Kelli, this week’s FFF Friday guest poster, is refreshingly forthright in her admission of the judgments she made about formula feeding moms, before she became one herself. I think this is something that a lot of us can (ashamedly) admit, and illuminates the fact that until you’ve walked in someone’s shoes, you really don’t know how uncomfortable those kitten heels are.
I had always planned on breastfeeding. I took the classes, read the books, and bought the best (and most expensive) pump available. I studied the breastfeeding failures of friends and family and decided that I would do better because I surely knew more than them and I would try harder than them. How smug and naive I was. At least they had no idea I was secretly judging them, because a true southern lady could never be so rude as to tell them what I really think. When you judge a person without having been in their position, you are making assumptions and you are usually wrong. I assumed I was better prepared. I assumed they were lazy. I assumed they didn’t try hard enough. I believed everything I read in breastfeeding literature as though it were the gospel truth. I just knew breastfeeding would come easily to me.
My son was born at 36 weeks, 1 day. It was a total surprise to me, as it was my first day off for the summer (I’m a teacher) and I was at the movies with my mom. I barely made it to the hospital and delivered him in less than 2 hours from beginning of labor to delivery. Being born so quickly left him with busted blood blisters and bruises on his head from being thrusted into my pevlic bone, which increased his jaundice. The pediatrician decided that it wasn’t bad enough to use phototherapy and she didn’t want it to interfere with breastfeeding. In the hospital, breastfeeding was easy. He latched on easily and I fed him on demand. He was a strong sucker, but he had difficulty in getting started sucking. The lactation consultant showed me how to stimulate him to suck and he was all good again. We were discharged on a Saturday and all was well. He weighed 7lbs 3 oz at birth and 6lbs 9oz at discharge.
Monday we took him for his first visit to the pediatrician and he had continued to lose weight (6 lbs 3 oz) and become more jaundiced (16 mg/dL of bilirubin). My milk had come in, but my breasts never felt full and I never experienced the “let down” feeling other women describe. I just figured it would take a few more days to get things good and established. A weight check appointment was scheduled for 2 days later. On Wednesday when we took him back, his weight was only 6lbs 5 oz and his bilirubin level was just over 20 mg/dL. The dreaded word was used – supplementation. We were given sample cans of formula and home health was sent out to set up phototherapy equipment at our house. I cried the entire time the man set up the equipment. Our son had to stay on lights 24/7, except for diaper changes – we even had to hold a lighted blanket on him during feedings. He had his first bottle of formula that night after breastfeeding. He guzzled it down and I felt awful that he was still so hungry. At one feeding he was so lethargic from the therapy and the jaunice that he wouldn’t nurse at all. I had to bottle feed him the little bit of breastmilk I had saved from pumping and still supplement with formula. Pumping wasn’t doing much good. I had saved only a couple of ounces by the end of a day.
Once off the phototherapy, I decided to stop supplementing because he wasn’t just spitting up, but projectile vomiting every drop of formula he ingested – just proof to me that formula was poisoning my baby. He stopped spitting up, but he screamed in hunger all night long. He was continuing having difficulties with getting started once latched on and I didn’t know what else to do. He was slowly gaining weight, but nowhere near his birthweight by 11 days old. We went back to the pediatrician and she referred me to the hospital lactation consultant. My mom was staying with me that week because my husband had returned to work and grad school and his grad school internship every night. She went with me to see the LC and we made a plan that I would basically pump and breastfeeding 24/7 for a few days to try to get my supply up, and my mom was going to stay at the house and help me do it for a few more days. He had eaten pretty well during the appointment, so I was confident that I could do it.
Then I got home. At the next feeding, he was up to his old tricks. He’d latch on and then look at me like I should be doing something to put the milk in his tummy. Then he’d push off the breast and scream. I was frustrated, sad, and beyond exhausted. He wouldn’t eat and I couldn’t make him, but he was so hungry. I’d thrown out all that devil formula because of the projectile vomiting and all, so we had nothing else. My mom remembered that my nephew had a lot of problems with regular formula and had to eventually use Similac Alimentum and did fine, so we went to the grocery store to buy a can. I stayed in the car with my son while my mom went in to get it and I cried the whole time. My mom saw my exhaustion and depression and devastation and decided to let me sleep that night while she took care of the baby. He had 4 formula bottles over the night and my 2 pumping sessions had yielded only a total of 0.5 ounces. I woke up the next morning not really sure how our feeding plan would go. Should I try to keep breastfeeding even though he’s not really getting it? Should I pump only and supplement with formula? Should I just go to formula only? I was kind of paralyzed by the decision and I didn’t do anything for awhile.
I really knew that breastfeeding wasn’t really possible if he wouldn’t suck. So I considered pumping and primarily feeding him the expressed breastmilk. As I thought about it more, the problem I encountered was that after that week, I would have no help at home because my husband’s schedule was wacko and my mom had to go back to work. How could I take care of a baby and pump around the clock? I worried about it and cried about it a lot. I knew formula wasn’t going to kill him (I was formula fed afterall), but I wanted to be able to give him the best there is. Then I had to deal with the realities: My son wouldn’t suck and there was nothing more I could do to teach him how to do it and I’d rather hold my baby than hold a machine to my chest every 2 hours. He was hungry and needed to gain weight quickly and the best thing for him is to just eat whatever he would eat, which was formula. That day (at 14 days old) he consumed the last of my pumping stash and was completely formula fed from then on.
I continued to cry about it and feel guilty about it. People assume that the stages of grief only apply to death and loss, but really you go through those stages any time a situation doesn’t meet your expectations. I wish I had the extra hands at home all the time, and then maybe pumping long-term would have been an option. I wish my son would have had a better sucking reflex and wouldn’t have had the issues with his weight and needed supplementation. Again though, I had to deal with the reality of our situation and not the “shoulds” and the things that modern society and other people say I ought to do if I want to be a good mother. Mostly I wish I had never judged others for their breastfeeding failures. Completely exhausted, heartbroken, and probably depressed, I finally understood their struggles and the amount of guilt and failure they must have felt.
Now at 3 months old, my son is thriving. He’s doubled his birthweight and despite a struggle with acid reflux, he is mostly happy and healthy. I am happier too. We get to spend time laughing and singing (well, I sing and he coos back) and playing instead of struggling to get him to eat. I am so thankful for my husband (even in his absence) for recognizing the struggles I faced and being supportive of every decision I made, and being reassuring when I was ambivilent. I know I will try breastfeeding again when we get around to the second baby, but I will not hesitate to feed that child formula if it is the best thing for him or her. And never again will I judge.
Willing to share the good, the bad, and the ugly about your own experience with breastfeeding or formula feeding? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. It makes my whole day to see an FFF Friday submission in my mailbox… so get on it. It’s an easy way to make someone (ahem, me) happy.