Adrienne Battistella is ANTIGRAVITY’s senior photo editor and owner of Adrienne Battistella Photography. She lives on the Westbank with her husband (and AG EIC) Dan, son Theodore, and two rescue dogs Annie and Luna.
FED IS BEST
In late January, at the age of 35, I gave birth to my son Theodore (Teddy). I spent nine months preparing: taking classes, working with my doula, asking all the questions at my appointments with the midwives at Ochsner Baptist, and watching YouTube videos of everything from live births to how to swaddle correctly. I felt knowledgeable, confident, and definitely prepared. I mean, women have been giving birth since the dawn of history. I knew I could get through it with as much gusto as the brave women before me.
Cut to 19 hours of active labor later, me screaming NO! NO! NO! I CAN’T DO THIS!, and then facing the reality that the little man was not coming out on his own. He was stuck at 9.5 cm for almost a whole day, sunny-side-up (posterior position, face up). When his heart rate began to drop, we knew a c-section was imminent. Of course, I was devastated and scared and really confused about how this could have happened to me. But alas, we did what was necessary—I got an epidural and they prepared me for surgery while my husband suited up for the operating room.
About an hour later, our baby boy was born at 8 pounds, 4 ounces and struggling to breathe with fluid in his lungs. Another blow. For almost 30 minutes I laid on the table, begging them to let me know what was happening. My midwife gave me updates as the doctors suctioned and worked to stabilize him. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, they brought him over to me and placed his head by mine. I was not able to hold him until after I was sewn up. My husband brought him to our assigned hospital room to hold him skin-to-skin.
I’ve really had a hard time processing my son’s birth day. I still can’t look at the labor pictures my doula took. I cry when I think about how—so badly—I wanted my first child’s birth to bring happy memories. But as any mother will tell you, no matter how hard the birth, it is still the most joyous and proud day of your life. You feel depleted but powerful, scared but so confident.
Through many tears, an unplanned c-section, and the beginning of our lifelong journey into parenthood, we made it home. The story really begins here, where a new mom once again gets smacked in the face with expectations vs. reality. What started as Teddy dropping some weight in the hospital led to him not peeing or pooping for 24 hours (a millennium in baby time) once we were home, followed by scary phone calls to staff nurses who told us to bring him to the ER. Apparently, not pooping is OK but not urinating means something bad is happening.
I was terrified for him but also terrified at the prospect of having to pack a three-day-old baby up and dealing with the ER during COVID-19. At this point, I was solely nursing. I had absolutely no idea something could be wrong with my milk supply or with his latch. Over the previous three days in the hospital, lactation nurses observed all of that and no one mentioned that anything could be wrong. They said dropping weight is normal, and he seemed to be latching fine. The last day in the hospital he was circumcised and they mentioned that he needed to poop/pee by 6 p.m. that night. So I naively assumed this was a case of newborn pain and digestion.
At 11 p.m., the diaper still dry, we consulted with a family member who is a forensic pediatrician. She suggested taking his diaper completely off for a while. We did and he was able to make a small pee. That got us through the night with no ER visit but we scheduled an emergency visit to the pediatrician the next day. Back to Ochsner we went—worried, overwhelmed, and tired. During the visit, we weighed Teddy and realized he had dropped too much weight beyond the allotted limit of “normal birth reduction.” He seemed hungry so I began to nurse him. The doctor went through the exam asking questions and finally told me she thought I wasn’t producing enough milk for him. This is the moment in the movie where they cut to a dolly zoom of my face (à la Jaws). “Scuze me whuuut?”
After 35 years of life, watching my sister birth four children and breastfeed them for at least a year each, and talking to countless moms along the way, I naively had no idea this could be an issue. Yes people, I always assumed you either did or didn’t breastfeed your kid—like it was a choice. In some ways, I felt so betrayed—by my doctors, midwives, and society. All nine months of pregnancy I heard, “Are you going to breastfeed?” I always thought that question was kind of dumb. Like do other moms choose to NEVER put their child to their breast to give them nourishment and bond with them? Of course I was going to breastfeed my child! It was one of the things I looked forward to.
Leaving that pediatrician visit, I felt irate. I was told I needed to supplement him with formula until my supply came in properly. The doctor assumed it was delayed, a common occurrence with cesarean births. There was no way I was going to give my child synthetic garbage at such a young age. So we called our friend (and AG’s senior editor) Erin, who had just had a baby two months prior to see if she could lend us some extra breast milk. At this point, I was still hopeful my supply was coming and I just needed to buy some time. Thankfully, Erin had enough in her bank to loan us two bags full. I immediately went home and started pumping. The suggested program to help my supply was to nurse him on demand and pump every three hours. Which basically meant pumping or nursing around the clock. It was a daunting task but I managed to do it.
