“Breastfeeding is instinct,” they said.
“Breastfeeding is built into the mother,” they said.
“Breastfeeding is nature’s plan,” they said.
Whoever “they” are, they need to be kicked in the balls.
Breastfeeding is tough. It’s not like you give birth, they hock baby on to you for some skin to skin – he latches on and you go on your merry way. Yes, I took the class. Yes, I know that the nipple goes all the way to the back of the mouth. Yes, my football and cross cradle holds were magnificent. I did everything I could to learn how to do it, but I didn’t know that there was so much that would be out of my control both mentally and physically.
I never got to experience “the birth crawl,” where a newborn – right out of the womb – can wriggle up and latch onto the mother’s breast instinctively. Supposedly the linea nigra is the “path” for them to follow. Unfortunately, Sweet Pea was preoccupied with a few other things, you know, being purple and all. So we didn’t have that. She was also in the NICU right off the bat so I wasn’t able to breastfeed her that night.
We started breastfeeding the next day, and I have never had so many strangers touch my boobs. The nurses would help get her latched on by pretty much grabbing my boob and stuffing it in her mouth. It was tricky because you have to wait for her to open up really wide and then go for it, not to mention the other obstacles you need to consider, like flailing hands and head-turning. Then when she did latch on, she would either fall off, fall asleep, or just comfort nurse and not actually take in anything. I didn’t hear the clicking sounds of swallowing, so it was pretty disappointing when it seemed like she got nothing out of that whole session.
The day after, Sweet Pea kept crying and screaming even at the breast, and that’s when the nurse asked if I wanted to offer her formula. She’s been alive for over 36 hours and now she’s hungry. I tried nursing her and when that didn’t work, I gave in and fed her the little bottle of formula. Cue: visions of me never being able to breastfeed. It was scary, and I cried.
It was reassuring that all the nurses still encouraged me to breastfeed, to pump, and to give her expressed breastmilk before topping her up with formula. Everything I read now says that newborns don’t need anything except that tiny bit of colostrum you produce until your milk comes in, but what am I supposed to do when she’s wailing and then furiously chugs on a bottle when it’s offered to her? She was hungry, and I needed to help her with what was available.
Let me Tarantino this for you and give away the ending first: I am breastfeeding exclusively at 8 weeks, zero top ups with formula or a bottle. Considering the roller coaster of paranoia that I went through for the first month, I’d say we’re doing pretty well, and all of that paranoia was just a bunch of plain old mind tricks and the irrational fear of failing. Just in case you’ve come across this post because you’re experiencing the same things, I want to assure you that there is light at the end of the rainbow.
These are the things that would scare me into thinking I wasn’t producing enough milk:
1) No More Engorgement
When my milk “came in” (like it’s some kind of shipment that moms eagerly wait to get delivered to them after birth) it was like Sports Illustrated, bro. My boobs were large and in charge. I had to shove a towel under my shirt because I was constantly leaking. Of course, engorgement means an oversupply, and will eventually regulate itself based on demand. That’s what happened when my breasts didn’t feel as full anymore – they were depressingly floppy compared to what they used to be. I freaked out. I kept pumping more than usual just to trick my body into making more milk. When demand goes up, supply goes up. When demand goes down (as in the baby is getting enough and not too much), then supply evens out. I don’t want to say “supply goes down” because it sounds like a decrease for the worse. But it’s a decrease for the good. An oversupply means that it’ll take longer for baby to get the nutritious hindmilk full of fat and calories, because of an abundance of foremilk that is full of lactose and sugars. When your supply levels off to what baby needs, they’re getting exactly what they require to quench their thirst and hunger. It seemed like she was getting everything she needed, but I didn’t believe it until my midwife put her on the scale and confirmed that she gained weight.
Pumping is SUCH an inaccurate measure of how much milk your baby is getting. I didn’t believe this at first. As my supply went up, I was pumping 50 ml, then 75 ml, then 100 ml, and I was in shock when I got 125 ml even after a feed. Then I started getting less. Some sessions I barely got 50 ml from both boobs. It upset me, because of that diagram – you know, the one where it shows you how big your baby’s tummy is based on food sizes? Well at that point, my baby’s stomach was the size of an egg, and there was no way her eggy stomach was getting full off my measly 39 ml of milk. Cue: paranoia.
What did it take to make me believe that the pumping was a hoax? One night, I pumped for an extended period of time because I was barely getting anything during my 15+15 minute session. It peaked at 50 ml. I knew I had more. So I took off the pump and tried to hand express to get things going again. Milk shot out like a water gun. It’s not like I have a crap pump either, Medela’s supposed to be the bees knees of breast pumps. And that’s when I realized that everyone was right. I was tricking myself, and worrying for nothing. And guess what? She gained weight.
