Breastfeeding is a glorious communion with one’s baby — the ultimate in maternal self-actualization. Except when it’s not. For those who struggle with nursing, the experience is laden with feelings of guilt and inadequacy, not to mention physical discomforts, from cracked nipples to plugged ducts to thrush. For me, breastfeeding my first child was a hot mess of poor latch, low supply, and reluctantly supplementing with formula. I remember wishing I could go back and start all over again, hindsight being 20/20 and all. In a way, I am getting that second chance because in a month, I’m expecting my second baby and preparing to breastfeed again.
During my first pregnancy, I was firmly ensconced in the “breast is best” camp. My grandma insisted on breastfeeding her three children in the '50s, back when that just wasn’t done. My mom bemoaned the fact that the nurses gave my sister sugar water in the hospital, making her all the more determined to exclusively breastfeed her next two kids. In fact, my brother and I both went straight from breast to sippy cup. Not only was I raised to favor nursing, I did my research. I knew that breast milk provided the ideal, custom nutrition for my infant and would protect her against communicable disease, chronic conditions, and sudden infant death syndrome, and could even boost her IQ. Convenience, low cost, and calorie-burning were icing on the proverbial cake.
After I delivered my daughter, I’d arranged for immediate skin-to-skin contact to establish the breastfeeding relationship right away. Unfortunately, despite the kangaroo care, baby girl wasn’t the least bit interested. The nurse assured me that it wasn’t a problem, referring to the “size of a newborn’s stomach” chart on the back of her ID badge. I was momentarily mollified by the marble-sized circle, but my subsequent attempts were no more successful. The only sustenance my newborn received on her first day of life was the tiny bit of colostrum the nurse managed to squeeze out of my nipple onto a spoon. On day two, the lactation consultant provided me with a nipple shield, which finally allowed my little girl to latch. Still, I left the hospital feeling about as confident as Pam from The Office.
Once at home, I faithfully timed and recorded my nursing sessions, as well as my daughter’s wet and dirty diapers, and was relieved (if wildly uncomfortable) when my milk came in. Still, I didn’t feel like I had a grasp of how much she was taking in. At her two-day appointment, she’d dipped down under her birth weight. I knew this was typical of breastfed babies, but it was more than my doctor was comfortable with. As a rookie mom, my protestations against formula lasted about a minute. I was handed a vial of Enfamil (that substance I’d been assured would ruin my supply and my baby’s health) and a screw-on nipple, and my sweet girl was sucking it down in no time. I was persuaded that I’d only have to supplement for a few days to get her weight back on track.
From that point forward, my husband followed up each breastfeeding session by offering our baby a two-ounce bottle of formula. She always finished it. I nursed around the clock, tried a supplemental nursing system, took a galactagogue, and ate the breastfeeding cookies my mom made. I just didn’t seem to be producing enough milk. Pumping never resulted in anything more than an ounce of output. Still, I wasn’t ready to give up. I continued to breastfeed for the next several months, gradually phasing out formula until I was down to just one bottle a day. At her six-month check-up, though, my child was in the sixth percentile for weight. The solution? More formula. I was devastated and only lasted two more months doing the combo before I gave up nursing for good.
Breastfeeding was far from the magical experience I’d hoped for, and I vowed that next time it would be different. Three years later, and I’m staring that promise in the face. So what am I planning to do differently? First of all, I’m saying no to the nipple shield. That just created a barrier between me and my child that I had to wean her off of, and her pediatrician later assured me that I hadn’t needed it in the first place because my nipples were not inverted. I’ve deleted the nursing app off my iPad as well. I will be feeding on demand and refuse to be slave to the clock. Finally, I’m going to protect those first several weeks postpartum as a lying-in period. I can deal with being a bit of a hermit if it gets my milk production where it needs to be.
Another way I’m setting myself up for success is by managing my expectations. I suspect that one of the reasons I had such a hard time in the hospital is because I was so dead set on breastfeeding that it was difficult to take setbacks in stride. Relaxation is key to breastfeeding success, but it’s hard to think peaceful thoughts when you’re stressed about latch and letdown, foremilk and football hold. I’m going in this time with more reasonable expectations of myself. I don’t think I’ll be so quick to give this baby formula, so as to safeguard my supply. However, I know that the most important thing is that my baby is fed and that formula is a viable, healthy option (as is my friend’s frozen breast milk stash that her infant won’t touch). I’m not going to assume that breastfeeding will be challenging, but I won’t kick myself if I need to go to another option, either.
Breastfeeding is hard enough as it is without the intense pressure we put on ourselves to do it “right.” You can buy a state-of-the-art pump, read all the books, and have an amazing support system… and still have trouble. That’s a little piece of wisdom that first-time moms aren’t privy to. And so is this: any breastfeeding is better than none. Knowing what I know now, I’m going to give it the old college try with baby number two, but I refuse to torture myself. The most important factor for a healthy, happy baby is a healthy, happy mama… however they get fed.