Breastfeeding When It Don't Come Easy, Our Story

By Heather on November 11th 2012
  Note: I wrote and published a follow-up post to this one about our success! Feel free to check it out: Our Little Breastfeeding "Miracle" **************** This morning, I awoke to my nearly 16-week-old little girl scooting closer and nuzzling in for her morning wake-up nurse. A couple hours later, we settled into the rocking chair for a nice, long mid-morning feeding cuddle. This afternoon, we nursed and napped. Tonight, we will nurse to sleep. It is beautiful and precious to enjoy my daughter so much, to watch her growing up before my eyes and to see the sweet little parts of her character emerging, especially while we nurse. We have a beautiful nursing relationship. It is, however, marked with sadness. Let me back up a bit and start from the “sort of” beginning. I believe in breastfeeding, deeply. I know in my head and heart that its benefits far surpass any other way of feeding our babies for reasons of nutrition, overall health and emotional well-being.  I have read three books and countless articles on breastfeeding.  I have a bunch of amazing mama friends and online comrades who are passionate about bf-ing and are inspiring examples to me of extended nursing (an example I am set on following if possible). I had an uncomplicated homebirth and my little one went right to my breast, staying skin-to-skin for hours, then days. I have a lactation consultant. I fed on-demand without question. I did everything “right” (well, maybe, but more on that a little later down). However, after three months of a rough road, I am still supplementing with formula. Where before I assumed it was easy to breastfeed, now I see more clearly just how hard it can be for some mothers. I obviously am one of them. I debated waiting to write this post until after we were completely on the other side of our breastfeeding challenges, back to 100% unrestricted breastfeeding and completely off the supplemental formula we began using when she was just two weeks old. However, I realized that this path, the journey, is the point and in my journey as a breastfeeding mother with breastfeeding challenges, I have much to learn and perhaps a little to share. So I write from this place of vulnerability and hope, day-to-day struggles and day-by-day triumphs. Also, the truth is that we may never “get back” to breastmilk-only. The reasons why we are where we are, supplementing about 50% of our feedings with formula, weave through three and a half months of trying, trying, trying (and crying, crying, crying, I may add). Taking a quick glance back, the reasons include slow-to-no weight gain after two weeks, newborn jaundice, small mouth with “lazy” sucking, i.e started good, tired out fast, I had lots of milk at first, then quick decline, and now in a day-to-day effort to keep my supply up via just about all the known galactagogue herbs, homeopathic remedies, lots of water and broths, pumping, insistent latch awareness, frequent feedings, nurse-ins, visualizations, breast massage and following every wive’s tale my partner’s Chilean grandmothers have thrown my way (including drinking lots of milk, thank you Grandmother Manoca!). I spend a lot of time every day working on my supply. If you think you have an idea for me, I’ve probably tried it (but feel free in your suggesting, really). The only thing I haven't done is take prescription drugs (I still might). Maybe my low supply stemmed directly from my daughter’s poor sucking and us falling into a slippery-slope supplementing strategy. Maybe I would have had a low supply anyway due to stress or hormonal issues (or both). I’ll never know. But here’s what I’ve humbly learned: I happens. It happens a lot more than we’re led to believe, a lot more then I would have guessed perusing my usual online lactivist haunts. In my search to find physical and emotional support online, I’ve started running across many stories of other mothers struggling with not being able to nurse their babies exclusively, though their hearts were set on it and they’ve tried everything. Some of them can’t nurse at all. It seems that among low-to-no supply mothers, I’m one of the lucky ones. Finding a couple of awesome online resources filled with heart-warming (and heart-wrenching) stories from moms wanting so badly to nurse their little ones has been a real heart saver for me. Among the sites I’ve found, the best is by far Mothers Overcoming Breastfeeding Issues (MOBI) International. The night I found that site, I read and read and read, and cried my heart out. Finally, stories that were like my own; finally a sense of being a true part of the breastfeeding community. It gave me hope; hope that I may still be able to increase my supply, yes, but also hope that I wouldn’t feel like I was a failure forever, or that I was missing all this precious time with my daughter while I was worrying about whether or not the next feeding at my breast would give her enough. Still, it continues to be hard. Not breastfeeding exclusively has been a real heartbreaker for me. I’ve felt grief and guilt, frustration and shame, … not because I’m worried that all the bf-ing mamas I love and respect will think badly of me, not at all. It’s because I really do know what is best for my baby and I can’t give it to her. I’ve read the stats on formula-related health problems. I mix the powder and feel no life in the food other than the prayers I put into it and its promise of weight gain (I live in Chile where there are no breastmilk banks.). I long to sweep her antsy “neh-neh”-ing sweetness up into my arms and feed her from my breast until she is full-up, whenever she wants or needs it, wherever we are. I wish for just one breastfeeding session where neither she nor I get nervous because the milk isn’t flowing. But that’s not what I have. What I have is a nursing relationship with my baby that looks differently then I expected. It’s a nursing relationship marked with difficulty, yes, but with great joy, too. When I remember that I have my daughter at my breast, that we nurse and make sweet eye contact and talk to each other, that she is getting so much goodness and love here with me in those moments, even if a lot of the milk she is swallowing comes from a little bottle around my neck through a tube to her mouth (we use the Medela SNS), I relax and enjoy. When I remember I am lucky for all that we have, I relax and enjoy. I say little prayers for the mothers and babies less fortunate than us, and relax and enjoy. When I remember that these moments right here are worth my total non-worried, non-regretting attention, that stroking her fingers and feet, her sweet head, her back, and gazing into her eyes give us both so much goodness, I smile and relax and enjoy. I do. But, still for the sake of any mother reading that may be saved the extent of our struggle (and the physical and emotional exhaustion it brings), here are the things I would have done differently:

