When I was pregnant with my son I saw and heard the messages over and over about “Breast is Best” and the importance of breastfeeding. I read about techniques and took a class with a lactation specialist, talked to my doctor and made the decision, without much thought, that we would breastfeed. I know there is still a lot of stigma in our society about breastfeeding in public, but as an expecting mom, I felt that breastfeeding was just one of the many things I would learn as I go and it wouldn’t be a big deal.
Well let me tell you, it was a big deal.
Like many new moms, breastfeeding was incredibly stressful, painful and hard. As I was in the thick of newborn stages I saw other moms feeding with no problem, celebrating their commitment to feeding and their babies steadily gaining weight. I didn’t see others struggling and I felt super alone, and like I was failing as a mom!
I hope sharing my story helps other mamas make the best choices for their family, and not beat themselves up in the process.
In the Hospital
I had my son via a scheduled C-section (he was breech and it is what my doctor recommended) and I knew that giving birth that way could delay milk coming in. My son was born just over 6lbs and healthy, and of course, we thought he was perfect. While in the hospital we worked on latching and had visits with the lactation consultant and nurses, but things were not clicking. By the second or third day, one of the nurses suggested a nipple shield, which seemed to help. I was so overwhelmed and shocked that feeding my new baby was so hard! The nurses assured me he was getting a little bit each time, and things seemed fine. When we packed up and headed home, Noah had lost a few ounces, but everyone said that was normal, and to just keep on feeding.
The First Week
We got home and settled in and I basically lived on the couch or bed surrounded by tons of pillows (including a nursing pillow) and that darn nipple shield. I would try to feed every couple of hours, and any time Noah seemed to be hungry. The latching continued to be a challenge, but I thought it was working so we kept at it. At Noah’s first doctor’s appointment a week after he was born, my pediatrician was concerned he was not gaining weight. At the time I was shocked, but I look back now at pictures of him and he was TINY! He said we would give it another week but we may need to start thinking about supplementing with formula.
When I got in my car after that appointment I called my husband so upset that I wasn’t able to provide for Noah and help him thrive with breast milk alone. I was determined to figure this out and started reading everything I could about increasing supply, pumping and more latch techniques. During several more calls and visits with lactation specialists and nurses, I asked questions and worked with other moms and I was determined. I am a hard worker and knew if I just worked hard enough I could do this.
I don’t remember a lot of details about those first few weeks, but I remember vividly when I went to Noah’s two-week appointment and my doctor said it was time to start supplementing with formula. He weighed Noah, had me feed and then we weighed again and saw no change. I love our pediatrician and he was very sweet, but said, “Let’s try a little formula and see how he does.” Noah sucked down that 2 oz bottle like his life depended on it…because it did! The poor kid was hungry!
But mama was devastated. Instead of being grateful for science and my doctor recognizing what we needed to do, I felt like a failure. I remember thinking, “If this was the olden days my son would die because I can’t provide for him.” Looking back I know how silly that sounds but it was all I could think about and I was crushed.
So we started the new routine of breastfeeding, then offering formula. If he was still hungry he would eat it, but if he was satisfied with the breast he would refuse the formula and I would know breastfeeding was working. I can’t remember one time he turned down that formula. As I continued to try to breastfeed it got harder and harder. It was hard for Noah because latching was a lot of work, and it was hard for me because I was stressed and upset.
I also couldn’t believe how painful it was! There were times I would have tears streaming down my cheeks while I tried to feed him and I was just so frustrated and overwhelmed. It felt like everything I heard and read was saying, “You can do it, just try harder!” So I kept trying. My poor husband tried to be supportive and did what he could to reassure me, but he just wanted his wife to be happy and his son to be healthy so he thought more formula was the answer. What he couldn’t possibly understand is that each time Noah drank formula I felt like a failure. As his mama, this is what I was supposed to be able to do for him, and every few hours I got a big reminder that I couldn’t do it.
While we supplemented with formula I was also trying to pump. I needed to be pumping to stockpile milk for when I went back to work, plus I had read that pumping could increase supply. So every few hours I would attempt to breastfeed, then give him a bottle of formula, then sit and pump. This cycle and the frustration of breastfeeding continued for about another month. Finally when Noah was about 6 weeks old, after a particularly painful, teary feeding session, I made the decision to exclusively pump and stop trying to breastfeed.
My New Best Friend, The Breast Pump
I stocked up on breast milk bags, more bottles, special bras for pumping and even a car attachment for the breast pump so I could pump while driving. Every few hours I would strap that bra on, hook up and set the timer for 20 minutes and see how much milk I could get. On a good day I might get 4 ounces total in a session, but most days it was closer to 2 ounces; I couldn’t believe how little I was producing. I researched techniques to increase supply, but nothing seemed to make much of a difference.
Scheduling my day around pumping sessions and toting my pump and cooler around everywhere became the new normal. I would feed Noah breast milk in the bottle and then give him formula. He was steadily gaining weight; the doctor felt good about his progress. As I prepared to go back to work I bought clothes that would be conducive to pumping and planned out how I could fit in pumping into my work schedule. Even after a painful experience with a clogged duct, I was determined to make it work.
At 11 weeks my maternity leave ended and I started a new chapter as a working mom. There could be a whole other post about those challenges, but that’s for another day! I continued to pump for about a month and then one day I just decided I was done. I still wasn’t producing much and it felt like I was always pumping. This mama wanted to spend time enjoying my baby and that wasn’t happening while I had to constantly think about milk supply and pumping. While I still felt guilty about giving up on breast milk, I knew this was the right decision for my family.
Fed is Best
The transition to formula only feeding was easy, and my son continued to develop and grow as expected. Balancing working and mothering became a little easier because I was not stressed all the time about feeding and not constantly hooked up to the breast pump. At the end of the day fed is best, and even more importantly doing what is best for your family is always what’s best. Like most parenting decisions, there’s no “right way” to do things, and we are all figuring this out as we go.
One of my cousins had a baby about a year after me, and I shared my story with her while she was pregnant. I thought it was important for her to hear and know that if she chose formula, it’s ok! I felt like I never heard that message while I was pregnant, and that is partly why I beat myself up so much during my struggles. Her baby girl was born happy and healthy, and after a couple of months, she told me that my story had been tremendously helpful in her experience as a new mom. She made the decision in the hospital to formula feed and didn’t feel guilty about it. She told me, “That decision probably saved my sanity and my marriage.”
Ultimately, you know in your heart what’s best for your baby and family and you should not feel bad about the choices you make. If you’ve struggled to breastfeed, you’re not alone! If you tried your hardest and it just didn’t happen, it’s ok. The baby days are gone before you know it. I blinked and now my son is almost 3! The tears and struggles I experienced during that season were hard, and there will be plenty of other challenges I face while we raise our little boy. Sharing our challenges helps us all be better moms.