In Her Words
From the Breastfeeding Battlegrounds
When breast isn’t best
-Julie Ryan Evans
“Breast is best!” Those are the words that have haunted my days and nights since the birth of my daughter nine weeks ago. Every time I see that catchy little saying about breastfeeding written on a poster at the doctor’s office or on a can of formula or on the freaking bumper of a car I’m stuck behind in traffic, I have a strong desire to scratch it out with a black marker or at least add an asterisk that says: but not in all cases.
Now, before you call the lactation mafia, believe me, I’ve done my homework. I don’t need to be educated. I know the nutritional and developmental benefits of breast milk inside and out. It’s truly amazing that our bodies can produce this perfect food for our children, and it’s a wonderful option IF you can provide it for them.
If, and at what cost to the rest of your life and sanity, however, are the questions – questions I’ve struggled with every single day since I delivered my daughter. Here’s a glimpse at some of my thoughts as I’ve battled to breastfeed for the first time*.
Day 1: Lila Claire is born. I’m elated and exhausted after her long-awaited birth. She has a little extra fluid in her lungs and needs to go to the transition nursery for a few hours, so I’m not immediately able to breastfeed her as I had planned. While I’m waiting for her to be brought to me, a lactation consultant comes in to help me pump. She and the other nurses ooo and awe about the huge amounts of colostrum I’m producing.
When I’m finally reunited with my daughter and put her to my breast, she latches on a like a champ. It’s the most natural, beautiful thing I’ve experienced and I’m moved to tears. I’m loving lactation; my body was made for this.
Days 2-4: Sheer and utter pain like hot, dull (those hurt more than sharp right?) needles being poked into my nipples. My eyes spill tears, and I can’t help but audibly wince (scream?) every time she tries to nurse.
I start justifying in my mind: I wasn’t breastfed and neither were my siblings; we all turned out just fine. My husband is sent in search of Lanolin. I keep reminding myself of the calories I’m burning …
Day 5: Lila Claire’s first doctor appointment – 24 hours after discharge from the hospital. She has gained six ounces. Though still painful, it’s working. I’m nourishing my daughter, and she’s growing.
Days 6-13: The pain has eased, and we’re getting into a pretty good routine. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I look forward to each feeding session, but they’re getting better. Maybe I’ll keep going for a few months. I am a proud, natural breastfeeding goddess. Maybe I should join the La Leche League?
Day 14: Lila Claire’s two-week checkup. I’m so excited to see how much weight she has gained with all the breast milk she’s been getting. Instead, she LOST 2 ounces. The guilt, the tears, the fear that I’m doing her wrong are overwhelming. The doctor suggests I’m not eating enough and that I supplement with formula and start eating ice cream. Great.
Days 15-16: Terrified that I’m starving my daughter, I decide I will be a pump-only mom. I will pump and pump then bottle feed her so that I know exactly how much she is eating. I will make sure she is nourished with breast milk, because it is BEST … which I see printed right on the bottles I use to feed her the supplemental feeding of formula the doctor recommended I give her. It’s actually even printed on the cans of formula – “Breast milk is recommended”!
Day 17: Pumping AND feeding is about all I do … oh except for washing and sterilizing all the bottles, nipples, breast shields, membranes etc. over and over and over again. My hands have aged a year in just the past two days.
I’m ready to give up. I hate pumping, and breastfeeding is too ambiguous, too scary for me not knowing if I’m starving her. I feel like a total failure – as a mother, as a woman.
Day 18: I can’t bear the thought of another day washing and pumping and feeding. I decide to put her to the breast again, but I’m trying to convince myself it’s OK to quit too. I start telling my friends I’m thinking of giving up to see if anyone tries to talk me out of it … no one does. They all, diplomatically say, “do what works best for you.” But they don’t tell me how to deal with the guilt.
Day 21: Three-week checkup. I undress Lila Claire and carry her to the scale … 7 pounds, 13 ounces. She’s back to her birth weight. I had hoped she’d be a little heavier than that, but the doctor says it’s pretty good. I can stop the formula supplements. I’m feeling better … a little at least. That afternoon I nurse for the first time in public and feel strong and proud and committed … though VERY annoyed that a man chose to sit on MY bench while I was breastfeeding when there were clearly plenty of other vacant benches around!
Week 4: She’s eating for shorter periods and falling asleep every time I put her to my breast. NOTHING (undressing, tickling, talking, singing) I do will wake her up to continue the feeding … until I lie her down. Then she screams. So I pick her up to try … over and over again. I have no clue how much she’s eating … maybe she only gained weight last week because of the formula. Am I starving her again?
Every time I walk into my laundry room I see the free sample cans of formula sitting there, tempting me. I HATE BREASTFEEDING … there I said it. Let the La Leche League come hunt me down. I want to like it, but I just don’t. I want to do it for my daughter, but the stress of it all can’t be good for either of us. Every day I consider giving up.
Week 5: Now she’s screaming every time I try to breastfeed her. Does she have nipple confusion already? Thrush? Clearly she hates breastfeeding too. I’m a failure at this.
I can’t help but wonder if I would still be fighting this hard to do it if it wasn’t supposed to help me lose weight. There I said that too. I’ll also say that during much of my time spent pumping I consider the need for a breast lift at some point in the near future. Could I do it? What kind of message would that send my daughter? How much would it cost, and how badly would it hurt?
Week 6: Somehow (probably from the guilt) I haven’t given up, but I’ve given in to giving her a couple of bottles of formula a day. The rest of her meals are breast milk. I get her to nurse a couple times each day for a while before she screams, and the rest is pumped. When someone asks me if I’m breastfeeding, I give them kind of a dumb, blank look. Sometimes I try to explain the mishmash of meals she’s getting. Once I just burst into tears.
And that’s where we are now: some pumping, some nursing and some bottles of formula. Because I can’t pump as often as necessary and because she’s not nursing regularly, my milk supply isn’t increasing quickly enough to keep up with her. I see more and more formula in our future, and I wonder how long I’ll rent the breast pump.
But I’m OK with this situation … mostly. There’s still a lingering sense of guilt with each bottle of formula I feed her. I know I could have tried harder, done more. But that’s how it is with parenting. There will always be more we could have done, should have done – more books that could have been read, more games that could have been played, more healthy meals cooked, more patience practiced. But we can’t beat ourselves up for it all. We have to find a balance … or at least strive to.
One thing I know I’ll never question though is if I loved them enough. And for me, that’s enough.
* While Lila Claire is my second child, this has really been my first experience with breastfeeding. Because my son was born so prematurely, he wasn’t able to latch on. I pumped for about four months so that he would have breast milk to supplement the formula he had to have for his growth.