Friday, January 11, 2013

A Woman Who Couldn't Breastfeed

Today is Milk Day.  Apparently, on January 11th, 1878 milk was delivered in glass bottles for the very first time.  In honor of such an auspicious occasion a baby food company that I've "liked" on facebook posted one of those obnoxious ecards.  This one featured a mother gently cradling her smiling baby while the tagline read "My mommy makes milk.  What's your super power?"  I cringed.

First, let me say I do agree that breast is best.  Breast milk is free.  It's portable.  It helps build the baby's immune system.  And, although breastfeeding in itself isn't easy for many mamas it is an easy (faster) way to calm a crying baby.

I've always known I wanted to breastfeed.  There was never any question.  That was just what I planned to do.  Before the baby came we didn't even buy any formula.  Why would we?  I was a woman and so of course I could make milk.  I was an idiot who scoffed at women who chose not to breastfeed and, although I knew some women couldn't breastfeed, I figured it was so rare that it bordered on mythology.

Then I had Squishy.  Although I had a dream pregnancy for the most part my labor was anything but.  I started leaking amniotic fluid almost four weeks before my due date.  I'd been leaking long enough that my risk of infection was high and they wanted to induce.  Induction didn't work so after 30 hours of labor and only half an hour of sleep in 40 hours, I was wheeled in for a c-section.  Not the natural childbirth I'd been hoping for.

But then I had my baby and I figured it would all be okay. 

I nursed her every two hours that first night.  The nurses complemented me on how great she latched and talked about how good it looked.  By the next day the nurses started growing concerned about her weight.  They started talking about formula if she lost such and such amount.  Despite the fact that the lactation nurses who felt me up said my breasts looked great and my milk would come in soon we had to give her formula that night.

I made hubby go with her and had them to do it in the nursery where I didn't have to see.  I sobbed in my hospital bed.  I felt like I was failing.  It wasn't supposed to be like this. 

We spent the next day like zombies hardly sleeping.  I would try to breastfeed while hubby made a bottle and fed Squishy when I was done.  They brought in a pump so while he fed her a bottle I tried to pump what I could. 

I saw lactation consultant after lactation consultant.  All said it was a minor setback.  That after I'd left I'd meet with the head consultant.  They told me I was doing a good job.  But, in the back of my mind I was starting to have my doubts.

By the time I left the hospital my nipples were raw and incredibly painful.  I was pumping and bottle feeding only because when she'd nurse I would bleed. 

The first few days home I pumped every two to two and a half hours while hubby fed Squishy.  I was exhausted and more than a little loopy.  The phrase "emotional trainwreck" would probably be a little too kind.  I was good at keeping it in but inside I was a mess.

I watched as my colostrum changed into milk and noted that I wasn't producing anymore.  I never felt my milk come in.  I kept meticulous records of how much I pumped and it was never much.  Even when I did a power hour pump I was lucky if I got an ounce.

A few days after I was discharged we went back to the hospital to meet with the main lactation consultant.  She felt my breasts.  She checked Squishy's latch.  Then she weighed the baby and had me nurse her and weighed her again.  After nursing from both sides Squishy had gotten about half an ounce.  Half of what she was getting in her bottle at that time. 

The lactation consultant had me start using a nipple shield and had me start nursing again.  For the next few days I would nurse, then pump while hubby fed.  On my very, very best day 30% of her nutrition came from me.  70% from formula.  I wasn't producing and I was a trainwreck.

A week later we went back to see the lactation consultant.  Turns out her plan for us had been a bit of an experiment.  What she had me doing was a plan to increase production. It didn't work in the least.  In fact, towards the end I was dropping lower.  Not even staying the same. 

Then she told me what I'd begun to fear in the hospital.  I can't breastfeed.  Sure, I can pump a tiny bit, but only if I pump for 15 minutes every 2 hours (with a few power hour session in there). 

A normal breast has most of the milk producing tissue on the top of the breast.  For me I have next to none.  What I do have is mainly on the underside of my breast.  Which is not really a good thing when the best milk comes from up near the shoulders.  I've got nothing up there.

I don't know why I'm like this.  I never will know.  It's just one of those things.  And honestly, it breaks my heart. 

To have your body be unable to do one of its basic functions is quite possibly one of the biggest slaps in the face.

After, that meeting I decided to be done.  I could tell I wasn't bonding properly with Squishy because I was spending so much time pumping and measuring and being technical.  Risking depression wasn't worth trying to save my already dwindling supply.

I nursed Squishy one last time as I cried.  I even had hubby take a picture so that I could prove to her someday that at least I tried for her. 

