Breastfeeding: When Determination Is Not Enough
I’m writing this article for a number of reasons, but mainly because I want to share my story. I don’t want people to think I’m not in favor of breastfeeding, because that’s far from the truth. But I want to share my experience in hopes that maybe it will help someone, someone like me, who needs to hear that it is okay to use a combination of breastmilk and formula (it doesn’t have to be all or nothing) and it’s okay to stop breastfeeding. Do what works for you and just feed your baby.
When I was pregnant with my first child, people would casually ask if I was planning to breastfeed. I always said yes, that I was going to try. My mom breastfed all 4 of her kids and I assumed I would do the same. Besides the saying that “breast is best,” being frugal, I wanted to save money by not having to buy “expensive formula.” I went to the breastfeeding class offered at the hospital and before Jack was born, I bought all the supplies I thought I would need, including nursing pads and milk storage bags. I ordered my breast pump (that was completely covered by insurance) and was strangely super excited when it arrived. I should mention that I am the kind of person that when I get my mind set on something, it consumes all my thoughts and I fight until I conquer it. At this point, I saw filling my freezer with breastmilk as a challenge, one that I was going to conquer. I thought that breastfeeding was simply a choice that moms made, just like choosing cloth or disposable diapers.
Jack was born on a Saturday, weighing 7 lbs 7 ounces. Within the first hour, he breastfed. It was very exciting and special, but also what I thought was normal. During our 2 night hospital stay, he breastfed several times. I had multiple visits from lactation consultants and all of them thought that everything looked great. I remember Jack waking up several times to eat during the second night of our hospital stay, which is totally normal when it comes to newborns. On Monday, before we left the hospital, Jack’s pediatrician weighed him and found that he was down to 7 lbs. This wasn’t alarming though, it’s normal for newborns to lose 7-10% of their birthweight within the first couple days, so 7 oz was only 6% of his birthweight. His pediatrician said that most likely my milk supply should come in soon and asked us to go to her office in two days (Wednesday) for a weight check.
The first 24 hours at home were exhausting, particularly the nights. I was anxiously awaiting my “milk to come in.” I had several close friends who had babies a few months older than Jack and all of them talked about the chaos and even pain that happened as their milk came in. They all talked of engorged, leaking boobs. I impatiently waited and even started texting them, asking them what it felt like, praying that mine would come in. At night, Jack would feed for 10-15 minutes, fall asleep while feeding, and then sleep for 20 minutes. This cycle repeated all night long for 2 more days. I spent most of those nights awake, because I found it easier to stay awake than to sleep for 20 minute stretches. I spent a lot of time reading forums, like La Leche League, Kelly Mom and Baby Center. I read about how long it took for people’s milk supply to come in, how it felt, how they knew it came in, what foods I could eat and what supplements I could take to increase my milk supply. I read until I was delirious. Breastfeeding consumed all my thoughts and any energy I had left.
My mom flew in from Nebraska to meet Jack on Wednesday and as soon as we picked her up from the airport, we left to go to the pediatrician. At the pediatrician, we found that Jack had lost even more weight and was down to 6 lbs 14 ounces. She strongly recommended that we start offering Jack a couple ounces of formula after every feeding and that I start pumping after feedings. It was a heartbreaking moment, because the class I took at the hospital, the forums, even my breastfeeding friends all cautioned that feeding your baby formula would be “detrimental to your supply.” I saw formula as the enemy and was very resistant to the idea of giving Jack a bottle. I had heard that formula takes longer for your baby to digest and that in turn would increase the time between feedings. I also heard that it’s a slippery slope, that some babies will start to prefer being bottle-fed over breastfed because the bottle requires less effort to get milk. With my already poor supply, I really did not want to give Jack a bottle.
My husband was the sane one that fed Jack that first bottle, while I was trying to figure out the pump. The pump was uncomfortable and didn’t feel natural at all. I watched as every drop of milk dripped into the bottom of that bottle. I think the first time I pumped I got less than ½ an ounce total. Later that day, I remember leaving Jack, my husband, and my mom in the living room of our small condo. I can’t remember how I got there, but I remember I was in the bathroom crying uncontrollably because I couldn’t feed my baby. My mom successfully breastfed all her kids, my friends were breastfeeding their babies, and I couldn’t even make enough milk to satiate my newborn. I should mention that I’m not a person that’s easily shaken, I’m pretty laid back and even keeled. But between everyone and everything saying not to give my baby a bottle and my postpartum hormones, I completely fell apart. And in all honesty, I’m tearing up as I write this, because it was such a hard time for me. Producing milk was something that I took so personally, but also felt like I had no control over. No matter how badly I wanted to breastfeed, I just couldn’t. My husband eventually found me in the bathroom crying and sat there with me until I could pull myself back together (as best as one can at that point).
I will spare you a bunch of details here because in all honesty I could turn this into a short novel. I will tell you that over the next 2 months I did everything I could to increase my milk supply. One of the smartest things I started doing was using a baby scale (that I bought off Craigslist) to weigh Jack before and after every nursing session. I consistently found that he was transferring next to nothing, at most gaining an ounce after feeding for up to an hour. In forums, you read about the “magical” trick that caused women to “double their supply overnight” or make it possible for them to stop supplementing with formula. I spent months searching for the miracle that would increase my milk supply.
