Welcome to Fearless Formula Feeder Fridays, a weekly guest post feature that strives to build a supportive community of parents united through our common experiences, open minds, and frustration with the breast-vs-bottle bullying and bullcrap.
Please note, these stories are for the most part unedited, and do not necessarily represent the FFF’s opinions. They also are not political statements – this is an arena for people to share their thoughts and feelings, and I hope we can all give them the space to do so.
All I can say about Amy’s story, below, is THIS. THIS is why breastfeeding support must be secondary to supporting moms, full stop. THIS is why the medical community and the breastfeeding advocacy machine is failing us. THIS is why there are “defensive formula feeders” peppering message boards, attempting to share their truths, and being accused of making up stories and scaring other women out of nursing. THIS is why women are getting angry and fighting back. THIS is why people are starting to think the pendulum has swung so far and so hard that it’s bonked us all in the head and made us stupid. This. This. And THIS.
Read on, rage on, and don’t stop reading and raging until the world stops acting like a petulant child and realizes that new mothers are being trampled on, right and left; that women are being told that they don’t know their own bodies; that we’ve completely missed the forest for the trees.
Happy Friday, fearless ones,
My sweet, healthy, formula-fed little boy is now one year old. For the first seven months of his life, I supplemented his formula with whatever small amount of breastmilk I could muster through insane efforts.
Looking back, I know that exclusive breastfeeding was never going to work for us. I have two conditions that interfere with milk production: insufficient glandular tissue (aka hypoplastic breasts), and hypothyroidism. But none of the dozen or so professionals I turned to for help during my son’s first weeks – midwives, doulas, nurses, doctors, lactation consultants – listened to me carefully enough to tell me that exclusive breastfeeding was probably not a realistic goal, given my medical profile. Instead, they repeated the mantra that might be helpful to many but is infuriating to me (and is also untrue): “Exclusive breastfeeding is always possible if you work hard enough, and working hard at it is always the right choice.”
My first inkling that we would have nursing problems came early in my pregnancy. I had many of the typical symptoms (nausea, heartburn, exhaustion), but I wasn’t experiencing any breast changes. At every checkup, I told the nurse, midwife or doctor that I wasn’t feeling any swelling, tenderness, size increase…nothing. And each time I mentioned it, I got one of two responses: either “I’m sure it’s nothing” or “You MUST be having at least SOME changes”. I’m not sure which of those was worse – the total dismissal of my concerns, or the claim that I was not an accurate reporter of my own symptoms. No one told me that my lack of symptoms might be a sign of insufficient glandular tissue, a condition that can seriously hinder milk production. I can only imagine how much easier my first weeks of parenthood would have been if someone had just said to me, while I was pregnant, “Why don’t you give breastfeeding your best shot, and we’ll give you all the support we can. But just so you know, some women whose breasts don’t change during pregnancy have IGT and can’t produce as much milk as their babies need, but they can still be great moms.” But it seems that everyone is too convinced of the infallibility of breastfeeding, and too convinced that unmotivated women will give up at the first hint of trouble, to say anything like that.
After my son was born, it was obvious that I had been right to worry. Despite near-constant skin-to-skin cuddling and frequent attempts at nursing, by the time he was 3 days old, he was not in good shape. He had turned orange, he had lost more than 10% of his weight, he wasn’t peeing or pooping at all, he was passing uric acid crystals (a sign of dehydration), and he would latch onto my breasts but wouldn’t swallow. And I knew it was because I had no milk for him. He desperately needed formula. I went to CVS at 6 AM in a state of panic and tried to buy formula there, but they keep it in a locked cabinet (as if I didn’t already feel like a criminal), and anyway I didn’t know what kind to buy or what to do with it once I bought it. So instead, I walked out, empty-handed and sobbing. There were many friends I could have called at the crack of dawn for breastfeeding support, but I couldn’t think of anyone to call for formula-feeding support. I had no idea what to do, and I was terrified for my hungry, dehydrated baby. My sweet husband was out-of-state for an exam he couldn’t reschedule, and he convinced me to go back to the maternity floor of the hospital where I’d given birth and ask the nurses there for help. I took a cab to the hospital, and a kind nurse – who wasn’t technically allowed to help me because I wasn’t a patient anymore – gave me some liquid formula, which got us through that scary day.
