World Breastfeeding Week is August 1-7. During this time, and National Breastfeeding Month, is when we celebrate and support mothers who are breastfeeding their babies and to promote awareness about the benefits of breastfeeding. I fully support mommas giving their babies the nourishment they need by whatever means they can, whether by choice or circumstance. This is not meant to be a breastmilk vs. formula debate, because I believe that healthy babies AND mommas trump the pros and cons of either. Over the next few days, I’ll be sharing pieces of our breastfeeding story and my experience of pumping exclusively.
This time last year, I was seven months pregnant, looking through photo after photo of mommas nursing their little ones, and imagining myself blissfully nursing our sweet baby when he was born. Photos from my photographer friends during their big latch-on events; photos posted by mommas in mommy Facebook groups of their “milk-drunk” babies drifting off to sleep with full bellies. That was going to be us. No doubt about it. I was so confident that we were going to make this work that after I received bottle-feeding gear at our baby shower (things that I registered for), I promptly returned them. I wasn’t really going to need them, right?
Don’t get me wrong – I expected it to take us some time. I knew everything might not work perfectly right away and that we might need a little bit of help. Friends shared stories about it taking three weeks, six weeks before they finally felt like they had gotten the hang of nursing. Six weeks? I could be patient for six weeks.
If only it was six weeks.
There’s a lot to our story and honestly, I’ve shared it so much that it’s hard for me to rehash everything in detail without feeling like I’m boring everyone. So here are some of the biggies without the tears that usually go with them:
- Liam was born unexpectedly a week early with an unplanned induction and emergency c-section, but he was beautiful and perfect. We had planned for a completely medication-free natural birth, so I wasn’t prepared for how cloudy my head felt and how disinterested I was in holding my baby (something to do with the combination of feeling nauseous and loopy). Even still, we tried. And tried.
- Jaundice. While I wasn’t surprised Liam was jaundiced (one of the perks of being Asian), I have to admit I didn’t know much about it. Or, perhaps in my post-surgery condition, I didn’t know what I should be asking or advocating for. So under the bili lights he went. And he cried. So much so that any time we took him out to nurse, he fell asleep in my arms from exhaustion. We were encouraged to supplement right away in order to get his bilirubin levels down because he wasn’t nursing. Were they right to do that? Yes. And probably no.
- Lactation consultants. We saw every lactation nurse they had at the hospital before we left. Every time Liam needed to nurse, we were calling them again to help us figure it out. Not because we couldn’t remember what they showed us the last time, but because it wasn’t working. Again.
- Pumping. After a couple of days in the hospital, one of the nurses finally offered me a pump because I had been hand expressing whatever colostrum I could get. And so our pumping journey began. When we got home from the hospital, I used a hand pump for half a day before I begged J to run out and pick up a pump from the store. I tried to nurse Liam, but every time he wouldn’t latch, I just pumped.
- Nursing. Nursing took forever. At night, it would take an hour of crying, Liam pushing me away, latching and then unlatching before he’d finally go back to sleep. Only to be up again an hour later to do it all over again. It quickly became so painful that I cried every time I fed my baby. And an appointment with a lactation consultant showed that even after all that, he wasn’t getting everything he needed.
- Advice. Not that seeking help and advice is bad, because it isn’t. But as a sleep-deprived, desperate, new mom, it’s hard to weed through what everyone is telling you to do. Even when it’s from the experts who are supposed to be guiding you – and they can’t even agree with each other. Use a nipple shield. Don’t use a nipple shield. You have a low supply (at only two weeks postpartum and after only seeing us try nursing for a few minutes). It’s probably not a supply issue. He’s just a lazy eater. He’s not lazy, but he can’t get the hang of it for some reason. If he won’t nurse after a few minutes, then just pump and give him a bottle. Just keep working at it – if he gets hungry enough, he’ll calm down and nurse. Only pump for 15 minutes. Pump until you’re empty, however long that takes. I don’t know what your problem is, I can’t help you.
