FFF Friday: “Why I am suggesting my wife stops pumping.”

Lately, I’ve seen more discussion about the roles fathers (and partners) play in supporting breastfeeding. But I fear that there’s something missing in this discussion, a rather large elephant in the room that everyone is stubbornly ignoring despite the odor coming from the large pile of elephant dung in the corner. 

Having a supportive partner is absolutely fantastic when you’re trying to breastfeed. But what does being supportive really mean? Does it mean being a breastfeeding cheerleader, reminding your partner of the benefits and imploring her to keep going? Or does it mean stepping in when you see her emotionally disintegrating before your eyes? How do we help our partners truly support us – by indoctrinating them on the importance of exclusive breastfeeding, or by educating them on postpartum mental health, and the importance of the emotional stability of the family? 

My husband struggled with this. It’s something I’ve talked about before, but probably not to the extent that I should have. In our case, he took the breastfeeding classes and was entirely convinced that formula was NOT an option for our family. Plus, I’d told him I wanted to breastfeed. This meant that he believed his role was to keep reminding me of these things; every time I burst out in tears, wanting to quit, he’d say “this is what we decided” or “I have to think of FC, and what’s best for him.” As I was already halfway down the rabbit hole of PPD, these were not helpful statements. I resented him, and felt even more like a failure when things didn’t work out. 

Six years later, Fearless Husband can’t even discuss what I do for a living. He’s still drowning in anger about it all; he feels like he was manipulated, which led him to put his wife’s emotional health (and his son’s physical health) at risk because of what society and the “experts” told him was absolute truth. I can look at my own experience with perspective; the passion I feel about this topic is no longer personal, but about feminism and justice and truth. For him, it’s still personal. 

Our partners can be part of the solution, or part of the problem. They can’t win. They are doomed if they push us to keep going when we really need to stop, or if they push us to stop when we want to keep going; when they don’t have an opinion either way, or when they have too strong an opinion. So what can we do to help them help us? 

I’d love to hear your ideas, and to collect them in a post that can be shared with concerned fathers and partners. Leave them in the comments below, or on the FFF Facebook page. 

To start this conversation, I want to share a unique submission I received from Jeff, a father who is dealing with this exact Sophie’s choice of a situation. I am grateful to him for sharing his thoughts, and for supporting his wife in the best way he can. 

Happy Friday, fearless ones,

The FFF

Jeff’s Story

We wanted to breast feed our baby for six months. We were committed to it. In fact, I was worried that as the dad, I wouldn’t have enough to do in the first months to care for our baby. And it hasn’t worked out that way…

I am completely fed up with what breastfeeding – exclusive pumping – is doing to my wife. Some background – our baby is 7 weeks old. We had a normal, uneventful delivery, and she’s healthy, gaining weight, and a perfect angel! But she just won’t latch. Let me tell you – we have tried. For hours, doggedly and desperately. Nipple shields, syringes and tubes, pillows, massage, hand expression, “lactation cookies”, lecithin, goat’s rue, countless cups of tea, rain dances and magic invocations… The few times she did latch, she did not get enough milk to satisfy her. After weight loss, dry diapers, and a lethargic baby, we started supplementing with formula. Our stress level went down, and our baby sprang to life!

We have seen four lactation consultants (two in the hospital, and two since we got home). They gave us terrific support – hours of individual attention and lots of moral support. They are wonderful, encouraging, and compassionate people – and I would not say we’ve felt bullied into breastfeeding. I’m very thankful to our insurance (Kaiser Permanente) for providing the support, because we didn’t want to give up. Our pediatrician and an ENT specialist checked for tongue-tie, and found nothing amiss. They also worked with us on the pump, so we’ve really given this an honest effort. We just don’t know where the issue is.

Both baby and mom have been in tears after attempt after attempt – robbing them of pleasurable bonding time. I’ve watched my wife in tears over the pain of engorgement and plugged ducts, a bout of mastitis, and the frustration and embarrassment of being hooked up to a pump while I get the pleasure of holding and feeding our baby. We haven’t had to supplement with formula much after the first week, but it’s come at a huge personal cost.

