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.
There’s a lot that bothers me about the way breastfeeding is presented to women (which I suppose is, erm, rather obvious), but the whole “only 1-5% of mothers can’t breastfeed” is definitely near the top. Not only is this statistic based on limited, shaky research, it is also completely misleading. Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS) affects .002% of the population, and there are telethons for it (as there should be, of course). Women with lactation failure are ignored, ridiculed, and told it’s all in their heads. I’m certainly not comparing ALS with lactation failure (please) but merely making the same point Lisa Watson of Bottle Babies did in her brilliant post about this issue: 1-5% of women is nothing to scoff at.
As Karly writes in her beautiful, raw post below, “This was my baby and my body, and I knew them both best.”. It’s odd to me that this same sort of rhetoric is used to justify so much of the natural birth movement, but it is turned on it’s head when the subject is breastfeeding. Maybe some of us need to take a long hard look at our own hypocrisy, as feminists and maternal health advocates.
Happy Friday, fearless ones,
Now that my breastfeeding journey is coming to a close, I feel I finally have the emotional stability to tell my story. I never thought I would be writing something like this when Olivia was only 7 weeks old, but you know the saying, “the best laid plans are laid to waste.” And for me, this was no exception.
I’ll start out by saying that I truly believed that because I so deeply wanted to breastfeed, that I could just do it. I embraced the La Leche League belief system that all woman could breastfeed and that very few woman had actual supply issues that kept them from doing so. I threw out all the free formula I got in the mail, didn’t register for any non-Medela bottles on my baby registry, and did my share of breastfeeding classes, book reading, and research. I told everyone I knew that I wanted to breastfeed for accountability. I was so excited to partake in something so “natural.” I didn’t realize that there was much more to it than a willing heart and a pair of boobs.
My breast feeding journey didn’t start out the way I had planned, and since becoming a parent, I realize that not much does follow the way of our intentions! When Olivia was born, she had accelerated breathing and was immediately whisked to the far side of my delivery room for monitoring. After she settled down, I was able to spend 10 minutes with her before she was taken to the transitional nursery for 5 hours. I desperately had wanted to nurse her right away, because that’s what everyone says you’re supposed to do to establish a good breastfeeding relationship. I was a little worried I wasn’t able to, but my maternal instinct was already rearing its head and all I was truly concerned about was her being healthy. When I was finally able to spend time with her, it was 10pm and there were no nurses around to help me. I buzzed my less than helpful and attentive nurse and she showed me the football hold and told me that Olivia wasn’t really nursing and couldn’t I tell? “See,” she said, “her cheek muscles aren’t really moving and you can’t hear any swallowing.” I was already starting to feel awful about my abilities to properly nurse. She told me a lactation consultant would come around the next day.
Around 11am the next day, a LC arrived and spent a reasonable amount of time with me. She ascertained that Olivia didn’t have tongue tie (good news) but that she had a high palette, which made it difficult for her to latch because her mouth was so small, and I have slightly retracting nipples. She gave me a nipple shield and it seemed that Olivia was able to finally grab on to something. I tried nursing all day and it “seemed” to be going well, but I couldn’t really tell.
The next morning the pediatrician made his appearance and when we told him that Olivia wasn’t really producing that many diapers, he was concerned. He suggested supplementing with a 1/2 ounce of formula to prevent her from being dehydrated. I had to suck back my tears until he left. I was devastated. All the books and websites and avid breast feeders had “warned” me this might happen, and to not give in. When my newly on-shift nurse arrived, I cried with her. She was super understanding and reminded me that I needed to make sure Olivia was taken care of.
This was the first time I realized that a commitment to breast feeding can sometimes jeopardize your child’s health. If I hadn’t decided right then to make sure my child’s health came before my desire to only breastfeed, Olivia could have ended up hospitalized for dehydration (and I know this happens because I’ve heard first-hand about it). This is by no means a judgment on people who decide to take a different route than I did when listening to their doctor. However, I personally, could not justify it.
