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When Breastfeeding Doesn’t Work Out: A Personal Story
Read about why breastfeeding rates in the US are so low.
Read tips for expectant moms on how to prepare for breastfeeding.
I found out one of the most well-kept mommy secrets the hard way: breastfeeding doesn’t always work out, even for the most dedicated and persistent of mammas. I had always assumed that, except in rare cases, if someone wanted to breastfeed, they would be able to.
That’s one reason why my struggle to breastfeed successfully was so traumatic for me. I had no intention of ever giving any of my children formula... ever. And, yet, despite weeks and weeks of agonizing effort and persistence, I was ultimately unable to breastfeed my child.
I share my story in hopes of providing support to other women going through a similar situation, to provide reflections on how to cope when breastfeeding doesn't work out; and to help educate expectant moms in hopes of helping them better prepare for some potential breastfeeding challenges.
My Breastfeeding Story
When I was pregnant with my first child, I was sure I would nurse him as long as he and I both were happy with it. I had positive role models of nursing moms in my life and did not for a second consider feeding my child formula. I purchased nursing tops and a nursing stool, but there was not a single bottle or speck of formula in my household.
I also made all the “right” decisions. I took a breastfeeding class ahead of time to learn about breastfeeding. I chose to have a natural childbirth, which has been associated with higher breastfeeding success rates. I chose a midwife and a doula (“birth coach”) to help ensure the best chance of a natural childbirth. I would deliver at a hospital that allowed midwives and that had lactation consultants on hand. And, I chose a pediatrician that I was told was supportive of breastfeeding.
My birth plan outlined all the practices that would encourage successful breastfeeding: my child would be immediately laid on my chest (rather than whisked away for tests); he would nurse within 30 minutes; he would room in with me rather than going to the nursery; and I would nurse on demand, whenever he wanted.
My Son’s Birth
My son was born after a long (30 hours) and difficult (back) labor. But, still, I had managed to avoid pain medications and he was born a healthy 8 pounds, 13 ounces.
The first few days were great. I had a little pain when nursing, but nothing horrible, and he and I both seemed happy in our nursing relationship. I was surprised at some of the nurses comments. “You’ve nursed him for a day already - that’s plenty,” “It’s supposed to hurt,” or “You can use formula if your nipples hurt,” are all comments I actually heard during my short hospital stay.
When we left the hospital, my pediatrician was a little worried about my son: he was a bit jaundiced and he had lost some weight (he was down to 7 pounds, 14 ounces). She asked that we come to her office 2 days later to recheck his weight.
At home, things seemed fine. During the day, my son lay in bed with me, nursing on demand, and at night he slept next to me in a bassinet. Sure I was tired, but things were going fine. All was as I imagined.
Just 4 days after my son was born, we went to our follow-up visit at the pediatrician’s office, She was very concerned that he was still jaundiced and his weight had dropped to 7 pounds, 4 ounces. She turned to me and said, brusquely, “I’m sending you home with some formula.” Still exhausted from 2 nights of labor, I burst into tears. Not only had she scared the living daylights out of me, but now she was telling me that I had to give up on breastfeeding, or at least put it in serious jeopardy. She connected me with the lactation consultant her office refers to, and what ensued was the one of the worst days and the beginning of the hardest few weeks of my life, physically and emotionally.
I won’t go into all of the boring details of my saga. Suffice it to say that my first 8 weeks as a mother was miserable. I was waking up my son every 3 hours to nurse (as instructed by my lactation consultant who said nursing would never take hold if I didn’t do this), feeding him through a tube that needed to be cleaned and prepped, pumping 10x per day, and taking herbs and medications to increase my milk supply. The feeding process (feeding, pumping, cleaning gadgets) took about an hour an half, so that left me an hour and half in between each of 8 feedings to sleep (not to mention anything else that a person might want to do while awake).
Totally stressed out and exhausted, there was no way my body was going to produce milk. What should have been one of the happiest times of my life turned into a nightmare. I was stressed out, sad, and hugely disappointed.
After 8 horrible weeks and against the advice of my lactation consultant (who told me “just keep with it” even though I still hadn’t left the house), I finally toned things down, decreased pumping, and nursed for comfort, hoping that eventually my son would “get it” and start nursing on his own. As my milk supply dwindled back down and the amount of formula I was feeding my son again increased, I struggled emotionally to cope with the loss of something I had taken for granted would just work out.
Five years later, I have now mostly come to terms with the fact that I was not able to successfully breastfeed my son. Intellectually, I know that I did the best I could, that formula and bottle feeding are fine alternatives to nursing, and that my son is strong and healthy. I don’t think about it too much, but when I do there is still some lingering sadness, feeling like I missed out on an important experience with my first child.
I continue to wonder if things could have turned out differently. What would have happened if I had pushed back a little bit on my pediatrician’s advice and spent 1-2 more days nursing on demand? What if I had gone to a different lactation consultant? What if I had chosen a different pediatrician? What if...
I will never know the answers to these questions, but hopefully my experience can help some future mothers avoid the uncertainty that this kind of struggle presents by helping them to understand some of the barriers to breastfeeding and how to better prepare for a more successful breastfeeding experience.
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