*Euphemism. Also — this post might be a bit much if you have not breastfed before; proceed at your own caution. (AKA: Dad, please stop reading here.) But one aspect of motherhood that has been deeply gratifying is bonding with other mothers who are going through the same thing — and hearing how they approached various snafus and learning that I am not alone in the wild swing of my emotions. And so I thought it might be helpful to share my experience over the past month…
*And separately, in the photo above, Hill is wearing these Roller Rabbit jammies. I always get a lot of questions when readers see him wearing them in my instastories! (Also available in a onesie/hat/blanket bundle here.) I adore this brand. Spendy, but they last! I find that they run TTS until maybe a year and then I have always needed to size up. Mini wears a size 4 currently.
Honestly, if you’d asked me what I wanted for my birthday some time last week, I probably would have said “a few hours where I am showered and not wearing nursing clothes.” I have felt like a total schlub the past few weeks; I’d forgotten how unkempt nursing makes you feel, with all of the soaking through clothes and pulling things down and up and chafing and applying ointments and pumping and — ugh. I feel constantly “undone,” even with the cutest nursing dresses!
But then I had a freak out. Micro started fussing at the breast at every feed, latching and then unlatching in fury, writhing around in what I deemed to be ravenous hunger. I was perplexed and upset — what was going on? Because I have had an undersupply**, I have had to supplement with formula at every feed and so, over the course of that day, after five minutes of having him latch, become enraged, and then push away from me in anger, I would often give him the bottle. I’d heard somewhere that if infants are very hungry, you might start them with the bottle and then switch to the breast, but even switching midway through the feed seemed to upset him. So then I tried pumping and found — to my shock — that virtually nothing was coming out. What was happening to my supply?!
Oh, magpies, how I fretted, tearfully. (I had also had a particularly exhausting prior night, up every hour or so to feed or change or soothe the baby, and I think the sleeplessness was wearing me thin.) I was suddenly terrified I’d never be able to breastfeed him again and there I’d been, blithely marching through my days complaining about feeling “unkempt” when I’d had no idea how brief my breastfeeding days would be, and how much I’d miss them once they were gone.
But let me backtrack and explain the ** above.
No one knows anything about breastfeeding.
This is my informed opinion after two babies and countless conversations with friends, doctors, and lactation consultants, all of whom will give you differing opinions and advice.
In the hospital, I felt that breastfeeding was going swimmingly. Micro latched immediately in the recovery room and fed happily for hours every day. I took a breastfeeding class and met with a lactation consultant several times just to brush up and ensure that I remained humbled in this pursuit. I did pick up some tips, but I was also slightly miffed at the lack of concern the hospital seemed to have about the fact that I’d just had a c-section. For the class, the consultant was standing at the door of a room at the end of a corridor, waiting for me to push my bassinet into the room, and I felt as though she was waving me on as if to say: “Hurry up, slowpoke,” when I was, in fact moving as quickly as I could, bent over at a 45 degree angle in pain. Then I was asked to weave in and out of chairs and told to plop a pillow into my lap, horrifyingly close to my incision — this was within maybe 30 hours of having my son, and so I’d barely walked let alone sat upright in a chair. Of course, the movement proved to be good. It is true what “they” say: moving around expedites the recovery process, but it is never what I want to hear and “they” tends to be people who have never had a c-section and therefore do not know the agony of walking for the first few times, when it feels borderline superhero-esque to do so. (Also, I had a nasty cough and it was so, so hard to get through those coughs the first few days; I remember coughing midway down the walk to that class and I thought my stitches were going to tear open. Oh!) (Also, I just felt like complaining.) (Also, I think I was entitled to said miffedness.) Anyway, I kept telling Mr. Magpie how well nursing was going and how happy I was about it.
Then, on the third day, the nurses informed me that my son had lost nearly 9% of his birth weight and that they wanted me to supplement him with formula — “just until your milk comes in.” Apparently it is cause for concern if the baby drops below 10% of his birthweight, and so I nodded serenely. “OK, if this is what needs to happen, this is what needs to happen. Fed is best.” The next day, the lactation consultant swung by to check in on me and I explained the new protocol.
“Oh. Oh no.”
My heart dropped.
“Well, it’s just — if you feed him formula, you’re basically telling your body not to produce the milk he needs, and it will be hard for your body to catch up. I wouldn’t worry about his current weight — just keep breastfeeding.”
I was in a quandary. Ultimately, I decided to follow my instincts and continued to supplement with formula at most feedings, especially if he seemed alert and hungry after finishing the nursing portion of his meal. I reasoned that I’d rather have a satisfied and growing baby than prioritize my personal preference to breastfeed him. And having a full, happy baby also meant that he would sleep longer and be calmer in general — a win/win, I estimated.
And so we supplemented at every feed.
When we took him to the pediatrician at five days of age, he’d gained back a lot of the weight he’d lost, and had even gained two ounces since leaving the hospital the day prior.