To abate my fears, my nurse showed me how to supplement the formula with a syringe and straw, so that Olivia would still practice her breast feeding skills and not be at risk for nipple confusion. She wouldn’t even notice what was happening. But I did- and no matter what I told myself, I felt awful. I hadn’t wanted to even touch formula, and here I was, supplementing in the first 30 hours of Olivia’s life. I felt inadequate and crippled. Everyone had told me that babies stomachs were the size of marbles and that the small amount of colostrum I had would surely be enough. But it wasn’t, so what was wrong with me? I had pumped what little colostrum I could relinquish, and it was about a 1/4 ounce (less than 8ML). It almost made me feel worse to actually see how little I had.
Everyone assured me that my milk would come in over the weekend, days 3-4, and not to worry. I kept up hope, but still worried. As soon as it came in, I could stop supplementing. When I got home, the syringe and straw didn’t feel so easy anymore. It was near impossible to get it into Olivia’s mouth where she would do all the work and suck the formula out. After a few attempts, we started just squirting it directly into her mouth. I cried every time I had to attempt the syringe because she would unlatch when I accidentally poked her in the mouth. When she got frustrated she would bob her head and grab at my breasts, ripping off the nipple shield. I don’t think I’ve cried so much as I did those 4 days at home. The worst part was, I would nurse for an hour+ each time, and she would cry and root after each session because she was still hungry.
As the weekend ended, I knew something was amiss. There had been no change in my breasts at all- no engorgement, no let down sensations, no happy baby at the end of a marathon nursing session: only a hormonal wreck of a first-time mom who realized that her breasts were letting her down.
I signed up for a breast feeding workshop and was elated at the thought of some help and encouragement. The LC weighed Olivia before and after a 40 minute feeding and I was horrified to learn she had only taken in a 1/2 ounce in all that time. Add to it the fact that she had lost 9 ounces of her birth weight and had not gained any back in a week, meant I left the workshop in tears. My husband was so encouraging, but let me know that breast feeding was something I may have to just let go of. I wasn’t ready to hear it and sobbed the entire way to the health food store, where I purchased Fenugreek and Blessed Thistle supplements in hopes of increasing my supply. We committed that day to supplementing after every feeding to get Olivia’s weight up to par. Prior to that I fought every supplement because I had wanted to be enough for her alone.
When Olivia was 9 days old, we weighed her again at the Mother Baby Assessment Center in our hospital. She had only gained 1/2 an ounce in 2.5 days since we were last there. I was beginning to feel worse than a failure. I had been taking the supplements but wasn’t noticing much of a difference in Olivia’s satiation at the breast, or when I pumped.
The stress of even the idea that breastfeeding wouldn’t work was beginning to consume me. I spent hours on the internet trying to read other people’s stories of how they overcame supply issues, or how I could produce more. I couldn’t sleep well enough to feel rested, which I’m sure only made milk production worse. I knew that if I didn’t overcome this, I would be entering into postpartum depression. That day, I made a private appointment with a LC for the following Tuesday. But when I made it home, I didn’t even think I could make it that long. I wanted to quit, and quit right then. My husband wouldn’t let me, telling me he would be disappointed in me if I didn’t make it to my appointment, which was right around Olivia’s 2 week birthday. It hurt to hear him say that, because all I wanted was a way out. But I realize now that he didn’t want me to look back and regret quitting, but to do it when I was emotionally stable (as if that’s even possible in postpartum days!).
I reached out to a La Leche League leader in my area, who pretty much verbally vomited the same things I had read in the Womanly Art of Breastfeeding: very few woman have supply issues, just keep putting the baby to the breast, don’t supplement, feed on demand. She made me feel worse than I already did, because if “most woman don’t have issues,” then either something was wrong with me or I wasn’t trying hard enough. She couldn’t really say much when I told her that Olivia wasn’t even producing enough diapers- the tell tale sign that babies are getting enough breast milk.