3) Weaning off of Galactagogues
No, it isn’t some kind of space villain. Galactagogues are herbs, supplements, drugs, food, or beverages that promote milk production. As soon as I was able to find them, I took Fenugreek and Blessed Thistle from the health food store to increase my supply. It was a pretty hefty dosage: 3 pills of each 3 times a day. I went through two bottles of Blessed Thistle and 1 1/2 of Fenugreek. Finally, I asked my midwife when I could stop taking them.
“Didn’t you tell me you were squirting milk? I think you can stop now,” she said. So I did. I also made a batch of lactation cookies that I nibbled on before feedings. Eventually, I ran out of those and of course I have a baby so I never found the time to make more. The simple fact that I stopped taking these supplements was enough to make me worry that my supply would tank. It didn’t, and to prove it – she gained weight.
4) Bottle Consumption
Because Sweet Pea was in the NICU for a week and wasn’t fully back to birth weight when they discharged her, I was ordered by my midwife to breastfeed, top her up with expressed breast milk and then formula if she was still hungry. This meant that I would pump in between feeds, in addition to her 45 min – 1 hr breastfeeding sessions every 3 hours. That’s not a lot of time to be doing anything else other than emptying out my milk makers. It was so disappointing to feed her for an hour, then have her cry cry cry just to guzzle down an entire bottle of expressed milk. I felt like she was cheating on me with the bottle, and I resented Dr. Brown and his stupid air vent system. Then I had to find time to clean and sterilize the pump and bottles and all their parts just to start all over again.
One day, I broke down. I just had it. I felt like there was no point in me breastfeeding. She only got full after the bottle anyways, so why beat around the bush? I cry-texted my husband and told him about my plan to exclusively pump, because this wasn’t worth it anymore. He called me back and supported my decision. “Try it out,” he said. “Just give her a bottle today, don’t breastfeed at all, and see how it goes.” I quickly went online and found that the Medela Freestyle was on sale at Babies R Us. I would totally need a double pump to go through with this, I thought.
But of course, I’m extremely stubborn and couldn’t bear the thought of not breastfeeding her the next time she was hungry. I decided to turn to my online mommy groups and ask if anyone was exclusively pumping, and how it was going for them. The thread got about 23 replies, and the first few answers were not what I was expecting at all. They didn’t answer my question but instead, encouraged me to continue putting her on the breast.
Don’t give up! Just don’t let her fall asleep! Do everything you can to keep her awake so she can fill up at the breast! Why are you supplementing with expressed milk? Bottles stretch out their tummies and aren’t necessary!
I was so surprised. Totally not what I expected to hear. The few people who did reply saying they were exclusively pumping, or have done it in the past said that it suuuuucked. Like it was completely terrible and made them miserable. I never thought of how much of a hassle it would be until they opened my eyes. I realized yeah, getting up in the middle of the night to a screaming baby and having to either pump out a bottle of milk or go into the fridge, reheat some milk, put it into a bottle and then feed her ten minutes too late was *not* the best scenario for me. That night, I was determined not to give her a bottle at all and see how it goes. I stripped her down to just a onesie so that she wouldn’t get warm and fall asleep, and just kept breastfeeding her. If she was done but started crying again, I would just put her back on the boob. And again, and again, and again until she stopped crying or fell asleep.
And it worked.
Then I did it the next day. And the next… and the next.
Yes, I was freaking out inside wondering if I was doing the right thing. Would breastfeeding without the supplementing be enough? The only way to know would be at her next weigh-in a week and a half later.
Did she gain weight? Sure did. Since that day, she’s only had ONE bottle, and that’s because I had to go to a bridal shower sans baby.
In hindsight I guess I should’ve just purchased some kind of scale so that I could weigh her everyday, because that was the only way I could tell if she had enough to eat, even after counting wet and dirty diapers. Even though she gained weight at her appointments, there would always be a factor that changed which took me back to square one, wondering if she was gaining enough weight this time.
Breastfeeding is freakin’ hard. And I didn’t even have latch issues. These are all problems and worries I had with a good latcher. It helped that all the nurses in the NICU were pro-breastfeeding and I had access to a week’s worth of help and consults. If you need help with your little one’s latch, please please please go see a lactation consultant! Most of the time, a little bit of guidance is all it takes. With supply issues, there are so many options to try increasing milk production – from something as simple as a pint of Guinness beer to prescription medication like Domperidone. Keep trying new things each time but don’t get discouraged if you are unable to breastfeed because – whether by milk or by formula – in actuality, Fed is best.