August 1-7 is World Breastfeeding Week and we have a special extended line up for you! Our writers will share their triumphs and tears through their personal recollections of making sure their babies are fed, be it through breastfeeding or supplementation. We hope you connect with these experiences by picking up a few tips or gaining the confidence to do what is best for your situation. Enjoy!
I’ve spent enough time around the internet to know that when digital moms come together, they let the claws out for three fights in particular: sleeping, disciplining, and feeding. Co-sleeping, sleep training, time outs, formula feeding… any of these topics or others in those categories quickly turn even the most peaceful mama into a heap of feelings. I know you’re not one of those people, but consider this your content warning. I’m going to talk about deciding whether or not to nurse, and if that makes your hackles stand up, take a deep breath. I’m going to say things like “fed is best” and “non-FDA approved drug” and other argumentative stuff, but I swear I’m not doing it to pick a fight. I’m doing it because it’s true and because hopefully you and I can set our weapons down and get back to focusing on helping each other be the best moms and best women we can be.
See, it took me nearly two years to get pregnant. Through numerous fertility treatments, I’d learned my body can’t do what it’s supposed to do naturally. When we did (kinda miraculously, actually) get pregnant, we attended birthing classes. The teacher kept telling us that birth is what a woman’s body was meant to do. “Yeah right,” I thought. “You don’t know my body.” Sure enough, labor eventually stretched over the course of three days, required significant intervention, and ended with my daughter sprinted off to the special care nursery before I even got to hold her.
The first time I found her in my arms was hours after her birth. I went to her little room, negotiated all her wires and monitors, and tried to nurse her for the first time. It was hard. She was so fragile and so sick, and all the cables dangling off her didn’t help. After everything had gone so wrong, I decided that nursing was going to be the one thing that my body would finally do.
I had to go back to work just six weeks after her birth, so I had to learn how to be a pumping mom. I had no clue what I was doing, but it was working. Well, until I got sick. When my girl was just four months old, I came down with some awful illness. My milk supply completely tanked. This was normal, the pediatrician assured me. Rest and hydrate and it will come back. I did, and it didn’t. I got nervous. I pumped more often. I started taking every single supplement suggested. I ate brewers yeast and oatmeal. I missed work for extra doctor’s appointments and pumping sessions. I cried myself to sleep. I tried to nurse my daughter until she simply wore herself out from trying to eat. I lost my mind.
Ultimately, a mom friend in one of those secret mother’s places of the internet made a suggestion that sent me to a lactation consultant. That compassionate, self-described “lactivist” not only prescribed me domperidone, a non-FDA approved medication known to increase milk supply, but she sent me to a pharmacy that would actually compound it for me. (Here’s where I remind you that I’m not your doctor, and am not able to talk you through that health risk.) Within a week, my supply rebounded. My daughter and I nursed past 14 months, and my hyper-anxious, overly-scheduled pumping even left me with ample frozen supplies left over that I was able to give away to a friend in need.
Much, much later, when I recounted this story to a fellow mama, she stopped me. “Why?” she said, earnest in her confusion. “Why did you put yourself through all that?”
It’s the first time someone actually asked me that question. In that moment, I knew I could answer honestly: “I don’t know.” Because I don’t know. I almost ruined myself to nurse my daughter.
As I reflect on it, I can tell you two reasons why I did all that. First, because I really, really wanted to prove to myself that my body could work the way it’s supposed to. After the suffering of infertility and a life-threatening birth, I wanted my body to just be normal. However, even as I went through all of this, I watched one of my dearest friends find out she couldn’t nurse at all. Her body just didn’t make milk. Was her body, which carried and bore a perfect little girl, any less normal or beautiful because of that? Was her bond with her baby determined by how she fed it? The answer is no, and I remind myself to this day that whether a mother nurses or bottle-feeds her baby, the thing that makes her a mother is her love and devotion.
The second reason I put myself through all that was that I’d heard it from the beginning: breast is best. And oh, mamas: I know. I know all the reasons why breast milk is the best, most wonderful, most perfect food for your baby. I hope beyond hope that you’re willing to try nursing your child, and if both your body and your baby’s body thrive because of it, that you have the support you need to carry on just as long as you both possibly can.
But that’s the catch, isn’t it? Sometimes you can’t. There are times a baby isn’t physically able to nurse. Sometimes a mother’s body can’t make sufficient food. And sometimes – and here’s the hard part to navigate – sometimes nursing is so painful or difficult or exhausting that a mama can’t be a good mama to her baby if she keeps doing it. I know all these circumstances are so rare, and I’m still here to tell you that they’re possible. If that’s the case, then fed is best. Whatever keeps everyone safe and well is what is best, and sometimes that’s formula.
We put so much pressure on ourselves to be perfect mamas. It’s why we fight so much about food and sleep and discipline, right? Because we feel like we constantly have to defend ourselves and our choices so no one can accuse us of being bad moms. For me, I wore that pressure like a heavy millstone around my neck when I nursed my baby. And you can tell me that I just needed to calm down – name for me one time that telling a woman to calm down has actually achieved the desired effect. Rather than how to magically calm down, I wish I knew then what I know now: that I didn’t have to breastfeed to be a good mom. If I didn’t make enough milk to send to daycare, it was okay to pick up formula. What mattered is loving and caring for my baby with my full self no matter how much milk my self made.
I celebrate breastfeeding. I treasure the fact I could do it. But it still has taken me years to shake off the shame and anxiety I felt when I feared I couldn’t. If you find yourself asking if it’s all worth it, find some trusted people to talk to about it. It’s okay to stop nursing if it helps you start being a fully-invested mom again. It’s also okay to choose to do whatever it takes to keep nursing if it helps you live into the mom you want to be. Either way, I’m here for you. It’s okay. Whether your baby gets a bottle or a breast, you’re doing a great job.