Things nobody told me about breastfeeding – it is not one size fits all and maybe you just can’t, even if you want to… even if you want it more than anything.
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Some people just don’t produce breast milk and I didn’t know that was a thing.
I am a trained healthcare provider, and I knew nothing, zilch, zero about breastfeeding before this journey began. I did the bare bones preparation, so maybe that’s my own fault.
I participated in the breastfeeding 101 class offered at Kaiser, which basically taught me two things: 1.) supply and demand and 2.) nursing positions. Not anything super exciting, or very informative.
Post-delivery I expected biology to take over, because… science! I (wrongly) assumed that a normal postpartum change, without error, was milk production and breastfeeding. Boy, was I in for a surprise, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride style.
Get comfy, grab some wine, or keep scrolling because this may take awhile!
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A New Mom’s Introduction to Breastfeeding
I apparently had my baby on one of the busiest days in the hospital, evident by the fact that I stayed overnight in my delivery room without moving to a mother/baby room. I slept on a blow up air mattress that they placed on top of the delivery bed, imagine that, stitches and all.
Yuuuup. You read that right- a BLOW. UP. MATTRESS.
It was *that* busy. At least I got to keep it… anyone need an air mattress for camping?? Haha. Just kidding.
That night, in the wee hours of the night, I saw my nurse maybe twice. During my hospital stay, I had to beg my nurses over and over for a lactation consult. I was told that those consults were only “for people who really needed help.”
At the time, the consult I begged for wasn’t because I knew something was wrong (because I was absolutely clueless), it was because my experienced mama friends told me MAKE SURE they see you before you go, you WILL need the help.
Once I was moved from my glorious air-mattress suite to my postpartum room I, again, asked my nurses repeatedly for help with breastfeeding. (Nothing against nurses, some of my best friends are nurses!!)
One nurse actually listened and realized I wasn’t producing much, she then wheeled a giant breast pump into my room. She gave me the simple instruction to pump for 15 minutes, and then left.
Her First Experience with a Breast Pump
I had never even seen a breast pump.
My first question was “do I just sit here and hold these on”? What do all of these buttons do?? Why is there a button for bacon?? I thought the flanges and bottles would just magically stick.
HAHA. INSERT BIG RED FLAG and a stepping stone in the beginning of my breastfeeding journey.
A Brief Lactation Consultation
The inpatient lactation consultant finally came to see me the morning of my discharge, maybe two hours before I went home.
Better late than never.
She was in a rush- remember how busy it was? She went over some nursing positions and talked briefly about latch, and that was about it.
My baby, Maddie, always slept at the breast, so we were constantly trying to move her and entice her to stay awake. The sloth baby didn’t fall far from the sloth daddy tree.
My postpartum carpal tunnel made holding Maddie for nursing such a difficult task. Difficult is an understatement.
My husband had to put her down in my arms, practically latch her for me, and then move her when she needed to change position because I literally could not feel my hands. That’s a different story.
I guess the lactation consultant realized from her brief intervention that I was struggling, and ordered a Medela Symphony rental for me to use at home… That was that.
There was no information exchanged about hand expression, no teaching about “hands-on” pumping or breast massage, no talk about the let down reflex.
I was plainly told to pump for 15 minutes every 2-3 hours, after each feeding. At that point, I didn’t fully understand how that was going to work, nor did I think about what that actually meant for Maddie and I.
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What Were Her Breastfeeding Options?
I didn’t know exclusively pumping was a thing, or even an option. No provider in my antepartum care really talked about breastfeeding beyond “Are you planning to breastfeed? Did you take the class? Good!”
Nobody told me how to troubleshoot breastfeeding.
I didn’t imagine that there might even be things to troubleshoot. My friends had babies, my friends produced milk… why didn’t I?
It was supposed to be a happy and positive experience. Nothing was supposed to go wrong, or not work. I anticipated time to bond with my baby.
Where’s the Milk?
Google and various online / social media breastfeeding and pumping sources became my best friend, and ultimately maybe my worst enemy.
My husband and I spent HOURS of our first few days of Maddie’s life doing sleep-deprived research through probably hundreds of online searches.
- What if your milk doesn’t “come in”?
- When is milk *supposed* to come in?
- What if there is a painful razor blade latch?
- What if baby loses weight?
- How much weight is baby supposed to gain?
- How do you supplement formula and still stimulate the breast for that supply and demand feedback loop?
- What’s the deal with pacifiers?
Breastfeeding Wasn’t Going as Planned
On Maddie’s day 3 check-up she lost weight, more than 13% of her birthweight. AKA too much weight.
Maddie also had an elevated bilirubin level. She wasn’t really pooping like she should have, because she wasn’t getting enough colostrum, and so her bili didn’t decline like it was supposed to.
