It is OK to Fail at Breastfeeding

My mother breastfed me for longer than what some considered “normal” and instilled in me how important it was.  As most expecting mothers, I read all the books and websites and knew of the health benefits, as well as the emotional benefits, of breastfeeding.  I have heard mothers calling nursing the best thing they have ever done, their favorite part of motherhood.  When the nurses asked me if I was going to breastfeed, I would proudly say, “of course,” half angry they even thought otherwise was an option.  I dreamed of the beautiful experience I was about to start.  I read a few stories of how it can be difficult the first few days, sometimes weeks, and I thought, “Not me! We will get it right away.  I am determined.”  I saw mothers out in public feeding their babies out of a bottle and I shamed them in my mind, “How dare they.  Are they selfish or just stupid?”  Our hospital offered a breastfeeding class, but I decided not to take it, part because it was expensive and part because I thought it was dumb to learn to breastfeed without my baby.  Cavewomen breastfed without a class for god sake.  Dr. Google would teach me enough until the time came and then the nurses in the hospital would help with the rest.  That was their job, right?  They must be experts.

Isn’t it funny how things don’t work out?

During our very first breastfeeding session my nurse asked if I wanted some help.  I said I would take any advice she would give me, and she walked me through the general process.  She seemed impressed with how well we were doing, so I mentally patted myself on the back and thought, “See, I knew we would nail it.” Then the nurse left the room never to ask me about breastfeeding again.  Soon we got a new nurse, she asked if I needed any help and again I said I would take any assistance given.  I started doing exactly what the first nurse told me, I even made my husband take pictures of me the first time for reference, and this second nurse told me I was doing it all wrong and showed me how to do it a completely different way.  After about five minutes she said, “Ok, you are fine.” and left without asking about nursing again.  They moved me down to the recovery wing and there we got a new nurse, and this happened again.  I started breastfeeding how the second nurse showed me and the new nurse told me how I was doing it all wrong, and showed me a third way.  I felt defeated.  She left, never to ask me about nursing again.  The next nurse didn’t even ask me how breastfeeding was going, just asked if I was keeping the 2 hour feed schedule.  This continued with every new nurse we saw.  How could so many nurses have so many different ways of nursing, I thought.  Shouldn’t they all teach the same thing since they are at the same hospital?  I was so confused.  I was so tired.  I was living on a carousel of feeding and crying and pain and blood and nausea.  I was too embarrassed and out of it to ask questions.

During each feeding my baby would latch on for a few seconds, and then pop her head off and scream.  My nipples had started getting sore, which was not helping.  My daughter hadn’t pooped since she was first born, and she wasn’t peeing enough, so the nurses started to get worried. By that night she had still not pooped, and the night nurse was in a panic.  “She is obviously not getting enough food, we must get her to feed,” the nurse kept saying.  I started getting worried.  The night nurse started a bunch of different interventions including dabbing formula on my nipple so my baby would be interested in nursing and a nipple shield.  I was devastated we were using formula, but she assured me this was temporary until my baby learned to latch better.  She even threatened giving her a bottle of formula if she didn’t poop soon.  “NO!” I begged.  “We can do it, we can figure this out.  Please give me more time.”  By the second morning, they asked me if I wanted to see a lactation consultant and I gladly accepted.  She was by far the most helpful out of all the “advice” I had gotten from the last five nurses.  She told me that the night nurse shouldn’t have been trying those interventions because it was still too soon to start getting worried. She showed me a few different techniques, said I was her best patient of the day, and then left after about 15 minutes.  My confidence rose a bit.  “We can do this,” I kept telling myself.  When it was time for the night nurse to go on duty, I got the same nurse as the night before.  “Great,” I thought, “Here we go again.”  She immediately asked me if my baby had pooped yet, I told her no, and a wave of panic came over her face.  In more or less words she told me I was a horrible mother and my baby was going to die, or at least that is what I thought she was saying.  She forced me to try the interventions from the night before again, but this time started using a syringe to supplement with formula while my daughter was latched on.  Again, I was devastated, but the nurse told me it was the only way.

The next morning they discharged me.  I was antsy to get out and be home.  My daughter still hadn’t pooped, but the day nurse didn’t seem to care.  In fact, I don’t even think she asked.  They weighed her right before we left.  Her birth weight was 7lbs 14oz and her discharged weight was 7lbs 2oz.  They said it was normal for babies to lose weight after birth and not to worry.  She would gain it all back by two weeks.

Once we were home we continued to feed every two to three hours like the nurses had said.  My nipples were cracked, bleeding, and every time she fed I would cry from the pain.  I read blogs from people saying the initial pain will get better as the weeks past, to keep holding on.  So I did.  The night of her third day alive she finally pooped.  It was the most excited I had been since my contractions started.