I’m proud to say I made it to my appointment! I have to admit, I went with the intention of quitting as soon as it was over. The LC could tell I was on the verge of losing it. We nursed and weighed Olivia again and this time she took in 1 ounce, instead of 1/2 like the week before. Obviously, Olivia was growing and was only going to need more, and even this clearly wasn’t enough. The LC looked at me and told me that any milk Olivia got was good. It didn’t matter if I could exclusively breastfeed or not. She told me if all I could handle was nursing 1x per day then pumping, that was ok. She said it was my baby, not hers, and she wasn’t going to tell me to do something I couldn’t. She diagnosed me with a lactogenesis disorder, or a milk production problem. She gave me a way out and made me feel like I could finally let go.
After that appointment, I felt a weight lifted. This WAS my baby and my body, and I knew them both best. I knew there was something wrong with my milk production, no matter what any La Leche League leader told me (which, coincidentally was to nurse EVERY HOUR. That’s not even humanly possibly as a new mother, and especially not emotionally possible for the wreck that I was at the time). Because the stress of exclusively breastfeeding was gone since I knew it wasn’t possible, I moved to only pumping.
Even then, I would pump 5-6x per day and still only get 5-6 ounces for the entire day, less than a quarter of what Olivia still needed. I started to walk down the road of depression again when my milk supply wouldn’t increase, no matter how frequently I pumped or how much fenugreek I took. Pumping made me feel almost embarrassed in a way, watching my ugly, not quite working nipples be tortured into giving up droplets of breast milk. When I found blood in my preciously stored milk (which is completely normal and not harmful for baby), I decided my days of breastfeeding/pumping were done. It was like the blood signified everything I was willing to put aside to just make it work- and it made me feel horrible. So I packed up my pump, bottles, and flanges. I put them out of sight and don’t plan on looking at any of it for a long while. It’s all over.
Formula feeding was never the issue for me. I don’t think its poison or that it contributes to obesity. If it was truly unsafe, it wouldn’t be on our shelves. It really wasn’t even about Olivia. I was mostly thinking about myself and what breast feeding was for ME. My sweet baby doesn’t care how I got the liquid in her bottle, only that I love her enough to give it to her when she needs it. And let’s be honest- when she’s in kindergarten I’m not going to be looking back and constantly thinking about how I couldn’t really breast feed. I needed a little more perspective.
The real issue is that I was truly uninformed about breast feeding. True, most women can breast feed in some form- but it’s not true that most women can exclusively breast feed. Many women have supply issues. Once I started having issues, all my girlfriends started coming out with the problems they had as well. Where were they all when I was standing on my soapbox, proclaiming my imminent success as a breast feeder, while secretly judging people who gave up? And on top of it, I had major guilt about all the breast feeding supplies we’d spent money on that would be useless to me. We had JUST bought a $250 breast pump! No one told me about the possibility of this not working! As my husband puts it, the books I read on breast feeding were selling something: an idea that sounds perfect, but that is rarely ever obtained. I dealt with feeling duped and stupid because I bought into it.
I ran the gauntlet of feelings the last 7 weeks. Emotionally, I had times of resenting my new baby, my body, and my husband. Physically, I was exhausted and bitter at my anatomy. I went through the stages of grief: denial, in that I never thought it could be happening to me; anger and bargaining with God; shameful depression; and finally today, acceptance.
I wanted to finish this post as I let my milk dry up. The physical pain is what I wanted from the beginning- to signal an imminent, successful breast feeding journey. Instead it’s a bittersweet end to something that I need to move on from. I started writing this in the throes of my post partum hormones. Now, 5 weeks later, I’m finishing it. When I went back to read what I started, tears started streaming down my face as I remembered the anguish I was feeling. I never want to feel that way again, and am so glad I am on my way to accepting God’s plan for motherhood, even though I’m still a little sad about it now and then. I can finally put down the breast pump and spend time with my Olivia.
Have a story you’d like to share? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.