- More pumping. Which meant feeding Liam twice – once by bottle and once by being attached to the pump so I could have something to give him the next time. More pumping. For an hour at a time, 10-12 times a day at first. Any time he ate, I pumped, even throughout the night.
- Fragile supply. I only ever had enough to cover what Liam ate. Some days a little more, some days a little less. I only had a day’s worth of milk in the fridge at a time, thanks to a day on just formula early on while I photographed a wedding. I can’t tell you how many times I counted the ounces in the fridge. Over and over again, even though I knew exactly how much had been eaten and how much I’d pumped.
- No bonding. When Liam needed to eat, J would feed him so that I could pump. Even though that helped the double-feeding issue, that also meant that it was precious time I was supposed to be spending bonding with my new baby that I was instead spending attached to the pump. Everyone else got to hold and snuggle my sweet baby and I had to spend time attached to a piece of plastic.
- A late tongue-tie/upper lip-tie diagnosis. Liam was two months old before we finally got a referral to a pediatric dentist. The dentist noticed it right away, even though over a dozen other professionals had looked in Liam’s mouth and never saw a thing. We got his TT/ULT revised that day, but honestly, it was already too late. They say that babies can start nursing right away after a revision, but by this time, Liam wasn’t even latching anymore.
- We tried everything. Lactation consultant visits, chiropractic care, baby massages, cranial sacral therapy, finger feeders, nipple shields, SNS systems, different nursing positions. You name it, we tried it, and none of it worked.
- What went wrong? Honestly, it was a lot of things. His early delivery and our limited skin-to-skin contact. Bottles introduced his second day of life. A TT/ULT that went undiagnosed. A signifiant curve to Liam’s spine, which made it uncomfortable for him to nurse in certain positions. A strong preference for the bottle. Mixed advice from professionals. All of these things would be hard enough to overcome on their own, but together they made nursing impossible for us.
This photo was taken by my sweet friend, Amanda McKinley, during our newborn session:
For the longest time, I couldn’t even look at this photo without tearing up. It took months for me to see this photo as a mother breastfeeding her baby by bottle. Instead, I saw
Everyone that saw us said that everything looked right. His suck was strong. He was nuzzling and rooting and doing all the things a newborn should. But we still couldn’t make it work. And if he was doing everything right, then maybe it was me. This photo was a reminder of what I couldn’t do.
I fell into exclusive pumping by default. It was never something I intended to do. Liam wouldn’t nurse. So while we tried to get it to work, I just pumped. I pumped because I wanted to preserve the possibility of nursing. When Liam was four months old, I met with another lactation consultant and we discussed shifting my focus from trying to nurse to committing to pumping long term. As much as I hated to hear it, she was right. I was spending so much time feeling like I was trying to “fix” my perfectly healthy and happy baby that I wasn’t able to enjoy him. So I committed to making it until Liam was six months old. A far cry from the two years of breastfeeding I had anticipated, but I guess having kids will always mean having flexible expectations.
It’s taken me a long time to get here: I’m proud to say that I pumped exclusively for my son for over six months and that he received some breastmilk from me for nine months. His pudgy little legs, his chubby cheeks, his good health – my milk helped do that. Because of a lipase issue, I was also able to donate over 250 ounces of breastmilk to a friend’s baby – donating was something I didn’t think I was ever going to get the opportunity to do. There’s no way I could have done it without J’s help, who did more than his share of midnight feedings, bottle washing and cooking meals so that I could pump and occasionally get more than a couple hours of sleep.
Does it still make me sad? Absolutely. I think I’ll always grieve this part of Liam’s babyhood that I didn’t get to experience the way I wanted. But it’s our story, so that still makes it beautiful.
I learned so much about breastfeeding and pumping over the last several months, so I’m looking forward to sharing some of that with you over the next few days. I honestly feel like there isn’t much support or enough resources out there for exclusive pumpers, especially for those of us who didn’t get here by choice. It’s hard to figure all this stuff out while we’re learning how to be new moms to our little ones. So I hope that talking about my own experiences can help someone else. Struggling with breastfeeding can be very isolating, but trust me – you’re not alone.