When my daughter was 4 days old we went to her pediatrician for the first time.  They weighed her and asked what her birth weight and discharge weight was.  She had lost more weight.  The doctor said it was still in the realm of normal, but said she wanted to see her again in a week to make sure her numbers were going up.

That next week my daughter seemed like she was always hungry.  She wanted to feed 24 hours a day, and I let her because I was so worried about her weight.  She was still pooping and peeing less than she “should.”  I let her feed on demand, and still my nipples were raw and I still cried in pain every feed.  I started to hate feedings.  When my daughter started to cry I wanted to ignore her, I wanted it to stop, I didn’t want to go through that pain again.  I had a completely unmedicated birth and yet I still thought this pain was worse.  Even after feeding all the time she still cried for more food.  I was scared she was starving, so I swallowed my pride and gave her a small bottle of formula right before bed.  For the first time since birth she did not seem hungry anymore and slept for hours.  It was a miracle.  I started giving her a bottle of formula before bed and told myself this was only until my milk supply came in and she was at a healthy weight again.

When we saw her pediatrician the next week my baby had gained some weight.  She still wasn’t close to her birth weight, which they are “supposed” to get to by the second week, but I didn’t care.  Every ounce was a victory.  My pediatrician asked how often she was feeding, and I told her I was feeding on demand, aka all the time.  She scolded me and told me that my baby was using me for a pacifier and not actually eating.  I had to stop that behavior immediately and teach her how to properly eat.  She told me I could not feed her less than every 2-3 hours, and only for a total of 30 minutes and then I had to cut her off.  I didn’t even tell her about the night bottles, I was too ashamed of myself.

My husband had gone back to work and I was starting to spiral deeper and deeper into a depression and didn’t realize it.  I hated breastfeeding with every ounce of my body and I hated myself for hating it.  It was supposed to be natural.  It was supposed to be beautiful.  It was supposed to be painless.  My daughter screamed from the second I forced her off my nipple at exactly 30 minutes until I let her feed again exactly 2 hours later.  I stared at the clock for the hour and a half between feedings as she screamed in my arms.  It broke my heart.  The pediatrician said this was completely normal and soon she would learn how to eat properly.  She never “learned.”  I cried the entire time she cried.  It was the hardest week of my life.

I finally caved in and scheduled an appointment with a lactation consultant to come to my house two weeks postpartum.  She was great.  She showed me more techniques and told me not to listen to the pediatrician and feed on demand.  She weighed my daughter before a feed and after a feed, and we learned that even with the best latch possible, she was only consuming an ounce at best.  She was supposed to be taking in 2-3 ounces.  We found the problem, I was not producing enough milk to sustain her.  Once again, I felt like a failure.  Betrayed by my own body.  She recommended a bunch of different supplements to boost my milk supply and I immediately ran out and bought them all.  While she was there she also told me my baby was starting to get thrush, a fungal infection in her mouth that can transfer to my nipples.  This makes it hard for the baby to eat because their mouth hurts, and it can make nipples painful and itchy.  I didn’t tell the lactation consultant about my occasional formula use, I didn’t need more people thinking I was a failure.

The next day we had an appointment with a nurse at my pediatrician’s office to get medicine for the thrush.  The nurse weighed my daughter and told me she was not gaining as much weight as she should.  She started lecturing me on how I was obviously “bad” at breastfeeding and I should give up now before I starved my daughter.  She demanded I schedule another appointment in a week to make sure she was gaining.  I politely smiled and nodded at her but I cried all the way home.  Someone else spotted my failure.

The next day I woke with a fever of 102 degrees, I felt like I was dying, and I had a very painful lump in my left breast.  I was diagnosed with mastitis, a painful infection of the mammary glands, and was put on antibiotics by my OB.

I had hit rock bottom.

Between the thrush, mastitis, the painful nipples, the lack of weight gain, struggling with nursing and latching, the lack of sleep, and the information overload, I was emotionally numb.  I wanted it to end.  I wanted it all to end.  I was obviously a terrible mother.  I had failed.  During a middle of the night feeding, while we were both crying and failing at nursing, a thought crossed my mind for a split second.  “She didn’t deserve me for a mother.  I should kill myself so she could have a better life.  Or better yet, kill us both.”  It was that second that I realized I was suffering from postpartum depression and I needed help.  I started reaching out to people I trusted.  I joined a blog on Baby Center dedicated to babies born in July 2015 where I could talk with other moms from across the globe without fear of being judged.

