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Our Breastfeeding Journey: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

“Are you going to breastfeed?”

That was one of the first things people asked me shortly after they realized I was pregnant. There was more information on base about breastfeeding classes and breastfeeding support groups than there was on the actual pregnancy and labor. I couldn’t wrap my head around the breastfeeding classes (how hard could it be?) or the support groups (do they all just sit around and breastfeed together?), because I figured it’d just come naturally. That’s what I heard, after all, about how natural the act of breastfeeding is. During the 42 weeks that I was pregnant, I never once heard one single positive thing about formula; it was always breast is best.

Even Italians asked me if I was going to breastfeed. They’d point to their own breasts and then say “latte?” My answer to everyone’s inevitable question above was that “yes, of course I would breastfeed”…I truly didn’t see what the big deal was.

And then my daughter was born.

She was born a perfectly healthy 9 lb, 2 oz, but by day three, when we left the hospital, she was down almost a whole pound. My milk slowly came in around four days after I gave birth, but I never really felt full and the only time I leaked was when I took a nap and was smashing my left boob. We had to go back for a weight check when she was five days old (it was a standard “two-day” check up) and found that she was down another ounce, weighing in at 8 lb, 4 ounces. This caused some concern since my milk was already in. I met with a lactation consultant, Molly, who suggested we come in two days later for another weight check. On that Friday, Julia was officially one week old and up two ounces to 8lb, 6 oz. I jumped for joy at the gain, but it wasn’t enough of a gain for them, so they asked us to go home, enjoy the weekend and come back on Monday. If she didn’t gain enough then, they said, we’d have to figure something out to get her weight up more.

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Salud! (around 3 months old here)

Before she was born everyone told me I’d be lucky if we got out of the house in the first month, but by day seven, we had only spent one full day at home. Exhausted doesn’t even come close to explain those first couple weeks. I was also stressed. Actually, I was beyond stressed: my hormones were all over the place, I was sleep deprived, my breasts were sore from nursing non-stop, I was apparently having issues feeding my daughter, and on top of that, I was having complications from labor, so I was in major pain down there almost all the time.

The lactation consultant, Molly, was an angel, and Jennifer, who was part of the New Parent Support Program was so helpful. Jennifer came to my house and watched how Julia ate in our own environment, and Molly was my advocate since I was in a new mom haze; she was actually the one who suggested that the doctor to give me more time to work on nursing. She told me to start pumping to try to increase my milk. I was feeding Julia around the clock. Our regime looked something like this: nurse (one side, then the other), pump, rest for a whole 3 minutes or so, and then repeat it all. It was tiring.

Molly, Jennifer, and the doctors weren’t sure why she wasn’t gaining enough weight, but my theory was (and still is) that I was too stressed. That, combined with not recovering well and constantly going to base (30 minutes from home) every day, were just not good combinations when you have a new baby! Everyone told me I wouldn’t leave the house those first few weeks, but it was the complete opposite.
I was past the point of exhausted and my stress/worry levels were absolutely elevated.

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A common sight: me half asleep wearing only a nursing bra. She’s asleep on me here…pure bliss.

My mom flew in that Friday (when she was just one week old) and having her there helped relieve some stress. It was nice having someone else around since my husband and I were brand new at this. I tried relaxing that weekend and actually felt a little bit rejuvenated since we didn’t have to load up the car and go anywhere for two whole days.

Monday rolled around and I felt pretty positive about her weight check. My high hopes dropped when I saw the number on the scale: 8lb, 6oz. She didn’t gain a single thing. At that point, I was too tired to cry. The nurse didn’t say anything, but left the room to consult with the doctor. She came back in and told us we’d have to start supplementing. Without even thinking about it I said, “no,” and asked for some other options. They gave us two more days to get more of a significant gain and then we’d talk about our options.

A whopping two days later, after breastfeeding around the clock, she gained a whole ounce. Despite the fact that she was gaining weight, just slowly,  they presented their options. Through tears, I heard the words “formula” and “supplement” and felt so much guilt right at that very moment that I could hardly breathe.

I was beyond devastated, and the tears I’d been holding back for the past two weeks broke free. They handed me a small travel-sized bottle of formula with two ounces in it and suggested I try giving it to her. With hot alligator-sized tears streaming down my face, I held my daughter as she gulped down food. She finished it so fast it was like she had never had food before in her tiny little life, which is exactly why I immediately felt like a failure.

