Nothing is supposed to come more naturally to a new mother than breastfeeding. At least that’s what I always thought until I actually had kids. And then this little thing called life sort of changed all of my plans. This series is about my ups and downs with breastfeeding with all three of my kids — my journey through anticipation; disappointment; overwhelming, debilitating guilt; and, eventually, success. I’m sharing this journey with you not to come down on one side or the other in the whole breast vs. bottle debate (because as you’ll see, I’ve fallen on both) — and by no means do I want to start a debate about it here (so please, let’s not go there) — I’d simply like to shine a light on the fact that many women, and for many, many different reasons, struggle with breastfeeding. If you have ever or are currently struggling, please know that you are not alone. (And yes, now I have that Michael Jackson song in my head, too. Sorry ’bout that.)
When I was pregnant with our daughter, Belle, there was never any question for me in the breast vs. bottle feeding decision. I was definitely going to breastfeed. I really didn’t think twice about it. But then life threw us a little curve ball: Our daughter was born 11 weeks premature. Her surprising and unexpected beginning brought many challenges, one of which being, you guessed it, feeding issues.
Belle was born so early that she had not yet developed the suck/swallow reflex needed for nursing or even taking a bottle, so she was placed on a feeding tube for a few weeks. I was disappointed that I couldn’t breastfeed her right away, but the nurses suggested that I pump for her so that she’d at least be getting my breast milk.
So, pump I did. Every two to three hours around the clock, just as if I was actually breastfeeding. I wasn’t producing much those first few days, which is normal, and which was completely fine, because Belle was only taking a few milliliters of milk at a time through her feeding tube, so even the small amount I was producing early on was plenty for her.
I kept hearing, “Just wait a few more days until your milk comes in, then you’ll start getting a lot more.” But a few days came and went. And I wasn’t producing more. And a week later, I still wasn’t producing more. I’d sit in the pumping room in the NICU and marvel at the bottles and bottles other mommies were filling (in a totally non-creepy way, of course) while I couldn’t manage to fill even one. I’d sit at home and will my boobs to start spewing milk to fill bottle after bottle after bottle. But they didn’t.
And I tried everything under the sun to try to improve my supply. Ev-er-y-thing. But nothing worked. And we finally got to a point at which Belle’s demand for breast milk was more than what I could give her via pumping, and we had to start supplementing with formula. I was simply crushed. It got to the point where I would cry every time I pumped because I couldn’t do the most basic thing a mother is supposed to do for her child: I couldn’t even feed her. And this overwhelming disappointment turned into anxiety, which did nothing, as you can imagine, to help improve my supply.
But, I kept at it. And the nurses were very encouraging: “Every little bit helps!” they’d exclaim as I’d hand them my daily take. And I knew they were right, but I still felt like a failure. My husband, my family, my friends, they all cheered me on and were incredibly supportive, but I still felt like a failure. Belle was doing extremely well — thriving even — but I still felt like a failure.
And then one day when I stopped in for my morning visit with Belle, I realized her feeding tube had been removed. The nurse told me Belle had taken extremely well to the bottle overnight and asked if I wanted to try feeding her. As I was sitting there feeding her with a bottle for the first time, another nurse came up and asked if I’d like to try breastfeeding next time. I told her I’d love nothing more, but I had no idea how. So the nurse scheduled the lactation consultant to come in and help me during Belle’s next scheduled feeding.
My heart nearly exploded with happiness and anticipation and anxiety as I waited for the next feeding. I called my husband and shared the good news, and he made sure to get to the hospital in time to join us. Of course with new camera in hand. (He’s responsible for the beautiful photo at the beginning of this post!)
I won’t lie. Our first breastfeeding attempt was very awkward. I had no idea what I was doing, and I had some complete (albeit nice) stranger grabbing and poking and pulling on my boobs while maneuvering around all of Belle’s various tubes and wires, all in an attempt to get Belle to latch on. Which she did eventually. And then promptly fell asleep. (Preemies are notorious for sleeping at the boob. It’s really a lot of work for them.) “We’ll try again next time,” said the nurse.
It took a few more tries, but eventually we caught Belle at the right time and all the stars aligned — she was awake, she latched on quickly, and she seemed to be feeding incredibly well. And then? All of the alarms on her monitors started going off. And I freaked out. After calmly checking Belle and then her monitors, the nurse told me that Belle’s heartbeat had dropped pretty low (known as bradycardia), and that this was very common in preemies, especially when they were stressed or overstimulated. She explained that breastfeeding was a lot of work for a preemie, so we’d just have to take things slow. Ok, I could live with that.
Only it turns out, I couldn’t. Every single time I’d try to breastfeed Belle, her alarms would go off. And I would get stressed. Instead of enjoying some bonding time with Belle, I’d sit there watching her monitors for any sign of bradycardia. I was always on the verge of one massive anxiety attack. And sure enough, her alarms would go off. Every. Single. Time. So we made the executive decision to alternate feedings: we’d give a bottle at one feeding, and I’d attempt to breastfeed at the next.
And this is how it was when we left the hospital and made our way home. Bottle, attempt boob, bottle, attempt boob. All in the hopes that Belle would eventually be strong enough to start every meal on the boob, followed by a bottle if she was still hungry after exhausting my still-low milk supply.
My anxiety, however, only worsened after we got home. Belle was discharged from the NICU on an apnea and heart monitor, which of course went off every time I tried to breastfeed her. But when you’re in your own home with your preemie and the monitor alarms start going off, there are no nurses there to rush over and check her and reassure you that she is ok. Or tell you what to do. Which caused me to become a complete bundle of wreck. I just couldn’t handle it.
And so? After a few weeks, we decided to move Belle to bottle feedings 100% of the time. And again? I was devastated because I had so wanted to breastfeed. But, I knew it was the best choice for us. And for my sanity. Belle was really thriving, and I didn’t want to mess that up. Plus, I was still pumping, so I felt at least partially responsible for how well she was doing.
It wasn’t long, though, before Belle’s appetite completely overtook what my body could produce. Plus the constant pumping on top of all of the bottle feedings was getting to be too much. If I wasn’t feeding Belle a bottle, I was pumping. But for all of the hours each day and night I spent pumping, I was getting very little breast milk. So we decided it was time to stop pumping. Which meant Belle would be drinking formula from a bottle at every feeding. There would be no more breastfeeding. The thing I wanted to do most for my baby, the thing I never questioned doing, was now the thing that I was giving up.
And I knew in my head that this was the right decision. For me. For Belle. For my husband. But my heart? My heart was devastated. Sad. Angry. Defeated. Full of guilt. And envious. I’m not going to lie. It took a long, long time for me to see anyone else breastfeeding without mourning my inability to do so. (And it didn’t help that I occasionally had to defend our choices to perfect strangers!)
But the day did eventually come a few months later where I looked at my perfectly healthy, verging-on-chubby daughter and realized it truly didn’t matter that I wasn’t able to breastfeed her or give her breast milk from a bottle. Belle was thriving! She was caught up in size by the time she was 6 months and was doing better than anyone had expected. She was happy. We were happy. That was truly all that mattered. And in that moment, I was finally able to release myself from all of the guilt that had been building since the day Belle was born.