That first pump with the machine was another gut-punch. Again not knowing anything, I pumped for almost 30 minutes and got less than an ounce. For reference, a normal pumping session is usually 5 to 12 minutes. Needless to say, the nips were not happy with me and I definitely produced more tears than breastmilk. I was a mess. I watched Teddy guzzle Erin’s milk like he was starving and I don’t think I will ever be able to explain in words what all of that did to me mentally.
I went places I shouldn’t have. I thought about how we both would have died during labor if we lived in a time without modern medicine available to us. I thought about how even if we got through labor, he would have starved to death because I couldn’t give him what he needed. These thoughts consumed me; that week unfolded as the hardest week of my life. I sobbed constantly and panicked watching the breast milk reserve dwindle, knowing formula was imminent and I had no other choice in the matter (Ochsner does offer breast milk from their bank for purchase, but the task of obtaining it and affording it was a bit outside of our capabilities). So I sent Dan to the store to purchase formula.
“Get the best, most organic one you can find,” I told him. Off he went to Target where he found Earth’s Best organic formula. It claimed to be “the closest thing to breastmilk.” He also got me all the lactation supplies they offered: supplements, cookies, protein bars, etc. At home, I continued to try and get my supply up. Nursing was so fucking hard. My back ached, I could never get him in a comfortable position, and I was having these hormonal surges that made me feel like I was on fire and sweat profusely.
Why was this so hard for me?! Breastfeeding felt like trying to sherpa an unskilled climber up Mount Everest with only a half-filled oxygen tank and one of my toes frozen off. I knew he depended on me for survival, but I questioned if I had the strength to make it myself. Did other moms experience such difficulties trying to feed their babies? Come to find out, yes.
According to the CDC, “Sixty percent of mothers do not breastfeed for as long as they intend to. How long a mother breastfeeds her baby (duration) is influenced by many factors including: Issues with lactation and latching…” At this point, I really wasn’t sure what was causing my low milk supply, so I met with a lactation consultant. I was still holding out hope that it was stalled due to my c-section.
After an hour-long visit from the lactation consultant, I was given her opinion. She thought he had a tongue-tie that was causing a weak latch. The directions we got were to see a speech pathologist who would refer us to a dentist who could clip his tongue. Then we would do physical therapy and ultimately keep working with lactation consultants to fix the problem. She warned that she wasn’t a specialist, so technically she couldn’t diagnose a tongue-tie, but she had worked with a lot of babies with similar issues and Teddy’s was comparable.
FUCK. There was no way I was clipping my baby’s tongue unless I was 100% sure it was necessary. After hours scouring the internet, I came across lots of information about the big business of tongue-tied babies. One ex-lactation consultant claimed diagnoses were up 800% and though they tell you “it is about as painful as a circumcision,” it is actually weeks of pain and trauma for your baby. She said parents are hearing things like “posterior tongue-ties… speech problems later in life” etc., which are meant to scare them into a completely unnecessary procedure.
I was very skeptical that Teddy had anything wrong—in the back of my mind I always knew it was me. I’ve always had hormonal problems and I believed this was just another unfortunate side effect of that. But we made an appointment with a speech pathologist for a second opinion. She ultimately reassured us that nothing was wrong with Teddy’s tongue.
I am concerned other new parents may be faced with a similar diagnosis, so I think it is important that you do your research. Get second, even third opinions if you have to. I know how vulnerable it feels in the wake of bringing a newborn home from the hospital.
After confirming Teddy was fine and my lack of milk supply was due to hormonal issues, I faced the fact that formula was inevitable. Still holding firm to all the stigmas, I begrudgingly fixed bottle after bottle. I was continuing to pump as much as I could but by month two, I was only able to produce about 1 to 2 ounces per day. I stopped putting him to my breast because the anxiety wasn’t helping him—or me.
It was so difficult getting him to sleep. He would close his eyes and 10 minutes later be up again. It was hard; I was exhausted. At 2.5 months-old, I decided to end my breastfeeding struggles and just give him formula. Even though I was sad, I felt my anxiety dissipate. About a week later, Teddy was sleeping through the night, napping on schedule, and was the coolest, most chill baby I had ever known. I can’t help but think that accepting the reality and committing to stopping breastfeeding altogether was the best decision for both of us. I began enjoying feeding him. I joined social media groups that really honored formula as a viable, perfectly safe alternative to breast milk. I felt supported by my husband and team.
Teddy is about to be seven months old. He is growing, thriving, and meeting all of his milestones. He has some cheeks people shout about in public. He is the reason I wake up in the morning. I am so thankful I have a workable solution to keep my baby safe and fed.
For more info, resources, and support groups, check out the following:
“Helping moms feel good about formula!”
“Celebrator of all feeders / advocate for low supply education”
Louisiana Tongue Tie Support Group
Vetted “Preferred Provider” list for the entire state
Speech/Language therapy, ABA, and early-intervention. Home visits
illustrations Victoria Allen