But while we were admitted, nobody talked to us about how much Maddie was *actually* eating or even the idea of supplementing formula.
The pediatrician referred us directly to the outpatient lactation consultant. They assessed latch, tried nipple shields, did pre-post weights and determined that Maddie needed formula supplementation.
They had me pump in the lactation clinic and realized that my total milk output combined was less than 5 mL after 15 minutes. (30 mL = 1 oz).
In the lactation clinic, they hooked me up to a pretty cool, but equally frustrating nursing tool called a supplemental nursing system or “SNS”.
Basically, they taped a tube to my boob and hung a tiny drip feeder system to my top, filled with formula.
They did this instead of offering a bottle of formula because I was concerned about supply and demand and how my body would learn to produce milk if we were supplementing formula by bottle. Let me tell you, we grew to HATE this SNS.
Getting Maddie to latch around the tube, and my boob, was like threading a needle…an angry, sleepy, inconsolably hungry needle… in the dark… during her bewitching hours.
Over an hour later, home we went from our lactation appointment, our stroller filled with boxes of enfamil, a SNS package, nipple shields, and hospital discharge summaries reflecting weight loss.
We continued to see the lactation consultants at least once or twice per week for probably 8 consecutive weeks.
Packing up our newborn, planning her feeding times and pumping around our lactation appointments, and trekking to the hospital over and over and over.
Talk about stressful!
It was always an exhausting, redundant conversation about numbers: pre-post weights, weight gain since last visit (or lack thereof), weight percentiles, growth curves, number of mLs pumped, number of ounces via milk transfer… I never pumped “enough” and there was never enough milk transfer, not once.
Through the recommendation of a friend, I even hired a lactation consultant to come to my house a few times. Surely the stress of everything didn’t help my milk production.
Making Sense of it All
Incidentally, around 2-3 weeks old we found out that Maddie had an upper lip tie. They tell you nursing should not hurt- and if it hurts you aren’t doing it right.
Now it all made sense.
We thought SURELY this is why there is poor milk transfer, poor supply and demand feedback loop, painful latch, and why we have been unsuccessful with nursing overall.
When Maddie was just shy of 4 weeks old, and after TONS of research, we scheduled an appointment with a highly recommended dentist for a laser frenectomy. Maddie did great!
Post-procedure, Maddie’s latch while nursing was 100% less painful and my milk supply started to increase, just ever so slightly. Who knows if this was just due to Mother Nature and time or breast stimulation from an improved latch.
Around this time, in an entire day, I was lucky if I could pump 2 oz total. Yes, after 8-10 pumping sessions. My total daily milk output was MAYBE 2 oz.
Do you know there are mamas out there who can pump 6-8+ oz per boob with each time they pump… that means upwards of 16 oz of milk, in one pumping session.
I know that amount of milk production isn’t the usual “norm” but still. I was lucky if I could make 2 oz, in an entire day.
Desperate to Make More Milk
I was desperate to make more milk.
I gave up coffee, I gave up my minty chewing gum, and at times (or maybe *most* of the time) I gave up my sanity. I didn’t eat anything that might adversely affect my supply.
There are so many companies out there that market to the vulnerability of breastfeeding mamas like me.
I. Tried. Everything.
Lactogenic diet? Yup- oatmeal, flax seed, chia seed, coconut milk, salmon, almonds, the infamous Starbucks pink drink, enough water to drown a horse… ate or drank it all.
My postpartum bladder HATED the amount of fluids that I was drinking… Haha. Specialty breastfeeding products? I tried every cookie, brownie, granola bar, smoothie, tea and lemonade that I could get my hands on… from every brand. Those calories didn’t count.
Supplements? Yup- bought them all.
I actually took enough herbal crap to significantly upset my liver. And that’s why us medical folk rarely recommend herbal supplements… but I did it without regard for that, out of desperation. The liver thing doesn’t happen to everyone- just my luck.
Nothing worked for me.
There are countless reviews online of various “milky” products that mamas swear by for increasing supply. I’m talking dramatic increases, raving reviews, and crazy before and after photos.
But that’s not how my (lactation) cookie crumbled.
The only supplement that I noticed had a significant effect on my breastfeeding / pumping was sunflower lecithin. Mamas, if you have ever had a painful plugged duct you need this in your life… and an electric toothbrush!
Or, you could use a lactation tool. Such as a lactation vibrator or massager specifically made for the above scenarios. Here’s 10% off your LaVie order.
The Feeding Cycle Began
I didn’t leave my house (for anything other than doctors appointments) for probably 6 weeks postpartum.
Hold your judgements. Maybe it was PPD… maybe it was stress… maybe it was both.