“That’s wonderful!” she intoned. I explained my goal of exclusively breastfeeding and she suggested that I “play around” with how much formula I gave him. “See if he seems satisfied with just your breastmilk; if he’s still fussy, feed him formula until your milk comes in.”
And so I tried for days to just breastfeed him and supplement when it seemed necessary. But suddenly I found myself feeding him every hour — sometimes even more frequently. I thought he was cluster feeding for comfort, but gradually it became obvious that he was just not getting enough and was extremely hungry. When I switched back to nursing and then following with formula, we eased back into a more manageable two-to-three hour cycle: he fed, I changed him and rocked him, he slept. Lather, rinse, repeat. Any time I’d drop the formula, he’d be fussing hungrily within an hour.
Well, OK. We were back to where I was with mini: a chronic undersupply. Selfishly, this discovery pleased me, as it suggested to me that I hadn’t in fact botched mini’s nursing by willfully refusing to attend breastfeeding classes prior to her birth, but that my body simply could not produce the amount of milk needed to support a growing newborn. I felt — and how outrageous is this? — a small parcel of guilt dissolve into thin air, and hadn’t even realized I’d been toting it around all this time. “Ah, that’s better,” I thought, happy not to have been totally at fault for the complexity of feeding mini.
When I took micro back to the pediatrician for his two week check-up, we saw another doctor in the practice owing to a scheduling issue. The pediatrician suggested I reintroduce pumping to help with supply — the same old song and dance that had sent me to the border of madness with mini. For those uninitiated, the idea is that pumping after feeding your child will tell your body to keep producing milk (breastfeeding is all about supply and demand), and even if nothing comes out at first, eventually the body will start producing enough to keep up. And so your day looks like this:
-7 AM: Breastfeed baby.
-7:20 AM: Pass baby off to husband to feed bottle while he is inevitably also trying to console your toddler, make breakfast, brew coffee, clean up a spill, keep the airedale out of the trash (“who left the bathroom door open?”), answer a work email, and maintain some semblance of humor amidst it all.
-7:25 AM: Jam the pump parts into place, change quickly into pumping bra, settle in on the couch, pump for 15 minutes while attempting to parent your toddler. Believe me when I say that ultimatums do not carry the same weight when delivered from a supine position, hooked up to a machine whose whir will haunt my dreams. Every threat feels half-assed. “Do not test me,” I say, as I sit, immobilized, strapped to a machine, entirely unable to follow through on threats of discipline.
-7:40 AM: Take baby out of husband’s hands to burp him and rock him to sleep. Eat three bites of cold, leftover egg from toddler’s breakfast plate while singing Frozen and cajoling daughter to have her diaper changed. Look down and realize you are still wearing a pumping bra (no shirt) and pajama pants with yogurt smeared down the side.
-8 AM: Swaddle sleeping baby and place in bassinet.
-8:05 AM: Rush to stow expressed milk in fridge and scrub all pump parts; leave to dry in kitchen.
-8:15 AM: Dazedly complete a mix of tidying up, brushing teeth, putting in contacts, playing with toddler, occasionally soothing baby, etc.
-8:55 AM: Take a breath. Because the loop is about to repeat.
-9 AM: Breastfeed baby.
Basically, you have little windows of maybe 30 or 40 minutes to get life done. Meanwhile, your breasts are sore, you are constantly changing in and out of the pumping bra, you are always cleaning the pump parts at the sink, while occasionally losing track of a piece or two and then dazedly attempting to jam them together as you wonder what you are doing with your life, and — for some reason, even if you are sitting next to your family while doing it, you find the pump horribly isolating and…demeaning? I can’t articulate why, but I truly hate pumping.
But, I took a deep breath and decided I’d try to pump to help with supply on a more limited basis. The doctor reasonably suggested I try pumping after daytime feeds — and just for a week, to see what would happen. I agreed, knowing I’d love to be able to feed him entirely on my own and deciding that it was worth the effort.
So for four days, I tried the pattern. I found it was incredibly difficult to stick to the routine with visitors coming and going and feeds often falling at highly inconvenient times — like right when mini was having a meltdown or getting ready for bed or just as we were about to have dinner. And so I was lax about it, and would try as best I could to squeeze in a few pumping sessions each day but not kill myself if I missed a few opportunities.
On the fourth day, my supply plummeted and I found myself wrangling a very unhappy baby, as I outlined at the start. I was completely confused — shouldn’t the pumping be helping?! And now I had destroyed my supply?!
