My daughter, Madeline, was a very poor nurser as an infant. From birth to two and half months old, she would breastfeed, clicking her tongue the whole time, for about three minutes (through my heavy let down) and then pull off screaming (seemingly in agony) and shaking her head. You could not get her to latch back on. My nipples were cracked, constantly sore and nursing was never pleasurable. It was always stressful. “It’s not supposed to be like this,” I’d say to my husband through tears. “Some babies fall asleep nursing!”
We were convinced there was something wrong — that I wasn’t producing enough, that she was starving, that there was a food allergy. I tried fenugreek supplements (which she ended up being allergic to), tried nursing more frequently, tried elimination diets — none had any effect on her nursing habits. Many moms in my life told me that this was so common — that a lot of babies just cried for no reason. Maybe she even had colic.
One night, in a moment of desperation after another failed attempt at nursing, we gave her a bottle of formula (one of the ones they send you home with from the hospital). The instant difference in her demeanor was night and day. Our baby was finally content. From that night on, I became a pumper. I ended up exclusively pumping for her between two and a half and four months old, before my supply dwindled and I finally switched her to just formula. She was an infinitely happier and chunkier baby girl (and we were happier, too!), but my goal of primarily breastfeeding my daughter as long as possible was a thing of the past.
The Turning Point
After Madeline’s first birthday, I happened upon an article on Facebook about upper lip ties. Recognizing all the classic symptoms instantly, I ran to check her. Since that day, I have been convinced that an upper lip tie was the reason for our breastfeeding issues. And at age two, when I started itching to have her evaluated for speech (she was struggling with articulation problems), I had a nagging suspicion that this suspected upper lip tie was to blame.
History Repeated Itself
Fast forward to the birth of my son, Benjamin. Armed with the research I’d done on upper lip ties and tongue ties (here‘s a good place to start…and here…and here), which I now knew go hand in hand, I had a plan for my breastfeeding relationship with my newborn — I wasn’t going to leave the hospital without having him evaluated for ties. The day after his birth, the on-call pediatrician checked him out and said all looked good to her. I disagreed, but my husband insisted that the doctor knew what she was talking about. Ready to go home, I hesitantly relented.
By one month old, nursing Benjamin still wasn’t “coming naturally,” nor was it “pain free.” So I made an appointment with a lactation consultant at the on-post hospital who thought his latch looked good, but noted he was gumming my nipple while nursing. While we nursed in front of her, he actually consumed three ounces from one breast in less than ten minutes (the LC remarked that I was producing enough for triplets at that point). She ended up suggesting some different holds to accommodate him better aka we had to nurse with him sitting up straight on my knee. Not ideal. Not cozy and comfortable for either of us.
By two months old, we had suffered two cases of thrush and I had had one agonizing case of mastitis. Benjamin was an extremely gassy baby who audibly swallowed air while nursing, sometimes clicked, bit down on my nipples (I suspect to slow my heavy let down), pulled off every thirty seconds to either gasp for air, shake his head or just re-latch more shallowly (which I constantly tried to adjust) and who spit up two to three times after every feed. I used to describe his nursing experience as him being waterboarded, but he did seem much more patient with the experience than Madeline was. He very rarely fell asleep nursing, often sitting up whining/crying until I could calm him down enough to get burps out. He would only poop once every day or two (mucusy- even when I cut dairy from diet for a month) and usually seemed to be in pain until he was able to go. My nipples were red/purple and super sensitive.
At his two month check up, I told the nurse about his issues and, after bearing witness to his “pain cry,” she recommended an upper GI. The result was that his anatomy was normal, but he showed evidence of acid reflux. He went on a daily dose of Prevacid — a total nightmare each day since the taste was so bad. Our insurance even stopped covering the liquid compound, which had offered him much gastro-relief. But the meltaway tabs that we substituted with proved much easier for him to tolerate and cheaper, as well.
At almost three months old, Benjamin started to refuse to nurse. He might nurse for one to two minutes on each side but seemed to get frustrated easily and was constantly pulling off, kicking and fussing. After trying cluster feeding (to no avail), I eventually caved and supplemented with formula for the first time. Again my baby was somewhat relieved and happy. Again I was torn between wanting to breastfeed and wanting a happy and healthy baby — the two did not seem to go hand in hand for me. Again I suspected that an upper lip and tongue tie was part of the problem.
By this time, Andrew was about to deploy to Iraq, and I was nearing my wits’ end. Benjamin had been a challenging baby up to this point, and now my husband was about to leave. I’d be parenting an infant and a two year old alone. Panic was rapidly setting in.
While I had gotten Benjamin evaluated for a tongue and lip tie at birth and gotten feedback that he looked normal (HA!), I never had Madeline evaluated. On my Deployment To Do List — get both of my children formally evaluated by a pediatric dentist for lip and tongue ties.
Note: Upper lip and tongue ties may not be the cause of painful/dysfunctional breastfeeding for every baby, but if your story sounds anything like ours I strongly encourage you to look into it! Please consult with your local IBCLC, pediatric dentist or pediatrician as a starting point. If you would like to know more about our experience with upper lip and tongue ties or the frenectomy procedure, please check out part two of our story here!