But, how could I? Maddie lazily took AN HOUR to inefficiently nurse with almost every feed and that one hour didn’t account for any of the *extra* steps.
By week 4 we stopped destroying our sanity with the SNS and switched to supplemental bottles. We did this primarily because my husband went back to work and I could not use the SNS without his help.
So the new feeding routine, at the time, became nursing for an hour, bottle feeding for 20-30 minutes, holding Maddie upright for at least 10-15 minutes (she had crazy reflux), pumping for 15-20 minutes, putting Maddie down for a nap, washing all of the aforementioned feeding parts, and by then it was nearly time to repeat the vicious feeding cycle all over again.
The Under-Producing Mom Guilt
Most mamas produce enough milk without any extra thought or effort. They don’t have to worry about how much “milk transfer” occurs with each feeding.
They just whip out the boob at each and every demand from baby and boom, done. As long as baby is gaining weight at their checkups, they have nothing else to worry about.
Oh, to be so milky.
We bought the hatch baby smart scale and were measuring pre and post nursing weights at home with every feeding, 8-10x per day. It was like a guessing game.
Squeeze my boobs and guess how much Maddie would eat based on how full they felt (or didn’t feel). Although, it wasn’t a very fun game, it was stressful and sad.
I usually saw it as a reflection of how “good” or “bad” I did at feeding Maddie. Sometimes she would get as little as 0.25 oz from both sides combined, after 30+ minutes. Depressing!
Do you know what it feels like to have your baby screaming in your arms after nursing because they are still hungry, and you physically can’t provide what they want and need? I do.
Factor this weighing and calculating into the above nurse, bottle, hold, pump, nap schedule… there was zero time for anything else.
Cook dinner?? Forget about it! Frozen dinners from Trader Joe’s for the win!!
I didn’t want to go anywhere. I didn’t want visitors. Without a doubt, every trip outside the house or visitor would mess up the routine. The complicated scale, boob, scale, bottle, hold, pump, nap routine.
Family and friends didn’t really know very much about this immensely life-altering struggle… we battled this demon on our own.
So, if it was so hard, and so miserable, and so consuming why didn’t I just stop months ago?? I was unknowing, I didn’t anticipate any issue with breastfeeding or producing milk, and I didn’t know how to troubleshoot my problem.
I didn’t even know it was a possibility to not make milk. So, imagine how that felt.
I couldn’t just give up… other mamas made it look SO easy. The milk just came, and they just fed their baby. That was it.
I had hope.
I did research.
I thought it would get better… and it did get better, eventually, but it was still never quite “enough” to forgo all of the complicating factors.
It is hard not to compare myself to everyone else. I’m envious of the mamas who can nurse on demand without a shred of worry or anxiety that maybe they don’t have enough milk.
The mamas who don’t have to worry if their baby is still hungry. The mamas who can seamlessly nurse their baby for a year and beyond.
Those same mamas who can pump once per day in addition to nursing and build a giant freezer stash of milk. Or the mamas who saturate their clothes from an easily triggered letdown, I don’t even know what a let down feels like.
The mamas who can simply go about their day and LEAVE THE HOUSE because they don’t have to worry about a time schedule for nursing, pumping, lugging around the pump, finding somewhere to pump, bringing all of the necessary parts, bringing enough parts for as long as you will be gone, cleaning the parts, bringing the bottles, preparing the bottles before you leave the house, bringing a cooler for the milk that is pumped… Sure.
I could have stopped a long time ago, but there’s a whole different ballpark of feelings and thoughts and emotions with that.
Every Mama Wants the Best for Their Baby
Every mama wants the best for their baby.
Society teaches us breastmilk is best. Society also judges us for not breastfeeding.
We are often shamed for bottle feeding and using formula. Even mamas who bottle feed breast milk are shamed! Social media influences us into thinking we are the only ones who are struggling…at least that’s how I felt.
Pictures of mamas donating hundreds of bags of milk to milk banks for sick mamas or mamas with NICU babies flooded my Instagram feed.
Props to those mamas for helping those babies in need, don’t get me wrong. But, if they could produce SO much- why did it have to be that I couldn’t produce enough?
Pumping Put Her in Control
Fast forward a couple of months, I finally got the hang of it! I figured out what worked for me.
By this point, Maddie was probably about 5 months old. Yes, it took me that freakin’ long to figure it out!!
I was now pumping about 8 times per day, and doing a combination of nursing, pumping, and supplementing. I had a schedule, I had a routine, and I had to stick to it.
No matter what. Or else I would sacrifice all of my hard work and efforts that had gotten me to that point… and that number of ounces per day.
Yes, I defined myself by my milk production.
Veering from the schedule could mean less milk output. Milk production is SO temperamental and so easily influenced by EVERYTHING.
