It’s World Breastfeeding Week 2015. Everywhere I look in the birth community, there are glorious photos and empowering graphics being shared (thanks Bloom Birth Pros!). It is a celebration of the sacrifice, dedication, and miraculous nature of establishing and sustaining a breastfeeding relationship.
But what about those dyads for whom breastfeeding was not possible or not successful? What do I say to those mothers for whom each photo and graphic on her newsfeed is a painful reminder? I say this: you are not alone.
In the summer before our daughter was born, my husband and I took a private breastfeeding class in LaPlata, Maryland close to where we live. We absolutely smoked the final exam. We did no research into bottles, nipple shields, supplemental nursing systems, or formula. Why bother? Breastfeeding is natural, normal, and a total given, right? We sure thought so. After five days of labor, we shared our first latch in an OR recovery room. It was astonishingly instinctual for her and I gasped at her strong jaw. I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “Well, this is going to be no problem at all.” Oh, how naïve I was.
She wasn’t satisfied. No matter how long or often we nursed. I once had her latched for over 6 hours, still she beat my breasts and cried. I patiently told my breasts, “Surely, you will realize a baby is here!” Ultimately, we took our baby to the doctor who did a heel stick bilirubin test, told us her constant upset was because she was hungry, and begged me to consider formula. With my nipples raw and my heart even more raw, I yelled, “Stop trying to ruin my breastfeeding relationship!” I left in a huff.
On the way home, we took our one week postpartum selves to Babies R Us. I stayed in the car with our daughter while my husband went in to buy a bottle and formula. We had no idea how to prepare it. I cried trying to give it to her. She took a couple of half-hearted tugs and fell back asleep. Two hours later, we tried again. She wouldn’t wake up to be fed. We stripped her down hoping the cold air would help. It didn’t. We ran an ice cube down her body. No response.
After reviewing the “top 10 signs you need emergency medicine” and checking off seven boxes, we rushed to the Charles Regional Medical Center ER. Our pediatrician said he would meet us there. He didn’t. Left to the ER staff, it took someone walking by our room to realize the situation was dire. Hours of terrifying exams passed when we were finally told they couldn’t handle our case and Children’s Hospital in DC would be coming by ambulance to retrieve her. At 3am, I watched the pediatric ambulance staff roll our daughter out to their waiting vehicle. My husband trailed behind, backpack slung over his shoulder. I stood alone watching. As I was just days post-op, I wasn’t allowed in the bumpy ambulance. My youngest sister came in the cold, bundled me into her car, took me to my house, and stood watch while I collapsed. A few hours passed and I started receiving photos from the NICU. Our girl was being expertly cared for and I was grateful.
We rented a $2500 hospital-grade, double-electric Medela Symphony pump and I set timers to remind myself. So little milk came out, but I kept going…so long that the pump TURNED ITSELF OFF. I kept pumping even though I knew the production between baby and pump can differ. My husband’s coworkers made milk runs between our house and the hospital for us. But my milk supply was not coming like it should have. The physicians concurred. The following days were filled with lactation consultants – 8 in all – each sure they had the magical answer, a uterine sweep for retained placenta (that was comfy. No, really. It’s what every lady wants to do), a blood test for possible thyroid disruption, and so many tears (me, husband, baby). There was no explanation for my lack of supply.
We stayed close by in the Ronald McDonald house, spending hours in the NICU and short stay ward. A week later, our girl was finally released from Children’s Hospital and my prescription was to feed that baby. I gave her a bottle. She ate. Her body relaxed against mine. Her hands uncurled. And she slept on my chest. I cried in relief. When I took her back for a check-up, she had gained some weight! She wasn’t yellow. She was responsive. Everything a parent hopes for their baby.
Over the following months, I still nursed her, but her primary nutrition was from formula. Eventually, she tired of the work at the breast and began refusing. As a member of the more naturally leaning childbirth community, this was a tough blow to my pride and my knowledge that breastmilk nutrition is superior to formula. I remember being embarrassed about asking to use the microwave during playdates and hiding while I used those bottles. I longed for the ease of yanking up my shirt and calming my child with my body, my milk. The worst though were the intrusive questions: “well, did you try XXX?” It took me till we were nearly done with bottles to respond to that question with, “You were not there. You did not witness our truth. We are doing the best we can for our family. Thank you for your concern, but it’s none of your business.” Today, I look at our daughter and know I did everything I could with everything I had. Has my toolset changed since then? Yes. If we had another child would I try again? Yes. But I would be much quicker to move to a bottle if I saw a physical decline in that child.
To those for whom breastfeeding is among your biggest accomplishments, I want to say, “Right on, Sister! You are amazing.” For those of you for whom World Breastfeeding Week is equal parts exuberance and pain, I want to come alongside you, salute you, and say, “Me too.” No matter how you choose to do it or if the choice is taken from you, I offer this in parting: Fed is Best.