I still hated breastfeeding.  I still cried in pain at every feeding.  During it I would get antsy and restless and uncomfortable.  I finally realized that I just couldn’t do it.  I needed a break.  My nipples needed a break.  I decided to start pumping exclusively to take a few days off nursing to let my nipples heal..  I only had a hand pump, and I started pumping after each time my daughter ate to mimic her eating patterns.  I was still supplementing with a few bottles of formula per day when she was still hungry after the breastmilk had run out.

And then something amazing happened.  My depression melted away.  I still had feelings of guilt, but I started to enjoy my baby for the first time.  I no longer cringed when she cried.  I looked forward to when she woke up and I could see her and hold her.  After a few days of exclusively pumping my husband asked me when I was going to go back to breast feeding.  It was right then that I realized I never would.  I was too ashamed to say it out loud, so I told him maybe another day or two until my nipples were fully healed.  I ordered an electric breast pump through insurance and it was a godsend when it arrived.  I joined another blog on Baby Center for exclusively pumping mothers and we commiserated together.  I also joined a Mommy and Me group and we meet once a week to learn and talk about different things we were going through in a judge-free loving manner.  Sometimes those women were the only adults I interacted with besides my husband all week.  I started seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

“Normal” moms can throw their breast pump on with a no-hands bra, tend to their normal business, and within minutes have enough liquid gold to feed their child.  Of course, I didn’t have it that easy.  I had to constantly massage my breasts to get anything out, and while it took others 15 minutes to get two full bottles, it took me 30-45 minutes to get one ounce.  No matter what I did, no matter how many supplements and prescriptions I took, I could not pump more than 10 ounces in a day, and by then my daughter was taking 20-25 ounces per day.  Within a few weeks her input rose to 30 ounces, while I was still making 10.  I had to supplement the rest with formula.  I kept telling myself that every ounce of my breastmilk she got was better than no breastmilk.  She was still getting the antibodies and nutrients that only I could offer her.  I hated the mothers who could pump not only enough milk for their baby, but had literally thousands of extra ounces stored in their freezer.  I hated mothers that were happily breastfeeding even more.  I still suffered with deep pains of guilt.  My body failed me, I failed my daughter.

By two months I was still pumping my 10 ounces a day, and I was chained to my pump for five or more total hours each day.  I finally started to accept my fate and my breastfeeding guilt was diminishing, but in its place was a new guilt.  For those five plus hours a day I could not attend to my baby.  If she cried in the middle of a pump I had to let her cry.  I couldn’t hold her, give her kisses, or comfort her.  I read so much about how important it is to immediately attend to your baby’s needs in the first few months to grow their confidence, love, and eventually independence.  I started wondering what was more important, feeding her a third of her intake with breastmilk or immediately attending to her and giving her the love she needed and most importantly deserved.  After long talks with my husband, we decided that loving her was more important, so I started weaning off pumping and completely stopped a little after the three month mark.

I went for a walk the day after my last pump and I had a long talk with my body.  I thanked my breasts for creating as much wonderful milk for our baby as they possibly could.  I thanked them for working so hard and for enduring all that pain.  I told them that their job was done for now, and they no longer needed to produce milk.  They could rest until our next baby when I would need their help again.  I know that sounds ridiculous, but it really helped me forgive myself and I swear it kept me from getting engorged.

And then there it was.  The end of the tunnel.  I had gotten through the hardest three months of my life, and that is saying a lot if you know my life story.

Two things really got me to start accepting my choice (forced choice) of giving my daughter formula.  The first, my mother-in-law told me my husband was a formula baby.  It was silly, but it hit me, my husband is the smartest and healthiest person I know, maybe formula doesn’t do all of the horrible things people want you to believe.  Formula fed babies don’t walk around with a scarlet letter on their chest.  No one call tell who was breast fed and who was formula fed.  And honestly, a lot of people don’t even know which way they were fed, and most of them don’t care.  The second was an article I found buried in cyberland called The Case Against Breast-Feeding.  And no, it isn’t bashing breastfeeding like the title might suggest, it is only stating that the positives of breastfeeding are perhaps blown out of proportion by medical professionals.  Even though there are some studies that show benefits, we can’t simply look at the black and whites of the study because life doesn’t live in black and whites.  There are many other factors that play into “how smart someone is” or “how healthy someone is” like genetics, socioeconomics, child care, and more.  Maybe my daughter could have bigger life goals than working in fast food after all.

After I accepted and forgave my body for not being able to produce enough milk I started researching why.  Why was I one of the lucky ones?  After hours and hours of googling with getting nothing back but “you may think you have a low supply but really you don’t.  Here are ways to boost your supply if you want to.”  I finally stumbled upon literally by typing in those exact words into google.  There I learned about insufficient glandular tissue and hypoplastic breasts.  I burst into tears.  I had finally found my answer.  This is what is “wrong” with me.  It is rare, but I meet every single indicator.  There is no need for me to get officially diagnosed as there is nothing to cure it, but just knowing there is a name is hugely uplifting.  I am not alone.

