Updated: Dec 3, 2019
Written By: Amanda Hudak
Let me preface this article by saying that I think breastfeeding is wonderful, and I hope and plan to breastfeed with my new little one, and this is in no way slander against it.
When my son was born in June of 2016, he spent three and a half weeks in the hospital. He wasn’t preemie, but they weren’t quite sure what was wrong with him, so they hoped for the best and treated for the worst; and that meant he had many wires and tubes in his body, and IV hookups with antibiotics, medications, and supplements. After he was born, they whisked him away so quickly when he came out that I wasn’t able to hold him until he was 12 hours old. That was even before things went south 24 hours after birth, when we weren’t able to hold him for a few days after that. A lot of skin-to-skin bonding and early breastfeeding moments and learning was missed. Early learning: strike one.
So I pumped. Every two hours I sat there hooked up to a machine, staring at “Breast is Best” and “Liquid Gold” posters (which makes me cringe now because guilt is kind of a useless emotion), building a milk supply and stock so that finally when my baby was allowed to eat, my milk would have already been established come in and there would be enough.
Precious time was lost because we couldn’t hold him, and eventually when I was able to, it was difficult to try and breastfeed a hungry, squirming baby who had so many hookups, some very crucial and important ones, that heaven forbid one should pop out. He had no concept of hunger up to that point because one of the IV supplements he was on was for nutrition so he never went hungry. When he started on my pumped milk on day four, it was via a bottle, which was instant gratification. So now all of a sudden he had a foreign feeling of hunger and having to wait and work for food, along with a foreign object to figure out how to maneuver to get what he wanted. Time spent in NICU: strike two.
When he was finally allowed to eat and everything was going well healthwise, some of his wires and tubes were able to come out and be disconnected, and finally we could hold him a little more freely. Every day I tried breastfeeding him, but he was so unhappy. He tried, I tried. He cried, I cried. He didn’t have the greatest latch, and while he wasn’t tongue-tied, no nurse, lactation consultant, or myself could explain to a baby how to properly latch.
When we were finally discharged from the hospital, I continued to pump religiously, all the while continuing to try him on the breast. No matter how early I tried to catch him before hunger set in to ease frustration, it never worked. He hated it. We did this horrible boobie dance a couple times a day, every day, for two months, and he and I had had enough. He was an impatient little bugger, and wanted what he wanted when he wanted it (to date this remains one of his personality traits). He was so content and happy to have the breast milk from a bottle, why would I want to continue and try something that made him, and me, so miserable? Unhappiness: strike three.
So I stopped trying. I was officially an exclusive pumper.
But exclusive pumping, while makes you feel great that “at least your baby is getting breast milk,” comes with its own set of frustrations and complications. You are hooked up to, and thereby bound, by a machine and more or less immobile for 20-30 minutes every two to three hours.
Then there’s the fear about having enough. Perhaps mine was greater because of the hospital experience, and most moms would’ve given formula a lot sooner than I did. When milk is straight from the tap or you have cans and cans of formula, they can just keep drinking. But when it’s sucked out of you, put into bottles and bags, only so much comes out, you can’t help but pray that there’s enough. And you live by a very seemingly scientific and mathematical process of ounces and millilitres of liquid gold calculations. Worry and panic set in, always hoping that you have enough pumped and ready.
Don’t even get me started on the non-stop cleaning and sterilizing, which is a huge chore on it’s own. We were running the microwave so often for the steam sterilizer that it broke.
Then there’s the preparing of the bottle while on the go, which of course you have to do if you formula feed; but something about the thought of losing a whole bottle of liquid gold if it went bad, wasn’t stored or heated properly, or he didn’t eat it, made me fearful, more than I would have cared if a formula bottle went to waste.
And what if you knock over a bottle in your middle-of-the-night stupor? Dear God, the horror!
