My entire pregnancy, I was admittedly weirded out by breastfeeding. My boobs had always been part of my sexual identity, and now I was going to use them for food?! Nevertheless, I took breastfeeding classes, and hoped to be able to breastfeed because of the many well-documented benefits for mothers and babies. I was aware that not everyone could breastfeed, so when asked if I planned to breastfeed, I always said yes, if I can. Yet even with the theoretical knowledge that it might not work, I figured it would definitely work for me.
One of my first pregnancy symptoms was sore, large boobs, and even as I lost weight due to hyperemesis gravidarum, my breasts grew. This, I thought, surely meant that everything would go well with breastfeeding.
Yet breastfeeding was a huge struggle for me. The struggle was only harder because of how much of the advice about breastfeeding I received from professionals and peers turned out not to apply to me. We worked with several lactation consultants, the pediatrician, and even speech and physical therapists. I went to support groups and bought a scale to weigh my daughter before and after feedings. In the end, my daughter never nursed well, and I turned to exclusively pumping. Other health issues made me stop pumping, and I am very glad that I did! Now that I’m done, I’ll share my struggles in the hope that they’ll help another mom be realistic and stay sane.
1. The baby is better at getting milk out than a pump.
This led me to think that even though I wasn’t pumping much milk, the baby would get more. Turned out that she had a tongue and lip tie which meant she was getting much less than the pump. We did everything right: the baby was on my breast within minutes of her birth even though I had a c-section. We withheld bottles and pacifiers and supplemented formula with a syringe at my breast. She nursed on demand–so constantly that I didn’t sleep at all for many nights, and had to wake up my husband to watch me because I was afraid I would fall asleep and drop her. We were doing everything right. Yet it took an unusually long time for my milk to come in and I still had a very low supply. I thought something was wrong with me, when in truth there was a logical reason my body wasn’t producing enough–the baby wasn’t sending the right signals! If you’re struggling with breastfeeding, make sure a knowledgeable health care practitioner looks for ties and evaluates your baby’s suck by having the baby suck on their finger.
2. Nursing on demand will increase your supply.
Again, this is only true if your baby has an effective suck! For me, nursing on demand only led to the baby quickly falling asleep on my breast only to wake up angry and hungry 30 minutes later. The only thing that eventually increased my supply was pumping nine times a day for 20-30 minutes. My tongue-tied baby, even post revision, was never going to drain me as effectively as an electronic double pump. Then, I stopped trying to nurse before pumping at every session, which allowed me to sleep more. I don’t know if the increased sleep improved my supply directly, but I do know it helped me make it through the day without constantly crying (my tears, not the baby’s).
3. Your body will make exactly what the baby needs.
Gee, let me tell you how great this one felt when my body was not making enough for my baby. I felt defective and inadequate. Sure, some lucky people make the right amount of milk for their baby but so many new moms struggle with breastfeeding—if they don’t have an undersupply, they have an oversupply that gives their baby reflux! Or their supply is just right but they have sensitive, cracked nipples. Sometimes it feels like you just can’t win.
4. It gets easier after the first two weeks.
The lactation consultants told us this in the hospital but we didn’t even discover our baby’s tongue tie until she was two weeks old. It never got easier for me.
5. Breastfeeding helps you get through the baby blues and avoid postpartum depression.
If you’re lucky enough to breastfeed without major issues this could be true. For me, and for many other women I know, breastfeeding was a major source of anxiety after birth. My breastfeeding issues made me feel like I was inadequate and a bad mother. I thought about stopping trying to breastfeed earlier but that only made me feel worse. Reading that breastfeeding was supposed to help with postpartum moods, and not make them worse, only made me feel like more of a failure.
6. Fixing tongue and lip ties will lead to immediate improvement.
When I told friends I was getting my daughter’s tongue and lip ties revised, they told me about their friends’ babies (or their babies!) who nursed better immediately. I wish! The dentist and lactation consultant who revised and identified her tongue tie both warned me that it might not be an instant fix. Of course, I thought, for my baby, it would be. Ah, hubris again. Then, the speech and physical therapists we saw after the tongue tie revision said most babies would improve in 6-8 weeks. We did all of the suggested sucking exercises (yes, this is a real thing), but even after a few months, she did not nurse well. I wish someone had warned me that it might not work out, so I didn’t feel so alone.
7. Breastfeeding helps you lose the baby weight.
How about breastfeeding wakes you up multiple times in the middle of the night when you otherwise wouldn’t realize you’re so hungry you might faint? Additionally, according to my ob-gyn, lack of sleep makes people crave sugar and carbs. Sure, breastfeeding burns 300-500 extra calories, but that’s gone with a banana and a granola bar in the middle of the night. Breastfeeding made me so hungry that I felt like a bottomless pit, and I even gained a little weight.
8. Breast is best.
Luckily, “fed is best” seems to be the new truism, but I still find myself haunted by the ghost of “breast is best.” When the hospital nurses told us at 1 am that our baby had lost 12% of her body weight and was in danger of being dehydrated, I felt like a total failure. When they suggested giving her formula I thought we might as well be giving her poison! Turns out supplementing with formula at first actually can increase long-term breastfeeding success. It can also provide vitamin d, which many pediatricians suggest giving exclusively breastfed babies. And, of course, it kept my baby fed! Yet I had so deeply internalized that “exclusively” breastfeeding was best that I was afraid of giving my daughter the nutrition she needed. I wish that the language around breastfeeding focused less on “exclusively” breastfeeding and more on breastfeeding as one part of raising a growing, healthy baby.
Breastfeeding was far from a beautiful, natural bonding time for my baby and me, despite all of my best efforts. All of the advice about breastfeeding that turned out not to hold true for me only made it harder. In hindsight, I wish I had listened more to the few moms who told me it was okay to quit. When I finally did, it became much easier to feed my baby and take care of myself.