Oh my! Get ready for this one. So, here’s the thing. I long planned to breastfeed my baby. Long before I was pregnant, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. The other part of this, is that somehow (since I was teenager), I’ve known that it wouldn’t be easy for me. Don’t ask me how I knew; I just did. I assumed my small cup size or my flat nipples would make it difficult. In reality, neither of these things prevents breastfeeding. After just a few days of having my son, however, I learned that the shape of my breasts meant that I would have low supply and while there are many ways to increase supply, I might not ever get it up high enough. And that’s exactly what happened.
The other part of this story is that for some reason, we all think breastfeeding is going to be this seamless, glorious experience. In reality, MOST WOMEN STRUGGLE WITH BREASTFEEDING. For some, it’s just the initial weeks. For others, it’s the duration of however long they choose to nurse or pump. What I didn’t realize, besides how common it is to struggle, is that “struggling with breastfeeding” means a couple of things…
Types of Breastfeeding Struggles
So there are basically three main types of “breastfeeding struggles” – latching, over supply, and low supply.
Latching is when your baby has a hard time latching onto your nipple. This can be an issue of nipple size/shape; it can be an issue of tongue tie (where your baby’s tongue is attached too much to the bottom of their mouth); as well as many more things. Many latching issues can be taken care of with help and work. If you have access to lactation consultants, or even better an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), go visit them!!! Even just one visit can help if you have any issues or questions.
Over Supply Struggles
Over supply is simply that your body makes more milk than your baby needs. This is a problem because your body needs to get rid of the milk. Your ducts plug and feeding (at least) becomes horrendously painful. My friend Sarah shared her struggles with over supply here. While the supply is there, the pain and agony of feeding your child are a huge problem.
Low Supply Struggles
The last of these is low supply, which is what I struggle with – low supply breastfeeding. So here’s the thing. Low supply can mean a little low or, in my case, it can mean a lot low. Now that I’m exclusively pumping and not nursing, I know that my body can produce about 9oz of breastmilk each day (over the course of 8 extended pumping sessions). At three weeks, babies need about 20-30oz of food each day – so you can see the issue. There are many ways to try to increase supply (a bit more below), but tripling my supply was just never in the cards.
My Low Supply Breastfeeding Story
So, as I mentioned, I knew breastfeeding would be a challenge. I was proactive even before his birth about learning. Thankfully my friend Sarah told me she struggled and sung praises about the Pump Station, which I kept in the back of my mind should issues arise… which they did.
In the first 24 hours after birth, we tried breastfeeding in the hospital. Seeing my flat nipples, the nurses brought me a nipple shield. The nurse then said because I was using a nipple shield, I needed to be pumping. In reality, this information is wrong, but regardless I did need to be pumping to start encouraging my milk supply to come in. In the hospital we had some success with nursing – some latching issues, but with nurses and lactation consultants nearby, it seemed somewhat manageable. He suffered from a severe case of tongue, but we had his tongue clipped I cried, but it’s actually not scary). We came home Friday from the hospital and Saturday morning I called the Pump Station to get help as soon as possible.
Starting on Formula
In the hospital, our little guy tested moderate to high risk for jaundice on his first day. By day two, he’d gone down to low risk. Great news! At home on Saturday (day three), my husband and I noted that he seemed a bit yellow. We called the after-hours pediatrician line and she said we had to get formula to supplement his feeding. He needed more food to literally poop out the bilirubin, which causes jaundice…
I cried in the grocery store that night as we tried to pick out a formula for my son. I was sad I couldn’t give him what he needed breastfeeding, but the reality that his life depended on giving him formula brought me a sense of composure. His life was more important than my desire to breastfeed him.
Monday afternoon we went to our lactation appointment. To say that the IBCLCs can work magic is really an understatement. We measured his weight before, during, and after feedings. She gave us tips for latching. She made it all seem so feasible. The appointment made me feel so great. She did also, however, tell me that I would have a hard time making enough milk and I MIGHT NOT EVER BE ABLE TO MAKE ENOUGH MILK.
Triple Feeding Breastfeeding
We left the appointment with directions for doing triple feedings every two hours. What this means is that I had to nurse him on both sides (aiming for 15 minutes per breast). Then feed him formula. Then pump for 12-15 minutes, take a 10 minute break, then pump for 5 minutes. On my A-game, this was an 1.5 hour affair. And luckily I misunderstood what every 2 hours meant…
I assumed it was every two hours from when he finished feeding, not from when he started. Even just waiting about 90 minutes between feedings was traumatizing (especially at night). I’m grateful I didn’t know that I was only supposed to wait 30 minutes between feedings. I would have lost it sooner and my hormones/lack of sleep weren’t stable enough yet to make rational decisions.
