The Battle For Breastmilk: What I Learned And Why I Plan To Try Again

Now that I’ve made it past the halfway point on my second pregnancy, things are starting to become a little more real.  I’m realizing that actual plans to give birth should be made, and that I will soon need to make realistic decisions about how I plan to raise and care for this child once he is born. 

I assumed with everything that I learned and experienced having Violet, things would be easier the second time around.  For some situations, like the actual event of giving birth, I am hoping that I will have a second chance to succeed in the delivery room, and have the experience I was denied the first time.  Now I’m hoping maybe I can have a second chance at breastfeeding, too.

With Violet, I had every advantage a breastfeeding mother could ever want: access to a hospital pump for her first ten days, a bevy of NICU nurses all who said they were certified lactation consultants, a strong baby who appeared to have a voracious appetite and no issues with latching, and an endless supply of mother’s milk tea, peanut butter toast, apple juice and advice.

But every advantage came with a roadblock: my NICU baby was full term and mostly healthy, just on an antibiotic IV.   She was also the only child in the ward for most of her stay. The same nurses who encouraged and advised me non-stop on my breastfeeding adventures would also give her bottles when she woke up hungry, just to “let me get some rest” after a grueling labor, an emergency c-section, an infection, and massive blood loss.   After my stay in the hospital ended and Violet had another week still to go, they told me that I should concentrate on getting myself healthy by going home at night to sleep, while my daughter woke up to more staff cuddles and even more formula.

I did all of the things I was told I needed to do.  I drank the teas.  I woke up every three hours, pumping at home with my Mendela electric, spending 30 minutes on each side, crying when a full night’s work combined to make three small ounces that were gone within the first feeding back at the hospital. 

Then, back to the formula.

I’d go to the family room to get more juice or heat more tea, weary, in pain, staring at the giant poster that listed all of the horrible things that companies put in formula that you would never have to expose your baby to if you just gave him the breast.  I was trying to give her the breast.  But it was never enough.

The nurses came up with a myriad of reasons why I just didn’t seem to be producing enough milk.  C-section surgery can stall your milk coming in, they told me.  You had a severe loss of blood your body is trying to make up first, said another.  You need to keep pumping more, I heard from a third.  I would feed my baby, hand her over to my husband or a nurse, and then go back to a dayroom in the hospital and pump some more. 

Except for the first moment they wheeled me into her room, I don’t think I ever just sat and held my baby during the entire first ten days of her life.  Instead, I only held her to feed.

Once her antibiotics were done and she was discharged, things became much easier.  I nursed her when she cried.  We began to have that feeling of closeness that people had told me about, but I always seemed to be missing at the hospital. On the nurses’ advice I’d feed her for 20 minutes on each side, then if she still seemed hungry I would make her a small bottle to top her off.

When we went into the doctor for her follow-up a week later, she had lost 6 ounces.  The doctor forbade me from breast feeding, because he wanted to monitor how much food she was receiving. 

Violet was officially being classified as “failure to thrive.”

Suddenly, I was in a completely different breastmilk world.  My husband’s paternity leave and vacation had ended, and I was alone for the first time with my daughter.  I was pumping now for 40 minutes every two hours, trying desperately to build up supply.  I still had hardly enough for one feeding, and now I had to combine pumping time and feeding time, forming this endless loop with either a bottle or a pump in my hands at all time.  It was never enough.  I found myself resenting the baby, who would be in a glider, crying for me while I pumped. Couldn’t she see I still had five more minutes left on my right side and I was doing this for her!

That was when I realized that it wasn’t just my daughter that was “failing to thrive,” but our relationship, too.

I began to taper down my pumping.  It had been four weeks, and she had begun to put on weight.  I pumped three times a day, getting just enough milk to make me feel like I was providing a little bit of antibodies if nothing else, mixing it with the water in her formula.  Soon I switched to twice a day, then once, finishing up the day she turned six weeks old. 

I held her more.  We had time to cuddle on the couch, where she would nuzzle up and sleep on my chest.  She was already pushing herself up on her arms, rolling over, things I had time to enjoy because I wasn’t stuck in the constant cycle of pumping and feeding and yes, even crying.  She started to sleep through the night.  I started to sleep through the night.  And I started to think maybe I wasn’t the most horrible mother in the world after all.

My milk never came in.  I never was able to really give her my breast.  But I was able to give her me.

