I made little plans for my little one while pregnant. I know, crazy, right? But I knew that every birth and every child would be different, and I had the basics down. The only plan I made was that I wanted to breastfeed. I have reviewed the evidence (and even the raw data – my graduate research project was on health outcomes of breastfed vs formula fed babies) and can tell you with complete certainty that whatever choice you make, your child will be healthy. Fed is best. Like with any two choices of any type, there are benefits and drawbacks to each. I wanted to breastfeed. I was a little weirded out by the idea of being basically milked and heard it can feel weird or painful. But, still, I had my plan.
When my daughter was born, I expected we would have to try a few times to figure it out. I had a visit from a lactation consultant, and followed her recommendations. However, my little one was not latching properly. And it was a slight latching issue, so I didn’t really recognize it. She screamed and frenzy fed and it was hard. It was also painful, and my nipples were bruised and even bled. Friends told me this was normal, and that breastfeeding just hurts at first.
When my milk came in, my breasts were red and hot and hard. I thought I was engorged or possibly had a blocked duct. It was painful and nothing seemed to relieve it. At one feeding, my daughter nursed for probably an hour. My breasts went down and I finally had some relief. Only they didn’t refill as much.
By the time we went in for our first pediatrician visit, she had lost a lot of weight. As the doctor talked about our feeding options, the baby bubble burst. You know, the bubble you get in when you first get that sweet, perfect newborn. All you can see is that perfection and you know you have the most beautiful baby ever born. And that new baby smell gets you. My baby bubble burst sitting in that office and suddenly I saw what I should have seen all along. Dry, cracked lips and dark circles under the eyes of my sweet baby. Her baby hands had brittle, easily broken nails. My baby was not getting nourished. And then the tears came. The doctor recommended supplementing with formula until we could get her weight up. She also recommended visits with the lactation consultant. She told me I was still a good mom and I could still achieve my goal of breastfeeding. All I could think was, “Fed is best. And my baby is starving.”
The lactation consultant was very helpful. Once we got her latched right and her belly full, nursing became a lot easier. Suddenly, that thing that was weird and painful at times became beautiful. I finally understood the enjoyment of nursing. However, this was not the end of our road. While nursing was easier, my supply was still lower than it needed to be. The lactation consultant recommended nursing for 10 minutes on each side, then supplementing with a bottle of breastmilk or formula, followed by 20 minutes of pumping. The goal was to build up supply and return to exclusively breastfeeding. This may not sound like much, but the whole process took about an hour. When your baby eats every three hours (even through the night), this takes up your entire day and night. I wasn’t eating or sleeping well. There was concern that my milk was affected by not taking care of myself.
I decided to let go of the idea that she would be exclusively breastfed. My husband agreed to take the first nighttime feeding and give her a bottle. This ensured I could get 5 or 6 hours of sleep instead of the 1-2 hours at a time of was getting. Sleep helped so much. I felt like my body was able to make more milk. I decreased the pumping time. I nursed her first, then supplemented with her “guaranteed calories” and only pumped when I felt like I needed it. Even at my peak of pumping, I was only getting around an ounce or a little more.
I wish I could tell you that was the end of our milky road. However, I got a nasty stomach bug when she was around 5 weeks old. It was terrible. The worst part was limiting my contact with the baby since I was contagious. I was too weak to pump. My supply dropped again. On top of that, she stopped latching well. She would nurse a little, break off, and cry. The bottle was a lot easier for her. Cue more tears.
I was also very hesitant to talk about it. I admit it, I did not want the judgement. I knew most people would not say mean things to my face. It would come in the form of well-intended, unsought after advice. Advice laced with a passive-aggressive agenda.
It seems I have spent her entire lift continually contemplating the breast vs formula decision. At the end of the day, the driving force for wanting to breastfeed was a little selfish. Nursing was our bonding time. In the first few weeks, there was a steady stream of family and friends who wanted to hold her. There were days when I only held her when I was feeding her. It was a great excuse to politely snatch her away and go snuggle somewhere quiet. Even after the visitors calmed down, it was still our time. Sometimes she would wrap her little arms around me and look up at me and straight into my heart. Sometimes she would wiggle her nose when she was eating hungrily, and it was more adorable than a thousand baby kittens. I can’t explain in words the feeling that nursing my baby creates. The scientist in me wants to cite hormone production, but whatever. It is a precious moment that you have to experience to fully understand. How could I give that up?
I started very early teaching her the word “mama.” Every time I said “mama,” I would show her the sign also (you touch your thumb to your chin with an open hand). One day when she was about 6 weeks old, she looked up at me with her big, beautiful eyes and very intentionally stretched out her little hand and touched my chin. Mama. My heart melted. It was adorable and precious, but it also reminded me that we still share a bond that is not food-based.
I also recognized that I didn’t give my friends the credit they deserve. I was so worried about being judged, I didn’t give them the chance to rise the occasion. It turns out, all moms struggle. All moms struggle because all moms are human and humans struggle. My friends understood. Some of them were also struggling with their feedings. Others had their own rocky road to travel. Instead of the judge-y comments, I got sympathetic looks and reassuring smiles.
The feeding debate continues in my head every day. Like most moms, I constantly wonder if I’m making the right decisions at the right time. Some days she practically crawls down my shirt. Other days, she acts offended that I offered her breast milk. Ultimately, I know my baby is cared for and loved. And that’s really what matters.