When Breastfeeding Just Isn’t Going to Happen

Nothing makes me angrier than people telling new moms that they just didn’t try hard enough if they make the switch from breastfeeding to formula feeding. Sometimes it just isn’t a good fit for your family no matter how hard you try, how much you read, or how many resources you tap into. I think this story, written by Gemma Bonham-Carter, illustrates that perfectly so I asked if I could republish it here. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. – Amy


For long before I was even pregnant, I had visions of myself as breastfeeding mama. One of those uber enthusiastic ones who breastfeed longer than most. My undergrad and Master’s degrees are in Public Health, with a focus in maternal health, and I have read way too many studies on the benefits of breastfeeding. I wanted to be one of those mums who breastfeeds openly in public to help reduce the stigma around that. I pictured loving the cozy time between me and babe. Well, it didn’t quite turn out that way.

I had a fairly long (30 hours) and traumatic delivery near the end (I didn’t end up in c-section, but had a post-partum hemorrhage and needed various interventions) – maybe one day I’ll share the birth story here on the blog – but needless to say I was exhausted and feeling pretty beat up by the time my sweet girl arrived. For her first hour or so (maybe a bit longer) in the world we just had some lovely skin to skin time, which was a great distraction for me and what was still going on in the bottom half of my body. When things had calmed down it was time to give her a bit of food. I was way too tired to even hold the baby, so my lovely midwife brought her gently to my breast and helped her latch. It didn’t seem to come naturally to Maya – she struggled and would come off frequently. I don’t remember too much from that moment, but I do remember yelping out in pain. I knew it was going to be somewhat painful (I had been warned!), but I no idea it would feel like that. We tried for a while longer, she might have gotten a few drops of something, and then just stopped for the time being as Maya was sleepy and I needed to get moved to a different unit in the hospital (it was about 9 or 10pm by that time).

That night in the hospital my midwife had gone home and it was just me, Dan, and Maya. Twice in the night the nurses came by to wake me and the baby up to do a feeding. Both times they brought the baby to me and as soon as she came up to my breast, she started crying. Screaming crying. They were insistent that she feed, but she just did not want to latch on. They shoved her face into my breast and when she did latch on, it was excruciating for me – I couldn’t hold her and just had to ball up my fists, close my eyes, and breathe through the pain. Maya would continue screaming (like that “just had my arm chopped off” screaming crying that babies can do), would latch for a few seconds, come off, scream, repeat, all while I tried to relax through the pain. By the time morning came around, my nipples were completely raw and bleeding. I got to go home that next day and received care at home from my midwife. Again, she tried to help get breastfeeding going smoothly, but again Maya would just scream, cry and pull away, all while I would be welling up with tears from the pain. I knew it was supposed to be painful in the beginning, but was it really supposed to be like this? I have been through various painful things before (gallstones, broken bones, labour?!) and I hadn’t imagined that breastfeeding would be up there with them.

 

Time to head home from the hospital!
Time to head home from the hospital!

 

That first night back at home, my midwife advised that we hand express the milk for Maya that night as she wasn’t latching properly and due to my high level of pain. My nipples were also a total wreck by that time, so the hope was that by hand expressing over night they might have some time to recover. I was also taking epsom salt baths and using lanolin cream like it was my job to help them heal more quickly. So that night we set our alarm for every 3 hours to feed. I had to fiddle around a fair bit to figure out how to hand express my boobs (this wasn’t a it-comes-naturally kind of skill I had in my back pocket – ha!), but got the hang of it. It was still colostrum at that point, so I would squeeze out drop by drop and feed it to Maya on my baby finger. It was like she was a bird. I would do 5 drips per boob for each feed, which would take about half an hour. Oh and I also started pumping that night to continue to encourage my milk to come in. I only had a single pump at home (the medela ‘swing’), so I would pump each side for 10 minutes at each feed. Needless to say, it was an intense night and I think Dan and I got about 1 hour total of sleep (poor Dan had been up through the night with me when I was labouring, then the next night didn’t get a wink of sleep in the hospital as he wasn’t given a cot, and so this was night #3 on zero sleep for him).