For weeks I tracked my caloric intake, my stress level, the amount of water I drank, how much I exercised, how I slept, what supplements I took or didn’t take… all to try and find some sort of predictability to my milk production.
My efforts were fruitless.
Someone even told me I was wasting my time, pumping for so long to make so little.
I would nurse Maddie when she woke up, after nursing I would pump for 15-30 minutes, at 10 am I would pump again and Maddie would get a bottle (part breastmilk and part formula).
At noon I would power pump (that means putting Maddie down in her room on the floor with toys, and sitting next to her pumping on and off for one hour).
At 1pm I would pump again for 15-30 minutes, at 3 pm I would pump for 15 minutes, at 6 pm I would nurse Maddie and pump for 15 minutes immediately after nursing (often carrying around my pump while trying to make dinner).
At 8:30 pm I would power pump again, and last but not least I would wake up between 1-2 am and pump for anywhere from 30-60 minutes depending on how my output was on that given day.
I woke up in the middle of the night, every single night, to pump and I did that for more than 7 months, even though Maddie slept through the night since maybe 8 weeks old.
Mastering the Art of Pumping
That was HOURS of my day, devoted to making milk.
My max milk output with this new routine was usually around 10-12 oz per day. That milk was my prize, it was my priority, even though everything else in my life came second.
I still wasn’t leaving the house very often, interactions with friends were sparse, and my personal relationships suffered. Going anywhere was a complete chore.
My sister got married during this time; Maddie was just shy of 6 months old, and figuring out this routine on the go while trying to serve as a useful and supportive matron of honor was difficult to say the least.
We even managed to forget our frozen milk at home during this weekend away for the wedding. We mastered the art of packing all pumping supplies (in addition to all the “gear” you have to bring to go anywhere with a baby) and setting up a pumping routine in a hotel room.
Pumping was never easy though.
And every day with this routine was a struggle, and a fight, because of the huge strain it put on carrying out NORMAL day to day activities.
Every Drop Mattered
Pumping means missing out. Maybe other pumping mamas feel differently. Moments with your newborn are fleeting.
Babies grow and change and develop so fast. Every time I sat down to pump meant it was time where I couldn’t hold, snuggle, or play with Maddie.
I missed out on so much time with her.
I sat there pumping for countless hours while my husband or family and friends got to play with her, make her giggle, cuddle her, sing her to sleep.
Pumping on the couch, pumping on the back patio, pumping in the nursery, pumping in the bathroom while getting ready, pumping at work, pumping in a bridesmaids dress, pumping in the backseat, pumping on long car drives, pumping on the floor in hotel bathrooms, pumping in a restaurant.
I literally felt like her (broken) milk cow and like my sole purpose in her life was to make her food- despite not making enough. I did it because it’s what I thought was best.
Every mama wants what is best for her baby. I so desperately wanted to provide Maddie with my nutrient packed, super-food called breast milk.
Every drop mattered. And yes, mamas will CRY over spilled milk.
The End of A Transformational Journey
And now, as I write this memoir during national breastfeeding month, I am using my story to say goodbye to my breastfeeding journey. After a long conversation with our Pediatrician, we have decided that this is where our journey ends.
I am weaning myself from this pumping life. I am drinking coffee again, just in time for this year’s early release of pumpkin spice. #basic. HAHA.
We made it using breastmilk and formula for 7+ months! What a whirlwind of a journey.
I feel that in this process I have learned enough to become IBCLC certified. Maybe I will seek out that certification in the future, to help mamas like me, who so desperately need support, education, reassurance and guidance.
I’m proud of my hard work and devotion to my baby (and my breast pump)- even if it was the hardest commitment I’ve ever made.
You can’t imagine how freeing it is to be able to go for a walk, go to the gym, see my friends and family, or go grab groceries without worrying about the pumping life. Those are the simplest things I have learned not to take for granted.
Meet the brave mom author behind the story, @nicoledenise
Your Strength Is Not Measured In Ounces
The mama tribe emerges from deep within the woodwork to help other mamas when they are struggling and that support system has been such a source of love and encouragement.
Mamas I haven’t spoken to in years were suddenly some of my biggest confidants. To all the mamas out there who are struggling, I see you!
If you are struggling like me, I want you to know you’re not the only one without a picture perfect breastfeeding experience.
To the mamas who have it a little easier, I kindly ask you to use caution when talking to other mamas about their breastfeeding journeys, and not to take your milky blessings for granted.
To all the mamas, no matter the outcome (nursing, pumping, supplementing, or 100% formula) your love for your baby is the best thing you can provide! Your strength is not measured in ounces and neither is mine.
To my Spectra S1, until we meet again.