When Breast Isn’t Always Best

(Originally posted 2014-03-28 on my Awesome Work At Home Mom blog which I am taking down.)

Somewhere out there, silently drowning in the “breast is best” hype, the mommy shaming, and the pressure to give their child every possible head-start in life, is a segment of new mothers who are utterly struggling in a nightmare of trying to breastfeed. I know because I’m one of them. Often the limit of the support they receive begins and ends at a well meaning but unhelpful suggestion to talk to a lactation consultant or join a support group. The implication being that if they just connected with the right piece of magical advice it would all snap into place. That’s not always the case, and the implication that absolutely anyone can breastfeed successfully with the right amount of effort is harmful. Here’s my story.

Three weeks ago I gave birth to my second child. My first is 2 years old and is the light of my life. For both my children, my goal and intention was to breastfeed from the start. Possibly more than anyone else, I know how precious the ability to do so is. My mom, who had four children of her own, was unable to produce even a drop of breastmilk. She tried everything and received skilled help from nurses, but nothing happened. These days doctors may have known to check for hormone or thyroid issues, but back then she was a mystery. My siblings and I grew up healthy and intelligent on formula. As a woman I had always assumed I’d have the same problem my mom did and when I was pregnant with my first I prayed that I would produce milk for my baby.

Due to being breech, both of my children were born by c-section. On that amazing day when I had my first, I remember being in the dark and warm recovery room and beginning to nurse. Over the course of the day I discovered that I was indeed producing colostrum. Incredible! My mom was thrilled for me and I was relieved: it was working!

My extended family is filled with female cousins and friends who all took to breastfeeding with natural skill and ability that seems alien to me. They strap their babies on and feed while cooking, shopping, whatever. Baby knows what to do, and mom is comfortable. This is the image of breastfeeding that we’re given in the books and pamphlets that are piled on us from day one. The posters in the OB’s office show lovely photos of breastfeeding moms smiling and relaxed. These women are blessed. For them, breast truly is best. For some of us however, it’s a nightmare.

My first baby had a tongue tie which we couldn’t get snipped until a week later. He was also super sleepy and would fall asleep while nursing. For the first couple days after he was born we thought things were going well even I was getting increasingly cracked and sore. At the day three weigh-in at the hospital we learned that he was drastically dehydrated and they admitted him back into the hospital. That’s when I learned that he wasn’t getting enough, and his latch was crushing me. The hospital introduced me to the electric breast pump and I began to nurse and then pump while also supplementing with a bit of formula. We were discharged the next day.

 For the next several days we maintained a gruelling schedule of nursing then pumping and bottle feeding every 2-3 hours. I lost touch with reality in a haze of sleep deprivation and pain. My husband was a superhero taking care of as much as he possibly could. Even after the tongue tie was corrected, the latch and sleepiness didn’t improve. I stopped taking pain medication for my c-section in fear that it was contributing to the sleepy baby. Nursing was awful because of the pain, and having to annoy my tiny baby to try and keep him awake. It wasn’t beautiful or peaceful. I was not bonding with my baby as I fed him.
I started bleeding and I came down with a case of mastitis, followed by thrush. Fever, chills, blaring pain and still no sleep. I was lost in a grey world of pain, I rarely knew which day it was, and I hardly ever had a chance to hold my baby in a nurturing, pain free way. My husband fed him the bottle and sang him to sleep. I pumped, cared for my sore body and slept. I rarely felt like a mom.
Crying several times a day I finally decided to drop the nursing and stick only to the pumping. I ate oatmeal, took herbs, and tried to increase my supply. I was never able to produce enough to eliminate formula completely. Even with a double, hospital-grade pump my milk came out a drop at a time and pumping took forever. I eventually healed but pumping remained painful. Very. I was prone to clogs and had to perform constant compressions while pumping and often apply heat and vibration before pumping to clear out clogs. While I eventually got into the routine, it was 3 months of pain, fatigue, resentment and very few moments of happy motherhood. Eventually I weaned slowly from the pumping and regained my sanity.

Now, dear reader you must also know that throughout this experience I was constantly getting help from nurses, lactation consultants, online groups and endless research. I tried absolutely everything. I had multiple well-meaning experts examine my baby’s latch and position. I’ve been seen and handled while half-naked by more strangers than I can count. Many things helped a little. Nothing was a magic solution.

I’m extremely proud of those three months that I was able to produce breastmilk for my baby despite how difficult it was. So of course my plan was to do at least the same for baby number two. Unfortunately here I am at three weeks and I’m already weaning. What’s different this time around? Many things.

This second baby had a much better latch and wasn’t sleepy at the breast, and so for the first time I experienced what it was like to enjoy nursing. It was relaxed, and very little pain. At least for the first few days. We avoided the dehydration problem this time by hand-expressing and feeding him with a dropper after each nursing session while waiting for my milk to come in. That was a small victory. However a nurse identified a small issue with the shape of this baby’s mouth. That combined with other issues, and I was still getting crushed while nursing. After a few days I was once again bleeding and in horrible pain. A week later oh yes, mastitis again.

This time around my husband is much busier at work and so he is also a walking zombie these days. My two year old is also a factor as caring for him while all of this is going on makes things much more complicated. However, by far the biggest difference is the pain. Pumping is much harder this time around and I don’t know why. I’ve adjusted the size of the pump attachments, lubricated the parts with olive oil to prevent painful rubbing, and turned down the power but it’s still torture. My hand shakes when I reach to turn it on. At times I was nearly out of my mind with pain and fear of the whole process. I have dreams of driving over the pump with the car. The hormones weren’t helping either. So here I am at week three and I’m weaning off. A decision so difficult and heart-wrenching it’s hard to describe.

It all comes down to this folks – I have to look at the whole picture. Being a great mom is about more than just producing milk for my baby. It means being sane and happy so I can give that happiness to my children. It means being able to snuggle and feed my infant without pain or resentment. It means being able to take a few minutes for myself once in a while so that I will feel recharged and ready to give of myself to my kids. When I’m waging war with the breastfeeding experience, I’m not the kind of mother I want to be. Which is why I have to stand up and say that it doesn’t work well for me, but my children will still grow up to be healthy and strong, and I’m totally OK with formula. I’m proud of what I was able to do, and proud of the decisions I’ve made.

However, the pressure and unrealistic evangelism that has grown up around the breast-is-best movement, has lead many women like me to go beyond a normal attempt and make themselves nearly crazy trying to get it to work. This pressure, this unwillingness tell new moms that it doesn’t work for some women, is driving new moms into horrible post-natal situations compounded by guilt and pain. This is dangerous, not something we should be allowing to happen when postpartum depression is also such a real risk. Let’s spread some real information and remove the pressure and shaming.

If you know a mom who’s struggling, please remember to be supportive no matter what her decision is. The formula-is-evil stance is causing more harm than some people might realize. Happy families should be the number one goal.