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When Love Hurts

When I gave birth to my daughter last January, my husband and I were overjoyed. Bringing home that blue-eyed blonde little lamb was like a dream. Sure, we went through a period of little sleep, faced confusion about what on earth to do with this tiny, pink, blinking rag doll, and felt our nerves shorting out from all the nighttime colic and crying. But despite the difficulties, life couldn’t really get much better, honestly. We were a family. Our baby was healthy and everything was going as it naturally would for any new parent who brings a sweet little one home. Or so I thought at the time. Then the feeding problems started.

As an inexperienced mother of one I wasn’t sure why my nursing experience was so different than the experiences of others in my family. Lucy would take over an hour to eat and even then was sometimes screaming hungry after. Some babies would eat and be full and sleepy in less than a half hour. Lucy almost never was. As her discontent increased over the weeks I spent hours researching and looking up infant feeding problems on the internet. I called friends who were young mothers. I went to see lactation specialists. I consulted our pediatrician. My husband and I were receiving so many vague answers and endless possibilities of what it could be that we felt overwhelmed and confused. Was it just colic? Did she have acid reflux or GERD? Is there something wrong with her milk? Could she possibly not be getting enough (after an hour and a half long feeding session!)? And if she wasn’t getting enough, why?

As the researching continued we also started to realize early on that Lucy would only turn her head to the left to sleep despite efforts to position her to turn her head to the right or centered, and more and more during the day she would favor that left side. Between month two and three we began to notice her head shape. Instead of a lovely round, her soft baby head was becoming quickly distorted to a more parallelogram shape. One side of the back jutted out while the other sloped steeply towards her left ear. We met with the pediatrician who evaluated Lucy’s case as moderate flattening. She gave us important physical therapy to do to stretch and even out Lucy’s neck muscles and told us to keep her off her head as much as possible and meet back in a month.

That night was day one of neck therapy. My husband took the reins this first time as I sat next to them, coaxing and comforting Lucy as best as I could. It was traumatic. As my husband’s gentle hands carefully rotated and flexed her head and neck the way the pediatrician showed us to, Lucy cried harder and harder. I cried too. I wanted to yell, “STOP! STOP!” and save our girl from the pain and discomfort. It took all I had in me not to do so, and I simply sat there stroking her little tummy and calling to her soothingly while she screamed. After her three sets of stretches were done, my husband held his two crying girls and comforted us both.

As we talked that night about Lucy and how important her therapy was, we realized a very important lesson: sometimes we have to let our loved ones experience hard things BECAUSE we love them. Even more difficult—sometimes we are the ones to bring those difficult experiences to them. It was completely out of my immense love for Lucy and not wanting to cause her hurt that I was tempted to discontinue neck therapy. But if I had, would that really be love? My husband and I both knew the answer. If we didn’t stretch Lucy’s neck she’d have a severe muscle imbalance that would become more and more painful and difficult to correct, and it could affect how she would carry her head into early childhood and beyond. Doing these painful stretches was showing love to her because we were helping her in the long run.

However, this lesson was a bitter pill to swallow as my faith in it was tested yet again.

Lucy’s colic and nightly screaming continued for the first several weeks of her life. Eventually they improved. But the eating problems continued, and I felt like all I did all day was feed an unsatisfied baby. One lactation specialist mentioned a slight problem with Lucy’s upper lip, but didn’t say much more about it. Lucy’s weight gain began to slow and I realized I had to find the reason. As we searched and searched for the cause of Lucy’s eating problems I had the thought to focus more on researching the anatomy of a baby’s mouth and problems such as lip tie and tongue tie. She’d never been diagnosed, but when I came across the extensive list of symptoms I was dumbfounded—Lucy had them all. Every. Single. One. It was a slam-dunk, or so I thought. All we needed to do was schedule an appointment with a pediatric dentist and have her evaluated. The verdict: sure enough, class four lip tie (the most severe) and a posterior tongue tie. Her lip tie practically glued her upper lip down flat, and her tongue frenulum had almost no elasticity. The result was a baby who was physically unable to drink effectively. Because of this, Lucy would just get too tired and feedings that should have been a half hour or less were taking two or three times as long.

Lucy needed a frenotomy and we agreed to have it performed that day. Less than ten minutes later, Lucy’s frenulums had been revised by laser surgery and she was back in my arms, worn out and sore. While I noticed slight improvements with her eating abilities that day, her surgery was no immediate one-day fix. Because of the nature of young mouth tissue, we had to prevent scar tissue from forming and reattaching to her tongue and lip by stretching out her lip and tongue no less than five to eight times a day for a month.

Rubbing tender mouth wounds open five times a day and stretching a tight sore little neck three times a day was overwhelming. I felt like we were in essence supposed to torture our child every hour, and that our routine consisted of feeding, burping, making Lucy cry, calming her down, feeding, burping, making her cry and calming her again. She was crying so much each day that I wondered if it was even worth it. Would she become an unhappy child in the longer term? Would she fear us? These were real fears of mine at the time. During those moments when I felt weak my husband kindly and patiently reminded me of how exacerbated Lucy’s pain and problems would be if we didn’t continue. So we continued. We loved our daughter and knew it was best for her. We tried to make therapy more fun by singing, kissing, and tickling our baby as we did her stretches. As the weeks went on Lucy improved, needing less and less therapy, and she became stronger and better able to tolerate the tedious exercises with much less protest.

Lucy’s “torture days,” as we unlovingly refer to them, didn’t last long (though at the time it felt like forever). Her eating sped up, her mouth healed beautifully, her neck improved, and with the help of a helmet her head shape is pretty much round now. I look at my bright-eyed, chubby, joyous six-month-old girl and am in awe at her strength, her resilience, her trust in her mommy and daddy despite the painful journey. My fear was not realized; in fact, the opposite occurred. Many people remark at what an incredibly happy and smiley child she is, and she truly is! It’s obvious she loves and trusts us, she is always smiling and snuggling us, and loves to be together with my husband and me. It amazes us, tickles us, and fills us with joy each day. And I think it’s because she knows we love her. She’s known all along. We did our best to help her understand that we love her even though we needed to put her through those tough experiences. And we’ve all learned together as a family that the pain and trials we face in life can always be overcome through love.

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