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I never really expected to talk this much about breastfeeding on the blog, but then it became such a huge part of our story.

My goal has always been a year. But then I got close to a year, and Dragon hit a wave of daycare gifted illnesses that made nursing a bit more necessary on the days he couldn’t handle anything but liquids. So we carried on as normal a little longer, and then ever so slowly, we cut out feeds over the past month until this morning I replaced his last feed with a bottle of milk. We snuggled together in bed until, with glee, he finished his slurping and gave me a sloppy morning kiss.

1 year, 1 month, 5 days.

Despite it all, we did it, and now we are done. Ready to move on to the next chapter….

weaned

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It’s official, Dragon and I are now an exclusively breastfeeding duo.

It happened rather slowly. At seven/eight weeks I had enough milk except mid-morning or right before his bedtime. At nine weeks I started noticing that I would have enough milk one day and then a few ounces short the next. At ten and a half weeks it just happened. We didn’t have to rely on formula anymore.

Dragon’s almost twelve weeks old now, and we have a new goal – building up a supply of frozen milk so that mummy can sleep in on a Saturday morning and go to the Lady Gaga concert on April 27th without resorting to formula. It’s a tough goal. I go for one extra oz. at day. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. Slowly slowly wins this race.

I’m not telling you about my ability to exclusively breastfeed to brag. Oh no. Breastfeeding has been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do in my life. And I’m not telling you this because I think everyone who has problems with breastfeeding should continue until they are able to exclusively breastfeed. I don’t think this is a path for everyone. Really I don’t.

I was out the other week with a woman who had experienced a traumatic birth and obvious though undiagnosed PPD. She was saying she was a breastfeeding failure. It broke my heart. Do you know how many times I’ve heard this as we Seoul mummies have shared our first few months of mothering stories? Breastfeeding may be ‘natural,’ but there are a lot of things that can go wrong. And it takes a toll on your sleep, your body, your schedule, and your diet if you are like me with a reflux baby who is trying to change her diet in order to figure out if that is the problem. Women should not feel guilty or be made to feel guilty when all does not go according to plan, or the experience is overwhelming, or they just simply hate the experience. Sometimes we do not accomplish the goal we set for ourselves but this does not make us failures.

I’m just sharing our experience because when Dragon was originally hospitalized it seemed like I either had to go exclusively to formula or exert Herculean superpowers to get my milk back in full asap. I didn’t want to do the first, and I could not physically or emotionally do the second. Instead, we took a middle path. I’m not sure if I ever really expected to slowly and naturally get back to a place where my body alone was able to give my son what he needs. And I spent several weeks learning to trust my body again – learning to trust that I would not inadvertently starve my child again. But it did happen ever so quietly. We continue because it is good for us as a nursing pair…it is good for his health…it is something I believe in, and something I have always wanted. We continued because we found a peaceful middle ground and went from there.

So I suppose I write for those who are somewhere in the middle or just beginning to experience their plans going off the rails and wondering where they fit in the great mummy feeding wars. There’s a middle way that you can take if that works for you. It’s the path that doesn’t tell you that you are a failure and doesn’t tell you that once you accept that first bottle of formula you are going straight to mummy hell. It may lead to exclusive breastfeeding, and it may not for whatever reason. But be at peace with yourself and know that you know what is best for your baby and yourself.

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Culture is weird sometimes.
In North America, there’s boobies everywhere. All over tv, movies, ads, music videos. When we commodify them, or show them off at the beach, or wear that neckline at the office, boobies are fine, but even when there are laws that protect public breastfeeding, women (and babies) in certain areas still encounter problems when they publicly nurse. Boobies + babies = lewd, gross, sacrilegious, or weird behaviour to some people it seems. (here, here, or here as a few of many examples)
 
What about Korea? Breasts aren’t as publically on display in the media and workplaces to the same extent as in North America, so it makes sense that if many women feel the need to do the hand over the t-shirt collar when bending over, that they might not feel welcome or comfortable nursing in public. I think women and babies should be able to nurse comfortably in public without shame, controversy, or legal troubles, but I do recognise that while bikinis and pushups and such are now making their way into public space here, there’s less of a contradiction in terms of breast display in Korea.
 