I felt like I failed at providing my daughter with the one thing she needed to survive. I could smother her with all the love in the world and protect her with all my might, but I had the one thing she actually needed to survive and I couldn’t provide enough of what she needed. My body carried her and did exactly what it needed to do for almost 10 months and produced a perfect nine-pound, two-ounce baby girl, and then it failed. It failed at the one additional thing it needed to do. I was hurt and sad and frustrated and felt so much freaking guilt that all I could do was cry, look her in her huge grey eyes, and tell her how sorry I was. Watching her drink that formula hurt so much, because I could see how much she needed it.

The hot tears stained my face during that appointment. Molly, the God-send that she was, knew how much I wanted to breastfeed and knew I didn’t want to give up that easily. She suggested that instead of
giving Julia formula in a bottle, we could use a supplemental nursing system (SNS) that would help increase my supply while giving the baby what she needs. An SNS is a bottle that you wear around your neck and is attached with an itty-bitty tube. The tube is placed right up against the nipple, and when the baby sucks, she gets milk along with a little formula at the same time. My baby was getting her first mixed drink at just two weeks old!

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Formula drunk 🙂

After I saw her respond to the formula, I was game to try this approach. The doctor and lactation consultant sent me home with a bag full of goodies, and I got to work feeding her. Using an SNS is extremely tricky (and that’s putting it nicely), and there were more than a few times I wanted to throw it against the wall (or at someone), or ditch it all together, but it worked. I liked knowing that she was at least getting two ounces (or however much I put in the bottle) at each feeding, along with whatever my body produced.

Little Julia’s a smart cookie, though, and after a few weeks of using the SNS, she started to catch on and would pull the tube out—she didn’t want anything getting in the way of her and her boob. We struggled back and forth to get her to take it, but it got to the point where I stopped using it and would just feed her formula from a bottle after she nursed at the breast.

During those weeks my nursing regime went from crazy to ridiculous: Every three hours (starting from when she first started eating) I would nurse on one side, burp her, set up the SNS, nurse her with the SNS, burp her, give up on the SNS, feed her the rest with a bottle, then I’d pump (and the pump I had was broken so I had to pump each side individually). Cue more exhaustion. I longed to just hold my baby and felt myself being envious of my husband and mom, since they got to hang out with her when she wasn’t literally attached to me.

My husband tried feeding her the bottle, but no matter how many times we tried that route, she just refused it from him when he tried. By the time I finished, it was time to start all over again. Luckily after a few weeks, she started taking less and less from the bottle. It was a huge victory in my book, and the best part is that she actually started gaining more weight, which made the doctor happy.

The lactation consultant suggested told me to stop pumping around this time. Despite the constant pumping, I wasn’t producing more than an ounce or two a day (total) from pumping, so she suggested I stop so I could relax a little more. (Whenever I’d get an ounce I’d feed it to her instead of the formula so she could have more breast milk). We determined that Julia had a poor suck, so she wasn’t getting as much milk as I had, and I also had a low supply, triggered by hypoplasia. The combination of the two wasn’t helpful. Around this time I also started taking a small dose of Domperidone—a medicine sold in Europe with a side effect that helps increase breast milk—and Goat’s Rue to help rebuild breast tissue.

After I started the Domperidone and Goat’s Rue I saw a dramatic increase in my milk supply. I felt somewhat engorged and I also started pumping more during each session (around 2-3 ounces). After awhile, I started feeding Julia less and less formula since I could supplement with more milk. At each weight check (it was weekly or every other week at this point), she kept gaining enough weight to satisfy everyone. Slowly but surely, she also started getting fat. She’s reached every milestone for her age group (even during those early days) and she has always been one of the most alert babies I’ve ever been around.

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Exclusively breastfeeding. She hates being covered up and we don’t use a cover anymore, but that was one of my first times breastfeeding her in public. I was so excited that I asked a friend to take a picture.

Finally, around three and a half months, I started to exclusively breastfeed Julia. I was pumping enough to stop supplementing with formula, and would give her breast milk in a bottle instead. She would still only take a bottle from me, but that was a small price to pay after such a long battle.

While I was pregnant, people asked me if I planned on breastfeeding. It was a no-brainer in my book…of course I would breast feed her. At Aviano Air Base (not sure if it’s like this elsewhere), they shoved breastfeeding down your throat whenever they had a chance, and in all honesty, it was pretty annoying. I knew I’d do it, and even though I heard it could be hard, I didn’t think it could be that hard; I mean, women have been doing this since the beginning of time, so I didn’t appreciate them always harping on me to breast feed.