Now, I will have a chance to try this all again.  This time I am more prepared.  I know that many of the roadblocks that might have hindered me previously will probably not be an issue this time.  With no induction, my likelihood for an emergency c-section is greatly reduced, since we should end up with either a vaginal birth or a planned c-section.  With IV antibiotics during labor, the baby should come out perfectly healthy, and I should be able to keep him in my room, away from well-intention but somewhat contradictory nurses.  We should be able to be together, from the moment of birth, through our discharge, and at home, providing the best foundation for potential breastfeeding.  And, having watched my incessantly moving, constantly underweight newborn blossom into a healthy, mentally-advanced and physically exhausting toddler has taught me that what may at first look like failure to thrive might instead be a child settling into its own skin.

But I’ve also learned a valuable lesson from my experience with Violet.  Despite all of your plans and best intentions, sometimes breastfeeding just might not work out.  I can only do what I am capable of, and this time, I will recognize that the milk from my breast is not as important as the time I get to spend with my baby, nurturing him, helping him grow and develop.

Mothers struggle constantly with their desire to breastfeed being hit head-on by extenuating circumstances, as fellow RHRC reporter Amie Newman discussed elequantly last year.  But while I will go into this second attempt optimistic, I will also be easier on myself, not falling prey to the potential feelings of shame and inadequacy that can sometimes accompany bottle-feeding should things not work this time, either.

Being a good parent has less to do with what goes into your infant’s stomach, and everything to do with what goes on when you hold that baby in your arms.

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  • momtfh

    Thanks so much for sharing your story. Many women don’t want to put their stories out there because they are afraid of reactions and / or judgement, and it seems moms are damned if they do and damned if they don’t on so many decisions. I hope the rest of your pregnancy goes well, your delivery is easy and uneventful regardless of the mode of delivery, and that your second chance to breastfeed is less of a struggle than your first.

    I am a medical student and a research fellow with a penchant for evidence based medicine. I wanted to make one small comment about your story. I only do thus because I have seen many women take a tidbit they have read in another woman’s story and assumed it applies as medical fact to all birth. Antibiotics during labor are not indicated in all vaginal deliveries, and even in cases where it is the standard of care (for a patient who had a positive prenatal group B strep result, for example), there is no good evidence that the antibiotics during labor lead to healthier newborns. Antibiotics are definitely used before and/or during a cesarean delivery, but that is to prevent wound infection, not for the baby.

  • eghines

    I, too, had a baby that spent time in the NICU and your experience of dealing with generally well-intentioned but formula-pushing nurses resonates deeply with me. My daughter and I have gone on to have a great nursing relationship (16 months and still going strong), but I understand all too clearly how easily it could have gone the other way. Though I certainly believe breastmilk is the best designed substance on earth for babies, I’m SO tired of all the beating up on mothers who make other choices… What ends up being best for babies, really, are mothers who are happy and present — however that may come. Wishing you the best of luck on your next go round!

  • amie-newman

    Thanks for sharing your story. It’s so helpful to be able to talk about our experiences, own our stories, grieve if we need to but when all is said and done, you’ve got a beautiful daughter who’s thriving!

    I’m so grateful to all women who honestly share their breastfeeding and birthing experiences – we all need to be able to advocate for the births we want, honest, accurate information on feeding our children and to be able to support each other no matter what our experiences are/were. There is a lot that women aren’t told regarding breastfeeding and bottlefeeding; we may be misled, offered incomplete or inaccurate information; left with little or no support post-birth to nurse or pump. It’s only by speaking up that we can move forward, advocate for what we and other mamas need, tell each other we’re doing the very best we can do and look forward to how we can create better support structures and more resources for all mamas – no matter what our decision around feeding may be.

    Your daughter’s a lucky girl! Thanks for writing so beautifully about your life.

  • arekushieru

    I couldn’t agree more!  :)

  • chitownmama

    Here’s a Cochrane Review article to support MomTFH’s very useful comment: “Intrapartum antibiotics for known maternal Group B streptococcal colonization.” Their conclusion: “This review finds that giving antibiotics is not supported by conclusive evidence.”

    Given side effects like “severe maternal allergic reactions, increase in drug-resistant organisms and exposure of newborn infants to resistant bacteria, and postnatal maternal and neonatal yeast infections,” it’s worth trying to get your caregivers to consider alternatives; lots of helpful info in this blog post.

    Best of luck with everything!