Now, I’m at the stage where I usually nurse without a cover in cafes and restaurants if I’m not facing the entire room, or I whip out my handy udder cover when out with my in laws or in a very public area where I am totally exposed. The very first time I tried to nurse (covered) in a public area (outside of our pediatrician’s office), I caused a bit of a riot as people left seats in other areas of the hospital to come and stare at me. But since then I’ve become a bit more graceful, Dragon has settled into feedings without much protest, and mostly, we’ve just become more natural at integrating feedings into our outside life. For the most part, we publicly nurse without most people noticing what we are doing anymore. However, when we’re in department stores, malls, or our local Emart, there are lovely little nursing/childcare rooms hidden away for parents to use, and sometimes we also make use of those places. Since grocery stores and department stores don’t always have vacant chairs to change a baby on, and since sometimes it’s really nice to get away from the maddening crowds, these are a little oasis for parents (mothers? – that’s another story) – to go to in order to calm their babies, change them in a safe spot, warm a bottle, or breastfeed. Each place is a little different, but most have a curtained off nursing area for mothers and babies with couches and pillows. They’re lovely really.
 
Here’s where the strange contradiction comes for me. Korea is a place where, when you go to the gym, you have to be prepared for communal showers, and women walking around or blow drying their hair or putting their makeup on happily in the nude. And when you go to the sauna for the afternoon, it’s perfectly normal to lounge around naked with your friends and scan the crowds as grandmas stroll by unadorned and scrubbing women scrub the hell out of other women’s creases and crevasses. Nudity is perfectly normal in Korea provided it is in a women-only area. However, my constant experiences in nursing rooms is that, even when behind the curtain, women feeding their babies are covering their breasts from other women. At COEX a woman used pillows to build a wall between herself and the other woman sitting across from her, and that woman was facing a wall. At my local Lotte department store, a woman covered herself and her baby in her coat, and at the pediatrician’s office…where I am now told I must only feed in the private vaccination room not in the waiting area – the other women sitting on the couch with me are wearing multiple layers of clothing which they use to envelop the baby in so that nothing at all can be seen.
 
This is all fine. Not everyone has to feel comfortable whipping out their boob in Starbucks. Sometimes in the crowded stores and constant noise of the city, it is nice to go to an out of the way room, draw the curtain, and feel like you can really concentrate on devoting yourself to your child. And each woman and baby pair have the right to cover themselves as much as they want to if that’s what they are comfortable with. But in a country which has a culture of nudity when in the company of only other women, I find it strange that most of the women I’m nursing alongside behind a curtain or a door seem to feel the need to cover themselves when their breasts are paired with a nursing child.

Update: While searching for something unrelated, I found this photo on wikipedia from Seoul, in 1910.

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When we last left off in Dragon’s story, he had been released from hospital after gaining a suitable amount of weight back, and we were in the midst of a complicated trio of breastfeeding, formula supplementing, and artificial attempts at increasing my milk supply.

I’m happy to say that at 7 weeks, he’s a chubby little monkey who is growing out of clothes with each week.

And I’m also happy to say that we’ve resolved our feeding issues…in our own way.

When my mother was here, I had an extra pair of hands, an extra bit of time, and an additional person to discuss our feeding issues with, and I came to three conclusions. I like breastfeeding, and I think Dragon does too. And I can’t give it up. I just can’t. But – we also can’t go with just breastfeeding. We have to supplement, and my conclusion about supplementing with formula is that formula is also good, and I am happy that I have an additional way to feed my child when he can’t get what he needs from me. My final conclusion, was that the aspect of feeding which was stressing me out was trying to boost my milk supply. I was sick of pumping between feedings, sick of looking for more supplements that might increase my milk, and overall, just sick of trying to find that magic formula which would get it back up to where it needed to be for exclusive breastfeeding. Sorting out the various feelings and thoughts surrounding how and what Dragon eats gave us both a great deal of peace, and I think removing that stress from my life actually naturally increased my milk just a little bit. I’m not sure if we will ever be able to give up formula altogether, but that’s okay! We’re doing what works for us, and Dragon is back on track with this compromise.

Previous to and after Dragon’s birth, six other friends gave birth here in Korea within seven weeks of each other. And out of the seven, four of us encountered substantial breastfeeding issues, which led three of us to supplement and one to switch to formula alone. I know that these numbers are probably in part the result of the interconnectedness of the birthing expat population in Korea, but it still appears that many women struggle with breastfeeding. Therefore, keeping in mind the unique challenges English speaking expat mothers have in Korea, I’ve decided to put together a list of resources that either I or others I know have found helpful for helping us to deal with breastfeeding challenges. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I welcome readers’ suggestions and experiences because I want any woman searching for this information here to have the most comprehensive list of resources available to them so that they can make the best choices for themselves and their babies.

