When Breastfeeding Gets Tough
Dr. Kristen Berning
My husband and I were blessed with the arrival of our third healthy baby. Like many moms, I thought breastfeeding would come naturally. After all, this was my third baby and I had 2 years cumulative experience nursing my other children. My plans were to breastfeed Ted for 12 months.
When Ted was just one day old in the hospital, I knew something was very different with breastfeeding. His latch was shallow and uncomfortable as if he was “chewing” instead of sucking. The lactation consultants worked with me on encouraging a deeper latch:
- I was told to run my finger down his tongue to encourage him to
stick his tongue out further. But he couldn’t stick his tongue out
- I would wait for a wide opening before letting him latch. But he
didn’t open very wide.
- I was told to use a nipple shield. But that made the pain even
worse since he was still “chewing,” and the plastic was pinching
me where I had sores and cuts.
- When his latch was shallow, I was told to break suction and try
again to relatch. But the latching-on was the worst part. I just
wanted to get it over with. The toe-curling pain brought me to
tears, and in between feedings I dreaded when it would be time
to nurse him again.
I had cracked and bleeding nipples. The lanolin wasn’t helping enough. I went to a breastfeeding support group on a Wednesday when he was 3 weeks old and discussed the pain with the lactation consultants. I was sitting near a sweet mom named Jessi. Jessi suggested Ted might have a tongue-tie, as she experienced it with her daughter and had the tongue-tie clipped by an ENT physician. Tongue-ties can restrict proper tongue movement and cause latch problems. A lactation consultant took a look at his tongue, but was not sure. At Ted’s 3-week well-child appointment the next day, his pediatrician was also not completely sure if it was a tongue-tie. I made a phone call and the ENT doctor could not see Ted until the next week.
That night, I felt shooting pains in my chest in between breastfeeding sessions. With my left arm wrapped across my chest to suppress the pain, and my right hand free to search Google, I read that I might have thrush- a yeast infection of the nipple and breast. I looked inside Ted’s mouth and saw small white patches in his cheeks. I am a dentist, and I didn’t even think to look inside his cheeks until I read about thrush online. I’ll never forget that evening since it was Holy Thursday and my husband and two other kids were at church. I drove Baby Ted and myself to the night clinic, and a pediatrician confirmed it was thrush. I felt crushed, wondering what I maybe did wrong so quickly after he was born. Then I drove to the pharmacy in tears, to get our prescriptions. I was exhausted, in pain, and felt “infected” with something that was tainting these brand-new baby weeks.
Let me take a quick time-out in my story to say that I know moms have dealt with much worse or more difficult medical conditions than ours. We survived this. Breastfeeding can be really, REALLY hard,and the support I had from people along the way made all the difference. I desperately wanted keep breastfeeding, but the pain with breastfeeding really tested me. This gave me a clear understanding why breastfeeding didn’t always work.
I called the ENT doctor’s office the next morning, and politely asked if there was any way they could see us sooner due to the pain. They squeezed us in later that day. At our appointment, I explained to the doctor how I knew Ted’s latch was drastically different than my first two babies. He explained the procedure. I consented and was ready without hesitation. Three-week- old Baby Ted was safely stabilized on the procedure table by the nurses, and the ENT clipped Ted’s lingual frenulum with a surgical scissors. Ted was immediately returned to me to breastfeed. His latch was instantly so much better and less painful. I was so relieved to have improvement. Clipping his tongue-tie saved our breastfeeding relationship.
I thought we were all fixed up and in the clear. The latch was so much better and my cuts healed. Unfortunately the thrush would not go away easily. White patches would reappear in Baby Ted’s mouth and my pain would return partially. A local lactation consultant from the support group guided me along Dr. Jack Newman’s Candida Protocol to eventually rid of the thrush. I had a more resistant case that was difficult to treat.
It seemed my 8-week maternity leave flew by too quickly with less mother-baby bonding time. I spent so much time researching thrush online, following Newman’s protocol, talking with lactation consultants and my OB/GYN doctor, consulting with my baby’s pediatrician,taking medications, applying medications, cleaning and boiling pacifiers and breast pump parts, doing extra laundry, and eliminating the sugar in my diet. Through tears, anxiety, and a lot of work, we cleared up the thrush and it finally stayed away.
What got me through this breastfeeding challenge? The calm support of my husband helped me stay on track. Two lactation consultants,Jayne and Kathy, were my constant advocates through phone calls and the breastfeeding support group. I could feel them cheering me on and they made me believe we could do this. Dr. Jack Newman himself, a pediatrician who specializes in breastfeeding medicine,even replied to an email question that I sent him. I read other moms’stories online and learned from their similar trials with thrush. I appreciated all the helpful listening ears along the way.
It is amazing the healing and support we feel when someone listens to us. I successfully breastfed Ted for 13 months. The first few months were painful, and I felt robbed of the cuddly, relaxing maternity leave that I dreamed of having.
Since I struggled with Ted’s shallow latch and our resistant case of thrush, I have become passionate about supporting other moms and babies who face these conditions. It makes the painful experience that I had, somehow less painful.
As a mom, I try to respond to questions about thrush or tongue-ties in our local Facebook breastfeeding support group, and I went to the in person support groups when my babies were young. It was mom-to-
mom support that helped me so much on my journey- starting with Jessi who suggested Ted might have a tongue-tie.
As a dentist, I now treat tongue-tied babies who have feeding or latch difficulties using a laser in our office. I learned from experts at tongue-tie courses and immersed myself in study many nights at home. Using the laser, I release and remove the tight frenulum tissue so that function and latch can improve. My fourth baby, Clara, had a tongue-tie and a lip tie causing a shallow latch, and she was my first infant patient.
Again, although breastfeeding my third baby was my toughest physical and emotional challenge of motherhood so far, other moms have dealt with much more difficult situations than mine. Looking back now, it was a short stage in my life, but during those few months it felt almost impossible.
We are shaped by our experiences as moms. We are on this journey together, and no book or Google search can prepare us for everything. Lactation consultants and their support groups inspire me because I believe their work truly makes a difference. We can all help another mom keep going on her journey… if we listen and support each other.
Dr. Kristen Berning is a wife, a mother of four, and a dentist at
Exceptional Dentistry, 4200 Asbury Road, Dubuque, IA 52002.