Natalie texted me a question this morning about breastfeeding. Instead of keeping this very personal and sometimes sensitive topic between friends, I decided to post the answer on the Internet where people are known for being totally reasonable and respectful, especially when it comes to stuff that is absolutely no one’s business like how you keep your child alive!
When I was pregnant, the plan was to 100% breastfeed my son for a couple reasons. 1- I am cheap and formula costs more cash money than breastmilk. (I’ve read you’re not supposed to say “it’s free!” because, as I learned, you’re paying a LOT in time, mental energy, did I mention time, oh yeah it takes up so much time, time time time. But we’ll get to that.) 2- I fully believe in the health benefits of breastfeeding for both mom and baby. It’s super cool that your body knows what specific antibodies your baby needs based on their saliva. That’s science!! 3- Bottles, formula, foreign stuff in my kid’s body- no thanks. Just whip out the boob for me, easy peasy!
I did a ton of reading, I got a breast pump, I got a hakaa, I got milk storage bags, I got nursing friendly clothes… you get it. Thankfully I wasn’t completely naive, and when people asked if I was planning to breastfeed (can we talk about THAT, by the way?? I know they’re just trying to be… I don’t know, helpful? But it’s weird. Don’t ask people that.) I would say, “If we’re able! That’s the plan, but I’ll do whatever we need to get him fed.”
After he was born, we did the golden hour of skin to skin and he did what so many newborns have biologically done before him & he wriggled his little brand new self down and latched like a champ. Success! I felt super lucky that it came so easy for us– he was a great eater in the hospital and we were on our way to my dream of exclusively breastfeeding for at least six, if not 12, months. What follows are a few things I’ve looked back on since and wondered if they contributed to the fact that I’m writing this next to a kid who’s been exclusively formula fed for over a month now, but I’ve had to accept that it doesn’t really matter. I can’t go back and change the past. I can learn from it if we have a second child and I want to try again, but in all the ways the fourth trimester have handed me my own ass, I choose to not let this be the thing that breaks me.
When the hospital lactation consultant came to visit, our son wasn’t in the room with us. I was a little concerned that she wasn’t actually able to assess him eating, but the nurses all reported things were going great, and the LC encouraged me to do follow up after we got home if we needed. He wasn’t in the room because he was getting circumcised (there! I said it! If you comment anything about our decision that doesn’t affect you AT. ALL. I will <insert empty threat here.>) This is important info, though, because after this procedure, babies are VERY TIRED. A newborn that is very tired will choose sleep over eating.
I was already pretty distraught that day because they told us the procedure would be happening that morning, then they said maybe not til the afternoon, then they came and got him for it just before 11 a.m. He was due for another feeding around 11:30 and I said, “Uhhhh isn’t he supposed to eat?” and long story short, he missed this feeding and wouldn’t wake up for his next one so he ended up going for like six hours without food. Six hours without food for a teeny tiny one day old baby is too many hours without food. He ended up finally waking up just enough to eat, but that night when they weighed him, the nurse said he was “close” to having lost 10% of his body weight and asked if were ok with them supplementing him with formula.
I knew from all my reading that this was a possibility, and I didn’t want to say, “No, please don’t feed my son if he needs it” so I agreed. They supplemented him with a couple mL of formula and no one died. He was just fine in the morning so he didn’t need any more supplementing. I found out later that the nurse was just being preemptive and that the hospital pediatrician never had a problem with his weight. A lesson for everyone doing this for the first time, ask questions! “Close” to 10% weight lost is not actually 10%. Turns out it was closer to 9 and while that doesn’t sound like that big of a difference, apparently it is when you’re only seven pounds.
ANYWAY– we get home, things are fine, then it’s nighttime on his third night of life. Around 10:30 p.m. it becomes apparent that our happy breastfeeding situation has come off the rails. Kid is HUNGRY and I don’t have enough of what he wants. I’d heard tales of women waking up nearly needing a new mattress after their milk came in, but mine just… never did. There was no, “Ta da! I’m here! We’ve officially switched from colostrum!” It did change to regular ol’ breastmilk, but in paltry amounts. Like, if we were on the prairie in the 1800s and I was his only source of food, this kid would have died. (Am I being dramatic? I don’t know!! I’m sure in the 1800s my body would have done what it needed to and hopefully ramped up production? But it didn’t in 2020!)
Thankfully before we had left the hospital, we had three little Similac sample bottles in our bassinet drawer from when they had supplemented him, so I just threw ’em in the diaper bag (Natalie, take everything in that hospital room that’s not nailed down. Seriously.) As I’m trying to comfort a screaming, hungry baby that first night home, my husband asked if he should go get one of those bottles. Every “Breast is best!” and formula-feeding horror (shame) story I’d read flooded my brain, but I was too tired to be proud in vain. I said yes, we popped that bottle in the kid’s mouth, and I promise you that was the most content I’d yet to see him.
I don’t want to make this long story longer, so we did combo feeding for two months. We would still breastfeed and I would pump, but he also got formula. I’d say about 20% of his consumption was breastmilk. Some breastfeeding zealots reading this are probably thinking, “Well duh, your body never made more milk because it never needed to.” i understand that if we had done a 24-hour lie in where I did nothing but offer the baby my boob for a full damn day, my body likely would have responded by ramping up production. But reader– I didn’t want to. Ooh it feels so spicy saying that aloud! Do you know how much time of your life is spent breastfeeding if that’s how your exclusively feeding your kid? A LOT. I’m not saying this to discourage anyone– I have so many friends who are doing it and they deserve a million dollars and a year’s vacation. I’m just telling you because I didn’t know. You can hear the statistic that you spend 40 hours a week breastfeeding your newborn, but until you’re living those 40 hours, you can’t yet feel them in your exhausted bones and soul.
Finally, a note on pumping. Again, it’s not evil, just want you to know that it’s not always the breezy set up the breast pump companies want you to believe it will be. It took me a few tries to find the right sized flanges for my pump, and I had a real not-loving relationship with it. I learned about myself that if it’s 3 a.m. and I’ve been up twice already since going to bed, I’m going to choose sleep over pumping every time. If I had a 40 minute window when baby was napping, pumping didn’t win out over feeding myself and showering. Of course I had a ton of guilt around this, and I felt shame when people (family… it’s always family) would ask how breastfeeding was going or offer tips to increase my supply.
I had to consciously work to reframe the narrative and think, “I’m giving my son what I can, and that’s enough. I’m proud of what I’m able to produce for him. No one’s story looks like anyone else’s story.” I’m thankful to have a very supportive partner who never pressured me either way. If anything, he felt thrilled he could contribute when we added bottles of pumped milk and formula so he could bond with the baby while feeding him. The overachieving part of my brain reads through this and sees the places where I “failed” or made choices that maybe could have produced a different outcome for our feeding tale, but I’ll never know. I had to let go of the dream of having a freezer stash of breastmilk, and instead be grateful for the reality of the (now very chunky) baby sitting in front of me. He’s happy and healthy, no matter how he came to grow that way.