I cried in the pediatrician’s office and the entire car ride home the day after I brought my baby home from the hospital.
I had arrived at my apartment knowing that I’d need to feed every 2-3 hours but not feeling entirely comfortable with the process. Within hours, my nipples cracked, and my baby was wailing on and off at the top of her lungs from 10:00 pm until 5:00 am.
She was feeding for many more hours than doctors told me she would, but she was never satiated, and I winced and cried through the pain.
I called the pediatrician the day after we brought her home. He instructed me to come in immediately, and then informed me that I needed to give my baby a bottle of formula and take a nap before seeing a lactation consultant to work through our issues.
Why wasn’t I able to feed my baby? Why did a process so “natural” feel so clumsy and so exhaustive? And why was I beating myself up over a bottle of formula?
Even before I became pregnant, I was steadfastly opposed to feeding my child anything other than breast milk. Now I felt ashamed, inadequate and inconsolable, my confidence already at an all-time low.
All of my baby books touted, “breast is best!” and “never introduce a bottle before the baby is two weeks old.” Pages and pages were devoted to reasons why formula feeding your baby is equatable to feeding her steroids or gasoline.
I had always assumed that breastfeeding was natural, and that I’d catch on quickly but I was unprepared for the challenges ahead. Though I had heard of lactation consultants, no one had ever shared with me that they had gone to see one. I felt alone in my struggle.
For four consecutive nights, I cried in bed while my husband assured me that I was doing my best and that we’d get through it together. Those nights felt like the world was crashing around me. I was ready to sacrifice my mind and my body; wasn’t this what motherhood was all about?
Photo by Jason Pratt
Over the course of the next two weeks, I went to endless appointments. In the lactation consultant’s office, it appeared that I was producing the milk, the latch was right, and the baby was nursing. I was told to nurse more frequently and on demand. But soon it became clear that our problems had to do with my milk supply, which simply couldn’t keep up with my baby’s appetite or her needs.
Supplementing with formula turned into more than just a bottle or two, and stimulating my milk production became my job. Our new plan was to put the baby on the breast every 2-3 hours, pump a minimum of 8 times per day, and supplement. I rarely produced more than just shy of an ounce and every droplet felt like gold.
But as I continued to pump and feed, I saw little increase. We were powering through the formula at an alarming rate. At our two week appointment, the baby had regained her birth weight and then some. And where was I? Emotionally and mentally drained.
Those few weeks were the shortest, longest, and hardest of my life. Day in and day out, delirious from lack of sleep, completely unstable, I was obsessed with one thing: getting milk to my baby.
I barely saw anyone. I barely left my house. I nursed and pumped around the clock. The few hours I slept, I dreamt that I was nursing my baby. While I would hold my sweet tiny child in my arms, I would dip my head towards her, listening for rhythmic swallowing sounds that seemed to taper off after only a few seconds. I insisted on feeding in silence so I could ensure she was, in fact, swallowing.
This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be, but I knew of no other stories that matched my own until I started openly and honestly sharing my experience. Female friends and acquaintances listened and wrote me lengthy and touching accounts of their own struggles. They assured me that being a mother isn’t just about breast milk.
At my daughter’s one month appointment, the pediatrician looked at me with pity and said, “Being a parent is about more than just feeding your baby. You do what you can, and when you can’t sanely do it anymore, you stop, and you enjoy your life with your baby.”
My story isn’t finished. In fact, my story as a mother is only just unfolding. Now entering my daughter’s sixth month, I’m here to tell you that there is no shame in feeding your baby however you can, with whatever means you feel comfortable with, for whatever reasons you choose. Being a good mother, I’m learning, is knowing how to take care of yourself and your baby.