Breastfeeding was the most difficult part of my postpartum experience. I’m sharing my story because these are the words I needed as a brand new mom. If you are wrestling through these feelings right now, please know you are not alone.
I gave birth at a “baby-friendly” hospital. If you’re not familiar with that term, it’s a healthcare initiative started in 1991 by UNICEF and the World Health Organization. It encourages newborn care practices like round-the-clock breastfeeding, skin-to-skin contact between mother and baby, and rooming-in (the baby spends most of his/her time at the hospital in the room with the parents instead of the nursery). It is considered prestigious for a hopsital to achieve this distinction. I am not against baby-friendly care. I can, however, say from experience that in pursuit of the “baby-friendly” label, the care of mothers is sometimes set aside—yielding potentially dangerous consequences.
I cannot fully articulate the amount of pressure I was under to breastfeed. At every prenatal appointment, I was asked at least once if I planned to breastfeed. Each time I gave the same response: “I’m going to try my best!” There was no acknowledgement on the part of my healthcare providers that breastfeeding might not work. I was reassured that lactation consultants would work with me to overcome any issues that may arise. I was given stacks of literature on breastfeeding. Ever the rule follower and authority-figure-pleaser, I took multiple classes at my hospital where I was given even more breastfeeding info. Each pamphlet contained a seemingly endless list of “don’t’s”—things not to do if I hoped to breastfeed successfully. The amount of information overwhelmed me. The ideology surrounding breastfeeding was dogmatic, requiring an on-demand feeding approach, exclusively offering the breast until feeding had been firmly established (at least one month but probably longer), and forbidding the use of the pacifier lest the baby develop “nipple confusion” and start rejecting the breast. I left our breastfeeding class saying to Andrew, “Wow…breastfeeding is the hardest thing I’ve ever heard of.”
For every message I received about how incredible breastfeeding is, I received two about how inferior formula-feeding would be. Bottle/formula feeding was treated as an afterthought in conversations, classes, and written materials. The attitude was that formula feeding would be a last resort only for those who stubbornly refused to feed their babies breast milk. I was even given one pamphlet that said, “Breastfed babies’ stool will be fairly sweet-smelling. A formula-fed baby’s stool will have a foul odor, more like an adult.” So…quite literally…if you breastfeed your baby, their poop won’t stink.
In spite of all this, I tried to keep an open mind toward feeding during my pregnancy. I planned to breastfeed but knew I might not be able to. But nothing could have prepared me for the way my hospital’s messaging about breastfeeding would seep into my thinking.
Lyla’s birth was not long, especially for a first birth, but it was challenging. For the duration of my labor, there was reason to believe the umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck. The high risk doctor was called in. I had a small hemorrhage during and after the birth. I prayed and fought with everything I had to get her here safely. I was physically and emotionally spent by the time they laid her on my chest. I think it’s safe to say all women are spent after giving birth. During our initial skin-to-skin contact, Lyla latched and seemed to feed well. There were a couple times in the hospital she breastfed successfully. The rest of the times (and there were many) were complete disasters.
Lyla was born over eight and a half pounds. She was hungry. Everyone kept assuring me that she just needed the tiniest amount to fill her tummy. The shrieking baby on my chest begged to differ. Over the course of our time in the hospital, we saw five different lactation consultants. After working with us, each one confirmed that both Lyla and I were “doing everything right.” We always got her latched after some work, her suck was strong, she had no physical issues preventing her from feeding well, and I was doing all I could to help her get what she needed. My body simply was not responding. After one particularly traumatizing feeding, the lactation consultant asked me if I had tried something I had already tried a hundred times, as if that was going to be the solution to all our problems. I opened my mouth to calmly respond, and instead began sobbing uncontrollably. The consultant suggested, very timidly, that we supplement Lyla’s feeding with formula. I said, “I just want my baby to have what she needs, I don’t care how she gets it. She needs to be fed!” At the hospital’s suggestion, we began syringe feeding her. The mindset of syringe feeding is that if you give them a bottle to start, it will be difficult or impossible to get them back on the breast because the bottle is so much easier. So, in my weakest moment, I was yet again reminded that our goal was not to get this baby to eat, but to get her to breastfeed.
Andrew, ever my hero, asked that Lyla be taken to the nursery and syringe fed so I could get some sleep. The consultant agreed. I cried as they wheeled her out in her plastic bassinet, feeling like a failure but simultaneously knowing in my bones that I had nothing to give her. Andrew helped me to the bathroom as my legs were still weak from the epidural. He brought me a cup to use to brush my teeth because I couldn’t stand up long enough to do it at the sink. I did my best to get comfortable and closed my eyes for the sleep I needed more than I had ever needed it in my life.
Less than one hour later, the door opened. It was a nurse wheeling Lyla into the room. “Time to feed the baby!” she said. Andrew said, “I think there’s been some miscommunication. We have to supplement with formula so she was supposed to be fed in the nursery so Ashton can get some sleep.” The nurse replied, “Oh they did feed her, but we still want her to keep breastfeeding, too.” I cannot express what came over me in that moment. It’s something I try to block out when I think back to those first days with Lyla, which should have been some of the happiest of my life. In that moment, I knew on a cellular level that I was alone. Even if I had the best husband in the world. Even if I showed every lactation consultant at that hospital that I was giving it my all. Even if I hadn’t slept in days and wasn’t strong enough to stand up on my own, and had wept like a baby myself begging for help. None of that mattered. Unless I continued putting that baby to the breast, I was not going to receive any support from my caretakers. When I had that realization, I went to a place of survival mentality. Getting out of the hospital became my sole objective. I made another unsuccessful attempt to feed Lyla. I didn’t ask for the lactation consultant. I asked Andrew to go to bed and I stayed up holding my baby for hours. It was us against the world.
