4.13.2017

on feeding babies

This is not a sponsored post. The Honest Company is interested in hearing stories about feeding a newborn to help promote a healthier discussion of feeding newborns. I'm getting nothing for doing this, and everything here is my own experience and opinion. Normally I turn these kinds of offers down, but I've adored this company for years and love what they do, plus I have some passionate thoughts on the matter that I've gone back and forth on writing. I figured I would take this opportunity to share my story, even though it makes me a bit uncomfortable to talk about my boobs so much on the internet. This topic is also important to The Honest Company because they provide high-quality organic formula and prenatal vitamins for anyone who's in the market. I've never personally used either, so I can't vouch for them, but we used their diapers and wipes for 8 months, and I loved them so much. I would buy everything from them if I could afford it.

When I was in the throes of breastfeeding hell, I found a blog post somewhere deep in the internet written by a mom who had gone through the same thing. I had it bookmarked and read it over and over. It brought me immense comfort and reassurance that this too shall pass. I'm writing this for any mom who has or will struggle with nursing or choosing to formula feed, and I hope it will encourage you to learn from my mistakes and to comfort you that you are not alone. 




When someone mentions breastfeeding, I have two competing reactions: warm fuzzies, and pure horror. This might sound ridiculous to anyone who didn't struggle with feeding their child, but breastfeeding is hands down the hardest and most painful thing I've ever done in my life. Giving birth was child's play in comparison. A few hours of pain and it was over; but breastfeeding was like stabbing myself in the boob with a dull knife every three hours.

I had every intention of breastfeeding my daughter when she was born, but I was no idiot. I had a stash of formula and bottles in the pantry just in case. I was stocked up on nursing pads, lanolin, and nursing bras. If I had any idea what I was about to get myself into, I would've set them on fire instead of packing them in my hospital bag. When Gracie was born, she latched right on. She needed a little help at times, but she was nursing like a champion. I was so grateful. I was held together below the waist by stitches, recovering from a hemorrhage, and got zero sleep in the hospital. I needed something to go smoothly! I had several nurses who made it their mission to make sure I knew what I was doing by the time we left. A pediatrician told me early one morning that she nursed her baby for 16 months, and it was the hardest thing she had ever done but completely worth it.

My milk came in the day we got home from the hospital. My supersized nursing bra couldn't even contain me, the girl who cried in high school over her A cups. Gracie suddenly couldn't latch on anymore. It was like learning to drink from a straw that suddenly turned into a basketball within hours. I dreaded feeding her. I would have a true anxiety attack every time I saw her sucking on her fist--the newborn cue that she was ready to eat. I would start shaking and sweating. My heart was pounding. I knew it was going to be excruciating for us both. We both forgot how to nurse. It would take her upwards of an hour to finally latch, then she would nurse for an hour, sleep for a few, and the process would repeat itself. By the time it ended, I would be dripping in blood and tears. I had open wounds from teaching her how to latch. I couldn't sleep because I was so scared she was going to want to eat. I lived in terror of feeding my own baby.

Not only was I losing my mind from the pain and stress of learning to breastfeed, but my recovery from birth was just as awful. I couldn't sit up. I had to nurse partially lying down and propped up with pillows. The only way I could even attempt to sit up a little would be if I stuffed my pants with ice packs and sat on the Boppy. The Boppy was zero help with nursing, but I took that thing everywhere to sit on. I had no shame. No dignity. I was just trying to survive the black hole of pain I was in. I wasn't even fazed when I opened the door for the pizza delivery man with half my nursing bra undone.

The nurse at our pediatrician's office was studying to be a lactation consultant, and she saved my life. She had me nurse in front of her so she could see what the problem was. Things would improve for a day or so after our visits, and suddenly the tricks she gave me would stop working and we would be back to square one. I was in her office about once a week, sobbing uncontrollably. I fell apart every time I saw her. I was failing horribly and felt so ashamed. My only saving grace was that despite our issues, Gracie was thriving. She surpassed her birth weight in less than a week and was growing by the day.