So, my wife became an exclusive pumper. Maybe our experience is atypical, but pumping takes forever. She spends close to an hour per session, many hours a day, just to keep abreast (pun intended) of the demand. It takes at least half an hour before she gets any flow. There simply are not enough hours in the day for her to pump, sleep, and hold the baby. So in the name of “breast is best”, our baby is being deprived of the comfort of her mother’s arms.

We blindly subscribed to the “breast is best” philosophy. Since these problems stated, however, I went back and read the primary literature on breast milk versus formula (I have a PhD in immunology, and my wife has a MPH and worked for the World Bank in the nutrition hub). I was surprised at how weak the evidence for breast milk over formula was! The most convincing evidence I can find is that breast milk protects babies from GI infections, which makes sense if you don’t have a clean water supply as a basis for your formula. That’s not a significant concern in the developed world, however. For nearly every study I read, the differences in IQ and every other measure are less than the test-to-test variation seen in individual children. (i.e., the difference seen between a breast fed and a formula fed baby is less than the difference seen if you tested the same baby twice.) Even if you believe those differences, the link between intelligence and breastfeeding is confounded by the many other variables that cluster with extended breast feeding, especially socioeconomic factors.

I’ve reached the conclusion that this is not serving my wife or our baby’s best interests. So, I am going to tell my wife tonight that I think she’s done a fantastic job giving our baby nothing but breast milk for the first 7 weeks, but that I am concerned that “extraction” of breast milk is dominating their relationship to the detriment of both of their health. I would rather see my daughter held in the arms of her happy mother drinking formula than look across the room at my wife’s teary eyes while I feed the baby breast milk sucked from her body.

I still support efforts to encourage breast feeding, but we have to be wise enough to recognize when it isn’t serving the best interests of the mother or baby. Public health recommendations are based on large groups of people – they cannot (nor do they try) to predict the best action for all people in all situations. If breastfeeding works for your family, that is wonderful and I’m genuinely happy for you. Please respect that it does not always work, despite desperate desires to the contrary. We didn’t want or choose this outcome, but I don’t feel bad for making a decision that protects my family’s physical and emotional health.

That’s why I think it’s time to support my wife and baby by suggesting she’s done enough, and that it’s time she put down the pump and picked up the baby.

***

Want to share your thoughts or story about infant feeding? Email me – formulafeeders@gmail.com. 

Suzanne Barston is a blogger and author of BOTTLED UP. Fearless Formula Feeder is a blog – and community – dedicated to infant feeding choice, and committed to providing non-judgmental support for all new parents. It exists to protect women from misleading or misrepresented “facts”; essentialist ideals about what mothers should think, feel, or do; government and health authorities who form policy statements based on ambivalent research; and the insidious beast known as Internetus Trolliamus, Mommy Blog Varietal.

Suzanne Barston – who has written posts on Fearless Formula Feeder.


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19 thoughts on “FFF Friday: “Why I am suggesting my wife stops pumping.”

  1. You simply say: “if you are miserable doing what you are doing I wholeheartedly support your decision if you would like to choose to quit pumping and formula feed instead. I want whatever makes my wife happy, healthy and comfortable.”

  2. Reading this to my hubsand. Right now. And can I say, FFF you do a great job of finding smart people. When my son was a newborn I didn’t have the brain cells to articulate my anger and confusion as well as the people I’ve seen on this website. Keep doing what you’re doing girlfriend! You’ve helped many of us in the midnight hour find sanity!

  3. I had a friend in this same situation. She decided to cut back her pumping to just twice a day. And make gentle attempts to nurse before bottle feeding. Once she let go of the idea that her baby HAD to have breast milk, her stress went down. Within a few weeks the baby latched and went on to nurse for the next 3 years.

    My husband was kind of at a loss for what to say, other than to tell me I was doing a great job. The most supportive thing I heard when my supply never fully developed, was that BF doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Find some combination of nursing/pumping/formula feeding that works for you and your family. It’s all about balance.

  4. As a followup (I’m the author of this piece): it wasn’t until my wife had a second bout of mastitis on Thanksgiving day that she finally felt that she had to stop. With the support of her Ob and our pediatrician, we switched to formula. Her mom was also in town that week and had seen the problems, so she was supportive as well. My wife is disappointed not to be able to breastfeed, but overall the positives of stopping have far outweighed the negatives. I don’t regret it for a minute. It makes me so happy to see my wife holding our happy baby and to have the stress and pain of pumping removed.