When we left the hospital we were given a syringe feeding plan and an appointment at the lactation clinic. When we got home, the first thing I did was try to feed Lyla. I honestly don’t even remember how it went. It’s all a complete blur. After a day at home, my milk came in but wouldn’t let down. I was severely engorged. No one at the hospital had mentioned engorgement. Everyone I worked with kept saying, “It will be so much easier when your milk comes in!” It wasn’t easier. It was extremely painful. I pored over the literature I had been given. There were very few mentions of engorgement. Suggestions for remedies included alternating hot and cold compresses, pumping around the clock and feeding around the clock. I tried all of the above to no avail. My breast pump literally got out vapor. VAPOR. Lyla was screaming bloody murder because she was trying her best but not getting anything from me. All of it hurt like hell. In the midst of all of this, the syringe feeding was causing Lyla to suck down a ton of air during feedings. This gave her painful gas and was making life a nightmare for all three of us. Still determined to feed my baby the “right” way, I locked myself away in the guest bedroom to try to hand-express breastmilk. After days of trying, the maximum I had been able to express was 1.5 milliliters. I rushed to Andrew with the syringe filled with it. I was so proud watching Lyla drink it. I had finally given her breastmilk! But I knew it wasn’t enough.
I laid there in the guest bedroom weeping. I felt like I was failing my baby in every possible way. I felt angry at my body. I knew if I went to the lactation clinic, I would be asked to strip myself topless and strip my baby naked. Lyla would be weighed. The consultants would then watch me attempt to feed her. They would weigh her after the feeding to confirm what I already knew in my heart. Lyla was not getting food from me. Then they would give me the same tips they had given me at the hospital. They would tell me that I was doing everything right and I just had to keep trying. I couldn’t imagine anything more humiliating. Sensing my distress, Andrew came in the room with Lyla. He told me how amazing I was. How I was the best mother he had ever seen. How I had given this baby every single thing I had to give and then some. I cried and cried because none of that seemed to matter if I couldn’t breastfeed her. We both knew we had to make a decision right then and there. Once I had calmed down enough to speak, I said in a moment of clarity, “I feel like right now I have to choose between breastfeeding my baby and enjoying my baby. And I’m not prepared to sacrifice this time with her just to be able to say I breastfed. Not when formula is a perfectly viable option.”
After discussing it at length, we decided we had to call it. We were pursuing an exercise in futility. Our baby was literally starving and I was severely depressed. We decided to start bottle feeding. I knew if I called the hospital, they would try to pressure me into changing my mind. Andrew called and explained our situation. They STILL insisted we go to the lactation clinic and continue with the syringe feeding. Finally, fed up with the whole thing, Andrew spoke very firmly. “We have done everything you told us to do and it isn’t working for us. Now I want you to stop counseling me as someone you’re trying to convince to breastfeed and tell me how much formula I can give this baby in a bottle.”
Then and only then were we given a straight answer.
Lyla is almost eight months old now and she is thriving. Except for a milk intolerance that required us to switch formulas, she has had no issues with formula feeding. Formula has met her needs and has worked well for our family by allowing Andrew to be an equal part of her routine. It has taken me every bit of that eight months to heal from the trauma I experienced surrounding breastfeeding. And yes, I think calling it trauma is appropriate. There are still days I mourn the fact that it’s something I couldn’t do for her. The further and further I get from my decision, the more I realize it was a decision I made for my mental health as much as anything. My hospital spent so much time preaching to me about watching for signs of postpartum depression and telling me to ask for help if I needed it. But when I asked for the help I needed, they didn’t support me. Because the help I needed didn’t look the way they wanted it to look. Because if they admitted I couldn’t breastfeed, they had to admit their methods might not work.
If we’re going to support women postpartum, we have to support all of them. Not just the moms who breastfeed. If we’re going to talk about mental health and PPD, we have to acknowledge that it’s not just hormonal. It’s external. Breastfeeding is just one example of the mountain of pressures heaped upon new and expectant mothers.
I wish my story had been different. I wish the information given to me about breastfeeding had been empowering rather than lecturing. I honestly think if I had been given the space and support to figure it out in my own way, I could have done it. But I’ll never know. My body literally could not perform under the pressure. There is a part of the experience of motherhood that I will never have, and I can’t get it back. But I know in my heart that I made the choice I needed to make to be the mother I wanted to be. And no one can make me feel ashamed of that.
I wish every mom in the world was able to breastfeed. If you breastfed your baby for any amount of time, I fully and genuinely believe you have done the hardest thing in the world. I literally think you should win an award. But if you find that you can’t, please hear me say that it is OK. No one told me that, so now I’m telling you.
Please note: I take no issue with any individual doctor, nurse, or staff person who administered my pre-natal and postpartum care. I know they were doing their jobs and I truly appreciate and respect all those in the medical field. My birth experience was wonderful and I loved my nurses and doctors. The lactation consultants were trying to help me, I know it. My concern is with hospital policies made at a corporate level by people who are not medical practitioners that affect the mental health of new mothers.