A gut-wrenching, heartbreaking story came up on my Facebook feed the other day. The title said the newborn baby died from starvation (though, more likely, the baby died from dehydration).
The baby was born at a baby-friendly hospital. Which means that the mom was encouraged to breastfeed, someone who had extra breastfeeding education probably visited her in the hospital, and the baby was probably not offered a bottle.
The story mentioned that the baby lost a bit of weight after birth (which is quite normal) and that mommy and baby were then allowed to go home.
Apparently what went wrong was that this mother was not told what to look for to make sure her baby was getting enough breast milk (AKA “mommy milk”). When a baby is bottle-fed, it’s easy to see how much a baby is getting in its body. When a baby is breastfed, it’s sometimes hard to tell if a baby is getting anything in at all.
Here is what I looked for when my baby was a newborn:
Is my baby looking hydrated?
You can tell if a baby is hydrated by the way he looks. If his lips look plump and moist, that’s a good sign. If they look dry, that’s not so good. Your baby’s eyes and skull my look sunken in, which is also a sign of dehydration. There are other symptoms of newborn dehydration that you can Google, but just looking at your baby is a good place to start.
Are my breasts super-hard and lumpy and then soft again?
When my breasts were full of mommy milk, they would get super hard and lumpy and they would drip or squirt if my baby wasn’t able to eat right away (i.e., if I was in the shower). I would feel a tingling in my breasts and then they would leak and I know I was having a let down. Not all mommies can feel every letdown. I did and still do. So, check for the letdown feeling, but also make sure your breasts are going from big, stretched, and lumpy to softer after your baby eats. That way you’ll know you’re baby is getting something in her belly.
Is my baby drinking?
Figuring out how to tell if my baby was swallowing was so helpful for me. I found videos online that taught me what to look for. If my baby is drinking then I know my baby is getting nourishment and hydration. I found the International Breastfeeding Centre YouTube channel helpful for this.
How much is my baby peeing?
When I was exclusively breastfeeding, I always loved when my baby had a big full wet diaper – it made me feel like a bad-ass mommy! (Except of course if I’d waited too long to change the diaper, then I felt like Rookie Mom.) But that big, full wet diaper meant I was doing a good job of making my baby mommy milk, and he was doing a good job drinking. Check online – there are plenty of places to see how many diapers to expect. I personally never counted or kept track because I focused on how my baby looked, acted, and drank. But I wish you lots of Bad-Ass Mommy wet diapers!
Is my baby crying without tears?
The tricky thing about this is that newborns don’t typically cry with tears. A baby starts crying with tears between 1 and 3 months of age. If an older baby is crying without tears and is having trouble eating or has diarrhea or vomiting, then you might be concerned that she is dehydrated. But if a newborn is crying without tears, that’s normal and you’ll need to look at the whole picture before freaking out that your baby is not getting enough mommy milk.
How is my baby’s mood?
A baby will cry, or not cry, for a lot of reasons. If your baby is crying ALL THE TIME, he may be REALLY hungry. Or he may be in pain, or need to physically process the stress of being born, or something else may be going on. If your baby is weak and tired or irritable, he may be dehydrated. Or he may be sick, or something else may be going on…
See, this one is challenging! Here’s a way to make it easier: you want your baby to be calm and alert during waking hours. If that’s not how he’s acting, then use your Voice of Wisdom to figure out what kind of support your baby is asking for.
So what do I do?
First, consult a lactation consultant.
Seriously, a good one of these is worth the money! She’ll come to your home, check you and your baby out, see where the problem is, and point you in the right direction to handle it. My sister-in-law is a lactation consultant and I was so thankful to have her advice and wisdom when my baby and I were first learning to breastfeed – it made a huge difference. She gave me some tips and put my mind and heart at ease.
Next, depending on the issues, there are lots of resources:
Do I need to make more mommy milk?
A licensed acupuncturist can do acupuncture and give you herbs and dietary recommendations to help. A chiropractor can make sure your body is functioning at it’s best. I’ve also heard of special craniosacral therapy techniques that can help as well. I found a yummy looking recipe of lactation cookies online and my family made them for me. Just be careful, because if you eat too many for too long, they might work too well and getting too full is not too comfortable! Even after I stopped eating the cookies, I still make sure to eat some galactogogues every day. Those are foods that are supposed to increase mommy milk supply. I drank a lot of water. I also ate. A LOT. I ate nutritious foods and made sure I was getting a good amount of calories and fats. Now’s not the time to worry about loosing your baby weight – if you’re breastfeeding every time your baby is hungry, it will probably come off on it’s own. I gained 50 lbs during pregnancy and it was all gone before 6 months postpartum.
Am I having trouble breastfeeding because of stress?
If I’m stressed about being able to feed my baby, it stresses my baby out. If I’m feeling like I’m too tired, it’s too hard, maybe I’ll never get it, maybe there is something wrong with me, what if I can’t feed my baby enough, or all the other stuff that goes through a new mom’s head when she’s having a challenging time with breastfeeding, then I’m going to get upset and my baby is going to get upset. That’s going to affect my ability to feed my baby and affect my baby’s ability to eat. Luckily, it was never that bad for me, but if it was, the best thing for me to do at that point would be to see my acupuncturist and check in with my lactation consultant, go to a La Leche League meeting, or call my midwife! None of that available in the moment? I would step outside, get a few breaths of fresh air, calm myself down, calm my baby down, and then feed my baby.
What about if there is something structural going on with my baby’s mouth/head/tongue?
If that was going on in my family, I’d find a pediatric version of the specialists listed above. Luckily, the acupuncturists, chiropractors, and craniosacral therapists who specialize in working with pregnant and postpartum moms also often specialize in pediatrics and working with newborns.
What else did I research?
Milk banks, milk sharing, supplemental nursing systems, homemade formulas like those found in Super Nutrition for Babies (be careful – homemade formulas are dangerous if not done right), the LLL breastfeeding book, Ina May Gaskin’s breastfeeding book, the breast crawl.
What would I NOT do?
I would not give my newborn baby water, or any other type of drink, because then there might be a risk of starvation. Even though it addresses the problem of dehydration, my baby wouldn’t be getting the nutrients. I wouldn’t give my baby formula unless absolutely necessary. Your preference may be different, and that is OK, but when I look at the ingredients on the formula bottles, all I see are chemicals and corn syrup (which is sugar). I would rather do all in my power to make sure my baby is getting the real thing before giving my baby what looks like sugar water with chemicals.
I pray that the things I’ve gone through help empower breastfeeding mothers, and those who support them, to prevent another loss from dehydration or starvation.
Set up a Mommy Mentoring session with me if you still have questions or concerns around this topic (or other fertility, pregnancy, mommy, or baby-loss related topics).
Best wishes to you!
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