    And I will also say that I called our lactation consultant at Kaiser and explained what had happened, and she was supportive and praised how hard my wife had tried and said not to worry about it – just to enjoy our time with the baby.

    • I was wondering how this turned out, and I am so glad taking away the pump has brought some peace for your wife (and you! and baby!).

  5. That is definitely an unsustainable pumping routine, and it is impressive that your wife has sustained it for so long! How long has it been since you’ve talked to a lactation consultant, and have you spoken to one familiar with the demands of exclusive pumping? If your wife wants to continue to provide breastmilk of whatever quantity for your baby, there is absolutely room to change pumping so that it makes more sense. Generally speaking, the process of pumping should take around 20 minutes. If you’re not getting it done in that window of time, there are ways to fix it.

    I also want to put out there that many pediatricians and ENTs are not familiar with tongue and lip tie in anything but the classical, tied-down-to-the-tip-of-the-tongue sense. It may be worth trying to find a resource in your area that has done up-to-date research on the topic. http://www.drghaheri.com/ is a place to start.

    • Thanks Tiffany. After her second bout of mastitis at Thanksgiving, we decided to stop pumping. Our daughter got about two months of almost exclusive breast milk, so she got a good start.

      I’m not in a perfect position to assess the expertise of the lactation consultants, ENT doctor, etc who have helped us. We did see the lactation consultants regularly – I’m not sure how many visits, but maybe 5 or 6 times over 7 weeks. We did bring the pump with us, so we got help that was related to breastfeeding but also pumping.

      I wish it had worked out better, but more for my wife than for my daughter. But both are doing much better now – mom is so much happier and I feel so much better seeing them together. It’s a happy ending.

    • It seems as though everytime I read a story about how breastfeeding isn’t working for a family, the comment section also includes a number of well-intentioned advice on even MORE things the parents can do to try and make breastfeeding work for them. I know you’re trying to be helpful, but giving the parents even more items for their to-do list just isn’t helpful. In fact, the implication seems to be, “You haven’t done enough — here are more things you need to do before calling it quits.” Please just respect the decision they expressed and if you can’t be supportive, perhaps the best thing is to say nothing.

      • I understand this perspective, but one of the major pain points in this situation seems to have been the length of time it took to pump, and, as a lactation professional, if someone I was working with told me it took them an hour to pump, that would raise concerns for me. You don’t spend weeks or months exclusively pumping if it doesn’t matter to you, so I will take the risk of offering support in the form of making a suggestion when the situation seems to warrant it.

        • Well this family has already decided that formula feeding works better for them, and that’s great. But it sounds like you want to be Monday Morning Quarterback and feel you are well qualified. So let’s hear it! This woman had her pumping assessed multiple times by IBCLCs and nobody could figure out the problem, but you think you can. It took her 30 minutes to start producing milk and another 30 minutes to get it all out. Tell us what the problem was and tell us how to fix it! And don’t just pull something out of thin air, give us a reference, a case study or something from the literature or at least a case from your own practice that was the same that you fixed. We await with bated breath!

          • I don’t think is necessary, or productive! We (I) stated clearly in our piece that we *wanted* to breastfeed, and when that didn’t work, we *wanted* to pump. Offering suggestions isn’t out of line, given that sentiment. I don’t think we need to get offended by well-meant advice. Maybe someone else in our situation in the future will read her suggestions and be helped.

  6. Thank you for writing this, I was in a very similar situation to your wife but wasn’t able to supply enough milk. I was pumping for hours a day just to supply one feed and still didn’t feel able to stop, it wasn’t until my daughter became more alert that I realised she was missing out on time with me while I was hooked up to the pump. My partner was very supportive and I know it was difficult for him as I just wasn’t ready to stop, it’s impossible to look at the situation with any sense of perspective, especially when you are bombarded with well intentioned advice and suggestions of what to try next. My daughter is now 12 weeks old and we’re happy with our decision to formula feed, I regret missing out on so many hours with her when she was small but we’re making up for it now.

