Almost five months ago, our little Peanut was born. (Six month update below.) I intended to breastfeed exclusively by nursing during my twelve week maternity/family leave and then nursing and pumping after returning to work. I did not need to think long and hard about the decision, I just knew that was what we would do. In fact, I was more nervous about picking out a pump then I was about nursing. I figured that mothers’ bodies naturally produce milk and babies instinctively know how to get the milk.
Unfortunately, our breastfeeding story did not go according to plan.
In fact, it turned out to be more of a journey than a story. Some parts are very challenging and others rewarding. So let me take you back to the beginning.
Peanut was born small. 4 pounds and 11 ounces, to be exact, though he dropped down to 4 lbs. 7 oz. after he had his first bowel movement. Though he was a mighty tiny thing — able to lift his head moments after birth — his small size created a challenge to nursing. We tried hard throughout the night and into the afternoon of Day 2 to get him to nurse even just a tiny bit to get the colstrum he needed, but he just could not get his tiny mouth around my large nipples.
Around noon on Day 2, we had our first visit with the Lactation Consultant. She helped me position him, tried coaxing him, and then wrapped him onto my chest for skin-to-skin. She said not to worry and try nursing again in the evening, but I was starting to worry. Something just was not right. Babies are supposed to know how to nurse instinctively, right? I tried to put on a cheerful face when Bradley’s side of family came to visit, but when my parents came later, I shared with them my concerns. My mom tried to cheer me up.
That night, after quite a few more failed attempts to nurse, a nurse helped me select the right size flanges and pump the first time. We collected .5 ounce of colstrum and fed it to Peanut using a syringe. The next day, they were concerned that Peanut had not nursed even the tiniest bit. Due to his tiny size, he had to eat just once, even a tiny bit, before we would be given the all clear. If he did not eat and began to lose more weight, he might have ended up in the NICU.
Despite regularly pumping, after that first time, I was not getting enough colstrum to even get into a syringe to give him. Just a drop on my finger.
So the nurse brought us formula.
I was terrified.
Here I was, only three days into being a brand new mother to this tiny little fellow, and I was praying desperately that Peanut would eat something… anything. I barely slept that night. Lying on the bed with my hand in the bassinet to touch his leg, I just prayed. Please, Lord, let him eat a tiny bit, keep his blood sugars steady, and not let him loose any more weight.
I could not get him to eat from the bottle, the Lactation Consultant was able to get him to eat just a small amount, and a few hours later, my mom was able to get him to eat about 1 ounce. I was relieved yet still a little worried. I thought to myself: “Just once or twice on the formula, and then surely he’ll figure out how to nurse.” After all, he rooted for my breast, he put the tip of nipple in his mouth, he was was showing all of the right signs. Was it just his tiny size? Was I too big for his little mouth?
The Lactation Consultant visited again – a wonderful lady – and worked with us some more.
She then noticed something all of the rest of us missed: Peanut had a severe tongue-tie.
He could not lift his tongue nor move it forward, two motions vital to latch on the nipple and draw the colstrum/milk out. Until the tongue-tie was fixed, there would be no possible way for Peanut to nurse. Unfortunately, the hospital did not perform these minor surgeries anymore, and we would have to visit with a pediatrician after being discharged to arrange for the procedure. It could take days, maybe up to two weeks, before the tongue-tie was fixed!
I was disappointed.
Peanut would have to eat formula until the pumping resulted in actual colstrum/milk that I could give him and the tongue-tie was fixed. Now let me share a disclaimer: I know there are many reasons for mothers to formula-feed their babies. Sometimes it is by choice and sometimes it is the only option. I have nothing against anyone who uses formula. It just was emotionally disappointing for me to learn that, for reasons outside of our control, Peanut needed formula because it had been my desire to breastfeed. I had not even imagined a scenario that would make breastfeeding impossible.