The next day my midwife came back to my house and advised me on getting a hospital grade double pump. It was a Sunday and quite a few places were closed, but we ended up being able to rent one from Shoppers Home Health. We got that home and I started on an 8x a day pumping schedule. We continued to try and get Maya to latch on, but she just wouldn’t have any of it. She would get near my boob and start to cry. We had to give her some milk from a bottle so that she would get something, so we started supplementing. I didn’t have any milk coming at that point, so my best friend who was still nursing her little guy would come by every day and drop some of her milk off for us (how amazing is that? I’m forever going to be so touched by her support in that moment). We used the medela calma nipple, as we had heard that it mimics the breast as much as possible, in the hopes that we would still be able to get breastfeeding working for us – we didn’t want her to have “nipple confusion”. So we did this for the next two days – pumping, bottle feeding, trying to breastfeed, etc – until we were able to get a lactation consultant who the midwife had recommended to come to our home.

So little! Look at those skinny legs!
So little! Look at those skinny legs!

 

Finally – the lactation consultant. I felt like this was going to be the solution. She checked for tongue and lip tie, and although Maya had a “slight lip tie” and very small mouth, it wasn’t anything that should have interfered with her ability to breastfeed. She helped us with positioning for feeding, which felt so awkward. I just felt like Maya was never comfortable or relaxed. The consultant saw that Maya would scream and cry when we tried to feed so took her off, fed her a bit from a bottle so she wasn’t starving, and then would try again. We used a nipple shield on me and the consultant syringed in some formula in to show Maya that milk would come from there (also because my milk hadn’t come in yet). By the time she left our house we had a plan: I was going to give Maya “breastfeeding lessons” once a day until it was going better, and then would increase to two, three, four times a day. The rest of the time we would continue to bottle feed with the medela nipple and I would continue to pump 8x a day for 20 minutes per time. We would continue to use the nipple shield until my nipples had recovered and “pulled out” (they are pretty flat naturally).

So that is what we did. Every day, usually mid-morning, I would try to get Maya to breastfeed. Some days she would latch on with the shield and I would be syringing in milk and she would maybe get a little from me. Most days though, she continued to scream every time we tried, and would latch for a few seconds and turn her head away. Even with the pumping 6-8 times a day and the breastfeeding sessions, my milk wasn’t coming in. I never really got engorged, and it wasn’t until day 10 when I produced any more than a few drops of milk when pumping. I gave Maya my friend’s breastmilk but also had to supplement in some formula. The first time I used formula I felt like I was giving her poison – all of the messaging around “breast is best” is great, but it does make you feel horrible when it doesn’t work out. The pain for me continued to be off-the-charts. The shield did make it moderately better… moderately… but it still felt like knives were being stabbed into my nipples. Every day I hoped that it would feel even a little bit better, and it never did. The days where we had an okay session in the morning, I would try to do another in the afternoon. But unfortunately we just never seemed to make progress, and for about two thirds of the day, every day, I just cried. Cried from the exhaustion, the pain (not just boobs but those “other” areas too – my recovery from the birth was pretty slow), anxiety around this whole new parenting thing, and mostly from my feeling of guilt and inadequacy around breastfeeding. I couldn’t enjoy even the quiet moments with my little girl when she was sleeping on me, as I was completely consumed by everything to do with breastfeeding. I went to some breastfeeding drop-in’s again, but without any major leaps forward. They did, however, make me feel like I was doing the right thing with supplementing and bottle feeding, which was positive. My girl was growing quickly and was super healthy – that made things a little easier.

In the thick of it – eyes swollen from crying, but trying to stay positive! See all that paper beside me? Those were my tracking sheets – I was keeping notes of every time I tried breastfeeding and for how long, every time I pumped and how much I produced, and every time we bottle fed her and how much.
In the thick of it – eyes swollen from crying, but trying to stay positive! See all that paper beside me? Those were my tracking sheets – I was keeping notes of every time I tried breastfeeding and for how long, every time I pumped and how much I produced, and every time we bottle fed her and how much.

 

At about the 3 week mark, when no progress was being made and I seemed to just be getting more and more down (literally crying ALL THE TIME, had no appetite, and was feeling anxious – I totally wasn’t myself), my Mum finally dragged me in to my family Doc. What I was doing just wasn’t sustainable. A lot of people had been telling me to just stop breastfeeding, but I had been stubbornly hanging on to it. I was insistent that I was going to be that breastfeeding mama that I had pictured for so long. I could barely get the words out when I got to my Doctor’s office – told her the story of the last few weeks through sobs. She didn’t even flinch for a minute in telling me that breastfeeding just obviously wasn’t working for us. It was time to stop. She felt that I was spiralling quickly into a post partum depression, and was what more important – that I keep trying to make breastfeeding work (possibly with never having success), or make a change and take care of myself and Maya? By taking care of myself, I would be a better mum and would bond with Maya. To be totally honest at that point, I didn’t feel like we had bonded. Every experience with her was associated with pain or frustration. It was time for that to end. As I walked out of her office, I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I think I had just needed a medical professional to tell me that it was okay to stop. That it was in both my and Maya’s best interest. So from that moment forward I considered myself to be a pumping mum. I would do what I could to get her as much breastmilk as possible, but I wasn’t going to beat myself up about using formula. I was a formula fed baby afterall (my Mum struggled with breastfeeding too – low supply and me never taking to it — maybe foreshadowing my experience?). In the weeks that followed we got into a great routine. I pumped as much as I could (I kept to about 5 pump sessions a day for a long time), we had a good system for bottle feeding, and the best thing was I was SO MUCH HAPPIER and Maya and I totally bonded. I fell in love… hard.