  7. My husband physically helped with the things I needed to feel like I was giving milk production a good go – he made me oatmeal, brought a glass of water while I was pumping, etc. And in quieter moments of conversation, he encouraged me to give up by focusing on the benefits of not being tied to the pump – most notably, more time enjoying our infant. I resented it at the time, but when I finally quit, I quickly became grateful for his perspective and saw that he was supporting both my attempt to keep going and my overall mental health by giving me permission to stop.

  8. My husband helped me immensely in the early days of breastfeeding with both my daughters, making sure I ate and had enough to eat, sending me to bed when I needed a nap, and most importantly, supporting me in how we decided to go about breastfeeding. For my first, I pumped so he could give her one bottle a night and I could get more sleep. I stay home so I didn’t need a “stash”, but felt like I was supposed to have one, so I pumped several times a day. I hated it. When my second was born, we followed the same routine, but after two pumping sessions I realized that I wanted to toss the pump through the window. So, we did one bottle of formula at night rather than pumped milk. I was much happier. It is the little changes that can make all the difference! My husband was sympathetic and supportive of my decision to not pump. As with all aspects of parenting, I didn’t make these feeding decisions unilaterally. We always discussed them and came to an agreement. It isn’t my job or role to dictate to my husband, and vice versa.

  9. I’m wondering about, if the studies showing benefits of breastfeeding over formula feeding is weak, as you said, why do we both feel the need to continue to encourage breastfeeding? For me, breastfeeding didn’t work at all. I produced almost no milk. I love bottle feeding my baby and don’t feel sad about not being able to breastfeed, yet I still tried before every feed for about a month. It made feeding take twice as long. And I’m just not understanding why I did it… It’s like even though I rationally know that breast isn’t best, emotionally I wasn’t able to let go. Maybe I’m not as not sad as I had thought… Strange.

    What about you? Why do you continue to encourage it? (I really hope this isn’t coming across as judgmental…like why are you doing something you shouldn’t be doing. I’m just curious because, as I said, I kind of did it to myself.)

    • I think that if breastfeeding is going well, then there is no reason not to encourage it – or maybe “support” is a better word, if encourage implies pressure to choose that path. I don’t think the pro-breastfeeding evidence is strong enough that anyone should feel guilty for feeding formula. But there may be some benefits to breastfeeding, and if it isn’t causing distress, then I don’t see a reason not to do it. It’s the blind adherence to the idea that it is best in all situations and is vitally important that I think needs to be examined more closely. If mom and baby are successfully breastfeeding, then I think that’s great and we should support it. And if it’s not working well, if it is a major cause of stress and unhappiness, then we should support the decision to use formula. This reflects my personal bias, of course. I think the emotional health of the mom is the most important factor in baby’s life – and a happy, engaged mom feeding formula is preferable to an unhappy, distressed mom feeding breastmilk.

      I guess what I’m trying to say is that we should encourage each family to do what is best in their particular situation, weighing the physical and mental health of baby and parents. We have to be open-minded enough to recognize that the wisest path for my family might not be the same as for yours.

      • I agree with almost everything you say Jeff, but this sentence worries me – “if it’s not working well, if it is a major cause of stress and unhappiness, then we should support the decision to use formula.”

        I think we should support the decision to use formula whatever the circumstances. It doesn’t have to be a ‘major cause of stress and unhappiness’ before formula is acceptable, and I think part of the issue if that most women feel liked they’re supposed to try *really hard* to breastfeed, and only after they’ve tried *really hard* is it okay to give up. I was miserable for weeks because I was trying *really hard* and I wish I had just switched to formula sooner. As you said, the scientific evidence is weak and suggests that there’s very little difference in breast and formula fed babies (socio-economic factors surely play a much larger part) so why does society insist breastfeeding is the preferred path? That it’s okay if you formula feed but the implication is that you haven’t *quite* done enough for your baby?

        Do what makes you happy ladies. Happy mum = happy baby.

  10. <3 So many hugs to your wife! I've had the same issues. Extremely slow letdown is the worst. There is simply no time to effectively pump, especially if you have a life outside of the house. I had to miss pumps so I could take my daughter outside and get her fresh air, or so I could sleep, and I ended up with mastitis and plugged ducts as well. I feel like I gave up too easily despite trying my hardest, and your wife's story gave me some hope that eventually, I'll stop feeling bad for not having a BFing relationship with my baby.

    SO many hugs and so much support to you and your wife. Thank you for being a supportive partner.

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