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When Breastfeeding Doesn’t Work

Baby and Mom

When I was pregnant with my oldest child, I had many friends who were in the midst of raising their second or third child. I admired these friends in many ways, and was hopeful that I would look just like them: snuggling my newborn skin-to-skin, feeding him or her with my own body as I had for the past nine months, and breastfeeding with (what appeared to be) ease.

That was not the way it worked out.

Our daughter was born fairly small, diagnosed with Intrauterine Growth Restriction about 28 weeks into my pregnancy. But she was healthy, happy, and hungry! I had read up on breastfeeding tips and had taken a newborn class, not to mention heard a lot of stories and advice from mom friends, but none of it seemed to make sense in the face of an actual baby trying to latch on to my actual body.

We had some minimal success. She would eat, and eat, and eat; at least, it seemed like she was eating. I was sore and in pain, but determined. This is the best thing you can do for your baby, right? She was small, so the best thing for her to grow would be my breastmilk, right?

We visited a few different lactation consultants and got a few more tricks to put up my sleeve. But no matter what I tried, it didn’t seem to make a difference. The pain didn’t go away, but I wasn’t as concerned about that as the fact that the poor girl just seemed so hungry. I was supplementing with pumped milk just a few days in, trying to fill her up after attempting to breastfeed.

After about six weeks, I vividly remember sitting in my living room with her, trying once again to breastfeed for half an hour. I had tried multiple positions and multiple latch attempts. She was crying and I was crying. I didn’t know what to do. Why couldn’t I do this? Wasn’t my body made for this?

When I got a bottle ready for her, she happily chugged it down. And my husband said the thing I needed to hear: “It’s okay. She’s going to be healthy and loved, even if you don’t do this.” I decided to start exclusively pumping my breastmilk for her, and continued to do this for about six months.

Feeding Baby Bottle

I realized eventually (although in hindsight, maybe not soon enough!) that what this sweet girl needed was a healthy mama. I was not in a healthy place emotionally as I struggled and fought for what I thought was the right thing to do. Once I switched to exclusive pumping, I was able to grieve the loss of some of the benefits of breastfeeding – but also to accept that this was still who I was made to be, to feed my daughter and give her all the love I could, no matter where it came from. I fed her my own milk, but I also supplemented with formula, reminding myself to be thankful I live where I am able to have clean water and can afford to pay for formula.

When my second daughter came along, even smaller than the first and without an initial suck reflex, I tried once again to breastfeed. But this time I didn’t beat myself up about it. I tried my best, asked for more help, and was all right when we finally made the switch to exclusive pumping. This time, the pumping didn’t last quite as long, though. Exclusive pumping can be its own kind of challenge: so many pieces to clean and keep track of, the exhausting amount of time required to pump/feed/clean, not to mention the needs of a baby and a toddler calling to you as well. But it also has its rewards: you know you are making food for your baby, other family members can help in the feedings, and you are able to be more mobile. So although I had a love/hate relationship with my breast pump, I was ultimately grateful for it.

Finally, when we found out we were expecting our twin boys, I made the decision ahead of time to only pump breastmilk for them as long as they were in the hospital, and then to switch to formula once I had depleted my supply. This was the ultimate payoff for my earlier decisions. I was able to feel comfortable enough with myself and my experiences to know that I wanted to be obsessed with holding my babies and watching them grow, rather than be obsessed with the fears and failures I was perceiving as I attempted to breastfeed. And I succeeded at keeping them all healthy and growing, while not losing myself so much to the anxiety.

I am still grateful that I had the chance to breastfeed, and that I was able to pump as much as I was for each of my children. I know not everyone is even able to do that. But no matter how a baby is fed, I truly believe that the best mama is a healthy mama, in mind and body. And of course, after many more years of being around my friends and their children, I know so many women who have struggled with similar anxieties surrounding feeding their babies, or who have had other problems with breastfeeding. It does not always come naturally, or with ease, even for those who have breastfed before. But the best part of all of this reflection is that I really was able to still connect with my babies, snuggling them skin-to-skin, and feeding them, even if it was from a bottle.

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