Eventually, Gracie learned to latch, but the damage had been done. From weeks of sucking and pulling her off and putting her back on, I had large, open, gaping wounds and exposed flesh. I was bleeding, occasionally infected, and in so much pain I couldn't even hug my husband. I wanted a sling or wrap to carry her in as a newborn, but my chest was so sore I couldn't imagine being able to hold her against my chest. Even the water in the shower touching my chest was excrutiating. Putting on my bra and shirt without hurting myself was like doing a strange interpretive dance. I would start to scab over between feedings, but every time she nursed, she would pull off the scabs and reopen the wounds. It was a pain like I had never experienced before, not even in childbirth. The only thing I can equate it to is an attempt at an unmedicated amputation.

The lactation consultant was mildly horrified at what a hard time we were having. She finally told me that if I was going to heal, I would need to start giving her bottles. I knew that, but I for some twisted reason, I couldn't bring myself to do it. It would be admitting to failure. All I had heard were fear mongering stories of nipple confusion, and once you go bottle, you never go back. Our nursing problems had nothing to do with milk supply or an anatomical issue preventing her from latching. They were about me not being able to push through the pain, and it turning me into a shell of myself. I was deep in the throes of postpartum depression. I cried nonstop. I couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel. I couldn't feed my baby without writhing in pain, and I still couldn't sit or walk comfortably after birth. I was constantly in pain. On the back of my discharge papers, I had a chart marking the times I had nursed and the times I could take more Tylenol. My entire life revolved around those two times.

At 5 weeks, I finally consented and let James give her a bottle of pumped milk. I watched as he happily fed her, she eagerly ate, and I wept. I felt equal parts relieved that he could share this burden of feeding her with me, but also weirdly betrayed that she was getting my milk from another source. It was ludicrous, of course, but I told him I didn't want to give her another bottle until nursing clicked. You can't expect a woman with raging hormones, sleep deprivation, and constant pain to be rational. I was determined. I can't begin to understand why I had that drive inside me to make breastfeeding work. It just felt like something I had to do, had to prove to myself, had to do for my baby. But I drove myself insane in the process.

It took 7 full weeks for nursing to click. That's 7 full weeks of sobbing and writhing in pain every time I fed her, every 2-3 hours. I would scream at the top of my lungs every time she latched, occasionally dropping some profane words in the process. It would hurt so bad I would be scared to let her latch. I would pause a tv show or set a plate of cookies next to me. I wouldn't let myself unpause the show or take a bite of a cookie until I had let her latch and the initial pain had lessened. I have always been one to run from even the possibility of pain, but I had to train myself to push through it for the sake of my daughter. I became obsessed with making sure her latch was perfect. I smothered myself in creams to help me heal. I prayed with her before every feeding--for healing, and for the pain to subside. I laid in bed at night googling nursing techniques and problems. Sometimes it brought me comfort, but it often gave me something else to worry about that I had never thought of before. During every pre-nursing cry session, James would tell me to pump and give a bottle. Every time, I told him I was going to try just one more time, and then I'd give a bottle. The next feeding, I told him I was going to try just one more time. I refused to think about the next feeding and took it one session at a time. A friend told me that every feeding was one feeding closer to it being pain-free. I clung to that. Once her latch was perfected, I very slowly started to heal, which was nothing short of a miracle. The pain finally eased to the point that around 9-10 weeks, I could nurse mostly pain free. I got my life back. It wasn't until the trauma of nursing passed that the fog of postpartum depression slowly began to recede. I started to feel like myself again and started bonding more and more with Gracie and motherhood in general.

Eventually, breastfeeding became second nature. I nursed in restaurants, parks, airplanes, airports, beaches, stores, coffee shops, you name it. Two years later, and we're still going. Yes, she's still nursing, only once or twice a day. This is not information I regularly volunteer, since at two years it's less good for you! and more so which commune do you belong to? but I think it's important to know. When the doctor in the hospital told me she nursed for 16 months, I thought there was no way. My first goal was 6 months, then 12, then 18. I never thought we would make it this long, and I feel like it's helped to redeem those horrible early months. It hasn't been a walk in the park, though. For the first year, I had a clogged duct at least once a month, and I woke up on Gracie's first birthday with mastitis. But this is the one thing in my life I can look back on and know I overcame every obstacle to accomplish my goal. It's the hardest and most painful thing I've ever done in my life.

