When Breastfeeding Just Doesn’t Work

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I assumed that my motherhood journey would include breastfeeding. But much like many parts of motherhood, I never imagined how our story would unfold.

During a recent dinner conversation, my family and I were talking about my best friends new baby. As my 4-year old daughter Kennedy popped the last bite of salmon into her mouth, she asked me what the baby liked for dinner. While discussing breastfeeding basics, I was instantly transported to one of the earliest struggles I had as a new mom. A struggle I wish someone had earnestly talked to me about before and after having Kennedy so that I wouldn’t have felt so alone and like a failure. A struggle that through years of therapy and open honest discussions with other moms I have found is not as uncommon as I thought. This story is about a struggle that started the week Kennedy was born. This story is about breastfeeding.

I preface this part of my motherhood journey asking that we do not shame, and please know that I never have nor will judge another mom for their journey. My internal struggle on how to feed my child was not because I thought any alternative inferior, but rather due to a perfectionists overwhelming fear of not adhering to all the “shoulds” I heard that clouded my ability to see all my options. I share my journey as a way to unite moms no matter how our stories unfold, because we are all just trying to do the best for our children and ourselves. So mama, you do you.

A Dreamed is Dashed

I think that before we become moms, we have this vision of what life will be like with our children. But reality isn’t always what we expected, and sometimes we have to let go of a “dream” because it’s just not how our journey was meant to be. When we have our children, we also learn that we cannot control everything (sometimes the hard way). Despite our best efforts to plan as much as we can, despite our dreams we may have had for years- conceiving, gestating, birthing, and raising a child is a wild ride with ups and downs we could never predict.

Even the most realistic of us have visions of what new motherhood will be like. I had always assumed I would breastfeed my children. That did not turn out to be my story.

One of the visions I had while pregnant with Kennedy involved beautiful nursing sessions filled with surges of oxytocin and deep peaceful bonding. I figured I’d be able to look down at my daughter’s sweet face, no matter the time or place, knowing I was nourishing her and helping her grow strong. I don’t even know if this was actually a dream, but something I just assumed would be a given. I never considered an alternative. From the moment I conceived I heard from every Internet outlet and baby book that “any woman can breastfeed if she wants to.” Can she? No. Can every child? No. Should we be making those assumptions and placing that pressure on moms? No. But alas, I assumed that since I wanted to breastfeed my child that I would be able to. What I never imagined was the emotional pain, fear, struggle, and even trauma that was our actual reality. I never imagined I wouldn’t be able to feed my own child.

Everything seemed ok in the hospital. Kennedy was latching fine and seemed to be getting what she needed. But after a day or so home I realized that she wasn’t pooping as much as the hospital told me she should be. As a first time clueless mom, this sent me into a panic. After making my husband call the on-call doctor and our doula multiple times, someone finally asked if my milk had come in. Nothing had indicated that it had, so we had a lactation consultant at our house within a few hours and the trajectory of our nursing journey changed from that day forward.

Got Milk?

Despite trying everything (and I mean everything), I did not produce near enough breast milk. I actually produced next to nothing. No one had warned me of the possibility that my autoimmune disease and a diagnosis of PCOS (Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome) led me to never develop the essentials needed to make milk. My milk never “came in”. My breasts never got bigger or even felt slightly engorged. If I had ever leaked milk I would of bawled because that precious drop needed to be given to my daughter and not left as a stain on my shirt. Everyone and everything had told me that I would and could make milk. But I quickly learned that was definitely not the case.

I never knew I could cry so much over milk!

Since those first days home from the hospital, I basically had a lactation consultant on retainer, coming to our house almost every day and answering middle of the night texts. I took every suggestion she made- from herbs, to cookies, to prescription medication. We did a nurse in, warm baths, 24 hour skin to skin. I power pumped with a hospital grade pump between every feeding, even if it was 3am and I hadn’t gotten more than 30 minutes of sleep that day. We had to weigh Kennedy before and after every feeding. We weighed her diapers. I started using a supplemental nursing system that involved Kennedy latching while I placed a small tube in her mouth so that she was still stimulating my breast while getting donor milk so she wouldn’t starve. All of this left me feeling overwhelmed, alone, and terrified.