But now I get it, because it is hard—so much harder than I ever expected, and if I didn’t have people supporting me (my husband, my mom, Molly, Jennifer, etc.) I never, ever would’ve made it. I never actually made it to one of their support group meetings. I wasn’t sure what to expect and I wasn’t secure enough in my own low supply, breastfeeding/formula regime to attend. I also didn’t have the time to just go hang out at a meeting. I treasured any downtime I had.

I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to throw in the towel. I was beaten down and literally shed blood, sweat, and tears, working at it. As dramatic as this sounds, I truly didn’t think I could go on, but I’m glad I pushed through it. Breastfeeding is now one of my absolute favorite things to do in the entire world, but it also taught me that formula isn’t evil. I wish I learned that earlier on. Breast milk may be “the best,” but it’s by no means the only thing you can give your baby. Formula is out there for a reason and I’m so thankful for it. I hate that there’s so much pressure to only breastfeed your baby and that women feel guilty for giving their child formula. You should never feel guilty for feeding your child!

These days I actually give Julia a mixture of both breast milk (from the breast) and if I don’t have any stored milk available, I give her formula. During our move I could feel my supply dipping again and I knew she was wasn’t satisfied on just what I could provide, so one day I opened one of the small, travel-sized bottles of formula I’d been keeping in my bag “just in case,” and let her have it. At first she was confused and rejected it since it didn’t taste like her regular milk, but then she drank it. Instead of tears and guilt and frustration and the enormous feelings of failure, I felt calm and relieved. I was feeding my baby and that was the only thing that mattered.

We finally had Julia’s sixth-month well baby check-up last week (when she turned 7 months old), and I was beyond nervous for her weight check and to see what the doctor said. After going every two weeks for weight checks, this was the longest stretch—three months—without one. Still on the small side, she weighed in at 14 pounds, 9 ounces, and almost 28 inches long, and you know what? The doctor said that was perfectly fine; he said he took one look at her and didn’t have a concern at all; she’s reaching her milestones (and some ahead for her age), she has fat on her, and he finally took genetics into consideration (my husband is tall and skinny, as is his family). What a huge relief. She eats every three(ish) hours and is starting to sleep through the night more. I know when she’s hungry and can tell when she’s had her fill.

It’s taken seven months, but I’m finally feeling comfortable with everything. She still has a hard time taking a bottle from someone else, and I have no idea how long our breastfeeding relationship will last since she’s showing zero signs of weaning, but I’m thankful we’ve made it this far.

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13 Comments

  1. My daughter is three months old and is my second child. It is amazing how different my breastfeeding experiences have been between my daughter and my son. I struggled with my son and supplemented, eventually stopping breastfeeding at 8 months. With my daughter, I am exclusively breastfeeding. It is amazing how much better of a nurser she is than her brother was at her age.

    Because I have had one incredibly difficult breastfeeding experience and because I am in the middle of a very easy breastfeeding experience, I believe that a successful breastfeeding journey really comes down to the environment and the individual child. The mother can do everything in her power, but at the end of the day, some children are just better at it.

    Like you, I felt guilt with giving my son formula and would cry as he was taking a bottle…not a very comforting sight for him, I'm sure. I was always so envious of women who were confident in their decision to bottle feed and could careless what others say/think. There were times I felt like I was feeding my son in shame. And you know what? That is absolutely ridiculous.

    I am a huge supporter of breastfeeding. I will be a new mom's biggest cheerleader and provide whatever support I can. But I am an even bigger cheerleader for the mental health of new moms. And if breastfeeding becomes a source of anxiety and stress to the point where the relationship between baby and mom is threatened, I will gladly support a women's right to choose formula.

    Thank you for sharing your breastfeeding journey. Your daughter is absolutely beautiful. 🙂

    Karen

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this! I'm obviously not a mom, but I will be one day, and it's bizarrely encouraging to know that it will be okay if I can't breastfeed or I have to supplement. Feeding your child is ABSOLUTELY the most important thing, period. Your strength and determination to what you thought was best as a mother is to be admired.

  3. Your story and mine are so so similar. I had a similar experience with formula in the doctor's office…and I cried too. We all do what we can, but in the end, it's more important our babies are fed, no matter what direction we go with it. I wonder if I had hypoplasia too? It would definitely make sense since I have a thyroid condition.

  4. Wow! Good for you for sticking with it! I would have thrown in the towel, in fact I did at 5 in a half months. We just couldn't get our little lady to gain enough weight and even at her two year check up the doctor was concerned. Thankfully we have a great pediatrician who looks at the whole picture including genetics.

    Baby #2 has been much much easier from day one, even though he had more troubled at the beginning, eating hasn't been one of them. So don't let this keep you from having more because the next one might be totally different!

