Sisterhood Blog

'The Breast Whisperer' & Me

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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The world’s grooviest lactation consultant – Freda Rosenfeld – who also happens to be a religious Jew, was profiled in this story by former Forward staffer Elissa Gootman in Sunday’s New York Times.

The story, titled “The Breast Whisperer,” is a nice, ahem, soft feature about the woman who is a godsend to many new moms in New York City, when she arrives at their post-partum side to advise about that most basic, and yet oft-times trickiest, of maternal duties: breastfeeding.

I worked with Freda myself almost exactly 16 years ago when, quite unexpectedly, I had no milk just after my first child was born. I’d never heard of anyone not producing milk after childbirth, and it is no exaggeration to say that when we called her, I was desperate for help.

It had been a difficult birth (16 hours of Pitocin-induced labor only to fail to progress and end up with a C-section). Then, when Boychik was a day old, he spiked a fever so they put him in the Intermediate Care Unit. Turns out he was just dehydrated, thank God, and, at 10½ pounds, looked like Gulliver among the Lilliputians as he lay among the room full of sick and premature newborns.

While I’d spend an hour at a time hooked up and hunched over an industrial-strength breast pumping machine in a storage closet in the ICU while he was there, nothing much ever came out. The nurses were happy to give him formula anyway, because it was easier for them and kept his tummy full longer.

Before Boychik arrived, I’d hardly ever held a baby. I certainly had never dressed, bathed or fed one.

Bringing him home, my joy was marred with the sense that I couldn’t trust my own body. He had dehydrated because he wasn’t getting enough milk from me. I hadn’t gone into labor on my own and even then was unable to get him out the usual way (though once I saw how big he was, was relieved about that one).

Thankfully my husband was already an uncle several times over, and had the confidence I lacked. He held Boychik in one big hand under the kitchen sink to bathe him. He knew how to get a diaper on (okay, I caught on quick with that one) and just as important, swaddled him into becoming a contented baby burrito.

But there was one thing only I could do; provide Boychik with milk. Yet it just wouldn’t come.

I don’t remember who gave us her number, but we called Freda, who was warm, funny and a bit mystified by my lack of milk. In addition to having me keep pumping with the strongest machine available, she prescribed herbal tea, then a hard-to-get oxytocin nasal spray. None of it worked. Where other women would have produced bottles full, all that came from me was a measly fraction of an ounce.

Naturally, we were also bottle-feeding — the most important thing was to make sure Boychik stayed healthy. Freda had me put formula into a bottle that was attached to tubes that were taped onto my chest, so that when he nursed he was getting more than what he could get from me directly. I hated it. And it just wasn’t working.

After about 10 days of struggling, pumping, weeping, sleeping too little and trying to nurse while keeping Boychik and those stupid tubes attached, I said ‘enough.’ Freda, hopeful it would work, wanted me to stick with it for another few days. But I just couldn’t take it. I remember getting up from the couch once I’d made the decision, pulling those blasted tubes off of me, and feeling a huge weight fall away as I got him a bottle of formula. It was the beginning of me finding my own voice as a mother.

Though Freda didn’t support my decision, I did find her a warm and reassuring presence at a time when I was totally nerve-wracked. Seeing her age in the Times story now, I realize that she is, in fact, just a few years older than I am. But her calm confidence felt nurturing, almost maternal, at a time when I needed that kind of contact.

In her long denim skirts and ponytail, Freda was also my introduction to that subset of frumdom which is the crunchy-granola frummies, a genus native to the Flatbush section of Brooklyn and certain parts of greater Jerusalem.

Media-watcher Gawker has its own take on the story with a post about Freda’s feature, in which it clutches to its own bloggy bosom all the junior high school-esque double entendres to be expected about a story devoted to breastfeeding.

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