Very early on, I started going to a couple of different weekly nursing groups lead by lactation consultants. I found these groups to be helpful, because it was comforting to be able to talk with other women who were also struggling with breastfeeding. One of these consultants suggested that I get Jack evaluated for a lip and tongue tie, so I took Jack back to the pediatrician, to see if he had one. Our pediatrician said that Jack had a small tongue tie, but she wasn’t convinced that it was hindering our breastfeeding success, but she said “sometimes it works.” So, Micah and I decided to have it clipped so see if it would make a difference. It didn’t.
Next my pediatrician recommended that Jack and I see an occupational therapist who specialized in breastfeeding. My insurance paid most of it, but I had to pay a co-pay. Ultimately, I didn’t learn anything I hadn’t already heard.
It was somewhere around this time that I developed thrush. When I called the nurses line to get a prescription, the nurse could tell that breastfeeding was overwhelming me and stressing me out. She gently told me that it was okay to stop breastfeeding if it wasn’t working, but me being the stubborn, Type A person that I am took offense to it. I couldn’t stop breastfeeding, I was going to succeed no matter what. After all, breast is best, right?
At this point, I decided to stop nursing and commit to pumping, since breastfeeding wasn’t going well (and I didn’t want to risk transferring thrush to Jack.) I started pumping every 2-3 hours, I woke up at all hours of the night to pump, I made my husband leave social outings so I could go home to pump, I power pumped multiple times a day, and I even rented a hospital grade pump for a month. I tried drinking more water than I’ve ever drank in my life. I ran all over St. Louis looking for various supplements, like Brewer’s yeast, Blessed Thistle, and Flaxseed Meal. I ate oatmeal, Fenugreek, lactation cookies and smoothies, I drank Mother’s Milk Tea and even tried Guinness Beer. I even got a prescription for Reglan. I tracked my milk output using a kitchen scale to meticulously weigh every single drop I pumped and recorded my output in an Excel spreadsheet. I then plotted my numbers to see if they were trending upwards. IT WAS EXHAUSTING AND IT CONSUMED MY LIFE. These first few months with Jack were focused on MY MILK SUPPLY, NOT ON MY BABY. Sure, I was doing it all for Jack, but I wasn’t enjoying my time WITH Jack.
When Jack turned 3 months old, I decided that I didn’t want to look back at this very special time and only remember my fight with breastfeeding. I also didn’t want to spend the last month and a half of my maternity leave hooked up to a pump. I decided it was time to stop breastfeeding. It was actually very easy for me since my supply was relatively low. I clearly remember the last time I pumped (I had gone several days without pumping) and I knew it would be the last time. It was very bittersweet. I was relieved of the stress, but part of me also felt like a failure. Breastfeeding was something I simply could not succeed at no matter how hard I tried.
I spent the last month of my maternity leave enjoying my time with Jack. I didn’t have to wake up several times in the middle of the night to pump, I didn’t have to worry about going somewhere and having to get home to pump; it was very freeing FOR ME. I don’t want people to think that I posted this to encourage moms to stop breastfeeding or pumping, but I’m writing it to let you know that it is okay to stop. I also don’t want to paint this picture that it was all butterflies and rainbows after I stopped breastfeeding/pumping. I still felt guilty when I’d open the daycare fridge and see all the bottles of breastmilk other moms had brought for their babies, I still felt envious when I’d see friends nursing their babies, and I still felt jealous when friends would post pictures of deep freezers full of breastmilk on Facebook. But I also knew that I had given breastfeeding everything I had and it just didn’t work for me or my baby.
I want to end this post with a little information about formula. Me, being frugal, always dreaded paying for formula. Everyone always says formula is soooo expensive. Well, first of all, let me tell you a secret – the absolute lowest price I’ve ever found on formula from any store, including Aldi, Walmart, Costco or even during awesome sales at Target, is at Sam’s Club. We used the Member’s Mark Advantage (compared to Similac Advance Stage 1) and it costs 29 cents for every 4 oz bottle. My kids averaged 7 bottles a day, so overall it cost me $2.36 a day to feed my baby formula. I’ll let you take that information and interpret it anyway you want. For me, the cost of being free from the pump, the supplements, the stress and the sleepless nights, is worth more than $2.36 a day. I know that breastfeeding is complicated, that a lot of mom’s truly relish the baby snuggles, intimacy, and special bond it creates, but that wasn’t my experience. So if you are struggling with breastfeeding, know that you aren’t alone and know that you aren’t a failure. Feed your baby and enjoy spending time with them, because that’s the most important thing at the end of the day.
And if you are a fellow female, regardless of if you do or do not have kids, don’t judge a woman when you see her giving her baby formula. Don’t make a comment about “Oh, I see you are feeding your baby formula. Didn’t you want to breastfeed?” Because you don’t know her story and maybe she didn’t “choose to give her baby formula,” but it was a decision that was out her hands. Fed is best.