I should have guessed that Graves’ might affect breastfeeding, given that the thyroid regulates all hormones, but I tried my best to let doctors tell me where to worry, and let the rest be… Looking back, I would have gotten my thyroid removed during the second trimester, when it was safest for us both. The first three months of my daughter’s life I struggled with making enough milk (with hyperthyroid it’s actually the let-down that’s impacted, not production, but same result—baby needs more). It became abundantly clear when in the recovery room from my thyroidectomy I pumped more milk that I could have previously in a day. I popped a synthroid and was done with my supply problem. In another post I’ll give you perhaps a more compelling reason I should have gotten that sick gland out earlier, but today I want to focus on nursing.
Graves’ was a hangnail. It bothered me a little at first, but besides some tremors, the weekly blood draws and many hours spent monitoring my unborn daughter, there was truly little trouble. It was the Parsonage Turner Syndrome, otherwise known as brachial neuritis that was and has been more problematic. It impacts just 1 out of 100,000 people, and it’s hard to explain fully, but I’ll give you a quick scoop. Generally a flare is sparked by a trauma: injury, surgery, childbirth, anesthesia, even vaccines. It begins with sudden, intense onset of severe pain located in the shoulder/upper back area (acute phase) lasting between weeks and months often followed by lessened pain, weakness and paralysis of affected area for around a year (chronic phase). I’ve had periodic episodes in my life since age 14, but have rarely been able to identify or predict triggers.
It made perfect sense that two spinals and a cesarean birth would do the trick, and I should have seen it coming. The next day I was given three vaccines (I only learned later) known to trigger. Go figure I experience the worst attack of my life. In recovery, on morphine, I was in agony, and shuddered at the near future.
On particularly acute nights nursing would have been impossible without help. Here’s why my mom is great: she (a former breastfeeder herself, and a big supporter) would try to help her ailing daughter, “I’m going to give her a bottle, okay?” Each time when I protested, I wanted to nurse her, she didn’t question, she would gingerly take my arms and wrap each safely around my daughter, prop pillows up to keep them in place, pack my shoulders with ice, and help me take some (useless) steroids and Percocet. Sometimes she’d be brave with me, sometimes she’d cry with me. Sometimes that’s all you can do.
I was OBSESSED with increasing my supply, so much that I would double pump 20-30 minutes after at least six of 12 nursing sessions a day, drink only mother’s milk tea, and took so much fenugreek I smelled like maple syrup. I would chart how much I was able to pump at what time, how much supplementing she needed, what her weight gain was that week…When you have a baby that eats every 90 minutes, and you have to supplement, it’s the only thing you do. You can’t leave the house, because you can’t stop, ever. I was in so much pain that I wouldn’t want to leave the house, anyways. I felt guilty supplementing with formula, but also knew she was still hungry, and needed it. A few weeks later, we learned our daughter had a milk-protein allergy, and in order to keep nursing I would need to eliminate dairy from my diet. I am already gluten-free because of my autoimmune issues, so I’m accustomed to reading labels, but this left my diet pretty limited.
Why the hell would I do this just to keep breastfeeding? I don’t think formula is evil, and I don’t for one second think that mothers who bottle-feed are doing less than their best for their children, but it wasn’t the right choice for me. I did it for myself as much as my baby. I am amazed by breastfeeding—it’s absolute magic, and I didn’t want to miss out just because of my illness. Not just its production is amazing, but the benefits for mother and baby are remarkable. You may know, but I didn’t until recently: the baby’s saliva is “read” by the mother’s body, which will then create solutions for what the baby may need—this is why breastfed babies develop fewer illnesses—the mother’s antibodies literally make breastmilk medicinal. How incredible is that?
The most profound reason to nurse became my mental health. Where my body failed in so many ways, I could nourish my child. With previous episodes of neuritis, I would struggle emotionally; I felt utterly useless. Not only did I feel the famous benefits of oxytocin, but I maintained value as a person, where I couldn’t contribute in so many aspects, I was positively vital to the most tremendous little person. Once I had my thyroid out there was plenty of milk, my body never stopped getting signals to make more, so it was a really easy transition. Once my baby could support her own head, I didn’t have to concoct ways to support her with my jelly arms. We both started sleeping more, and healing little by little.
I’ve listed a couple “should haves” here, but my ignorance was retrospectively bliss. I was completely unprepared for what would be, but preparedness may have deterred me from the ultimate best choice for us. Had I imagined just what it would take to successfully nurse, I may have logically weighed the benefits and thought, “If I’m going to go through all this, I’m going to need to put partner on night duty and sleep a few nights a week.” I got through a rough time because I only dealt with it one moment at a time. What I’m saying, mamas, is with the right support, you can do it, you really can. It might be one of the hardest things you do, but what great thing isn’t? More importantly, whatever you do, forgive yourself, hell, applaud yourself for it. Heaven know we’re all doing our best.