Dealt with the jaundice immediately to reduce fatique. I was so adament about protecting our home nest and her sweet adjustment period, it didn’t seem like an option to consider an in-hospital jaundice treatment. I trusted what I read about newborns processing their jaundice in a week or two and it being normal. If I have the chance again, I’ll get right to a light box (or blanket).

Breathed longer before buying formula. “Feed the baby” – that is the number one rule of lactation advice right? Of course it is, and of course it was my priority. However, in our panic of realizing she wasn’t gaining enough weight, we didn’t even try to pump and supplement with breastmilk first. Knowing that I DID have milk, I’d have at least tried that for a few days with a really good pump.

Taken the plunge with a hospital-grade pump. I would have spent the $100 or more for a month with the best pump I could have found to fortify, extract and deliver my milk. Period. Not realizing how important it was until much later, I opted for the first pump I could find easily (a manual Madela), then later an okay double electric.

Gotten a second opinion on my baby’s feeding. I love our LC, and she is a friend, but I would have found the most notable expert to examine her mouth, watch us feed, and rule out or address every baby-related or positioning issue. I would have demanded she be as nit-picky and heavy-handed as possible with our technique.

Been firmer about my boundaries. The early bf-ing relationship is so important and fragile, and now knowing the roll stress can play in production reduction, I wish I had not let all the well-meaning people into my home and bedroom whom I knew would stress me out with all their advice and off-handed comments (one grandmother said to me plainly and forcefully, “You have no milk, get a bottle.”). Never. Again.

Taken each day at a time and remembered to enjoy each and every feeding. In the whirlwind of worry and stress, and in the shadow of grief and failure, I let my mind spin too much into the what-if’s and how-come’s and whoa-is-me’s too much. I would have reached out for more support sooner so that I could relish it all more. I’m doing that a lot better now, though it’s still hard sometimes.

Of course, I'm continuing to work on my supply and still have hope that we'll get it up enough to wean from formula. But, I'll finish by saying that above all, knowing that I'm not alone (my friends back home have been so supportive and loving, my partner here a major ally) has been a huge help. And knowing that no matter what, I do and will continue to give my little girl all the love and nourishing affection I can give her, no matter what milk I can provide, I know she's getting the very best from me she can get. That's my job, right? I'm her mother... and I'm the best mother I can be. ~ Heather ********** Here is a list of the sites that helped me the most to address my breastfeeding challenges: You may also enjoy reading another perspective on breastfeeding challenges in the Boba post How One Mother Practices Attachment Parenting While Bottle Feeding.