While I was pregnant with my son one of the questions people asked was "Are you planning on breastfeeding?" I always said, "Yes I'm planning on it, but it's okay if it doesn't work out." I knew in some abstract way that some women were unable to breastfeed but I figured I wouldn't be one of them. I just assumed it was a natural thing and that we wouldn't have too many problems.
I took a breastfeeding class when I was pregnant though, just in case. The instructor went on and on about the magical benefits of breast milk as well as some of the challenges that might arise. She showed us tons of pictures of women happily nursing with their babies tucked into their tank tops. She waxed poetic about how beautiful and natural breastfeeding is and how we shouldn't give up on it and to make sure we came to nursing group on Tuesdays. She gave us the number of lactation specialists.
I felt confident that I would be breastfeeding my little one for a year or maybe even longer like some of my girlfriends. I wanted him to be smart and powerful and only breast milk could make him so. I definitely didn't want to give him formula and I'd been hanging around on the mommy blogosphere writing about pregnancy long enough to know formula is frowned upon. Breast is best!
After my baby was safely delivered into the world via c-section and I came out of my drug-induced fog, my tiny son was placed on my breast and the nurses squeezed my nipple into his mouth and he nursed on the colostrum and I thought, oh it's wonderful I'm nursing him and I can't even feel my legs! I distinctly remember the breastfeeding instructor saying it only hurts if you're doing it wrong.
That's when I learned one of many hard truths about having a baby.
Breastfeeding hurts most women at the beginning and your nipples toughen up after a few weeks, but it's terribly painful at first—regardless of great latching. Things started to go downhill rapidly from there. Even though he was latching onto my breast well and I was feeding him every hour or two, he lost more than 10% of his birth weight and the nurses said they had to give him the F word: formula. I was devastated.
When I got home after four days in the hospital I continued to nurse him even though it was becoming increasingly painful. After a week he hadn't regained his birth weight, so the pediatrician put me on a triple feeding schedule, which means you nurse the baby then pump for milk and give the baby the bottle of pumped milk. I had to feed him every two hours so I was only getting about 45 minutes between feedings. 24 hours a day. I didn't sleep for 3 weeks. And still he didn't gain enough weight.
I felt like such a failure and my son wasn't thriving.
Our son's pediatrician told me we had to start supplementing with formula because my baby boy was just too tiny and when he nursed he was burning more calories getting the milk than he was taking in. I sat and cried for a long time while he handed me tissues. I was working so hard and suffering so much and it still wasn't enough. I felt like such a failure and my son wasn't thriving. My heart broke into a thousand pieces but I wanted to soldier on—breast is best breast is best breast is best.
At six weeks I felt a terrible piercing pain in my left nipple when he was feeding and when he wasn't feeding. It was like someone was inserting a hot needle into my breast. It became unbearable so I started just nursing him on the right and painfully pumping the left. It turned out we had thrush.
My doctor prescribed a topical ointment and my son was also being treated but it still hurt to nurse. It was getting so bad that I dreaded holding him because he was rooting for food and every time he latched on I cried in pain and I began to hate him for hurting me so much. When I realized that I actually felt like I hated my baby was when I started to question if breast really is best. How could we bond when one of us was in severe pain? How beautiful and wonderful could it really be for my son to be clutched to my tense body while I cried?
She told me the benefits of breast milk did not outweigh the risks to me, as it was clear I was floundering and succumbing to postpartum depression.
When I went to see my OB at my six week postpartum appointment I told her about my struggles with nursing and showed her my inflamed breasts. She prescribed a stronger oral medication for the thrush and suggested I stop nursing. I was so sad but she told me she had also struggled with breastfeeding and had to supplement with formula. She told me the benefits of breast milk did not outweigh the risks to me, as it was clear I was floundering and succumbing to postpartum depression.
I stopped nursing him after that appointment but continued to pump milk because I was terrified that I wasn't giving my son the benefits of my antibodies. It was an agonizing decision made in agonizing pain. I only made a few ounces and sometimes he didn't drink it all and I would sob as I poured it down the drain. I pumped and pumped. I ate pounds of steel cut oats, I drank a dark beer every day, I baked lactation cookies, I took fenugreek, I drank Mother's Milk tea, but I never made enough milk to feed him breast milk exclusively.
My son often cried while I was pumping and I felt awful about not being able to pick him up. I wanted to get out of the house but I felt chained to the pump. My husband encouraged me to stop pumping, he told me it was fine to give the baby formula and not to worry. But I struggled with letting it go. I finally decided that I would stop pumping when he reached three months. I weaned myself off the pump and I cried and cried at my failings as a mother.
I would be lying if I said I have totally let the guilt over this decision go. But at least now feeding my little guy is a pleasure. He guzzles the bottle and burps and smiles and then falls asleep snuggled on my chest. I don't cry when he doesn't finish a bottle because he wasted my precious breast milk, it's formula and there's plenty more where that came from. He's more than doubled his birth weight and his little spindly legs are beginning to chunk out. He's healthy and happy and that has been helping with my postpartum depression.
If breastfeeding is working out for you I'm so glad. Really, I am. But formula is not the devil's milk. It's food for babies. It saves lives everyday, it saved my son and it's saving me. Please remember that when you see a mama giving her baby formula, she's not a failure—she's a mother feeding her child, with her heart in a bottle.