So while this all sounds very time consuming, the real struggle here was the reality of attempting to have successful nursing sessions. With almost every feeding, I had to wake my son up. Then I’d change him and keep him naked except for his diaper. Then we’d attempt to latch. Luckily, he was pretty good at latching with the nipple shield… most of the time. But my body’s milk flow is so slow after a minute or two that he’d get sleepy. I couldn’t stop feeding because then he’d tell me he was still hungry. So instead I had to use tactics to wake him up. I had to rub his belly with a bit of vigor; I had to ticket his feet; and I even had to use cold washcloths at times. I BASICALLY HAD TO IRRITATE MY SON TO GET HIM TO NURSE.
Whether nursing went well or not, he then had to have supplement from a bottle – either breastmilk or formula. If my husband was home, he’d feed him while I pumped. For the few days in there when he had to return to work, I had to do the whole process alone.
It wasn’t getting better and I was frequently frustrated, upset, and at times just sobbing over my son because it was so hard to do this “simple thing.” At about two weeks, I started to dread him waking up. I’d sit on the couch, staring at him, just hoping he’d sleep a little longer until I could emotionally recover from the last feeding to handle it all again. He’d stir and I’d start to cry. It wasn’t getting better…
I know newborns don’t smile, but there was more than one instance when I was crying and apologizing to him that he gave me the glimpse of a smile. I doubt he knew that this small act pulled me through the feedings. Maybe it was an act of God or a higher power. Whatever it was, I’m eternally grateful.
Because he hadn’t returned to birth weight (newborns lose a little weight after birth), we had to go back to the Pump Station a few times to weigh him. He was slowly gaining weight but not enough.
One of the IBCLCs was completely wonderful on that Friday. We didn’t have an appointment – just popped in to weigh him. I asked her a few questions before I completely lost it on the couch in the front of the shop. She could see that this wasn’t working. At this point, she encouraged me to skip nursing at night (just feeding him with a bottle and pumping). I couldn’t tell you how thrilled I was. Sleep was in short supply (maybe not as low as my milk supply though) and I needed a break. You don’t get breaks as newborn parents – they don’t tell you this part.
I also made an appointment for the following Monday to get the SNS (supplemental nursing system) set up. Basically the SNS is a small container of formula that goes around your neck on a string. It has two small tubes that you place in line with your nipple. You have to tape or tuck the bottle/tubes onto your chest/bra, however, to ensure the baby doesn’t grab at them (hah! talk about practically impossible). The idea is to get enough milk flowing for the baby to suck long enough and with enough energy to encourage your own milk supply. Genius idea…
Except that it is really f%(#ing hard to get it to work and to get it to work every time. Between Monday afternoon and Tuesday evening, I had 1.5 successful feeds with the tubes. More often than not, however, it wasn’t working. The tubes weren’t in the right place or if they were, they’d eventually move. I was having to squeeze the bottle of formula to get it to flow (yet another thing for me to do while nursing).
I finally hit a wall at about my 4th or 5th attempt at the SNS feeding when I noticed that the tube had poked through the nipple shield and my nipple wasn’t even in the proper position in the shield. So he was just sucking formula, nothing that was encouraging my milk flow. I looked up at my husband, again sobbing, and told him I couldn’t do it any more.
So 20 days into an epic attempt to nurse my baby, I hit a wall. I realized that I was so unhappy with the time and emotional work it took to feed him, things had to change. I decided to just pump and bottle feed him. The next morning, I talked with my IBCLC about my new plan and she was INCREDIBLY SUPPORTIVE. She sent me links for websites and Facebook groups for mothers who pump exclusively. She sent me gifs and images supporting my decision – namely one that said my success as a mother was not measured in ounces. But most importantly, she told me that I could always go back to nursing if I wanted to try and that EVEN IF I WAS JUST PUMPING AND NOT NURSING, I WAS STILL BREASTFEEDING MY BABY!
I’m in a VERY GOOD PLACE with our pumping/supplementing situation now. He’s getting all the goodness I can give him with my breastmilk and he’s getting the calories he needs from the formula. I still have moments of sadness. When I have to pay the exorbitant prices for formula, I get down. When I have to hyperanalyze ingredients in formula, I get down. And occasionally when he burps and I smell that formula, I get down. But each day is better. And can I just tell you…within two hours of deciding to stop nursing, I started falling madly in love with my son. By giving up nursing, I got to enjoy being a mom.
I tell you my story not to make anyone decide how to feed their newborn baby. I think everybody’s story, body, and baby are different. I tell you my story so that no woman trying to breastfeed feels alone and to encourage you to find a feeding setup that makes you and your little one HAPPY AND HEALTHY! Almost any doctor, pediatrician, or nurse will tell you that a happy mom is more important than breastmilk or formula!