My son was never a good breastfeeder. From the beginning, he would latch perfectly but then destroy my nipples with his shallow sucking until they were cracked and bleeding. He and I both cried at nearly every feed; me because I was in severe pain, him because he was still hungry afterward. I quickly learned after several lactation consultations that he was barely transferring any milk; less than a half-ounce total after more than 30 minutes of nursing. Talk about frustrating. I was told that his unproductive sucking was telling my body that I didn’t need to produce as much milk since he was leaving so much behind at every feed.
It was a vicious cycle: he would nurse aggressively at first until I was in excruciating pain and then, when it was clear he wasn’t getting as much as he needed to be truly full, he would stop sucking altogether and either scream bloody murder or use my breast as a pacifier until he fell asleep. I felt so helpless to feed my son the way my body was designed to and yet dreaded his waking hours because it meant I would have to endure more painful, yet unproductive feeds. One night during a particularly painful stretch of cluster feeds, I tearfully broke down and mixed a bottle of Enfamil we had received in the mail. After drinking just 2 ounces of formula, my son slept for five uninterrupted hours. Still, I felt so guilty about giving it to him that I couldn’t enjoy the long stretch of sleep for myself. Well, not that much anyway.
As I continued to search for the solution, the lactation consultants suggested position changes, shooting syringes full of breast milk into his mouth to stimulate his sucking (um, what?) , breast shields, etc etc etc. Armed with more tips, I left each visit hopeful that I could really make this work for my son. And every time, we wound up in the same position; both upset and frustrated. After three weeks, I decided to try pumping exclusively. I had heard that some women make it work with great success and I was willing to try anything.
I read up online about the important rules of EPing: pump as often as the baby eats, drink tons of water, make sure both breasts are completely empty before stopping. I began pumping every two hours around the clock, waking up in the middle of the night to pump several times despite the fact that my son was only waking once to eat. I felt like I was chained to the pump; it interrupted everything in our lives. I pumped in the back of the car on the highway, in parking lots…wherever I found myself when my two hours were up. All I can say is thank God for tinted windows.
In my second week of EPing, I developed mastitis, a particularly nasty infection in the breast tissue caused by a clogged milk duct. The area where the clogged duct resided was very painful, but much worse were the flu-like symptoms that come with mastitis: fever, muscle aches, nausea, headaches, etc. Not ideal for taking care of a newborn baby.
The clogged duct and the antibiotics used to treat it slowed my already lagging production down considerably. Just when I was starting to see my supply steadily rising, it came crashing to a halt. I began to increase the amount of formula I gave my son and was forced to pump even more to work out the clog. I spent 40 minutes out of every 2 hours staring at the drops of milk dribbling slowly into the bottles, growing increasingly more frustrated at my lack of production. It was enough to drive a person insane. (My poor, poor husband.)
I did this for a few weeks and fully intended on continuing until I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore. It had long passed the point of being sustainable, but I was taking each day at a time and not looking past the following day, hoping that my combination of frequent pumping, Fenugreek horse pills, Mother’s Milk tea, lactation cookies and tons of water would suddenly kickstart things. Nothing seemed to work.
At my son’s 2 month doctor’s appointment, I sat in the waiting room dreading the question I knew they’d ask: “How is he eating?” I debated lying and just saying we were both doing fine; I didn’t want to be made to feel even more inadequate by someone who didn’t agree with my method of feeding my child.
As soon as the nurse posed the question, I found myself unloading about all the troubles I’d had so far, from the early days of painful breastfeeding to my current hellish pumping schedule. The nurse very calmly looked at me and said, “I want you to really hear me. It is OK to feed your child formula. Plenty of people have done it before and their children turn out just fine. My son is 23 years old and never got a drop of breastmilk in his life; he’s one of the healthiest people I know. This is a very short stage in your child’s life. In two years, you’ll have totally different concerns and you won’t be worried about this at all. Give yourself a break. Sleep when your baby sleeps. Let yourself enjoy him. I’m giving you permission to stop torturing yourself, because I think that’s what you need to hear.”
I could’ve kissed her on the mouth (I didn’t) and cried (I did) for the relief those words brought into my life. “You are honestly the first person that has said that it’s OK not to breastfeed,” I told her in a somewhat hysterical voice. Suddenly, I felt validated, annoyed at all the negative noise surrounding bottle feeding, relieved that someone had given me permission to do what I already knew in my heart would come eventually.
And then a crazy thing happened. I went home, practically skipping into the house, and because I’m still a rule follower, hooked myself right up to the pump. And, miracle of miracles, I produced DOUBLE the amount that I had been for 2 freakin months. Stress, my friends, is mama milk kryptonite.
From there, it was relatively smooth sailing. I produced enough to feed my son, only pumped a few times a day and enjoyed a couple formula free months. I cut out the nighttime pumping sessions and, while I still pumped in the back of cars and left outings early to pump, I felt like I’d been freed from some self-made hell.
And then, when Chase was 4 months old, I decided to stop altogether. Pumping no longer worked for our lifestyle—we were busier than ever during the day, Chase was curious enough to no longer lay next to me on the couch for three or four 30 minute sessions per day and honestly, I was just so freakin tired. I weaned slowly and then, one Saturday, it came down to a choice between an afternoon out with my family or a pumping session. If I chose the pumping session, we’d miss our opportunity to spend some time outdoors together. It just didn’t seem to make sense anymore, so I let that last session fall away, mixed up a few bottles of formula and off we went.
Though mama guilt is always in the back of my mind, I promised myself this time that I wouldn’t let myself feel badly about my decision. I was and still am proud that I made it almost 5 long months hooked up to a pump for a majority of my waking hours ;I do not want to lessen that accomplishment by feeling unproductive and unwarranted guilt. So I haven’t. Because just like breastfeeding or bottle-feeding, guilt is a choice.
From one mother to another, it’s OK to quit breastfeeding. Or never start. Or continue doing it until your child is eight. If your child is being fed, no one else should concern themselves with how you accomplish that and you should do what’s in the best interests of yourself and your family. And be kind to your fellow mamas, because your support could make all the difference to someone else.