If I had been a working mom, I would be writing a very different story. Had I gone back to work at 6 weeks, there's no way we would have been able to push through and come out on the other side. It's for that reason and my experience that I don't think moms should ever feel ashamed of bottle or formula feeding. I don't regret my story, but if there's a next time, I'm going to do things differently. No matter what your breastfeeding support group on Facebook says, bottles are not evil, they are merciful. They do what you cannot. They give you your life and sanity back. I used to look at moms feeding their babies with a bottle and feel jealous. I wanted to breastfeed, but feeding my baby should not have been such a traumatic event. If you have to switch to formula so you can be the best mom you can be, I applaud you. Sometimes I think that's the braver choice, because it's admitting you need help. That's something I couldn't do. For whatever reason, I felt that it had to my burden alone to feed my daughter, and that is so wrong. I'm so thankful for the way our story turned out, but I wish it hadn't happened quite the way it did. If I had let James give her a few bottles while I let myself heal, I know it would have made me a more present and emotionally stable mom.

Here's the thing: the one year of feeding your baby formula or breast milk is so fleeting. It's a blip on the radar in the scheme of things. While you're in the middle of it, it's life and death. It's The Thing everyone asks about. Everyone wants to know how you're feeding your baby and then give advice on the matter. Your entire life revolves around milk. It's all you think about, all your baby thinks about. It's the first thing your pediatrician will ask about. But at 4-6 months, they'll start eating solid food. By one year, they may very well be weaned. In one short year, the whole thing will be a non-issue. It won't matter. Gracie is two, and I can't remember the last time someone asked if I nursed her or not. Her college and scholarship applications won't ask if she was raised on formula or breastmilk. It will have no lasting impact on her life. I remember feeling shocked one day when Gracie was a newborn, and I realized we were only a handful of months away from her eating solid food. I felt a burden lift. I was so consumed with the round-the-clock feeding that I forgot it's only a tiny chapter of our lives.

For some women, breastfeeding is completely natural and comes easily. For people like me, breastfeeding is like stepping off a plane in China and being expected to communicate fluently with the locals. I don't know why some moms have it easy, and some don't. It's the same way some people are born with the aptitude for math, and some have to put in a monumental effort to get a passing grade. I won't extol the benefits of breastfeeding, because we all know them. If you can and want to do it, I think you should. But if you can't, it's okay. It's like deciding you need to drop your calculus class and find something that suits you and your life better. We've all heard stories of moms ridiculed for breastfeeding in public, and even moms charged with high crimes by the Nursing Nazis for giving their child a bottle of formula. We have no idea what kind of experiences that mom had that caused them to nurse or not to nurse. The only reaction we should have to moms feeding their babies is "I see you're feeding your hungry baby. That's awesome. You're a good mom, and your baby is happy, healthy, and thriving."

We are all in this together.

17 comments:

  1. This is beautifully written! I couldn't agree with you on this more. My mom wasn't able to breastfeed me and I don't lack anything as the result. All that matters is your hungry baby is getting fed!

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    1. Thank you so much! I love what you said. My mom had to switch to formula at 6 months since she was having major surgery. I couldn't care less, and I'm just grateful she did what she had to do to feed me.

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  2. I love this. So, so much. I don't love what you had to go through, but I love that you shared.

    When you said before that breastfeeding was the hardest thing you'd ever done I had no idea how much you went through. You're incredible for sticking with it.

    I also love that you're still going strong. I'm excited to see how long Molly and I go this time since I'm not planning on getting pregnant again and letting that kill my milk supply.

    Feed the babies and love the moms. No shame. Love it.