1. Lactation Consultants – I really really really wish I would have called a lactation specialist in right after Dragon’s birth. There’s a great group of women you can contact here. When we finally did make contact, the consultant came within hours of the call, and she came at 8 pm in order to be there for when Mr. Lee could be at home. The visit was 80,000 won and lasted just under two hours. During that time, she examined my breasts, watched me struggle to breastfeed, worked with Dragon to latch and…got me to get him to latch every.single.time. Seriously. Half an hour with her, and he became a perfect latcher. Of course, depending on the situation it might take more than one visit, but two other people I know have used this service and had equally positive results. There are women in different regions in Seoul and across the country, so there is probably someone in your area who can help you asap should you need assistance. Seriously, if you need help, call in the experts immediately. Of course, the women in this group are Korean, and most will not have very strong English skills. Mr. Lee was there to help me, so it wasn’t a problem, but even so, breastfeeding is so hands on and kinestetic, that if you have minimal Korean skills, you can probably do fine without a translator. Very helpful assistance can also be obtained by contacting any one of the doulas listed in the blog roll if you would prefer going that route, or if you want an English speaker. Additionally, while there is no longer a Le Leech League in Korea, apparently there is a leader who can consult with individuals. You can contact me if you would like her name.

2. Breast Pumps – There are several types and brands of breast pumps available here in Korea. Other than the baby fairs, gmarket is usually the cheapest and easiest way to compare prices and features. I have a Medela Swing, and it’s been a very good friend these last few weeks – especially when Dragon was hospitalised. However, the Medela website itself also allows you to rent a hospital grade pump which is often necessary to truly increase milk supply after a decline in production. You can also purchase a supplemental nursing system through the site if you are worried about nipple confusion.

3. Herbs and Supplements – Iherb still has the problematic shipping option as discussed here, but there’s a new passport option for expats without access to a Korean id number. However, iherb remains the easiest place to access herbal supplements like fenugreek and blessed thistle. You can also get Mother’s Herb Tea on Gmarket or Still Tea on Mom’s Mom.

4. Milk Bank – This is for mums with an overabundant supply as well. It seems, like blood donation, non Koreans have a difficult time donating breast milk here. However, there is an informal community that helps connect mums with extra milk with mums who need more. The group, Human Milk 4 Human Babies – South Korea, can be easily found through a Facebook search. If you need help or can help, this is a useful group for connecting with others!

5. Miscellaneous Items – When we brought Dragon home from the hospital, I was really struggling with caring for a newborn and trying to find time to breastfeed/pump/formula feed at the same time. So Mr. Lee did a lot of research and found a couple of helpful items to help reduce the amount of time I was spending on his bottles. If you are a formula feeding mum, you probably know about this already, but if circumstances suddenly force you to formula feed, you may be like me and not have any clue about the products available to help with bottle feeding. We ended up buying a fancy steriliser to help with the bottle cleaning load. Now, you can buy a smaller, cheaper steriliser; however, we went with this one because it was larger and could be used later to sterilise his toys, pacifiers, etc. Mr. Lee also found this electric kettle that keeps the water at an appropriate temperature to make up bottles quickly. Or, there’s also bottle warmers easily available here. Finally, although we started with The First Years’ ‘Breastflow’ bottles, we didn’t think they were very good for the transition between breast and bottle, so in the end, we bought the Double Heart nipples 더블하트 신모유실감젖꼭지 which are available on Mom’s Mom or Gmarket. They seem to help him go back and forth between breast and bottle much easier, and they attach to Avent bottles without problem.

6. Classes and Groups – There’s a range of breastfeeding education options available now. Birthing in Korea has a class, Journey Doula travels around holding free classes for mums who can get enough people together for a group, and starting soon, breastfeeding and baby care classes will be taught at Mediflower by Casey and Stacey. Birthing in Korea also hosts a breastfeeding support group at Homestead Coffee on the 3rd Thursday of each month from 10:30-12.

So those are the resources I know about, and the ones which have helped either myself or friends with breastfeeding issues. As I said earlier in the post, I welcome other info about resources in Korea because it is important that if mothers are struggling, that they get the help they need immediately so that their children remain healthy and thriving.

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When we visited Dragon in the hospital over the weekend, he was sleeping most of the time. However, he was awake the entire time I was there yesterday which was somehow harder. When he wasn’t awake, there was some comfort in seeing him sleep despite my sadness at seeing him alone in his incubator. But when he was awake, a number of negative things came to light. First, while there are technically two nurses on duty at any given time, only one is back with the babies, and she has to take care of all of them at once. This means that if another baby cries or a machine goes off elsewhere (this happens often it seems), Dragon’s feeding gets interrupted and he is burped and put down quickly. This means he inevitably spits up – and then is left with the mess running down his cheek until the nurse can return at some point – often much later. Second, even when I am standing right in front of the incubator with nothing to do, and I see spit up coming out of his mouth or the wetness tag turn blue on his diaper, I’m not allowed to care for him in any way. I have to stand for twenty minutes while waiting for a nurse to have a moment to come and take care of him. This is not an easy situation to be in as a mum.