I put a facebook status up announcing my predicament and announcing that I was no longer breastfeeding.  I did it with the hope that people wouldn't ask me why I wasn't breastfeeding.  Unfortunately, that didn't happen.  I was flooded with comments from mamas saying they know how hard breastfeeding is.  That they'd be happy to offer me pointers.  That they'd love to help.  I had countless family members try to compare their breastfeeding struggles to my non functioning breastfeeding.  I don't blame those people at all they were just trying to comfort me; but, in some ways those comments stung even more than my actual inability.

I realized just how alone I was.  There are so few women like me.  I didn't get to struggle and ultimately succeed.  I didn't get to nurse for a few months and then stop when sharp, biting teeth came in.  I was completely different and I had NO ONE to relate to.  I was alone.  And I felt that. 

Seven and a half months later and I'm a lot better.  I don't have to field those questions anymore.  I've learned to laugh and smile when people say Squishy must be breastfed because her cheeks are so plump. 

I had to mourn.  It was a major loss for me.  And like any loss it has gotten better with time.  But I do still have rough days.  I will still get a reminder, like that ecard this morning, that hits me in the heart hard. 

In October I told my story to a bunch of college students studying Child Development and I managed not to cry.  It was a proud day.  Then there are days like today, as I write this, when I have some tears.

Being a parent is hard.  Breastfeeding is hard.  Formula feeding by choice is hard.  Formula feeding by necessity is hard.  I really wish women would stop judging each other based on whether or not they can lactate.  If people wouldn't have judged, I don't think this would have been so hard on me.  It would have hurt; but, I don't think I would have felt the shame. 

I think it's important for women like me, and all women, to feel comfortable sharing their stories so that other people in the same position can know they aren't alone.

Breast might be best nutrient-wise but I think as a society we need to think more along the lines of "Feeding your baby is best".  All moms are super heroes, not just the ones who lactate.  We need to stop shaming each other so that we can feel better about ourselves.

I have a beautiful, curious, funny, loud, big baby girl and she may have only gotten colostrum and a bit of milk but she is perfect.  As will any other children I have who will probably only get the little bit she did.  As are the children who are formula fed by choice.  As are the babies who are breastfed. 

Moms, stop beating each other up.  Moms, stop beating yourselves up. 


  1. Thank you so much for posting this. It's so important that we stop comparing pregnancies, births, and motherhoods because they are each so very unique and personal. I sometimes feel ashamed when I tell my birth story, which included two unsuccessful inductions and ended in c-section. It was far from the natural, unmedicated childbirth I had hoped for. Why didn't my body work? What would happen if I ever tried to get pregnant again?
    But when I look at my beautiful, happy, healthy girl, I am just so thankful to have her and be able to take care of her. The most important thing is that we love our babies and do the best we can for them.

  2. Thanks for your experience. I can't begin to imagine what that must have been like, but it's a nice reminder that something not going according to plan doesn't equal failure.

    Unfortunately, it seems like women just can't win the breastfeeding war. Formula-feeding? Shame! Breastfeeding in public? How obscene!

    Perhaps society needs a wider, less black-and-white perspective on the issue. Have you heard of the website It has a section called "It Happened to Me" that features stories of real women. Breast-feeding comes up every once in awhile, but, as far as I can tell, there hasn't been a feature on being unable to breast feed. Check it out; perhaps you can submit your story.

  3. I'm so glad to see this, although my heart breaks and tears well up. I didn't try as long as you because I had latch problems, too, but I had a similar problem. My milk never came in. They didn't formula feed her in the hospital, letting me struggle to try, but I gave her formula when I got home. I hadn't bought her formula either, but I had a sample that they gave out at the hospital, plus a sample I got in the mail. I felt ashamed, but also relieved, and thankfully my mom and boyfriend were EXTREMELY supportive.

    You did better than me and tried harder. I didn't have lactation consultants that helped at all. They scolded me when I had trouble getting the hold right (and I had two of them because my stay was over the course of a weekend) and would manipulate the breast and then say, "Like that," even though I never got it right and it still hurt. Maybe with better support I would have gotten it, but then my milk wouldn't come in either. I'd pump and pump and didn't even get enough to cover the bottom of the bottles.

    I'm so proud of you for trying as hard as you did. I gave up and eventually came to terms with it. Our new pediatrician said at her last visit that we are "pros" and she's one of the healthiest babies she's ever seen, so I feel good, but I understand how hard it is.

    Keep sharing your story. I hope it gets even easier over time. Know that when you step back and look at it, you made the best choice for you and your little one. :)