On the day we were discharged from the hospital, my parents bought the pump that was recommended to us and I continued trying to pump every two-three hours. I was determined to get him off the formula and onto my colstrum/milk was soon as possible. Still nothing. By Day 5, my breasts were engorged as the colstrum began turning to milk but the pumping expressed nothing! I tried the electric pump, I tried hand expressing, I tried hot showers, I tried massages, I tried everything to get the milk to express. Nothing would come out! My poor breasts just kept getting bigger and more painful. It became agony to touch them, agony to move, agony to sleep!
At 3am during one of my unsuccessful pumping sessions, I searched the Internet for any piece of advice for how to get the milk to come out. I was terrified that I would end up with mastitis. Most sites and forums dealt with nursing or formula-feeding, and I was finding very little helpful information for pumping. Then I stumbled on to the Exclusive Pumping section of KellyMom.com and one of the first articles I read recommended ice on the breasts for 20 minutes before pumping to counteract the swelling and allow the milk to be expressed. That day at my parents’ house, I rolled two frozen water bottles all over my breasts for 20 minutes. It was sooo cold and hurt sooooo bad, but I was desperate.
That pumping session, I produced 10 ounces of transition milk and the engorgement was gone. I was so relieved that I cried. For the next five or six sessions, I had to roll the frozen water bottles on my breasts before pumping. Gradually, the milk began expressing without the need to freeze my breasts. It was nearing the end of Week 1, and I was finally producing milk. I was able to feed Peanut on mother’s milk and put the formula bottles away.
Though we saw the Pediatrician quickly, the soonest we could schedule Peanut’s procedure to correct the tongue-tie was at the very end of his second week. I was worried it had taken too long. He had been exclusively bottlefed (first formula and now with my milk), and I had heard of and read about “nipple confusion” where bottlefed babies are supposedly never able to nurse again. Fortunately, one of the nurses at the Pediatrician’s office told me that her son had been born with a tongue-tie that took almost a month to diagnosis and fix, and he went from bottlefed to nursing without a hitch. That gave me hope!
Hope died during Weeks 3 and 4.
I was completely unprepared for the Week 3 growth spurt; I did not even know it existed. Week three rolled around and suddenly Peanut was ravenously hungry! I was not producing enough milk to satisfy him. I was determined, though. I pumped every two hours for anywhere between 20-30 minutes. I literally pumped my poor breasts raw and was in pain from blisters. I tried everything to produce more milk. Despite my valiant efforts, I could not keep up with him.
In the middle of the night, as Peanut cried in his bassinet for milk I did not have, my loving husband gently said: “I’m going to give him a bottle of formula.” He picked Peanut up and walked to the living room. I buried myself underneath the blankets and pillows and wept.
I was devastated.
The one thing that was supposed to be natural for every mother, I could not do. I could not provide enough milk for my baby. I had to resign myself to the fact that in addition to what I pumped, Peanut would need supplementing with formula. We bought a can of a standard formula (same brand as the hospital gave us since he did not seem to mind it). After a few days supplementing, I was growing concerned about using a milk-based formula.
You see, I have a severe dairy allergy.
While I was a little apprehensive that my son might have inherited this allergy from me, what really concerned me was that I was beginning to react to the powdered formula. It is impossible to scoop the powder from the can and get it into the bottle without spilling even a little bit. My hands were starting to react whenever the powder touched my skin (my hands would get red and itchy), and as I fixed a bottle, I noticed that some powder always gets into the air. I was concerned that I would accidentally breathe the powder and have an allergic reaction.
Now my allergy to dairy is not lactose intolerance. It is a severe allergy on the same level as many peanut allergies: even trace amounts of dairy will cause me to break out in hives, suffer bad itching fits, and experience respiratory difficulties (meaning I cannot breathe). This was not something to be taken lightly. I began researching non-milk based formulas, but most of the soy-based formulas were over 50% corn syrup. That did not seem right to me.
I did more research and remembered that my dad, when he was a newborn, could not have milk-based formula either. His parents had to give him goat’s milk, and he is one of the healthiest people I know. So I began looking up goat’s milk formula — extremely expensive and not always available — and found websites that shared how to make your own goat’s milk formula at home.