So I went home and got a bit upset. And finally Mr. Lee and I sat down and really talked about the situation. He acknowledged that, having seen the importance given to skin-to-skin contact at our birthing centre, that there is a big difference in views regarding parent-infant contact in the early weeks. That acknowledgement really helped me.

And then we made a plan.

Today was the day that we were meeting the doctor (she only comes down to the ward on occasion it seems). Mr. Lee went in to visit Dragon first and had a talk with her. He started off by using the complaining tactic. He talked about the importance of skin-to-skin contact in Canada even with sick infants in incubators, and he gave my friend’s more positive experience at another Seoul hospital as evidence that our hospital rules are too strict. The response was that we were completely misinformed and that ‘Canada and other advanced nations have much stricter rules than their hospital. Mothers and sick infants are never allowed to touch or visit their babies.’ In other words, we should be eternally grateful for the window view we get of our son at night cause in Canada, we’d be completely separated from him at all times don’t you know?

So that wasn’t going to work.

Mr. Lee then went for the approach we had discussed the night before. Keeping in mind that Korea is a Confucian hierarchy, and hospitals are a mini hierarchy unto themselves where doctors rule, nurses do what they are told with much less autonomy than in North America, and patients do whatever the doctor says, Mr. Lee asked the doctor if the nurse could ‘teach us’ about breast and bottle feeding because we are new parents and need more ‘guidance’ in these areas. He appealed to their superior knowledge of all things infant food related, and asked if we could have time to learn from the nurses.

The doctor promptly turned to the nurse and ordered her to allow us to breast and bottle feed during both visiting periods, and for the nurses to give us lessons. Within 15 minutes – not much after the nurse’s face stopped showing signs of shock – our baby was with us, we were cuddling, and I was feeding Dragon.

Well done Mr. Lee.

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One thing that never ceases to amaze me is how, no matter how long I stay here and think I’ve seen and experienced it all, culture shock continues to pop up in the most surprising ways. Take our hospital’s rules for instance. We are allowed to see our son from 1:30-2 pm every day. However, we are not allowed to hold him or touch him. We are not allowed to go in together – only one person at a time is allowed in the room – meaning that we have to split the precious thirty minutes a day we have to stand by his incubator.

From 730-8 pm, we are all allowed to visit again, but this time they open the door to his room, reposition the incubator in the doorway, and we are allowed to stand across the hallway and peer at him through the window. In other words – this is literally as close as we get and what we get to see.

So at night we zoom in and take close ups in order to better see his face.

We’ve been given a couple different reasons as to why this is necessary. The first is that Dragon is in an area with premies, and the hospital can’t risk infections. However, while he is in the same general area, he is in his room, and the other sicker/smaller babies are safely locked in their incubators. (Not to mention that Dragon is dehydrated not suffering from a disease). Visitors also have to pass through this area in order to get to Dragon’s room…but other than the nurses, nobody else goes into Dragon’s room but us. The second reason is that (and I quote the translation), ‘because Koreans always break the rules, if they allowed one person to hold a baby, everyone would be taking babies out of their incubators themselves whether they should be out or not.’ It doesn’t seem like ‘don’t take the premie out of the incubator by yourself’ rule would be hard to enforce, but whatever. This is also a hospital where healthy newborns do not routinely room with mothers, and it seems that in order to breastfeed you have to go to the special bf room and wait for your baby to be brought to you, so I guess they have a very hands-off view of babies there.

Now, I know that not all hospitals in Korea are like this. My friend’s son was hospitalized for seizures, and after a few days she was allowed to hold and breastfeed for very limited amount of time. However, it does seem like some hospitals continue to operate under these rules, and no Korean I’ve talked to – including my own husband – seems to think that not being able to touch your son is strange. I keep being told ‘think of the baby not yourself’ even though I would say in Canada, most health care providers would consider skin to skin contact to be essential in the healing process – not to mention the increasing popularity of kangaroo care. And I’ve yet to hear from a Westerner who thinks it makes sense for us to be separated from our baby in this particular case. There was a huge disconnect today too when the nurse told my husband that one of the reasons I’m not able to pump well is that I do not have contact with my infant. This of course was said while she stood in the doorway preventing me from going to my infant.

But enough of that particular frustration.