What If It Isn’t Best for Everyone?

Being able to reflect now, and having a much better understanding of my perfectionist personality, it was all a recipe for disaster. I did everything to increase my supply but my body was not equipped to make more. And if it could, I was placing so much pressure and stress on myself that I don’t think my body would of cooperated either way. But I never felt like I could stop trying. I don’t know where the pressure came from exactly, but I felt it. As mothers we are given so many messages about how to do things “right”. We are told the “correct” way to feed, teach, school, guide, and raise our children. And if we don’t follow these “suggestions”, we can be seen as less than or failing our children. And no mother wants to feel that (nor should they!).

From the moment she was placed into my arms, I just wanted to do everything I could to give her the best life. I just needed to do a little learning to understand what that meant for our family.

I was not immune to the messages I heard. I’ve never  had a negative thought about formula or a mother not breastfeeding. I always felt that as long as the baby was loved and fed then that was all that mattered. But for some reason I couldn’t get the “should” out of my new mom mind. Despite not actually believing this, I didn’t want my first mission as a mom to be seen as a “failure.” My drive to be the perfect mom (ha!) led me to feel obsessed with trying to breast-feed. Even when people gave me “permission” to stop, I was too consumed with trying to fulfill that well-known slogan of “breast is best.” I now know fed is best, but those messages were so drilled in to my mind that I felt if I stopped trying and switched to formula then I would be failing my daughter.

A Disastrous Feeding Dance

Kennedy’s did have her own feeding issues that became more apparent about a month or so into our journey. Overnight, she went from sleepy newborn to a wide-eyed, high-needs active baby who only wanted to explore the world. Even at 2 months, she didn’t want to stop to nurse/take a bottle, and I quickly found everything feeling unmanageable. When she was awake, Kennedy demanded to be moving and exploring, so I couldn’t just rest her in a bouncer and pump. And she would only sleep in my arms while I was bouncing on a yoga ball, so pumping during naps should of been impossible. Looking back, this would of been a good time to pause and weigh all the pros and cons. But I was bound and determined to increase my supply, so I spent those naps bouncing with her asleep in my arms while simultaneously jimmying a system that allowed me to pump. I’d then anxiously wait for her to wake so that I could catch her sleepy enough to get her to nurse and use the SNS system. If she woke up too much, she’d be ready to explore and refuse to eat. I was filled with anxiety that she wasn’t getting enough and dread the next round of bouncing/pumping/feeding. We did this dance 24 hours a day, and it all felt like a disaster. 

My wide-eyed, active, smart baby! She had no idea the struggle her mama was going through emotionally during this time.

I was exhausted. Even with Kennedy’s high demands and feeding issues, I never took a minute to even try and take care of myself. I fiercely love my daughter and would do anything for her, so I ignored my health and did what I thought was best for her. When she was awake and we were exploring everything, she had me 100%. When there was even a possibility of taking a second to recharge my own battery (which isn’t often with a high needs baby), I would ignore even my basic needs and spend that time worrying about Kennedy and consumed with her eating. I felt like I losing my mind and myself trying to breast feed. My autoimmune disease flared so badly from stress and postpartum hormones that I was in chronic pain and anxious over every little thing. But it didn’t matter, I was on a mission. I wasn’t able to see that my own sanity was just as important as her receiving my breast milk.

A Time To Let Go

The combination of my low supply and Kennedy’s refusal to eat left me an absolute anxious mess. I will save the pain and details for another time, because Kennedy’s feeding issues is still something I am processing. Needless to say, we eventually ended up with a referral to the Failure to Thrive clinic. The specialist reassured us that she was just a curious and smart kid who was ready to be walking and talking and seeing the world. A baby who was not happy actually being a baby. They recommended switching to bottles so that she could eat quickly and get on with her mission of seeing and experiencing everything. Sounded so simple, right? But here I had spent the last 4 months trying everything to feed her at the breast. I grieved, but it was time to let go of breastfeeding.

