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By Dawna Mangrum, IBCLC, RLC
I was recently asked “what’s your favorite thing about being an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant ”. I have to admit, I was initially thrown off by the question.
My immediate thought...
All of it, duh!
But...a singular favorite thing? Hmmm….well…..
I do talk about tongue ties and oral restrictions a lot due to personal experiences. In fact, those experiences are largely what inspired me to become an #IBCLC.
I’m also passionate about the disparities in care and ways to increase access to comprehensive lactation support.
And there's the fact that I fiercely believe there needs to be better education and support starting way before the baby is even born so families can make well-informed decisions.
But I can’t say any of those are my favorite things about being an IBCLC-and just as I was musing this over, I glanced down at my forearm and saw the tattoo that I got to represent my own breastfeeding journey:
Moonflowers done in rainbow watercolors.
And that’s when it hit me! My favorite thing about being an IBCLC is something that doesn't quite have a name.
It's that amazing moment when a breastfeeding/chestfeeding parent hits the empowered realization that “I can do this!”
And this is that moment:.
You see, when my own milky baby, Charley, was born, breastfeeding was extremely challenging….and painful! In addition to recovering from a traumatic birth experience, I had to deal with cracked and bleeding nipples. Turns out my daughter had extreme oral restrictions and I had very little access to the comprehensive care and clinical breastfeeding support that only an IBCLC can offer. This meant I was left to my own devices as a single mom struggling with baby blues (and later PPD/PPA). My own intuition had to drive me through excruciating nursing with a baby that seemed to want the boob 23/7. I truly thought everyone had lied to me when they said breastfeeding wasn't painful. I told myself I would suffer through the pain of exclusive breastfeeding for 6 weeks before I threw in the towel.
I researched extensively.
I tried different latch techniques (#flipple latch ftw).
I nursed in modified positions.
And I celebrated each "milestone", like the time my nipple came out shaped like a tube of lipstick instead of flattened like a pancake.
I saw what few providers were available to me, with no improvement, and lamented my lack of options.
But.....at 5 weeks postpartum, I finally found someone who listened. I went to a #facebookmommytribe and trusted my gut to get to the root of our problems: her lip and tongue tie were truly problematic. After lots of self-advocating, I found a pediatric dentist who helped us change the course of our breastfeeding. My daughter's #frenectomy was the turning point and by my 6 weeks deadline we were latching pain free.
We would have never gotten there if it weren't for my persistence and intuition. For me, my breastfeeding relationship and how I navigated the issues to be successful defined who I was to be as a mother.
I felt empowered!
I didn't give in when the pediatrician dismissed my concerns.
I managed to hold off when I remembered the formula in the cabinet I had received as marketing (a different topic for another time).
I was able to stay the course when my own self doubts infiltrated my thoughts.
This isn't the reality for everyone though!
Truthfully, much of my resilience was not motivated by what was best for my baby. It was obviously a factor, but not my driving force. My motivation came from a sense of self-protection and a need to prove myself. Because I was already feeling a sense of loss from not having my perfect birth experience, I couldn't "fail" at breastfeeding too. My own internal pressure to breastfeed pushed me to succeed and gave me the wisdom to listen to my inner voice.
Now, I would never recommend that anyone navigate breastfeeding landmines the way I did, without a great IBCLC to support them. My path was unique and was leading me to a calling. The reality is, I would still have found this path to becoming an IBCLC had I had professional breastfeeding support...only without those 5 weeks of trauma. That "AHA!" moment of our first pain-free latch opened a whole new world for me. But I was succinctly aware that many families never reach that moment of empowerment, often leading to resentment and regret. This is where comprehensive lactation support comes into play. For many, the clinical support offered by an IBCLC can make all the difference in troubleshooting breastfeeding issues.
As IBCLCs, we're not superheroes. The parents are the superheroes with their babies as their sidekick. We're more like Batman's Lucius Fox: we can provide some of the tools to unlock their superpowers! This puts us in an amazing position where we can be present, and impactful, when families first realize they are empowered. And that moment of empowerment is amazing to witness. The relief that comes over a breastfeeding parent’s face when they ease the grimace they were preparing for, watching a baby’s shoulders relax into milk-drunkness after their first effective latch, these are the moments I love about my work.
I wish breastfeeding was this magical, natural moment for everyone right off the bat. That would be an ideal world and go a long way to helping prevent postpartum mood disorders. But secretly, I am thankful that families get to experience the sense of accomplishment that comes from weathering this storm. I believe most new parents have a defining moment where they go from feeling overwhelmed to empowered. This new confidence allows them to believe they are enough for their tiny human.
That moment was, quite literally, life changing for me. I clearly remember the latch that changed the course of my parenting. In fact, I remember that more clearly than our first latch after she was born. There are so many lessons to be learned from the journey to get to that point. For some, it's simply learning how to ask for help. For me, it was learning to trust my instincts and advocate for myself and my daughter. But it also taught me how to turn my trauma into something beneficial, leading me to a path where I attempt to help families find that same empowerment -- that AHA! moment.
When Charley was four months old, I memorialized our journey in a tattoo to serve as a daily reminder of the lessons we had learned. The moonflower is a night flower, requiring darkness to bloom. It is a symbol of growth after going through a challenging period in life. Little did I know, my favorite thing about working in lactation would be watching families bloom after their own breastfeeding challenges.