There are a lot of “hot button” topics in the world of motherhood: vaccines, circumcision, sleep training. But the most deeply-rooted and emotional of these topics concerns the very way in which you choose to sustain your child’s life via nourishment. The breast vs. bottle debate rages on as it has for decades, with hardcore advocates on both sides and a whole lot of shaming being thrown in both directions.
I personally am of the opinion that all women should give breastfeeding a shot. Its benefits are tangible and no matter whether you nurse for two days or two years, your kid is getting valuable immunities from your milk. But I also understand that it’s not feasible or ideal for everyone.
I have friends who hated breastfeeding and stopped within a few weeks of their child’s birth. I have friends who desperately wanted to breastfeed and weren’t able to because of totally unavoidable issues like insufficient glandular tissue. I have friends who had to stop because they weren’t able to nurse while taking the medications they needed to maintain their own mental health. I have other friends who breastfed happily for years and let their children self-wean at the age of three or four. It’s a deeply personal choice, but as it goes with many aspects of parenting, that won’t stop people from injecting themselves into your decisions.
BREAST IS BEST?
Scientifically speaking, it is an unavoidable fact that breastmilk is the premiere nutrition for a human baby. That does not mean, however, that it is the only quality source of nutrition. Formula is heavily regulated these days; and while it isn’t capable of perfectly mimicking the makeup of breastmilk, it provides absolutely adequate nutrition for a growing baby and I will never tell another mother that she is hurting her child by giving them formula.
Be that as it may, there are great benefits to nursing for both mom and baby, and many hospitals these days do make a concerted effort to encourage breastfeeding and foster support networks to help new moms navigate their nursing journey. Ochsner Baptist has a strong focus on breastfeeding and the lactation department was incredibly helpful during and after our stay for Emmett’s birth. I was encouraged by both the lactation nurse and my midwife that I was doing a great job and I went home thinking I was all set.
The first few days after a baby is born, the mother produces something called colostrum, which is a thicker, richer type of milk very high in antibodies. Teeny tiny babies have teeny tiny tummies, so they don’t need much at the beginning, and this fatty milk is perfect to keep them full. A few days later, however, their stomachs begin to grow and they require more to be satiated. This is when a mother’s milk typically “comes in” and she may experience a time of engorgement while her body adjusts to the baby’s demands.
Unfortunately, nobody told me that having a traumatic birth and/or losing a lot of blood during delivery (both of which happened to me) could cause my milk to be delayed. Eight days after Emmett’s birth, I was still barely producing any milk and he was nursing around the clock. I attempted pumping with a hospital-grade double electric pump, only to have mere drops collect in the bottle. I have a distinct memory of my husband feeding Emmett with a medicine dropper as he fussed for more. I also remember knocking over a bottle that contained just a quarter ounce of thin, transparent milk (that had taken me 45 minutes to pump) and crying for hours over it.
I already felt like I was failing and I’d been a mom for a week. I reached out to my friends in desperation and, like angels from heaven, they dropped a basket of lactation supplies on my doorstep: flaxseed, brewer’s yeast, fenugreek supplements, mother’s milk tea. My husband made me four dozen lactation cookies. I pumped multiple times a day—even when nothing came out—and I drank 100 ounces of water a day and ate every few hours, all to make sure I had enough raw material in my body to make milk.
I finally felt like I was getting somewhere and Emmett had gotten back up to his birth weight. That very same day—just ten days after my son’s birth—my father was rushed to the ER in my hometown and so began the long and painful saga of saying goodbye to him. We were back and forth between New Orleans and the hospital in Alabama for the first month of Emmett’s life, with me all the while struggling to build and maintain my tenuous milk supply.
THE TIES THAT BIND
I was nursing him approximately every 90 minutes—day and night. I was exhausted. I was falling apart emotionally. A lot of people told me to stop. They assured me it was OK to give him formula. And deep down I knew it was. But I couldn’t seem to explain to them why I wasn’t ready to do that. With time comes clarity, though. I know now why I couldn’t give up nursing: it was the only time I felt worthwhile during what would become unequivocally the darkest hour of my life.
Sometimes I worried that I was starving my son. I wasn’t—he was still gaining weight and making wet diapers, but that didn’t allay my fears. I worried that it was just one more way I was failing, after my plans for a drug-free delivery collapsed under the weight of 41 hours of back labor. I felt like a shitty mom. But the lactation department assured me I was doing just fine. They reminded me that nursing is a supply-demand relationship and that if I wanted my body to make more milk, I had to “put that baby to the breast.”
I struggled to connect with Emmett in those early days. I was so tired and felt like such an epic failure that I looked at him and felt this disconnect between what I had imagined and what I was now dealing with. I know now that postpartum depression creeps in around the corners like that and blurs your vision. But in the moment, the only time Emmett truly felt like “mine” was when I was nursing him. I would watch him as he feverishly rooted, seeking out the one thing that he knew would keep him alive. I felt needed. I felt important. I felt, frankly, a little less like dying.