At 6 months, Kennedy was always demanding to be walked around! At this point I had let go of breastfeeding, my girl was eating from a bottle, and I could spend all that time showing her the world!

I tried exclusively pumping at first, but I could never pump more than a few ounces a day and I needed to go back on my medication for my autoimmune disease before I did permanent damage to my own body. I did have a friend who was an over supplier that so graciously offered to pump all the breast milk Kennedy needed, which is just what worked for us. Had we not had that option, we would of switched to formula because that is what would of been best for Kennedy and our family. Stepping back for even just a second allowed me to finally see that Kennedy needed me 150% and there was no way to give her that while trying to breastfeed/pump. Having a healthy mom was what was best for her. Once going back on my medication, I was no longer in pain and could walk that determined little girl everywhere she wanted to explore. I could dance her around the house without feeling distracted by fear. I still had to feed her while moving and shaking, but I still felt just as bonded as I did when trying to breastfeed. In fact, I felt even closer to her because I wasn’t consumed by pressure and fear. There was even more oxytocin surges watching my little girl take a bottle than when I was stressed out and desperate to get her to drink my milk. She was eating. That is all that mattered.

A Moms Health and Wellness Counts

I looked back at this time in our lives and it’s still hard. As I watch Kennedy order the most exquisite things off the menu at restaurants, I wonder how we made it through. My oyster and olive loving girl is thriving, even without my breast feeding her. I thought all the stress and pressure was me doing the “best thing”, but I now know that what is best needs to be the best for me and my family. Not just what society deems as “best”. My sanity is so important for the health of my whole family. I learned it the hard way, but I learned it.

Spending the summer eating our way through Europe! Maybe we didn’t breastfeed, but we sure are bonded and happy.

I know that with another child, I will still try and breastfeed. But I will try with self-compassion and love. I still wonder if my stress over breastfeeding played a role in Kennedy’s subsequent feeding issues. I know it deeply affected my experience, and I don’t want to do that to anyone again. So, if it doesn’t work out then I will process that. I will grieve that. But I will honor that my mental health and that of my family is just as important as how a child is fed. I can now apply my struggle breastfeeding to many other challenges faced in motherhood. If I put too much pressure on myself and am so stressed in attempts to be “perfect”, I cannot be the best mama I want to be. And at the end of the day, we as moms matter too. I know we would all do anything for our kids, and sometimes that means letting go of those “shoulds”and taking care of us so that the whole family can thrive..

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Kathryn
Kathryn is a stay at home mom to her smart and spirited 5 year old daughter Kennedy, her new baby Croix, and three furry pets. After finishing grad school in NYC, Kathryn decided to embrace the cold and move to Madison. Despite plans to only live here for one year, she fell in love with her husband Joe and all the city has to offer. After a childhood of moving around internationally, she has enjoyed putting down roots in Madison but still loves to travel as much as possible. When not adventuring with her family, you can find Kathryn running around her neighborhood and local trails, writing with a strong cup of coffee, or making a mess baking in the kitchen with her kids.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Reading your article feels like PTSD. I too experienced chronic low supply with a high needs baby who suffered from an undiagnosed milk protein intolerance (which made her unable to tolerate donor milk). The first few months of her life were a whirlwind of doctors appointments and sleepless days and nights as I triple fed her. She hovered slightly above the failure to thrive weight threshhold until she was three months when we realized that the formula supplement we had been giving her was making her sick.

    I had a number of medical conditions that predisposed me to low milk supply. I didn’t even know that was a possibility until I experienced it. I had a great OB in Madison- and at my 6 week check up I asked her why she may not have mentioned that to me as something to be aware of during my pre-natal care. Having some pre-education on the topic may have helped me to have things like bottles and formula picked out in advance- as navigating all of that in the midst of everything felt quite overwhelming.

    My daughter is now a chunky and healthy toddler. Nursing is a conflicted memory which became significantly less painful once my daughter was old enough to eat “real food.” We are stopping with one child for a number of reasons- but those early months of my daughters life are a significant one.

    I have made a number of efforts to try to relay my experience to the hospital and OB office- as I can only hope if they know better, they may be able to do better to help other women who may be in similar circumstances in the future.

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