Since I was still pumping and the majority of Peanut’s nourishment was coming from my milk, I just needed something to supplement with. I gave Peanut goat’s milk and waited. He seemed fine and his appetite was finally appeased. Then my mom helped us mix up a batch of goat’s milk that was fortified with some additional nutrients.
Towards the end of Week 4, my husband also found Earth Mama Angel Baby Milkmaid Tea at our local Target. I began drinking it twice a day, and my milk production increased significantly. Soon, we no longer needed to supplement with goat’s milk. A little while after that, I was expressing enough extra milk to start filling up the freezer to use later when I returned to work.
Throughout the first month while all of these things were happening, I was still trying to nurse Peanut. Every other day, I would try to nurse him, but even after the tongue-tie was fixed, he just could not latch. I watched videos and read how to articles. I did everything I could, but Peanut could not latch.
I was an emotional wreck. I was severely sleep deprived. He needed to eat every two hours and it took an hour just to warm the bottle, feed the baby, and pump. Then I would sleep for an hour and have to do it all over again. My amazing husband did so much to help: he would often feed the baby and clean the bottles to give me even just ten or twenty minutes more sleep. He also calmly put up with my emotional outbursts: frustration, fear, self-loathing, fits of crying.
I felt like a failure.
Every time an attempt to nurse failed, every time someone casually said some variation of “Oh, so you’re not breastfeeding?” or “Don’t you know breast is better than formula?” when they saw the bottle of my milk, it was like another nail being hammered into my heart and ego.
After an entire month, one morning I almost lost my temper with Peanut. Even though the logical part of my brain understood that his mouth was just too small to latch and it wasn’t his fault, the emotional part was very close to losing it. Nothing happened, but I was shocked at how close I felt I had come to possibly hurting him, even unintentionally. I laid Peanut back down in his bassinet and called my mom in tears. I told her I had tried for four weeks and I just could not do it anymore. For my sanity and the happiness of our little family, I had to stop trying.
My mom was so supportive and calmed me down. She told me she was so proud of me for trying as long as I did and that I had to do what was best for us. Her words helped get me back in the right frame of mind, and I am so grateful.
That morning, I finally came to terms with something I should have come to terms with weeks earlier: Peanut might never be able to nurse.
Sure, maybe one day in the future, he might outgrow the physical barriers that were preventing him from nursing, but in that moment I had to let go of my unrealistic “dream”. I had to make myself “ok” with the idea that he might never nurse, that I would have to continue pumping to provide him with milk and that, in his next growth spurt he might need to be supplemented again. I had to embrace that reality and let go of my fantasy.
I had to stop treating myself like a failure.
I had carried this beautiful little boy for 38 weeks, gave birth, and was now raising him. I loved him so deeply and would do anything for him. I would gaze at his tiny face while he slept in awe that this precious gift was our son. I was not a failure. So what if he could not nurse? So what if he got his milk from a bottle? So what if sometimes he got a little extra that wasn’t from his mother? He was happy, healthy, and growing incredibly fast.
For all of month two, we did not even try to nurse. We simply lived and were happy. When the Week 6 growth spurt hit, I was producing enough milk that we did not have to supplement even though he was sometimes gobbling up 9 to 11 ounces in one sitting!
At the beginning of his third month, Peanut was rooting around while we snuggled on the couch one morning and so, merely curious, I offered him the breast. To my surprise, he latched! It was a weak latch but a latch! He drank a little bit (not much) but he actually nursed for ten minutes!
At the middle of month three, we introduced the pacifier. He got the hang of it pretty quickly and the pacifier helped to strengthen his sucking muscles. We would attempt a nursing session every few days, but it was very relaxed… nothing like during the first month when I was so stressed out. Just a week after introducing the pacifier, he was strong enough to nurse!
By the middle of Week Thirteen, Peanut was nursing twice a day. We would nurse early morning and once in the evenings. We still fed him a 5-6 ounce bottle of expressed milk before putting him to sleep to help him sleep longer. By then he was usually sleeping 9pm to 4-5am.