  5. I'm so glad you decided to share your story. 🙂 I'm definitely a "breast is best" mom/person, but I don't necessarily think formula is the root of all evil either. I think my formula aversion came from doctors shoving it down my throat, though. At the very first sign of slow weight gain, I was told to supplement. Not to speak to a LC, pump more, or anything. Just supplement. It frustrates me to this day. If you NEED to supplement, that's one thing. But I'd much rather try everything – like you did – to protect breastfeeding than immediately supplement.

    I can't imagine how difficult those first days/months were for you. Breastfeeding is difficult enough in the beginning without wondering if you're producing enough! That is definitely one thing I'm thankful for. I leaked like crazy those first few months, so I never doubted my supply. Heck, I even pumped a bit before I nursed for a few weeks!

    You get serious kudos/mom points from me for sticking with it. Hopefully you'll be nursing her for a while – or as long as you want – now that it's going well. I know that totally makes all the struggle worth it. 🙂

  6. Proud of you, Jess. I read every day how hard breastfeeding it and I love that you overcame and allowed yourself some flexibility – and didn't feel guilty about it! Go you!

  7. Oh breastfeeding, why must you be so difficult?! When I was pregnant they'd ask if I planned to breastfeed and my response was always sure, if it works for us. Luckily Everly is a greedy little baby and loves being latched to the boob. We struggled at first but nothing like what you've gone through. I'm so glad you've been able to work it out! There's nothing worse than feeling like you're failing your child.

  8. Thank you SO much for sharing this! I was asked all.the.time. before I had my baby as to if I was going to breastfeed or not. And I knew if you said anything else but "yes" there was going to be some sort of judgment placed. I absolutely wanted to breastfeed.. and did my best to do so… but it is SO much harder than it seems it should be– or than what people say. I didn't have enough of a milk supply, my daughter was losing weight, I was stressed out to the max. I didn't get to the phase where I hear mothers talk about–that they absolutely love breastfeeding. I will try my best again with the next baby… but honestly the stress wasn't worth it the first time around. Hopefully, with more knowledge this next time it will be a little easier. Thank you for sharing your story.

    Ready my posts at Jill @ youmeandcapri.com

  9. Your rock! I had a hard hard time with my first and gave up after 5 months or so. You aren't kidding breastfeeding is not easy and you feel like it's all you do all day everyday. Right now things are going a lot better with baby number 2 she is only 2 weeks old but she is gaining and i don't feel like its a hard this time around although i have had my moments of feeling like omg this is all i do is have this baby eating me all day long. I felt the same way the other day when my hubby begged me to let him give her formula. I was so tired , headache from no sleep, my breast were extremely sore i couldn't pump. he finally convinced me to let us supplement with formula every once in a while. I cried and cried feeling so guilty. I went to bed and woke up refreshed and thankful for that formula. it gave me enough of a break that I could refocus on continuing this breast feeding regime. Thanks for sharing your story jess!

  10. Thank you for sharing this! I went to a breastfeeding class on base and it really made me feel better about starting our breastfeeding journey whenever this little boy decides to arrive BUT it's nice to hear stories from people like you because I know that it isn't always as easy as the lactation consultants make it seem. I feel like I'll have good support if I do need help with breastfeeding (at least that class made it seem like support would be given) so we'll see. I'm truly hoping it works out for us and I plan to try my hardest and do all that I can but it won't be the end of the world if we have a rough time and it doesn't work out.

  11. I've written about my struggles before with breastfeeding. Mainly in regards to my overbearing mother in law pushing BF on me. I had little support with a husband deployed and nicu baby just home from the hospital. Stress is something I think that few people look at. The more I pushed my son to BF the less he wanted to. Between him flipping out about it, pumping around the clock, and my MIL throwing her two cents into the mix I gave up on it willingly. My son was happy and healthy getting the bottled breast milk so it seemed silly to keep stressing out over it. About a month ago at 2months old my son started to BF with little to no push from me. He isn't BF full time but at night he does 2-3 feedings that way. I give him bottles of both pumped milk and formula thought out the day. I figure as long as the baby is healthy then there shouldn't be an issue regardless how the any baby is fed.

  12. Thank you for sharing your story! I think it's so important to hear honest stories like this. I don't have a child of my own yet, but am hoping to in the not so distant future. So in the meantime, I'm soaking up as much information about mommyhood as I can. You should really consider submitting your story to this blog that has a weekly post from a guest blogger about their breast-feeding experience.
    http://www.girlintheredshoes.com/p/the-breastfeeding-diaries.html

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