I racked my brain. I searched for answers online. I wept to my angel sister, who sat on my couch and reassured me that it would all work out and that I was doing my best besides, although I couldn’t accept what she was saying and could only focus on the fact that I felt as though I was failing my son. I puzzled it out with Mr. Magpie. At first I thought I needed to be drinking more water. Maybe I was dehydrated?! And so I challenged myself to drink a full glass of water at every single feed. I also doubled down on the galactagogues, eating oatmeal and oat bars and drinking mother’s milk tea as often as possible. And then I thought back to the fact that he’d been awake every hour or so the night prior. Maybe he was extra hungry and going through a growth spurt? And so I was depleted because he’d sucked me dry? But this didn’t seem to explain why he wouldn’t latch for more than a few seconds without refusing me — and why I’d then be unable to pump anything, even though he’d not been nursing for long. And then I thought maybe he was angry with the speed of my let-down or flow because he was getting used to drinking from bottles. Mr. Magpie noted that there had been some “1 speed” nipples mixed in with the “0 speed” nipples, and maybe he’d gotten spoiled by the faster flow. Meanwhile, I observed that he seemed extra gassy — maybe it was the gas that was bothering him rather than anything about breastfeeding per se? Maybe I had eaten something that was upsetting him? Maybe the formula was messing with him? What if it was an allergy or intolerance that was just rearing its head now that he was drinking more and more formula? Finally, as I cried to Mr. Magpie about how exhausted I was by everything, adding that things had been better before we’d introduced the pumping to the mix — at least I was at peace with things and felt I was in a rhythm! — he mused that maybe the added stress of trying to produce more milk and sitting in a separate room and rushing around trying to get pumps in every day had left me stressed and therefore unable to produce as much milk, knowing — as a tenured dad — that much of nursing is psychological.
There were too many factors to consider, too many moving parts. And a girlfriend told me that her supply had slowed to a trickle one day and she’d had a similar freak out — but that it had returned 24 hours later, without any major changes to her diet or approach — and that maybe these things…just happen?
I do not know. I do not know!
But we decided a few things. First: that I would stop pumping, as we felt it was introducing way too much chaos and stress. Second: that we would try to only use 0 speed nipples. And third: that I would try to focus all of my energy on just feeding micro. “Let everything else go, Jennie. You’re putting way too much pressure on yourself. Your biggest job is caring for Hill. So just focus on that,” Mr. Magpie said. And so from 9 PM that night to 9 AM the following morning, I laid in bed and snuggled and nursed him. And things seemed to click back into place. At the 3 A.M. feed, I nearly cried when he happily latched and stayed latched. Yes, I still had to supplement, but there wasn’t the furious fussing at the breast. Two days later, he will still occasionally fuss during daytime feeds and so I find myself giving him the bottle earlier than I’d like on occasion. Sometimes I pump afterwards, knowing he’s not taken much from me, and am surprised to find nearly 2 oz. This says to me that maybe it’s more about let-down or flow speed, as he will almost always happily take the bottle instead. But then other times I persist in putting him back on the breast again and again and he eventually settles down — and those times, I think it’s more about gas pain that’s keeping him from latching for a longer period of time, or perhaps that I need to catch him before he gets too hungry.
So again. Who knows. I certainly don’t and no one else seems to, so I’ll continue to troubleshoot and beat myself up and worry just like every other nursing mother out there.
But my points are these:
1 // Breastfeeding is hard and confusing and there never seems to be just one solution. Ask three experts for advice and you’ll get three different answers. So go easy on yourself and do your best. Troubleshoot. Also, trust your instincts. (I followed none of this advice — I was in fact dreadfully hard on myself — and it was rough-going. Take it from me. Although: easier said than done.)
2 // Just a week ago, I was flippantly complaining about feeling “unkempt” while nursing — and now I find myself grateful for the disarray. Maybe not comfortable with it, but grateful for it. The entire experience was a reminder to count my blessings. Every single one of them. Even that bleary 3 a.m. feed.
Some new discoveries for my fellow nursing/pumping mamas:
+This would work if you’re comfortable with pulling down the top. I’d wear this specifically for pumping — you can slide your arms out the sleeves and pull down without having to step in/out or button anything. This fun little frock or this voluminous Marysia would work for similar reasons.
+OMG this Persifor dress is perfection! I love the forgiving shape, the button front, and all of the fun prints it comes in.
+This clever dress is under $50 — the hidden “easy access” detail is genius!
+Perfect for nursing and beyond — in nearly any circumstance. Wear with chic sneaks and huge shades or with smart flats and pearls or…well, virtually anything.
+You can never have enough of these loose-fitting boy shirts. Order a few sizes up to be extra roomy (and generous to yourself).
+If I had my druthers, I’d be wearing my favorite nursing nightgown and this robe all the live-long day.
+Not nursing friendly, but friendly to a pregnant or postpartum figure: this dress.
+If you are trying to build your supply, I think this mother’s milk tea works. With mini, I really liked these bars, but I found them less edible this go around — no idea why. I was just sort of choking them down, unhappily. I now eat any granola bar with oats in them. I have also heard via Hitha’s community that Mrs. Patel’s has some amazing galactagogue-packed snacks and teas.
+Non-maternity and non-nursing finds (if you fit this category and made it thus far in the post, I applaud you): this gorgeous dress, this darling clutch, and these happy jammies, which look a lot like a Liberty London print.
+These must-have summer sandals (I’ve been seeing these everywhere) are now discounted below $200.