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  3. Yowza. Sounds like the best plan is to hope for the best but prepare for the worst! I definitely plan on exclusively breastfeeding if at all possible (and pumping and bottle feeding too because I want to be able to leave the baby with Isaiah for more than 2.3 seconds at a time), but I'm also mentally preparing now in case something goes awry. I actually didn't know until a couple of weeks ago, but apparently my mom supplemented with formula occasionally! She didn't pump, but apparently wanted/needed to give us bottles occasionally. Who knew! I sure didn't, until we were in Babies R Us and she was telling me all about how much she loved the Playtex drop-in liner bottles (!?).

    I think "breastfeed or DIE" has really turned into a huge shame issue, no thanks to the mega hippie/"crunchy" movement. Some good things have come out of that, but overall, I don't think most women turn to formula just because they're being selfish and don't want to sacrifice their boobs or something. My mom had her kids in the early/mid-80s and the way she talked about formula supplementation was like it was the most common sense thing in the world. Nowadays you say "formula" around a certain crowd and suddenly the atmosphere changes, like you just announced you're fine with people drowning puppies or something.

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  4. I could've written so much of this post myself. We had different struggles, but I had many similar feelings.

    I always planned to breastfeed, and just assumed that when the time came we would get the hang of it. But then one of our five nights in the hospital, a nurse barged in in the middle of the night and said "Look. If we don't get his weight up or at least stop him from losing any more the doctor is going to make you supplement with formula, and you don't want to do that". She (and others) had me convinced that if I had to give formula I would be failing.

    The first week feeding the baby was one of the only things I could do, and even then laying him across my healing stomach was so painful that I could hardly do that. I spent up to an hour each feeding trying to latch him on, keep him awake, dealing with a shield that kept falling off, and still I wasn't convinced he was eating enough. I went to support groups, took supplements, sat with a lactation consultant at least once a week--some weeks twice--and I started dreading every feeding.

    The final straw was the night that I was home alone with him and was hit with aches, chills, a fever, and a chest so sore I was afraid to pick up my baby who wanted to eat constantly. I cried every time he squirmed and his little fists or feet hit me. I spent the next day doing everything the nurse and lactation consultant told me would help, and gave him his first bottle of formula that night.

    I haven't replaced every feeding with formula yet, but I am so thankful that we found an option that will keep my baby fed, healthy, and allow both of us to retain our sanity.

    Sorry for the novel of a comment. This post is just so appropriate for what's going on in my life right now!

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  5. I am glad that looking back you realize that next time you would like to do things differently. There are things I will do differently too. There can be so much pressure put on moms to feed a certain way, and we just have no idea what led them to their choices. I know that for me, once I accepted the fact that I just wasn't going to be able to pump enough for R while I was at work and we started giving her formula, it was so incredibly freeing for me. I truly felt a weight lifted and I have no regrets.

    Also, I don't think I ever had mastitis (would I know for sure???), but I had 5 or 6 clogged ducts and you aren't kidding, those are NO JOKE. Ouch.

    I always thought that 18 months sounded like a good age to get to, but we stopped officially around 13 months and we were both ready. Now that she's 20 months old I just can't imagine still BF. Something about it totally weirds me out and I had no idea I would feel like that! But I have a few friends who nursed their kids until 2+ and I say if that's what you want to do, go for it. We can certainly have an opinion about what we want to do FOR OUR OWN BABIES, but when it comes to stuff like this, I just don't think anyone should feel like they can tell another mom what to do. It's personal choice and that's that. Unless someone is still BF their 8-year-old and then perhaps we should have a conversation ;)

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  6. You are so cool and courageous!! Thank you for coming through this crazy experience and writing about it! I didn't have the level of insanity that you experienced (I don't think I had any open wounds, though there were one or two big sores or something like it that popped a couple times early on), but it was no walk in the park, either. My little guy took a while to figure out nursing in the hospital, but then he figured it out-and I thought everything was going well. I legitimately thought that the piercing pain and knives was normal, something that I just needed to "suck up" until I reached that magical 1-2 month mark that other women talked about! It was really sad to me, though, because my main motivation to nurse him was that I could read a book or watch a show-and I thought this was just a sad state of things that the main way I could pull through a nursing session was if I had some sort of entertainment to watch or read. I eventually went to a local nursing support group, where it was deemed that he had a lip tie and/or tongue tie, so cue me freaking out. Finally when my lil' guy was about 5 weeks old, at my husband's insistent prodding, I went to a see an IBCLC (internationally board certified lactation consultant), who was amazing. Not only was she crazy knowledgeable with gadgets and diagrams, but she was basically like a counselor who sat there and could sympathize with our problems. And she told me that we did NOT have tongue or lip tie issues most likely, which was nice clarification. Thankfully, after a few weeks of employing different techniques she recommended and him just getting better at nursing, we saw the light of day and it's been great ever since (except for when he wants to do total gymnastics while nursing haha). But yes, the struggle was very real in the first month and a half! And I think all the weirdness around breastfeeding toddlers is odd. But I nursed until I was three or something, as did most of my other 5 siblings, so "toddler nursing" was really normal to me growing up :P