Blissed out.
Blissed out.

 

One interesting twist in the story was that at around the 3 month mark I felt like I had emotionally recovered from those horrendous first 6 weeks, and was thinking that it wouldn’t hurt to just try breastfeeding again. So I brought Maya into bed with me and offered her the boob. You know what? She latched and didn’t pull off right away! She actually went at it for 10 minutes on each side. I was crying, but this time with happiness. There was pain for sure, but it was totally manageable pain. The kind of pain that I expected would come with initial stages of breastfeeding that would dissipate over time. The kind of pain that would curl  your toes at first and then you could relax into. Had this been what it was in the beginning, it would’ve been a different story. It was validating for me, as since giving up on breastfeeding I had continually wondered if I had been wimpy about the pain. Was it really as bad as that, or was I just overwhelmed with everything else going on at the time? Well, after that 3 month breastfeeding session, I knew that it really was off the charts. This was what it was supposed to feel like. And can you guess what happened after that? I tried breastfeeding her once a day for the next 10 days or so, and she refused it every. single. time. Would never do it again as much as I tried. Little rascal.

Now that I have had half a year to reflect on the whole experience, I know it came down to a few different things. Maya’s super small mouth and my flat (and possibly more sensitive than usual) nipples (I think our anatomy just didn’t match up well), my late-to-come-in and low supply milk, my emotional state at the time after a frightening birth, and Maya’s reluctance to breastfeed. All of those things put together just meant that breastfeeding wasn’t going to be in the cards for us. And despite struggling with a lot of guilt around it, that was OKAY. I have done lots of other great stuff as a Mum to help my little girl be healthy and happy. And you know what? There have been a lot of benefits to bottle feeding. Dan was able to really bond with Maya over feeding time and play a very significant and helpful role in those early weeks and months, that a lot of partners don’t get. I wasn’t tied to Maya which meant I was able to get away for some time to myself (or for a date!) when needed. Plus, we were always able to know exactly how much she was drinking, which was helpful. It’s okay when things don’t go as planned. You make the best of it and move on. Heck, this whole parenthood thing is a trip and I don’t think anything ever really goes as you expect it to.

SuperDad!
SuperDad!

 

I’m writing this post for a few reasons. Mostly for myself – it is healing in a way to get things down on paper (er, computer), but also in case there are any other new mums out there who might be struggling with breastfeeding. I know I was reaching out to every mum I knew to ask questions about their experience breastfeeding and found a lot of comfort in chatting with a few folks who had similar stories.

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47 Comments

  • I as right there with you 15 years ago. My son was 3 weeks premature and did not want “work” for his nutrition, according to our lactation nurse. My milk never came in and I cried many tears. I also came to the conclusion that he had already been getting mostly formula and my time with him was more important. I am glad to say that noone ever made comments to me. 8 years later when our second was born I tried again, but my body would not cooperate. Both of my children have always been healthy and are currently 7 and 15.

  • I could have written this exact story myself, from the intense dedication to breastfeeding from the very start, to the postpartum depression and obsession with nursing, to the supplementation and exhausting pumping schedule, to the surprise breastfeeding session weeks later that brought tears of joy. This was me. One day, I will write my story to hopefully find some closure and healing. I hope to be able to write with the same eloquence and beautiful message that have embedded into this story. Thank you.

  • This so mirrors the experience that I had with my first born. I still remember those days of pumping. bottle feeding him a little, trying to latch him, his screaming, and my feeling like a failure. I think it’s great that you are sharing this story. It took me like two months or so to become a pumping mom, and I felt a ton of guilt about it then. One word of encouragement though is that each kid is different. My daughter took to breast feeding like a champ, so if you have more children don’t be afraid to give it another try.

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