My Breastfeeding Rollercoaster
Not every mother wants to breastfeed, and not every mother is capable of breastfeeding. Then there are breastfeeding mothers who under produce, and there are breastfeeding mothers who over produce. Lip ties, tongue ties, bad latches, mastitis, clogs, thrush, babies who won’t take bottles and don’t give their moms any freedom, and pumping for some freedom for those babies who will take a bottle. These are just a few of the common complications breastfeeding mothers deal with even if production isn’t an issue. As "natural" as we're told breastfeeding is, sometimes it feels anything but natural. It isn't always easy, and it can definitely cause a lot of stress. While the message comes from a good place and is intended to promote the benefits of breastfeeding (and the benefits ARE real), “breast is best” can make a mother feel pretty inadequate and distraught if breastfeeding goes awry. I’ve already touched on postpartum depression and baby blues in this post and this post, and, obviously, these breastfeeding expectations can potentially exacerbate an already hormonally-imbalanced and overwhelmed mother.
I knew from the beginning that I wanted to breastfeed if I could, and I hoped it would come easily for me and my baby. It didn't. She latched pretty well immediately, but she was crabby about having to work hard to get anything. As difficult as it was to have to stay in the hospital a couple extra days, I was grateful for the extra days' worth of help I received from the NICU nurses and the lactation consultants. In addition to showing me how to best position my baby and what to do for her, they helped me calm down when she would cry instead of latch and remember that this is a process my baby and I are both trying to figure out together. I don't feel like the lactation consultants left me with a ton of information, and I went home really having no idea what I was doing, but I was grateful for the supportive words they provided. We started to get the hang of it, and then my milk came in. By the way, when your milk comes in and your boobs turn into balloons, it can make it more difficult for baby to latch. That definitely happened to me. Nevertheless, she figured out how to latch (after a short time using a nipple shield) and, from that point, I worried constantly about whether I was producing enough. Is she still hungry? Is my milk fatty enough? Am I eating and drinking enough to keep my supply up? Should I pump? Should I take supplements to try to increase supply? So many questions ran through my head. I'm an over-thinker as it is, and I was no different in this situation.
I decided to start pumping pretty immediately because I knew I'd need to build a stash for when I went back to work. I took almost four months off, but I knew it couldn’t hurt to build up as much as I could because I really had no idea how much she’d be eating in the future. Needless to say, the combination of pumping and nursing a newborn constantly left me in a lot of pain and I dreaded doing either one. But I was determined to continue, even though there were times I literally had to hold on to something before she nursed or I pumped, just because it was so painful. After a few weeks, things improved and it became less painful. Because I was convinced that I was not producing enough milk (many women feel this way because they forget that pumps are less efficient than babies, so output during a pump is not an accurate reflection of what a baby is getting when he or she nurses), I decided to do whatever I could to increase supply. I ate oatmeal and brewer's yeast. my mom made me vegan lactation cookies, I drank tons of coconut water, and I took fenugreek and blessed thistle supplements, along with Mother's Milk Tea. I even drank a lot of blue Gatorage (that's supposed to be a thing, too, I guess) and Body Armor drinks (those are also hydration drinks). I basically combed the internet for all the tips and tricks and did whatever I felt was within reason, even though, looking back, it was overkill.
I really have no idea if any of it really worked, but I HAD to keep going for (what I thought was) my sanity. I still wasn't sure if my baby was satisfied, so we decided to start giving her a bottle of expressed breast milk before bed, rather than letting her nurse. We figured it would be better for us to know how many ounces she was getting at night and not just wing it. I do actually believe that she started sleeping longer stretches at night because of it.
While I'm glad I nursed for a few months, I also hated it because I felt so tied to my couch and my baby. There is also no way to explain properly just how painful breastfeeding can be. My nipples were so sore and cracked early on that I winced every single time I nursed or pumped. It was fun to see blood mixed in with the milk when I pumped (that's safe to feed to baby, by the way). Because she nursed (and I pumped) so frequently, it was nearly impossible to give them time to heal. After a while, however, the pain did go away and my nipples finally healed. Still, I felt so much freedom when we switched to giving her bottles of breast milk (and some formula, eventually) because someone else could feed her, finally! She had her first bottle at I think a week old, to introduce her to it and because sometimes she just didn't seem satisfied after nursing. We would give her a bottle of just-expressed milk and that helped. They say to introduce a bottle within the first four weeks so they don't get so accustomed to the boob they won’t want anything else. On the other hand, they also say to wait to introduce bottles and pacifiers until they have a good latch, so they don't get confused. She latched pretty early so none of us was concerned about nipple confusion. Plus the NICU nurses would have killed me and her if we said no to giving her a pacifier. Of course, there are always exceptions in either direction. We switched her to bottles exclusively, with the exception of any middle-of-the-night nursing sessions, when I went back to work when she was almost 4 months old. She took to it right away and had no issues letting someone else feed her. I know we were super lucky with this because I know people who have babies who never took a bottle, no matter how many types of bottles they bought and no matter how hard they tried all the tricks in the book.
A final point about breastfeeding: yes, it is vegan. It is technically an animal product, but veganism is about animal exploitation and the consumption of animal products not meant for us. And I was not being exploited; I fed my baby voluntarily, and my milk was designed for her.
As for bottle feeding: breastfeeding has its pros and cons, but so does bottle feeding. I've mentioned that it's convenient because someone else can feed her and we know how much she's getting. But it is really annoying to have to warm them up and to take them apart and wash every little piece (we use Dr. Brown's bottles and they're great but they have what feels like so many parts!).
For the longest time, I was hell-bent on not giving my baby formula, which is why I was so desperate to increase my supply. There is nothing wrong with formula, but I wanted to avoid it at all costs. I'm still not 100% sure why. Maybe there was that “breast is best” slogan that was subconsciously drilled into my head and nothing else was acceptable. At the same time, I hated pumping and I knew I'd eventually have to give her formula. Making it to a year of breastfeeding exclusively seemed an eternity away and I just knew it wasn’t going to happen for me. When she was a little over four months old, I decided to give her an ounce of formula (we use this) just to see if she liked it. I didn't want to wait too long, when her tastes would have set in, to find out if she would even take it. She liked it and she didn't have any ill effects from it! After about a week or so, I decided to start mixing mostly breast milk with some formula so I could make my milk go farther. Doing that afforded me the ability to start weaning off a pumping session or two, which I wanted to do before I got back to being busy at work. Some women don't mind it, but I absolutely DETESTED pumping at work. I hated having to schlep all my gear, and I hated the whole experience of actually doing it away from home. How fun is it to wash your pump parts in the break room sink? Also, my job requires some pretty late hours during certain parts of the year and I just didn’t see a way to make pumping work for us. As of this writing, she is primarily on formula and partially on breast milk (I'm currently weaning my last two pumping sessions) and some solids, And that's that. I will say that life got a little sunnier once I decided to give her formula. This is another one of those “do what’s right for you and your family” situations. I’m happier with things this way, and that’s more important than putting undue stress on myself when there’s a perfectly fine alternative. I don't care what anyone says; I am of the opinion that "fed is best."