Mayim Bialik Opens Up About Her Breastfeeding Challenges and Becoming a Lactation Educator

Fred nursing on the subway at 3 years of age

A big thank you to Mayim Bialik for contributing this special guest post. Mayim writes about The Big Bang Theory, breastfeeding, and all things parenting for Kveller.com.

You know the women who never have any difficulty breastfeeding their kids? Me too. I wasn’t one of them. Either time.

I have an 8-year-old son and a 5 1/2-year-old son who nursed a combined 6 1/2 years. If you had seen me and my first son in the early days of nursing you would have bet money that we wouldn’t last a month breastfeeding. My son was in the NICU and I was pumping and was told if I wanted my son released from the NICU that I “had to” supplement (we used donor breastmilk in the hospital). If you had seen us a month in, you’d bet we were on the last legs of breastfeeding. And on and off for months, you might have bet we wouldn’t last any given day. It was that full of challenges.

With my second son, I assumed I’d have an easier time. After all, pseudoinverted and flat nipples tend to not be an issue with subsequent babies, right? Well, it was painful beyond belief, and we had just as many challenges – and more – even though he was born at home and everything was smooth and should have been much easier. It just wasn’t.

Before my first son was born, I attended a La Leche League meeting and established relationships with two La Leche League leaders that I knew I could call on if I had any troubles. And call on them I did. The problems I ended up encountering included having “atypical” nipples, copious milk production with not enough skills to manage engorgement, babies with recessed chins, nursing blisters, poor latch that caused significant damage and incredible pain, repeated aggressive thrush, mastitis and recurring plugged ducts.

Every time another challenge presented itself, there were those who told me to give up. To just use artificial baby milk. Don’t be a martyr, they said. You weren’t made to breastfeed. If it’s this hard, it’s not meant to be. Those voices were loud and persistent and they haunted me especially as I cried in the middle of the night, trying to get a baby latched on and failing and failing and failing.

Because of the pain and trauma to my nipples (even one bad latch can cause damage that can take days to heal, I discovered) I could hardly have clothing on, much less a bra because of the sensitivity and pain. Attending La Leche League meetings seemed impossible since I could barely function on my couch much less think about getting into a car or being at a meeting. Lactation support was expensive and often in far locations. It appeared like a mountain too steep to climb.

I did make it to a few meetings after the first 40 days (I stayed home for the first 40 days with both of my sons), but the single factor that made me able to breastfeed was the women of La Leche League and the lactation counselors who came to my home to help me breastfeed my babies. They took time away from their own families to come to my house and sit with me and cry with me and watch what I was doing and to fix it. They gave me the tools and the confidence to breastfeed. Breastfeeding is so important to me and to the welfare of my children that I knew I had to do every last thing to try and make it work. It’s that important.

Mayim Holding Fred at 3 1/2When my second son was about a year old and finally nursing smoothly, I enrolled in an extension course through University of California San Diego to become a Certified Lactation Educator Counselor. I had a strong desire at that time to be an IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant) but the requirement for hospital hours was not physically possible given my situation. I knew that becoming a CLEC was one step on that path, should I choose to pursue it later in life, and I also knew I wanted so badly to be able to give back what had been given to me.

The 10 week online course featured lectures, quizzes, homework assignments, reports, and reviews of literature. I watched the courses and did my work for the class late at night in the room adjacent to where my boys slept, and when my little man would wake to nurse (every 2-3 hours, God love that child), I would latch him on and prop him up on blankets in my lap while sitting in my desk chair. I would let him fall back asleep on my breast as I learned about how to help women do what was now so effortless for me to do that I could do it while taking an online course in lactation education!

