A friend once lamented to me that there were a ton of things she felt very strongly about whilst pregnant, all of which got tossed in the trash when she actually had a baby.
In my case, breastfeeding tops that list. I was committed to nursing, I truly was. I hadn’t even bothered to buy a pump, so sure was I of my ability to offer my child milk directly from the source. Being stuck in a chair during growth spurts didn’t sound so bad; the breastfeeding books made this sound rather idyllic, a time where I could relax, unwind, read a nice novel or catch up on last season’s Weeds. Pumping so that my husband could give our baby a bottle and let me sleep through a night feeding? Eh, why bother? How hard could it be to roll over and let the little one (who was sure to be cuddling next to me in my bed,, another example of fantasy that reality kicked in the shins – my child was NOT into co-sleeping) partake? All the literature had me convinced that this would be a rewarding, intuitive process. Sure, there might be some cracked nipples; it might take some time for me to feel comfortable nursing in public; but all in all, I assumed this would come naturally to me. Just as the books said, this was the Womanly Art of Breastfeeding! So That’s What They’re For!
I remember this one description in a book a former client and attachment parenting guru gave me around the beginning of my third trimester. It spoke of how, straight out of the womb, a newborn would instinctively claw its way up its mother’s abdomen and root around, latching on to the maternal breast and suckling in an act of instant, symbiotic perfection.
And to be honest, it did go down pretty much like that. My son did find his way up to his expected food source, and he did try and latch on. Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there.
After about 24 hours, my son started making these pitiful, desperate cries whenever he tried to feed. We asked to see the hospital lactation consultant but were told that we had to wait, since there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with how my baby was nursing and the LC’s were there for people with real nursing “problems”. Call it mother’s intuition, but I was pretty convinced that we had a “problem” ourselves. My son couldn’t get my nipple to stay in his little mouth no matter how forcefully the nurses shoved him on there. He would fight and cry and sound so frustrated and hungry that it broke my heart, already heavy from a pretty severe bout of post-partum depression.
Three lactation consultant visits later, we were no better off. The LC’s would swear that my son was just lazy/tired/too weak to suck and given time, his latch would improve; he would keep crying as if he was starving to death, and keep losing precious ounces of weight. I felt terrible. I wasn’t sustaining him in the womb (I had an undiagnosed growth restriction), and now I was failing to nurture him on this level too.
Finally, my pediatrician suggested that we supplement with formula due to his jaundice and the fact that his already tiny body was losing too much weight. He took to the bottle like a champ, sucking formula down as if it was manna from heaven. I had no problem with the doctors giving him a little formula, even though I knew it was a no-no on the breastfeeding front. It just didn’t matter that much to me when I saw my baby starving. I only wanted him healthy and happy. A few ounces of Similac was a small price to pay for the sleepy, content, satiated baby it produced.
In the next week, we saw three more lactation consultants (at a significant cost – this is a big business, this breastfeeding “support”), the third of which finally diagnosed my child with a “tongue tie” that made it impossible for him to latch correctly. We got his frenulum snipped, but even this was to no avail. He simply would not nurse consistently, no matter what I, my husband, or the myriad of LC’s tried.
I wasn’t giving up that easy, though. I decided to “Exclusively Pump” my breastmilk and serve it to him in the bottles he so loved. I had no idea how hard this decision would make my life – there are entire message boards devoted to supporting those committed to EPing; one woman figured out that in order to pump and exclusively feed (meaning no formula supplementation) a newborn breastmilk, it would take 20 hours a week, basically the equivalent of a part-time job. I hated every minute of it. The thing with pumping is that you are getting all the disadvantages of bottlefeeding without any of the advantages. You’re constantly either hooked up to a machine that makes you feel like Elsie the Cow, or feeding your baby, leaving no time for anything else. And despite what some might tell you, there is more to mothering than what or how you feed your child. Babies need love, attention, play… they need a mother who is there and not exhausted and literally drained from being the Dairy Queen.
Did I switch to formula at this point? No way, Jose. I had a husband who had also read the studies, the literature, the – dare I say – propaganda, and he was convinced that depriving our child of my breastmilk was equivalent to letting him stick his tiny head in the oven. So we fought, and I felt guilty, and I kept on pumping. And pumping. And pumping.
Most of the time I managed to convince myself that this was for the best, that this “liquid gold” my pump was squirting into sterile bottles was well worth it. My baby would thrive on this stuff. And he was gaining weight. Now that we weren’t trying to force him to latch, he was eating almost too well. He finally got back up to his meager birth weight, and nice little rolls started appearing on his wrists and thighs.
But I wasn’t sure you could consider this thriving. He seemed miserable all the time. I assumed it was colic; but everywhere I looked, colic was defined as only crying a certain number of hours, usually in the evenings. But this was all day long. He would fuss during every bottle and take breaks from drinking to cry inconsolably; after he’d finish the milk, he’d scream bloody murder for a good half hour to hour before calming down. He’d be okay until the next bottle, which would start the cycle over again. He was gassy and pooped literally every 5 minutes, no exaggeration. We went through diapers like a guy with hay fever goes through Kleenex. He also had a weird rash in several places on his body.
I went online. I read Kellymom.com. I cut out dairy, soy, nuts, green leafy veggies… my diet was basically bread and water, which didn’t help how crappy I was personally feeling. I had no energy between the constant pumping/feeding/crying, my poor diet, and the baby blues. My husband did all the parenting in those early days. As if I didn’t already feel like a failure as a mother.
Long story short, my son ended up being one of those babies (and yes, they do exist) who couldn’t tolerate any milk, including his own mother’s. We got him on a special hypoallergenic formula and withing 48 hours, he was a totally different baby. He was happy, cheerful, engaged in the world, and ridiculously healthy. In fact, he’s now 8 months old and hasn’t been sick a day in his life since getting off my “immunity enhancing”, “liquid gold” milk. No ear infections, no stomach bugs, not even a cold.
I feel no guilt for feeding my child formula. All I feel is resentment and sadness that he spent the first 6 weeks of his life so miserable due to his parents’ stubborn refusal to question the mass breastfeeding hysteria.
What makes for a good parent? Does a mom who nurses simply because it will help her drop pregnancy weight; because it’s what everyone else is doing; because its cheaper or more convenient than formula feeding, have more right to that title than I do? Would I have been a good parent if I had ignored my child’s numerous struggles with nursing and drinking breastmilk?
There are many people out there who would love to answer those rhetorical questions, and I’m sure they’ll have some choice words for me, and for this blog in general. They might throw studies in my face, or statistics, or worse, feel sorry for me for being a victim of a medical system that encouraged me to supplement, etc, etc.
But I refuse to feel guilty. I made the choice to care for my child in the only way I know how. By listening to him, and by listening to that vastly more important organ, lying beneath the breasts that have become so politicized: my heart.