The wonderful news is that he is improving – specifically he is peeing. For some reason he completely stopped with any output functions when he was admitted. But now that this issue has resolved itself, we can breath a bit easier. He’s also looking less distressed in his incubator, eating better, and gaining weight (although it’s mostly fluid not fat gain at the moment). And the nurses say, although they expected him to lack in energy, he’s the loudest baby they’ve ever had. Oh joy. Oh joy.

The last few days have also shown us the goodness of people. First, thank you to those people who have commented and given us encouragement on this blog. There’s been a number of new commenters, and it’s nice to learn a little about people I didn’t know who have been reading for a short or long time.

Second, many friends here in Korea have gone out of their way to support us. Today J traveled quite far on the subway to bring frozen breast milk and enough fenugreek seeds to get me through the next 24 hours of trying to increase my milk production. Leigh from Ka Pai also traveled a fair distance to hand deliver the cupcakes I had ordered before this whole ordeal for Mr. Lee’s birthday with her friend. Just seeing some friendly faces and being able to laugh and joke a bit with them did a lot to improve my mood.

In addition, our doula is bringing still tea tomorrow. Cynthia, aka Jeju Doula, was about to send up a pack of fenugreek seeds as well, but then another woman in Seoul contacted me and said she had fenugreek capsules to give us which means I’ll have more herbs faster. And the delightful Tammy of Fleurbain, my very own herbalist friend messaged and gave me some good advice on herbs to take and ones to avoid.

MIL also fed us and sent us home with enough food to keep us from having to think about feeding ourselves for the next many days. There’s nothing worse than being tired and stressed and having to think about what you need to do to find nourishment.

And finally, lot of people have contacted us to share their stories about being separated from their children due to medical reasons and the positive outcomes of their medical treatment. And prayers are happening in a whole lot of languages and many different religious buildings around the world.

We have been on a streak of unbelievably bad luck, but we have really good people supporting us. Thank you.

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On Our Bad Luck

The day we got home from the hospital with Dragon, the car died.

On Sunday, Mr. Lee hit the ‘update’ button on his iPhone, and it screwed up his iPhone.

On Monday morning, following the advice of the iPhone tech support person, he tried to use my computer to get a fix for the iPhone. He restarted the computer, and it crashed.

On Tuesday morning, I noticed, for the second day in a row, the yellow light blinking on our boiler unit meaning that we had to refill the water tank. We lost hot water…got it back again…lost it…got it back again…which fueled my suspicions that our boiler was about to die. It did. It died later that day, and I was at home in my room with a space heater and a newborn.

On Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Lee was informed that while on paternity leave, it had been decided that he would be joining a new team – to do a job he doesn’t want to do.

We also learned that we probably won’t be able to stay in our apartment after our jeonse contract is up in April. That’s 2 years earlier than we expected to leave.

On Friday, I started to feel very concerned in that way only a mother and her intuition can feel concerned. Something wasn’t right with Dragon.

This morning, we took Dragon to the dr, and learned that he is dehydrated and has lost too much weight. A week ago I was able to pump 5 oz in 25 minutes. Today I can barely get 0.5 oz. Either because of the above stress or maybe even more likely because of latch problems, my milk is drying up and my baby is losing weight. We made the incredibly difficult decision to admit him…and then learned we could only see him 2x a day for 30 min each. In the afternoon, we have to split the 30 minutes to go and stand in front of his incubator. In the evening we have to look at his incubator across the room through a window and are not allowed in the room at all. We’re not allowed to hold him. He only has an iv in, and that might be out by tomorrow, but that’s the old school rules at the hospital. He has to stay alone in his incubator until he shows consistant growth. At the moment he has stopped peeing. He’s also stressed? He was peeing at home. But he is eating. And he looks better after being on his iv drip. It’s heartbreaking. 10 months of carrying him in my body. 2 weeks of carrying him in my arms. And suddenly my body is so much lighter now that he is in his incubator, but that lightness is an incredible burden.

And just to top off the craptasticness of today, Mr. Lee went grocery shopping to get some food for me when I went home to pump. He waited for 15 minutes for his burger at KFC as they kept giving his food to other people. When he finally got his food, he sat down and started eating, and two young boys who were fighting/playing got too rowdy and fell into his table. His food and drink ended up on his lap. To quote Mr. Lee, ‘Why can’t God allow me to enjoy my simple KFC meal after a day like today and a week like this week?’

Why indeed.

The  car got fixed. The iPhone got fixed. The computer is fixed (for now). The boiler got fixed. But what we desperately need above all else is for Dragon to gain gain gain and get home back into our arms asap – and preferably be back at my breast. And we really need to turn the corner on this streak of unbelivably bad luck.

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