Long before I had children of my own, I knew I wanted to breastfeed any children I might have. I did not know what that would look like in a practical sense, I just figured breastfeeding was natural so it would happen smoothly. I was optimistically naive.
After our first son was born, I discovered that breastfeeding is not always smooth. Due to complications, I pumped exclusively for the first three months… Well, almost exclusively. There were two different short periods where we had to supplement with formula and fortified goat’s milk.
Around the time our son was finally able to nurse on his own, I went back to work full time so I continued to pump during the day and nursed overnight and in the mornings.
Our second son flat out refused to nurse but by the time we figured that out, my supply had almost dried up. The first month he had a combination of formula and donated breastmilk while I worked hard to increase my own milk production. It took a while but I managed to increase my supply and I’ve been exclusively pumping for six months now.
I am going to be blunt: pumping is hard.
There is no way to sugar-coat the reality that pumping, whether exclusively or routinely during working hours, can seem to be an insurmountable challenge wrapped in many obstacles and sprinkled with discouragement.
But through it all, I am so grateful I was able to pump for ten months with our first son and that I have made it six months so far with our second.
I was fortunate in many ways
1. The first go around I had 9 weeks of complete maternity leave and then 3 weeks of part-time before returning to work full-time. The second time I took the whole 12 weeks. Many women here in the United States only get three weeks and any additional days their saved vacation and sick hours might provide.
2. My office has a private wellness room with a lock, power outlet, side table, and comfortable chair that was perfect for pumping, and occasionally when someone else was using the wellness room, I had access to a private unisex bathroom with a power outlet and long counter. Many women do not have a private place to pump and have to make do with storage rooms or their cars. Or the only room available is a long distance from their actual place of work.
3. Most days, unless there were multiple meetings, I was able to pump three times throughout my work day for twenty minutes each or two times for thirty minutes. (Both schedules equal out to an hour a work day.) Many women are limited by rigid work schedules and can only use their regular ten-minute breaks (if they get breaks at all) and a half hour lunch.
4. My supervisor was very supportive of my decision to pump and as considerate of the time I needed as a boss could be. On very busy days, I would take a small work laptop with me to the wellness room to continue working while I pumped. On light days, I used the pumping time to relax or doze. Many women do not have supportive supervisors/managers and are pressured into stopping pumping (and often breastfeeding altogether) earlier then they intended or is recommended.
To all of the mothers out there who have chosen to pump in order to provide breastmilk for their infants, you have my greatest respect and sympathies.
No matter if it was for a week or a month or a year, you sacrificed many hours worth of sleep, many comforts, and suffered indignities and awkward moments for your precious child. He or she may never fully understand your sacrifice, but let me speak on their behalf: “Thank you!” and “It is worth it.”
Some challenges pumping mamas face
To give everyone a small glimpse into what life is like when you are pumping, here are some challenges that a pumping mother faces.
- Hearing variations of the “You’re not breastfeeding?” question (often accompanied by looks of disapproval) whenever you pull out a bottle of your own milk to feed the baby in public.
- Trying to avoid the unsolicited follow-up advice on how to get your baby to breastfeed, as if you have not tried everything already.
- Having to lug a pump and all of its accessories (bottles, caps, cleaning wipes, etc.) around with you every time you leave the house because you have to pump every 2-4 hours to provide enough food for your baby and to keep your supply from dropping.
- Trying to find a private place to pump while away from the house and feeling very awkward because it takes 15-20 minutes just to pump. Flanges, bottles, tubes, etc. are not as easy to unpack and pack again and require rinsing/cleaning to stay sanitary.
- Having to spend money on enough bottles and nipples to cover pumping and storage, plus a bottle brush, special soap that breaks down the residue breastmilk leaves behind, and a rack for drying everything.
- Losing even more sleep than usual because, after feeding the hungry baby a bottle, you have to go spend about half an hour pumping… every 2-4 hours.
- Figuring out how to even use the pump, what size flanges to use, how low/high to have the suction, etc. Reading tutorials and guides online do not always help and it is often a process of (painful) trial and error.
- Having to miss visits with family and friends or fun outings because of either your pumping schedule or because you forget an important piece of your pump. Did I mention you have to pump every 2-4 hours? Oh, I did.
- Using lots of nipple cream, lanolin, and hydrogel pads to ease the soreness and cracked nipples.
- Experiencing engorgement if you don’t pump often enough, blocked ducts, blebs (milk blisters), real blisters, cracks, cuts, and more. Crying into your pillow or in the shower because of the pain.
- Being forced to skip a pumping session, then suffering from the pressure of the milk building up in your breasts or leaking.
- Constantly worrying if your baby is getting enough, tracking the milk expressed down to the milliliter or ounce, and fretting when a pumping session results in less milk then usual.
- Doing tons of research and trying so many things… including herbal teas… every time your milk supply decreases in an often futile effort to reach whatever time goal you had for breastfeeding. And every time you think you can stretch the time between pumps to four hours, your supply plummets and you desperately go back to every 2-4 hours.
- All those awkward moments: lugging a heavy pump with you everywhere you go, sitting in your car with a small hand pump trying to express milk while your hand cramps and milk spills because you cannot keep it suctioned right, sitting in the nursery at church trying to pump really quickly so your crying baby can eat and people (including men) keep walking in to “talk”. Pumping while driving, in single occupancy public restrooms, in a hospital’s OR waiting room, while talking with strangers, and other awkward situations.
Every experience is unique
Every woman’s experience is unique. Some women have amply supply of milk and do not have to pump as frequently. Some women, like myself, struggle constantly with low supply. Some women are able to push through the obstacles and make it to their breastfeeding goals. Others are forced by their circumstances to stop breastfeeding early.
No matter your situation, I want you to know that you are a wonderful mother. Pumping is hard, and yet there are many women who are courageous and selfless enough to face the many challenges, whether due to circumstances or choice.
At least for me, it was all worth it. And I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. In fact, I might have to do it all over again with Baby #2.
Update: Yes, unfortunately, I had to pump again with Baby #2. Read more about our Breastfeeding Challenges, Round Two, and How I increased my milk supply in 8 weeks.
To those who have never had to pump, let me just give you a little word of advice: next time you see a mother give her infant a bottle, don’t judge. First of all, you have no idea what the food in the bottle is. It could be expressed breastmilk or it could be formula, and either one is absolutely fine. Secondly, a fed and healthy baby is best… and thirdly, a mentally healthy and emotionally stable mama is best, too!
You have no idea the emotional rollercoaster that a mother has been experiencing since the birth of her child. One judgmental look or condescending comment can literally be the nudge that pushes her over the edge of discouragement and into depression.
If you really care about that new mother, ask if there is anything you can do to help ease her burdens. Offer to come over to clean her bathroom(s) or cook dinner or vacuum the living room or watch her little one for an hour while she naps. That is how you show you care.
Breastfeeding does not always come easy, and pumping is often chosen out of necessity. Be kind.
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