Today as I write this, Peanut is just shy of five months, and he nurses as if he had been doing so his whole life. I still pump during the day, especially during the week when I’m working, but I try to nurse him before work, after work, and on the weekends. He also is bottlefed during the day and always gets one bottle before bed to help him sleep through the night. He has absolutely no sign of the dreaded “nipple confusion”. He goes from breast to bottle to pacifier and back without even hesitating. Just yesterday, he had his first taste of real “food”. His grandma (my mom) fed him a little bit of oatmeal, and he actually ate it! (It was so adorable.)
Update (March 6, 2017)
Our little one is six months now, and I wanted to share a quick update on our breastfeeding journey. He is still primarily eating breast milk, and he is experimenting with baby food. He loves peaches and applesauce, severely dislikes peas, and has tried tiny amounts of avocado and hummus.
Unfortunately, at the end of December, my menstrual cycle began ramping up again. At four and a half months postpartum while breastfeeding, it was definitely not welcome. I’ve had a period twice since then. While my cycle is not “back to normal” yet, it is causing a lot of problems with my milk supply. The week before my period, my milk supply plummets significantly. So much so that we had to start supplementing with soy-based formula.
It was a decision we made because, unlike before when we used the goat’s milk as just a little “extra” now and then, this time we needed something that would provide for 50% of our little one’s nutrition for two weeks straight. And no amount of trying to boost my supply would carry our little Peanut through two weeks. Since I’m working outside of the home, a lot of the “tricks” that sometimes help are just not feasible like nursing on demand or pumping every two hours. So we found a soy-based formula that is fortified with everything he’ll need during the time my milk supply is low.
Fortunately, by the end of my period, my milk supply goes back up to normal. I’m also trying hard to increase my supply during the plentiful times by drinking more tea and eating more oats. This is hard for me because I cannot stand oatmeal and most gluten-free oat cereals taste horrible. So I’m risking eating Cheerios to try to get the benefits that oats have on milk supply.
Cheerios are not made with certified gluten-free oats, but they now use a process that removes most of the contaminated grains from their oat supply. Unfortunately, every once in a while, I’ll get a box from a batch with just a little too much contaminates; it causes my face to break out and I bloat… the initial signs that I’ve had small traces of wheat/gluten. Still, it is worth it if it helps boost my milk supply for my son.
Sometimes I really feel like everything is against our efforts to breastfeed. If I let the negative thoughts in, I begin to feel like every time we achieve success, something comes along to sabotage us. However, I refuse to let the challenges get me down. I’m still determined to make it to ten months, and when we cross that line, we’ll see if we can make it to twelve months.
It is my hope that by sharing our long, sometimes painful, breastfeeding journey, I might encourage another mother who is also struggling. My advice is to take all the advice out there with a grain of salt. Some of it is garbage, others might not apply to you and your baby’s unique situation, and some might be helpful. Listen to your maternal instincts. The Lord gave us these instincts and intuition for a reason. And don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask for help when you need it.
Also get rid of your perfect plans and dreams. The first few weeks after the baby is born is an emotional roller-coaster anyway, do not add even more stress and anxiety by trying to make a dream reality. Embrace whatever path is best for your precious baby. If it is pumping, pump! If it is supplementing, supplement! If it is formula, find the right formula for you and your baby!
You are NOT a failure! You gave birth to or adopted this beautiful, precious little one. You love him or her dearly so treasure those quiet moments with your newborn. They grow so fast and every stage is unique and beautiful in its own way. Don’t be afraid! Don’t worry about the future!
Be present in the moment and be happy!
Oh, and remember that breastfeeding is not synonymous with nursing. While nursing is one way to breastfeed, pumping is another way. In both methods, the baby is eating his or her mother’s milk. One just is from a bottle and the other is from “the tap” sort to speak. Don’t let anyone make you feed less than because you are pumping, whether from choice or necessity.