We plan to have at least one more child and when the nurse asks me if I am going to breastfeed, I will with a bit more knowledge and cautious optimism say, “Yes.”  I will try it again.  I have heard that moms are more likely to produce more milk the second time around, but I am not going to hold my breath.  I will do the best I can and I know that is enough.  Either way my children will be just fine.

There is obviously a hole in breastfeeding education.  Every single nurse, doctor, and medical professional told me how to breastfeed differently.  Told me different positions worked best, feed on demand vs scheduled feedings, and more.  There should be more information and support for women who legitimately can’t breastfeed or don’t produce enough milk.  Forget about Dr. Google.  I have learned the hard way not to google anything related to child care because you will get a thousand conflicting answers.  It is beyond overwhelming.  On top of it all there is so much formula shaming out there.  I didn’t feel like a failure all on my own.  Society told me I was.  Blogs and doctors and lactation consultants and nurses and La Leche League and family members and the media and mothers across the world told me I was.  Even though I have accepted my fate, I still won’t post a picture of my daughter feeding out of a bottle on Facebook in fear of ridicule, and when I have to feed her in public I try to hide so I don’t get disapproving looks from people passing by.  Now, every mother I see bottle feeding I know has a story, a journey.  I salute the mother in her that just wants what is best for her baby, herself, and her family, whatever that may be.

I have taken the time to write about my story for a few reasons.  I haven’t shared this with many people in my life, and even the people I am closest to don’t even know the full story.  It is nice to get this off my chest to finally close this chapter of my life.  Second, I hope that a mother crying during a middle of the night feeding frantically googling on her phone for answers may stumble upon this and find some hope, some comfort.  Dear mother, you are not alone.  I, and thousands of others, have felt exactly how you do right now.  It does get better.  There is a light at the end of the tunnel.  This too shall pass.  Do what is best for you, your baby, and your family.  If you think you suffer from postpartum depression, get help right away.  I was one of the few that got better without professional help, and that was because I caught it immediately and I have been to decades of therapy.  Find a support group.  Join a Mommy and Me class or a Baby Center group.  If nothing else, message me and I would love to support you.  You are an amazing mother and you are stronger than you know.  I know you can get through this because I did it too.

Really at the end of it all, what you feed your child is way less important than how you raise your child.

It is OK to fail at breastfeeding.

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Edit:  I have been getting such wonderful support from other moms since I wrote this!  One mom pointed me toward Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex, otherwise called D-MER.  D-MER is a condition where when you breastfeed you get very abrupt negative emotions associated with letdown and dopamine levels.  The more I thought about it the more I very well could have D-MER on top of everything else.  It definitely explains why I would get so restless and irritable while I breastfed.  Again, why is it so hard to come across this type of helpful information!

Here is a great article from The Washington Post that echoes what I feel so strongly about; a mother’s mental and physical health is just as important as the infant’s health, and discusses how a mentally  healthy mother is more important to raising a healthy infant than breastfeeding is.

Update:  It is February of 2017 now, so my daughter is 18 months old already!  Since I still get steady foot traffic to this blog post, I wanted to update you all.  So far it seems the formula consumption has not completely ruined her. 😉  She got her first cold when she was 15.5 months old, and then it was something very minor and only lasted a few days.  She has never gotten the flu or stomach flu, she has never even had a cough.  She has never had an ear infection.  She so far has no food allergies and she eats just about everything.  She doesn’t have any allergies at all that we know of.  My almost entirely formula fed baby does not exhibit any of the “stereotypical” formula fed symptoms.  Looking back, I almost laugh at how far my thoughts took me about being an unfit parent because I could not breast feed her the way I wanted.  Now seeing my perfectly beautiful strong willed 18 month old I know I did not fail her.  Maybe formula isn’t the worst thing I could do to my child after all.  Maybe she will turn out alright…


4 thoughts on “It is OK to Fail at Breastfeeding

  1. You and I share a similar story. I was only ever able to produce 2 ounces per day because of postpartum thyroiditis. However, I didn’t receive this diagnosis until 5 months postpartum. So when I quit breastfeeding at 12 days postpartum, I thought I was so defective that I was a monster. I wrote about this experience in my new book. Here is an excerpt of you’d like to read it:

    1. Thank you for sharing. I read your excerpt. It is nice to hear we are not alone! You are so right, you and I are so rare to have an unmedicated birth and then formula feed. Never even thought of that!

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