There are so many dualities and truths that come with being a human. Marriage = the greatest and most fulfilling relationship; the hardest work you'll ever do. Eating kale = honestly just really not that great unless there's cheese on it; good for your health (allegedly).
Breastfeeding is one of those things. It is so precious, so unlike anything else, and can also be extremely painful (oh, those first few weeks where you have to breathe deep and count to ten in order to make it through the initial searing pain of nursing) and mentally taxing.
One thing that doesn't get discussed in the zeitgeist is how challenging it can be for a new mother to navigate breastfeeding. Rather than try to write something that's universally representative of the experience of breastfeeding moms (AKA do the impossible), I thought I'd share my own experience and hope that by doing so, I bring a little more honesty and vulnerability to a something that is all at once very commonplace and deeply personal.
When I was pregnant with Mac, I worked really hard to keep my spheres of influence to a minimum. I knew that if I allowed myself to read every message board, Facebook group, and book, or to take advice from every well-meaning stranger, I'd lose my mind and end up in the loony bin. I decided on Moms On Call as my sleep training system and from that point forward, I exclusively heeded the book's advice and that of my doctor. I sat up a little straighter each time a nurse asked me, "Do you plan to breastfeed?" during my prenatal visits to my OBGYN, or when I was in the delivery room. I knew the answer was, "Yes!", and I felt like I got a gold star from any medical professional who asked.
When Mac was born, we spent the first 4 months of his life in a very easy rhythm when it came to breastfeeding. He was feeding well and gaining weight like a champion - having been born at 8 lbs 7 oz, he was eating like a trucker and packing on weight, charting in the high 80th percentile right from the start. We had no latch trouble, my supply was plentiful, and I'd read enough to know to take care of my own body (addressing clogged ducts quickly and thoroughly to avoid mastitis; hydrating; moisturizing, etc.). Breastfeeding was tiring and depleting, but it was so sweet and tender that I didn't mind a bit. It was (and still is) such a special, still, holy time with my new son.
At about 4 months, I was feeding Mac 5x a day. Through 2-3 days of letting him cry it out, we'd gotten him sleeping through the night, and I was pumping every night around 9:30 to keep my supply nice and strong, then freezing the yield. Before Mac was sleeping through the night, I'd been sleeping in our guest room upstairs during the week so that Jordan (who wakes up at 5:30 and gets home at 5:30) could get quality sleep while I was doing middle-of-the-night feedings/letting Mac cry it out. Now, I had finally moved back into my bedroom. I felt like I'd conquered being a new mom and was soaring with confidence that I could do this, after all.
Somewhere around 17 weeks, Mac became more ravenous than usual. As babies age, they drop feedings, going from more feedings of fewer ounces to fewer feedings of more ounces. Around that time, I'd dropped a feeding, going from 5 a day to 4. At that point, he only got a bottle at bedtime, using defrosted frozen breastmilk. He started taking more and more in a bottle, so we thought, "Why not see if he'd like a bottle during his daytime feedings, too?" Turned out, the answer was yes. He started taking a supplemental bottle at each of his 4 feedings, eating about 6 extra ounces/feed.
When we took him in for his four month doctor's appointment, they checked his weight and reported that he'd only gained a pound in the last month, which was unusual for the trajectory he was on. Our doctor expressed a desire that he be breastfed more often and suggested a consultation with the lactation consultant (henceforth referred to as LC) on staff. His theory was that I wasn't producing as much as I thought I was, and that was the reason Mac was so hungry for a bottle.
I was so upset. I couldn't believe that Mac's growth wasn't off the charts given how much he had been eating. When I went in to see our LC, she had me do a feeding in the room. She weighed Mac, I fed him, then she weighed him again. Sure enough, she found that I was only producing about 2 ounces a feed, which was drastically under what he should've been getting (somewhere between 6-8 ounces). It explained why he was so desperate for a supplemental bottle at each feeding. That news completely devastated me. I felt like a failure - like I had been inadvertently starving my child. My normally steady confidence in my choices spiraled into questions of panic and concern: Have I stunted his growth? Is he going to catch back up? Did dropping a feeding ruin everything?
I still am unsure as to what caused the drop in my supply, because I know plenty of women who've followed the exact feeding schedule that I did and had no trouble. I even went so far as to have my thyroid checked because I was concerned something was truly wrong. In the end, I didn't get a concrete answer (very frustrating for me as a "by the book" person when it came to feeding/sleep training my child), but the fact was clear: when I dropped a feeding, my supply had tanked and my body was responding as though I was weaning my baby.
I'd been shedding weight like a maniac up to that point, having lost something like 40 pounds in four months. When my supply tanked, that changed. I plateaued - even started gaining weight - and all my pretty, shiny, L'Oreal commercial pregnancy hair started to fall out. It was a shock to my physiological system, but my figurative one as well. The self-confidence I'd cultivated from being a person who was losing weight quickly started to wane, and my ability to trust my instincts as a mom did, too. I felt like I'd done the wrong thing for my child.
