Breast is Best… Unless It’s Not

Breast is best… We’ve all heard it a million times at this point, but what if the breast isn’t an option?

When I was pregnant with my son, I spent a lot of time imagining my easy transition into motherhood. I’d babywear, cosleep, and do all of the other things that modern, natural-minded moms are supposed to do. Breastfeeding wasn’t even a question… I took a class, read the books, and tossed every one of the 17 million formula coupons that arrived in the mail during my third trimester, confident that breastfeeding would come completely naturally.

So imagine my surprise when it didn’t.

I’d read up about what to do if your baby had trouble latching, but my son had the opposite issue—he had a death grip latch. Anytime my breast got anywhere near his mouth he would immediately latch on with the suction of an industrial strength vacuum. He’d usually miss my nipple the few times, no matter how carefully I offered it, and I ended up with dark purple hickies covering my breasts. My nipples were so sore that my toes literally curled every time he actually found one. If he wasn’t latched properly I’d often leave him as he was just to avoid the pain of relatching, which I knew was just making matters worse. A lactation consultant was able to offer a little bit of advice, but mostly just told me to be thankful that his latch was strong and that the pain would subside “eventually.”

In spite of my intense discomfort (which is putting it really, really mildly), I persisted. Hoping to prolong the amount of time before my fertility returned I followed all the rules of LAM (the lactational amenorrhea method of birth control). When I started my period at eight weeks anyway, I started loosening up on the rules. I occasionally let my husband or mom give him a bottle of breastmilk without pumping. If he slept longer than six hours at night, I slept too. I figured that my milk was fairly well-established at that point, so I didn’t need to worry about supply as much as I had during those first eight weeks.

At each visit with his pediatrician, my son’s weight slid a little further down on the chart. Our doctor told us not to worry though, that losing a few percentage points wasn’t uncommon. Around four months I started to suspect that my milk supply was diminishing. The amount I pumped during each of my nightly pumping sessions decreased steadily until I was lucky to be getting a quarter ounce from each breast. Everything I read online told me that I should have faith in my body—that pumping wasn’t an accurate indicator of the amount of milk my baby was getting, that breastfed babies were just fussier than formula fed ones, that my son’s frustration while trying to feed was normal.

I started crying to my husband at night, telling him in whispers that I was afraid there was something really wrong with our son… He’d stopped smiling and babbling. He was less active. He cried constantly. But everyone kept telling me that he was fine, he was fine, he was fine.

Well, as it turns out, he wasn’t fine—he was slowly starving to death.

At our six month appointment our pediatrician told us that he’d actually lost weight over the past two month. Not just percentage points on the chart… He had actually lost weight.

She recommended metabolic testing to see if he was having some sort of problem processing the nutrition he was getting, but I knew better… He wasn’t getting any nutrition. Despite everything and everyone that had told me otherwise, deep down I knew I wasn’t producing enough milk. I just trusted them more than I trusted myself—lesson learned.

In spite of all that, I tried for another seven months to get my milk back… I took herbs, pumped constantly (lucky to get a few drops during each session), held my son skin to skin whenever possible, and kept trying to put him on the breast everyday, even though it usually ended in tears of frustration for both of us. In retrospect I feel like I missed out on all the joy I should’ve felt during my first year of motherhood because I was so obsessed with my inability to feed my son in the way I had been told was best.

When my daughter was born I swore I would do everything in my power to keep my milk supply up (but also that I wouldn’t prolong our misery or let her starve if I couldn’t). I refused to give her even one bottle. I put her on the breast every two to three hours during the day and never let her go more than four hours at night without eating—even if that meant waking her up. I had a stock of lactation herbs on hand to take at the first sign of diminished supply. This time, I wouldn’t make the same mistakes I’d made with my son.

Despite all of that (and despite the fact that I had a much easier time feeding her than I’d had with my son) she slowly slid down the weight chart too, from the 66th percentile at birth to just below the 10th at four months. My pumping output began to diminish as well. I starting taking herbs to compensate, gradually increasing them until I was literally taking a handful of pills three times a day.

I had told myself that I wouldn’t stubbornly try to hold out with breastfeeding if things didn’t work out the second time around, but the disappointment was still crushing. Fortunately, I knew from experience that torturing myself and my daughter wasn’t going to help the situation and that getting her the nutrition she needed was priority number one. I started supplementing and continued to put her on the breast as long as I could.

In a way, having the same experience the second time around actually alleviated a lot of the guilt I felt around not being able to breastfeed my son for an extended period. For all the things I had told myself I did wrong the first time, the same thing happened even when I knew I had done all the things right. Apparently my body just has a four month limit on breastfeeding babies. After that, it’s time for those freeloaders to get a damn job and support themselves for a change.

I still believe that breastfeeding is best—if you can (and want to) do it. But there are so many different reasons that it doesn’t work… I know I was a total judgmental bitch about formula feeding before I found myself in the position to need to do it myself and I really hope that more women sharing stories about their problems breastfeeding will change the minds of others like (the old) me.

A big part of my problem with formula has always been (and still is) that most of it that you can buy in the US is absolute garbage. When I had to start supplementing with my son I did a lot of research and decided that a homemade formula was the way to go. With my daughter I’ve done a combination of homemade and a European brand called Hipp. While neither is perfect, I felt more comfortable with those options than anything I could find locally.

In my next post I’ll share the recipe I used for homemade formula, and the herbs I used to keep my supply up with my daughter. Until then, I’d love to hear your breastfeeding story! Did it come easy for you? Or did you have problems too? Let me know in the comments!

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