EASY DOES IT
Breastfeeding never got easy for me. It got easier, yes, but never easy. Between two and four months, Emmett plummeted percentiles on the growth chart and our pediatrician warned us that if he didn’t bounce back, we’d need to supplement—or possibly switch entirely—to formula. Thankfully, he continued to grow at a normal rate, but he seems to have found a new curve and it’s certainly on the lower end of the spectrum.
“Bottle or breast, we’re all in this together, mama.”
I get reminded of this on a regular basis when strangers in Costco tell me how adorable he is and then balk when I tell them his age, remarking things like, “Oh he’s SO SMALL!” and “You should put rice cereal in his bottle at night” only to make a vaguely disgusted face when I tell them he doesn’t get a bottle—he’s breastfed. I think my kid is perfect, but strangers (and even some friends) don’t hesitate to tell me just how undersized he is, which feels like an accusation that I’m not doing the right thing for him.
I still struggle to maintain my supply. I still can’t pump more than 2 ounces combined in a 45 minute pumping session. Some women don’t respond well to a pump and I am one of them. I have to just trust that there is truth to the lactation consultant’s go-to line that the baby is much more efficient at extracting milk than a machine is.
I suspect that I have low storage capacity and a slow refill rate, which means that I can only hold so much milk at a time, and that once my son empties that, it can take longer than normal for my body to replenish it. I am grateful to be working from home, because I know if I had gone back to work outside the home full time and had to rely on pumping bottles for him every three hours, our breastfeeding relationship would have ended long ago.
People said nursing would help me lose the baby weight. Turns out that’s not true for everyone. In fact, some women gain weight while nursing. The increased caloric demands are their own thing, but in addition I’ve found that if I exercise too intensely, my already negligible supply drops even further. The antidepressant I was put on also has a side effect of weight gain. So here I am, sitting at the heaviest weight I’ve ever been in my life, feeling like a saggy, shabby shell of my former self, coordinating my entire wardrobe around tops and dresses I can easily nurse in, having not worn a bra with underwire in a year.
Nursing also comes with a natural loss of independence—especially if, like me, you can’t pump a ton of extra milk for someone else to bottle feed your child. Nursing means you’re tethered to your kid and often to your home (I won’t even get into how awful people can be about seeing a woman breastfeeding in public, whether she’s using a cover or not). There are constraints and restrictions innately placed on you by virtue of your breastfeeding relationship. And yes, they ease with time as your child can go further between sessions and is eating more solids. But until they’re weaned completely, their ultimate dependence on you remains in place.
Continuing to nurse is hard, hard work. Every morning I have a jar of overnight oats packed with flaxseed. I drink water and Gatorade in volumes that would sustain entire professional sports teams. I take supplements and tinctures and drink teas. I nurse my kid every few hours during the day and sometimes once or twice overnight. It takes all this to keep this somewhat rickety milk machine on the tracks. But I’ve had to consider lately—is it worth it?
LET IT GO
I’ve made a decision. I’m going to give myself grace. I’m going to extend to myself the same amount of understanding and empathy I’ve given to all my friends who stopped breastfeeding for one reason or another. I’m not going to beat myself up or consider myself a failure, and I’m going to do my best to just go with the flow.
Now, I’m not going to stop nursing my son. I don’t have any medical reason to do so and I’m home with him all day, so I can feed him on demand. My goal is still to make it to the one year mark, and I think we can do it. But I am going to stop crying when I look at the tiny bottles I pump every evening. I’m going to keep pumping at that time in order to keep my supply up. Whatever tiny amount of milk I get will go into a bottle, and when I have 3 ounces in that bottle, I’ll bag it and put it in the freezer.
Those freezer bags can then be used for nights I’m not here to put him to bed or for nights we actually treat ourselves and get a babysitter. When they run out, they run out. And if dad or the babysitter needs to mix a bottle of formula on those nights instead, that’s OK too. It won’t kill my kid. And it won’t kill me.
When it comes down to it, “fed is best,” point blank. But I also recognize that nursing my son has been more to me than just the way I chose to feed him. It has been the way I found my feet as a mother. It has been the bridge to connecting with my son—our bond forged in all those hours of holding him close, drinking in his sweet smiles and contented sighs, watching him slide into slumber while still latched on. It has been a source of strength and an island of peace in a sea of tumult and sorrow.
I breastfed my son through postpartum depression. I breastfed him through the traumatic and shocking loss of my father. I breastfed him through sheer exhaustion and sleep deprivation, through low self-esteem and self-loathing. I didn’t do it to be sanctimonious. I didn’t do it to say I’m a better mother than the woman who gives her kid a bottle of formula. I did it because it’s what we both needed. It has been a beautiful, mutually beneficial relationship and I’m thankful for it.
So yeah, breastfeeding is “natural,” but it can also be really damn hard. Whether it’s worth all the potential work is a decision each mother has to make for herself. If you’re struggling and not ready to give up, reach out to local lactation support groups and find specialists that can lend a hand and other mothers that can lend an ear. Wherever you land, you are not alone. Bottle or breast, we’re all in this together, mama. And in case no one has bothered to tell you today—you’re doing a great job.
illustration VICTORIA ALLEN