like a failure and I felt lost. Where was the guidance, the true North Star? I called friends, our pediatrician and my mom. They were all supportive but they couldn’t quite help me. I was fortunate to eventually find a lactation consultant who could visit me at home. She sat with me for an hour or more at a time. She included my husband and she let me cry and share. She helped me try something and if it didn’t work she helped me try something else until we found what worked. We tested all kinds of changes. What worked for my daughter and me wasn’t anything I had read in books, online or heard from others.

I was fortunate to have resources: maternity leave, insurance that covered the visits from the lactation consultant and a network of people who cared. With time, support and specialized help from the lactation consultant the clouds disappeared. My daughter and I found our place and we became each other’s guiding star.

Access to all these resources isn’t the case for so many women. That is one of the reasons why 79 percent of newborns start breastfeeding, but only 49 percent are still breastfed at 6 months.

When I joined NICHQ last month, it was because I wanted to be a part of its mission of improving children’s health. I experienced firsthand how complicated and stressful it is to make health decisions in an emotionally charged environment and learning about NICHQ’s work inspired me that change can be made so others can have a better experience.

Improving maternity practices to support breastfeeding is an essential element of getting children off to a healthy start. That’s why NICHQ is leading multiple initiatives to improve breastfeeding support in Indiana, New York, Texas and nationally through the Best Fed Beginnings program. Through these initiatives, NICHQ will help nearly 300 hospitals improve their practices to better support mothers who choose to breastfeed, by showing women how to breastfeed and establishing breastfeeding support groups to refer mothers to upon discharge from the hospital, among other practice changes.

Feeding a hungry baby is so simple and so profound yet it isn’t always easy and the choices are emotionally and socially charged. Trying to breastfeed wasn’t how I thought it would be. I wish there had been more true and personal stories to connect with, more opportunities to try and to learn at the hospital, and more easily accessible resources to find community and support at home. Hopefully, with a little time, and the wonderful work being done here at NICHQ, supporting moms and babies and families in breastfeeding when it is safe and viable will not just be a wonderful public health goal, but a reality.

Learn more about NICHQ’s breastfeeding work, view resources and read inspirational stories from hospitals improving their practices on NICHQ’s breastfeeding website.

Image Credit: "23 Annual Star Party 2013 - 0082" by Grand Canyon National Park, via Wikimedia Commons

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