The following weeks were a blur of friends and professionals telling me to just try harder. Talking to them was like talking to customer service representatives working out of an overseas call center, reading off a piece of paper, and not knowing how to deviate from that script. I began every conversation with “I don’t have enough milk.” The reply was always some version of “Oh, I’m sure you do! What makes you think you don’t?” And then I’d have to list all the ways I knew I didn’t have enough milk: my baby was losing weight, he wasn’t peeing or pooping, he was agitated, he had a depressed fontanel, he was latching well but not swallowing at all, my breasts hadn’t changed, when I squeezed my breasts almost nothing came out. It broke my heart every time I had to repeat that list. But, just like the customer service people reading off a script, they were ready with their automatic (and completely unhelpful) responses: Weigh him before and after you nurse him, you’ll see that he really IS getting enough. (Tried it a few times. He got a bit less than an ounce at each feed – about a quarter of what he needed.) Try nursing more often. (I was nursing constantly.) Drink more water. (I was drinking as much as I possibly could.) Take fenugreek. (Not an option; it’s not safe for people who have peanut allergies, which I do.) Pump every time you nurse. (I pumped for 10-20 minutes 8-10 times a day…and never got more than about 3 ounces a day. It breaks my heart to think about those hours I could have spent holding my newborn. Or sleeping.) They didn’t always say it in this many words, but it was clear that they all wanted me to buy the mantra: “Exclusive breastfeeding is always possible if you work hard enough, and working hard at it is always the right choice.” It didn’t seem to occur to them that I might be part of the 5% of women who just can’t produce enough milk.
My baby and I settled into a routine of nurse, then supplement with 2 ounces of pumped milk and formula, then pump for later – every 2-3 hours, around the clock, often while the two of us were home alone. As the weeks went by and my supply didn’t improve (despite customer service’s promises), we added more interventions. With each new step, customer service promised that THIS would be the one that would finally make it work. I took Domperidone; it didn’t make any difference. I used a Supplemental Nursing System; it didn’t help and it drove me completely nuts. When my son was about 2 months old, I stopped asking for help. In my vulnerable state, I just couldn’t deal with any more conversations with people who wouldn’t listen to me or believe me.
And even though they wouldn’t or couldn’t hear me, I was spending a lot of time in the company of nursing moms, and I knew that my body just wasn’t doing what theirs were. Listening to the conversations of nursing moms felt like the days in high school when I showed up unprepared for a test in a class I didn’t understand. I would walk out of the test knowing that I hadn’t written enough on my paper to even get a passing grade. I would hear my classmates discussing what they’d written for each specific question and I wouldn’t even understand the words they were using. That’s how I felt – and, a year later, sometimes still feel – listening to women talking about the breastfeeding secrets that are normal to most nursing moms, but that I never experienced: their discomfort when their milk first came in, the feeling of their breasts filling with milk between feeds, the feeling of a let-down, waking up with milk-soaked pajamas, needing to wear nursing pads for leakage, storing and freezing pumped milk (I couldn’t pump enough in a day for even one full feed), losing weight quickly because their baby was sucking out all their calories (salt, meet wound). I was nursing all day long, but for me, none of those things ever happened. I knew with certainty that there was something different about my body, and I was frustrated that all the professionals insisted I was normal, but I was an exhausted brand-new mom and I didn’t have the confidence or the mental clarity to stand up for myself.
As the months went on and I emerged from my new-parent fog and re-entered my old brain and body, I began to clarify the story that customer service couldn’t or wouldn’t listen to. I realized that while everyone I had talked to had asked if I had any underlying medical conditions (one of the questions on their script), they had no response when I told them about my hypothyroidism; they didn’t tell me that there’s a high correlation between thyroid conditions and lactation failure. They asked about breast changes during pregnancy (another scripted question), but didn’t tell me that women whose breasts don’t change during pregnancy often deal with very low milk supply. Maybe they didn’t know these things about thyroid conditions and breast changes, or maybe they did know but they kept it from me because they were worried the knowledge might lead me to – gasp – quit breastfeeding.
My husband and I hope to have more children. Now I know that exclusive breastfeeding isn’t a realistic goal for me. I’ll try to give my next baby as much breastmilk as my body can produce, but I won’t pump, take pills, or tape tubes to my breasts. I’ll give my baby formula at the first sign that he or she needs it. If I need support from a professional, I hope I can find one who is able to listen. And in the meantime, I’ll continue to tell my pregnant friends that I am the person they can call in the middle of the night for formula-feeding support.
We may not have much power, but the power we do have is in our words. Speak up. Email me your story at firstname.lastname@example.org.