When I completed my certification, I was incredibly proud of my accomplishment. I had found a direct way to give back to others what had been given to me as I struggled to breastfeed. I made the decision when I got my certificate and decorative pin with my CLEC credential on it that I would never take money or charge for my services even if I made house visits. Although I paid for a lactation consultant’s help twice, the women who came to my house to help me when I was struggling did not ask for money and that touched me so deeply. How many women don’t have breastfeeding support resources and can’t afford to pay a lactation consultant? And how many of them can’t breastfeed simply because that isn’t available to them because of financial limitations? It breaks my heart. And I may not be able to get to those women, but I can provide a free service in their honor and in the spirit of hoping that others will offer it.

I told a few women in the La Leche League community that I had received certification, and since all of my friends knew, I simply waited for my first client patiently. She came, and others have come after her. Friends of friends, relatives of friends, and sometimes friends of mine too! Some are in the city I live in, some are many states away. I first consult by phone and I have found that most problems can actually be tended to this way, since what’s often missing in early breastfeeding is basic information about how to build and maintain a milk supply and how to properly position a baby on the breast to avoid pain. I make house calls for more serious cases or for those that need some in-person attention.

From Beyond the Sling, Mayim with Her Boys Ages 2 1/2 and 5 1/2

I often take my sons with me on lactation home visits, because my schedule is really hectic and on days I am not working, my boys are almost always with me. I want them to see that mamas help mamas breastfeed and that it is normal. I remind them – and I tear up every time I do so – that it was a mama with kids she had successfully breastfed who helped me give my boys the best gift I could. And I remind them that we are so grateful for that gift that we are giving that gift to another mama. I think they get it. They almost always want to see the baby we visit breastfeeding. The moms I consult with are sometimes taken aback, and I have worked with religious women whose standards of modesty make them uncertain about being seen breastfeeding. I never overstep any boundary, but I make sure to tell these new moms that my boys – and all people – should think of breastfeeding as normal as well as fascinating in its beauty and complexity.

My primary goal is to meet the mother where she is and to make sure she feels empowered to make her own choices. It’s not my job to make someone do what I want them to; it’s my responsibility to provide accurate information and to be loving and appropriately persistent. Oftentimes I am being called on to help correct erroneous information about breastfeeding that unfortunately is still offered from doctors, nurses and, in some cases, hospital lactation support. I use the principles of La Leche League and my instructor and I always consult with pediatricians and seasoned lactation experts when appropriate.

The most common complaints I get are from women who were told they didn’t have enough milk but simply were never told how breastmilk is made and how to know what enough milk is. The second most common calls I get are from women who were told in hospitals that their babies were “too hungry” at birth and needed artificial baby milk. Babies given formula in bottles within hours and days of birth can very often acquire a preference for the bottle and will refuse the breast. We have gotten those babies off the bottle and back on the breast with no need for supplements.

I have worked with women who were told things so erroneous that they simply gave up breastfeeding for fear they could never do it right. I have seen those women breastfeed again, happily, and for a long time. I have worked with women who could only nurse from one breast but who did so mightily, feeding a plump baby and pumping and donating from her second breast to a mom who couldn’t breastfeed. I work with women who return to work when their baby is 6 weeks old, and 3 months old, and I have helped those mothers and supported them exclusively feeding their babies breastmilk for many many months, despite them being told they’d never last a week pumping at work.

I know what it’s like to be told you won’t last a week breastfeeding. Twice.

For all of our evolution, it has been the females who have cared for each other and helped each other learn how to birth and feed and love and raise strong babies. It has been the wisdom of women that has seen us through the darkest times in history, when survival was precious, and when our strength for each other was the key to our existence. We can build that still. I think that the holistic community and the breastfeeding community seeks to foster that more than any other. Tapping into our innate wisdom and finding others who support that is critical to the health and happiness of our babies, our relationships, our selves, our communities, and our world.

Want to read more from Mayim? Find her regular blog at Kveller.com.

Image middle right: Mayim holding Fred sleeping at age 3 1/2

Image bottom left: Mayim with her boys, aged 5 1/2 and 2 1/2, from her book Beyond the Sling