Between the pumping, cleaning, and then actually feeding the baby, it was a continuous cycle of what felt like I had twins or triplets. What some moms could do in 20 minutes and be done with until the next feeding, mine was at least a two hour process with a brief break before I had to do it again. I was already suffering from postpartum anxiety and PTSD from the birth and NICU stay, and there was so much timing and calculating and cleaning involved that it was exhausting. I was bound by timelines, not wanting to lose my supply. And it got to me, mentally and emotionally.
I remember one such occasion where I went out with other mom friends and their babies and our get-together ran long. My anxiety grew increasingly more palpable the more that time was passing since I had pumped last. When I was finally able to get away, I called my husband on the drive home completely screaming and crying about being four or five hours from my last pumping session. I was losing it. I have never been so hysterical in my life. Even though I had bottles in the fridge and some bags of milk in the freezer, he would not have starved by any means, but it was this constant battle of just wanting to provide for my son, mixed with fear and probably slightly unrealistic feelings of society and what’s best. (About what was best…for ME and MY BABY. I scoff at it now. Somehow an overarching, generalizing, catchy-worded statement was constantly being thrown at me; repeated in my head like an annoying song.)
The older my son got, the more I realized it was becoming less and less worth it. He was becoming more mobile, he was healthy as hell, smart, thriving, and starting on solids. Why would I miss out on extra snuggles, play, and memories just because I felt, and “society” made me feel, that this was the best and only milk my child should have, lest he not have the immunity of Superman, be less intelligent, or spontaneously combust. I only wish I had started formula sooner. I made it six months without formula, and I tell you, it would have saved a lot of anxiety, pain, mental anguish, sadness, stress, everything, if I had just done even one meal a day of formula. Learn from me ladies. If you are even remotely the way I was, don’t hesitate or wait – not just to stop or start something with feeding your baby – but to do anything that makes you a happier, healthier mom.
On the one hand, you have some that will say that everyone can breastfeed if you try hard enough, get enough help, use the right methods, etc., but none of that is possible, or worth it, at the cost of mental health, happiness, and well-being. If I could’ve breastfed I would have. (Something about an on-tap, preheated meal just sounds so glorious!) And while technically I did feed from the breast via exclusive pumping, if I could go back, I would’ve stopped being so hard on myself, painstakingly driving myself to unnecessary pain, physically and mentally. I would’ve most definitely supplemented with formula sooner and stopped pumping sooner. I made it six months of only feeding expressed milk, eight months pumping before I stopped completely, and with enough freezer stored milk to give him one bottle of breast milk a day after until ten months old, after which he was fully formula and solids fed. In hindsight, I’m very proud of myself, but also disappointed that I let myself get in so deep.
The problem with the message of “Breast is Best” is that, in saying what is best as a general statement for every baby, it is being assumed then it is automatically what is best for mom. And when it’s not – because there are times it is not – it only serves to make these women feel guilty and probably worse than they already do about not being able to do it.
If you want to breastfeed and are able to breastfeed, you are doing what’s right for you, and that is fantastic. Just always remember that not everyone can, and it’s not child abuse not to breastfeed. Reserve judgement. I could almost guarantee that nine times out of ten it was a very hard and painful choice to make for that woman, or maybe the choice was made for her, such is the case with physical reasons, breast cancer, and many NICU babies.
With or without breast milk, your child will grow, learn, thrive, and be happy no matter what you decide. Do what’s right for YOU, not just baby. Because in the end, feeding your baby is what’s right for your baby. A healthy, sane, and happy mommy is what’s right for you and thereby, what’s right for the baby too. You will have dark times, and when your thoughts go there, you have to think, is it really worth it? Is it really what’s best? “Breast Might be Best” is a better slogan, but only when and IF it’s best for you. You deserve to be happy too, Mama. Don’t kill yourself trying to provide something for your baby that either which way, they will be fine. I think a happy healthy mommy is more important in the end than what milk they drink. Eventually, they all end up eating the same junk food, Play-Doh, and floor crumbs as every other kid.