But I was committed to breastfeeding no matter what, so I asked our LC for advice to get my supply back. Her course of action was rigorous and time-consuming.
Rather than 4 feedings a day, I was now feeding Mac 8 times a day for 15-20 minutes a feeding. Because breastfeeding is supply and demand, those four extra feedings I had to add in meant that there was initially nothing there for him - unless you're feeding on demand, your body gets acclimated to the times of day you feed your child and produces better at those times. So for the first week or so, I had to sit in my rocker as my child cried over not being able to eat at the time I was trying to feed him. I mean, imagine sitting down to dinner and being served an empty plate. He'd cry, I'd cry, and then Tom Hanks would get very anxious and confused.
I took herbs. I drank a tea every day that tasted pretty gross, but smelled worse. I drank a beer at 4:30 every day to help with supply (not the worst prescription, but yet another thing I "had" to do). In addition to the eight feeds a day, I was pumping after his breakfast feed and still pumping at 9:30, then using that milk in supplemental bottles throughout the day as he needed it. And, in the worst and most soul-crushing piece of our LC's plan, I now had to wake Mac up in the night to feed him. So, in total, I added four daytime feedings, 2 rounds of pumping, and (what eventually became) three middle-of-the-night feeds. Our perfectly sleep-trained baby had now had his body clock completely rocked. Before long, he was waking up on his own multiple times a night expecting to be fed, and I was back in the guest room.
We still had to supplement in the meantime while my supply increased, but we quickly burned through our reserves. I'll never forget the shame of sending my husband to buy formula because Mac had gone through all of my frozen milk in supplemental feedings. We'd saved something like 60, 6-ounce bags, and we were down to our last one. I felt so humiliated that I couldn't make my body fall in line with what I needed from it just by willing it into existence.
More than anything, what crushed me is that I felt I couldn't trust myself, and didn't know where to turn. Our pediatrician had recommended one course of action; our LC another; a nurse with whom I consulted another. Having been so careful not to overwhelm myself with other people's opinions, this new influx of rules weighed so heavy on my heart and made me profoundly doubt my own ability to solve the problem. I couldn't make a move without first asking someone if it was okay. I felt harried, anxious, and low. In retrospect, this period of time was the clear low point of my postpartum journey.
Eventually, my supply came back - but not completely. It doubled from where it was, but still isn't nearly enough to satiate this very hungry boy, even to this day. We use formula to supplement his feedings and, now that he's older, also use solid foods and finger foods. His weight is completely normal and he's gotten a thumbs up from our doctor and LC, although I still pump at night, drink a tea every day, and feel myself bubble over with envy when I encounter breastfeeding moms who produce plenty for their babies.
I wanted to share this story not to garner sympathy (because let's be honest, everything worked out and it's all fine now), but to bring forth a conversation about how hard the mental and emotional pieces of breastfeeding can be. While I do believe that "breast is best," because WOW the benefits of breastfeeding are indescribably amazing and our bodies are incredible, it's also COMPLETELY FINE if formula needs to be a part of the conversation. The encouragement and positive reinforcement we give to breastfeeding moms, while so important, can conversely create an ocean of shame for women who don't (or who can't) make the choice to breastfeed. Standing in the formula aisle should not be an experience that racks a new mom with feelings of dread and worthlessness.
Since becoming a mom, I've had the chance to talk to so many women with different stories. Some tried but couldn't get past 6 weeks because of inadequate supply. Some couldn't sustain breastfeeding because it was taking a toll on their mental health. There are working moms who are so committed to breastfeeding that they pump 15-20 minutes, 4-5 times a day to sustain their supplies (SHOUTOUT TO THESE HEROES OF OUR TIME). I recently met a new mom who deeply believes in breast milk, but wasn't able to get her baby to latch, so she pumps her son's meals and bottle feeds him. There are about as many ways to do this as there are women on earth.
We all have our personal opinions about what's best for babies. What this experience proved to me is twofold: one, that new moms are almost always doing the very best they can, and that a FED baby is the best kind of baby, however that happens. And two, that part of becoming a mother is about learning to trust your instincts. This is not to say that I was doing it right and didn't need guidance; clearly I did and I'm so thankful that I got it, so that my big fat squishy baby could continue to be fat and squishy. But the only way I pulled myself out of the hole of self-doubt was by proactively seeking a solution that worked for my family, choosing just one person from whom I took advice, and knowing in my heart that as long as Mac was properly getting fed, I was doing my job.
I had to decide for myself that I was a good mother, even when things were rocky, and that's a lesson I know I'm going to need to remind myself of time and again.
One thing is for sure: breastfeeding is HARD. Even if your supply is perfect, it's a time-consuming thing that takes commitment and grit. In my opinion, it's worth it, but the challenges of breastfeeding aren't something people prepare you for prior to becoming a mom.
So here's my encouragement - however you're feeding your baby, YOU'RE DOING GREAT. As a random older man yelled out to me when seeing me walking with my stroller yesterday, "Happy Mother's Day EVERY DAY OF THE YEAR! Keep up the good work!"
Thank you, random older man. Don't mind if I do.