When You Can't Breastfeed
The benefits of breastfeeding are clear, but my inability to do so left me confused
I didn't breastfeed my daughter and I am not a terrible mom. It sounds like a mantra, but it's not something I repeat to make me feel better about my decision. It's something I say any time someone brings up how breast is best. It sort of just flows. Unlike my milk.
Breastfeeding is all over the news, from the benefits of it to the debate about doing it in public. In fact, the pros of breastfeeding--disease-fighting antibodies, prevention of allergies, boosting intelligence and preventing obesity, to name a few--are well documented. Low milk supply is less covered. It certainly didn't appear in the baby books I read or the parenting classes I took or even in the conversations I had with moms of all ages. In fact, statistics for how often the problem occurs are tough to come by. Diana West, an international board-certified lactation consultant and a media rep for La Leche League, a nonprofit that helps educate women about nursing, couldn't provide any.
What I do know is that I don't fit the profile for the standard reasons a woman produces too little milk to sustain her baby. I'm not obese, haven't had breast surgery or trauma, don't suffer from polycystic ovarian syndrome, thyroid problems, hypoplasia or hormonal problems. My daughter doesn't fit the descriptions for why a baby might not draw out enough milk while nursing, either. She doesn't have tongue tie, cardiac problems, sensory integration issues, palate or facial malformations, and breathing dysfunction, and she was not premature.
Still, when Ellie was born in December 2009, I couldn't feed her to save my life--or more importantly, hers.
Being the daughter of a deadline-oriented journalist, Ellie arrived on her due date, but labor didn't go as swimmingly as the previous 40 weeks had. My water broke at home at 3 a.m., and I went from asleep to trying to catch my breath between contractions that were two minutes apart. I took one look at the water that pooled in my bed and said, "Oh, poop." It was dark brown.
At the hospital, Ellie's heart rate stopped when I got my epidural. After it came back, it skyrocketed. My OB wheeled me to the operating room herself for an emergency C-section. Moments later, Ellie made her debut.
But she was having trouble breathing. The amniotic fluid was brown because she'd had her first bowel movement while still in utero, and she had inhaled it into her lungs. She spent her first week of life in the neonatal intensive care unit, the first three days in an oxygen hood.
Until she was out of that hood, I wasn't able to hold her let alone breastfeed her. My first attempt came about 72 hours after she was born. She latched on right away with a lusty suction, but moments after she'd tried--more likely, drained--each side, she screamed from hunger.
The nurses had given me a pump several hours after Ellie was born, and I used it every three hours faithfully. They assured me it was normal for nothing to come out. About six days after Ellie was born I awoke with an aching fullness in my breasts and triumph in my heart: Ellie's cup was surely going to overflow. It didn't. And when I used the pump--with the idea that my husband could help with feeding her while I got some precious sleep--only about an ounce appeared in an hour of effort.
Searching for Cures
Hounded by the idea that Ellie was missing out on precious and immune-building nutrients, I kept trying. I took Reglan, a drug used to treat stomach ailments that also increases milk supply. I called a lactation consultant at the hospital where Ellie was born. I drank Traditional Medicinals' Organic Mother's Milk tea by the mugful and bought it in bulk on Amazon. I combed the Internet and toyed with making soup from animal bones (one of the recommendations I found). I tried to visualize the milk flowing. And I kept buying Similac Alimentum.
One day, two months in, I counted the droplets as they created a shallow pool while the pump did its thing, and I felt like a boob. Ellie had given up on me already. She'd learned that the bottle guaranteed nourishment so she preferred it. Why hadn't I also called it a day? Instead of spending hours researching cockamamie "cures" and collecting 3 ounces of breast milk on a good day, I could use that time to play with and stimulate my daughter.
When I stopped, I never experienced the pain of full breasts (really, I had not experienced it except that one time), and I didn't leak. It seems I'd dried up before I tried to.
My OB has no idea why I didn't make milk, but she wasn't overly concerned about it. The pediatrician definitely didn't care. And Ellie? She's perfectly fine--healthy and strong. The only person who was riddled with guilt and feelings of failure was me.
Deciding to turn my attention from my chest to my child was a smart choice for me. I was misusing my time and frustrating my daughter trying to be something I couldn't--a nursing mom. With all my freed up time, we started taking walks, doing tummy time and napping together--you know, bonding.
I want other moms to know that it's OK if you don't or can't breastfeed. Formulas today are so chock full of goodness, they're a perfectly fine substitute, my daughter's doctor told me when I told her about my problem.
I'll probably never know what caused my supply issues. West says I might not have trouble when I have a second baby, so I do plan to try again when that time comes. For now, I have bigger challenges. Like getting my toddler to give up her beloved bottle.