"I must admit, after I gave birth, the last thing I thought I would have to worry about was feeding my baby. I had always planned to breastfeed. My mother nursed me for two years and bragged about how fat my siblings and I got from her supply. As expected, my baby latched right away, but it hurt. I was told by the labor and delivery nurses that pain was normal, even though it was surprisingly similar to my delivery pain. The pain continued, and by the end of the first week, my nipples were bleeding, and my baby was hungry all the time."
A Pregnant Surgeon
I discovered I was pregnant at the end of my Ear, Nose, and Throat residency. I have to admit, the timing wasn’t ideal. I was working 125 hours a week, with much of that time spent doing surgeries in the operating room. My specialty is small and mostly male, and back then, maternity leave was nonexistent. Even so, there is never a good time to have a baby when you’re a female surgeon. I was determined to make it work.
My pregnancy was uneventful, except for the weight gain. Free to eat with abandon
I packed on fifty pounds. Between wearing extra large scrubs that hid my girth and clogs
with ample space for swollen feet, I barely noticed. When colleagues told me I was all belly
I believed them.
What I did notice was that as the pregnancy progressed, I became filled with joy. The hormones raging through my body gave me a sense of peace and hope. I calmly dealt with angry attendings. Belligerent patients got my full attention. It was as if the four previous years of sleep deprivation and anxiety were wiped away by all the estrogen. And then I went into labor.
I should back it up a bit here. The day before I gave birth, I was working at a hospital 20 miles from my apartment in the Bronx. Two weeks overdue, I waddled into the operating room to the horror of my attending.
“I am an ear surgeon,” he had said. “I don’t know how to deliver a baby.”
Lucky for him, I was able to work the entire day, drive the twenty miles home, go out for a spicy Italian dinner–this will be important later in the story–and go to bed. Around 11pm, I thought I had to go to the bathroom. That was my first contraction. After about an hour of steady, lower back contractions, I asked my husband to take me to the hospital. When we got there, the first question the triage nurse asked me was if I took Lamaze classes.
“I’ve run ultramarathons,” I answered. “I can take pain.” Or so I thought.
Once she brought me in to the triage area and strapped on the tocometer, my contractions accelerated to once a minute. I barely had time to breathe through one contraction before the next wave hit. An hour later, upset I couldn’t sit still for a good heart rate reading, the nurses prepared to send me home. I was a first time mom-to-be and barely dilated. As I stood up to change back into my clothes, my water broke.
What followed was a blur. I was wheeled into another room and given an IV. OB/Gyn residents rushed into the room and told me to start pushing. With each push, my baby’s heart rate dropped precipitously. They tried using a vacuum. They brought in more residents. Then a doctor I’d never met wheeled in a cart full of metal objects. “Finally!” I said, assuming he was the anesthesiologist bringing me an epidural. “I’m Dr. B,” he said. “I don’t usually cover your doctor, but the residents asked me to give them a hand.”
He pulled out the biggest pair of metal spatulas I’ve ever seen. I had no idea how they could possibly be used to give an epidural.
“This is gonna hurt worse than anything you’ve ever felt before,” he said, very seriously. “Now, I want you to close your mouth and push.” I don’t remember the pain. I remember seeing the color red. And burping up spicy red sauce from the night before. After what felt like hours (but was probably 15 minutes), my daughter was born.
The time from first contraction to delivery took less than three hours. Suddenly, I was a mom.
Tune in to Dr. Linda Dahl’s interview on the Informed Pregnancy Podcast here: https://bit.ly/3JXZHkX
I must admit, after I gave birth, the last thing I thought I would have to worry about was feeding my baby. I had always planned to breastfeed. My mother nursed me for two years and bragged about how fat my siblings and I got from her supply. As expected, my baby latched right away, but it hurt. I was told by the labor and delivery nurses that pain was normal, even though it was surprisingly similar to my delivery pain. The pain continued, and by the end of the first week, my nipples were bleeding, and my baby was hungry all the time. I nursed every hour for an hour, but she still needed more.
At our two week pediatrician visit, I was told she had lost a little weight. When I complained about how painful breastfeeding was, the pediatrician assured me that, just like the early weight loss, the pain was normal. My OB/Gyn brushed off any discussion of breastfeeding. As she explained, her job ended once the baby came out. After four weeks, I visited a breastfeeding class. Unlike the other babies, mine fell asleep on the breast after only a few minutes. The other babies were also fatter, and their moms didn’t have scabbed nipples. When I weighed my daughter after her feed, she had only taken in a fraction of an ounce, unlike the 2-3 ounces taken in by the other babies. The worried lactation consultant took me aside and encouraged me to see a private consultant.
The private consultant wasn’t much help either. After spending a small fortune, I left with no answers. She was unable to get my daughter to latch on any better than I could, and as it turned out, there was no sense in trying. After only four weeks, my supply had dwindled. Not even the hospital-grade pump I rented helped. For the next four months, even though I attached myself to it religiously, my supply stayed low at only two ounces for the whole day. Then, my supply dried up. I had to call it quits, blaming myself for failing at something that was supposed to be easy.
For more information on preparing yourself and your partner
for the postpartum period, visit: informedpregnancy.teachable.com
An Important Issue
I wish I could say my story is only my story, but, unfortunately, it is the story of countless women. Even though 83% of U.S. moms try to breastfeed, only a dismal 40% are able to do it exclusively for three months (even less for six months). Those who manage to breastfeed often struggle through pain, infections, and hungry babies. It was my failure paired with the lack of medically accurate advice that led me to dedicate a large part of my current medical practice to breastfeeding. Over the last nineteen years I’ve developed a paradigm to assess breastfeeding moms and babies and offer them treatment options.
Breastfeeding is just like everything else in the human body, but it isn’t treated that way. It may be natural, but nature is imperfect. Medicine is supposed to heal that imperfection, but in the case of breastfeeding, these issues have been largely ignored. I look forward to changing that, and you should (demand it) too.
Dr. Linda Dahl is an Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor and breastfeeding specialist who has treated over 23,000 mom/baby dyads over nearly 20 years in practice in NYC. She has developed a new paradigm in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of breastfeeding challenges and recently published her second book on breastfeeding called Better Breastfeeding: A Doctor’s Guide to Nursing Without Pain and Frustration. For more information, visit www.drlindadahl.com.