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  7. I'm so thankful for moms like you who write eloquently and openly about topics like this. They helped me in those early weeks too because BFing didn't come easily for us at all. We saw the lactation consultant 3-4 times in that first 6 weeks. T wasn't gaining weight and it took him quite awhile to get back to birth weight-- which as a hormonal, brand new mom who just had a csection is just about the most stressful thing in the ENTIRE world. I was determined to make it work and we tried and tried everything. I ended up almost exclusively pumping for 7 months, which is not information I volunteer freely either. It was so difficult and when I finally decided I couldn't do it anymore we were all honestly happier. I already know things I'll do differently with another baby in the future for sure. I could keep writing but this is getting way too long already lol! xo xo

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  8. slow clap into a standing ovation for this one. all about it. you are so eloquent with this, and I am so happy you wrote it. it's not my experience, but I feel so strongly about people learning that THIS is the attitude to have about feeding...do what makes you the best mom you can be, whatever that is.

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    1. Thank you so, so much ❤️ I completely agree!

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  9. This is beautiful Michelle and so heartbreaking too. I wish I could retro-actively give you a hug. There are many lines I could have written myself, particularly:

    "It just felt like something I had to do, had to prove to myself, had to do for my baby. But I drove myself insane in the process." and
    "For whatever reason, I felt that it had to my burden alone to feed my daughter, and that is so wrong."

    I too had the same goals and I can't believe I made it to 19 months in retrospect. As I approach this challenge for the second time, I am sure I will come back to this essay for comfort, advice and support.

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  10. p.s. not sure if you watch Girls on HBO, but the series finale is called "Latching".

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  11. Wow! You are so awesome to share your story. How encouraging to moms!! And as usual, your posts always make me laugh:) Please write a book someday, maybe a compilation of your blogposts? xoxo

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  12. This is so good! I had a similar experience with my first. It took over a month for me not to cry every time he latched. Somewhere in there I realized it was affecting my bond with my baby to be dreading every feeding, and I pumped and let Derek give him a bottle so I could heal. It was a long 6 weeks!

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  13. P. S. If it's any encouragement, it hit way easier with subsequent babies. 😉

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  14. This made me actually SOB because I am so with you. Not on the pain part (it was painful, but nothing near what you're describing), but in the sense of the overwhelming guilt that you should be able to nurse correctly, without any big issue.

    My issue was that Jack literally did not like my boobs. He just didn't. I saw 3 different lactation consultants who would listen to what I said and be like, "I can totally help you!" Then they'd watch and just go, "hmmm...don't know what to tell you here. That's weird." <- Direct quote.

    It took a doctor looking at me in the face and saying "you are starving your baby" for me to realize just how ridiculous withholding formula is. And, like you said, looking back now it truly is just a blip on the radar in the scheme of things. Jack is perfectly happy.

    Thanks for writing this, friend.

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  15. I bought a canister of formula and stuck it in my pantry a couple of weeks ago, even though we plan to breastfeed, and I'm planning on pumping when I go back to work. I'm really trying to be less judgemental with myself about what it will take to successfully raise this kid that's been growing inside of me for 35.5 (!!!) weeks now, because very little of that journey has gone at all as I expected. So at this point, I'm just hoping that I can accept whatever comes once this baby is on the outside. But probably not, because the control freak in me has a hard time accepting limitations.

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