According to the World Health Organization, breastfeeding “is the normal way of providing young infants with the nutrients they need for healthy growth and development. Virtually all mothers can breastfeed, provided they have accurate information, and the support of their family, the health care system and society at large” (World Health Organization, 2019).
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Getting Excited To Breastfeed
After being pregnant for nine months in 2011, I couldn’t wait to meet my son, and bond with him through snuggles and breastfeeding. As a nurse, who was also studying maternal-child nursing at the time, “breast is best” was already ingrained in my brain, as I knew about all the benefits of breastfeeding, and of course I wanted what was best for my baby.
I was also a part of a wonderful Facebook group of women who were pregnant at the same time as me, and we were able to exchange information throughout our pregnancy about all the things that we were learning, and everything we were scared of.
In addition, I had a supportive network of family and friends who have already had children of their own, and they were full of helpful advice.
However, not once did anyone ever mention the possibility of not being able to breastfeed due to not enough breast milk. I knew there could be challenges around latching, but to not being able to produce enough milk to feed my baby? Why did not one person, or one internet article, or one of my maternity-child books ever mention that possibility?
Obsessed With Trying To Breastfeed
I remember, even to this day, having a one track mind at the time, and literally being obsessed with trying to breastfeed my son.
The very first night in the hospital he must have been screaming the whole night, or at least that’s what it felt like. It got so bad that the nurse at this pro breastfeeding hospital strongly suggested I supplement with formula.
I remember finally giving in out of shear exhaustion, and hating myself the next day. By the time my midwife showed up to see how we were doing, I was in tears not only from a lack of sleep, but for feeling like a failure as a mother. We ended up having to stay overnight for a second night to make sure we were doing okay, and that night was slightly better only because we were already supplementing.
I kept being told to just hang in there, keep trying to breastfeed and pump in between, my milk will come in soon.
I was hoping things would improve by the time we got home, but no such luck. I had two amazing midwives who visited me every day for the first week, and tried everything to make breastfeeding a success for me.
One of them suggested a well-known lactation consultant, so we reached out to her and paid her to do a home visit. Interestingly enough, I learned that my “traumatic birth” of prolonged labour (47 hours) and prolonged pushing (2 hours and 45 min), could potentially have contributed to my very low milk supply.
With her suggestions, I ended up taking about 20 pills a day (fenugreek, milk thistle and Domperidone) to try to increase my milk supply, as well as continuing to attempt breastfeeding and pumping in between. The first time I was able to pump two ounces felt like I won the lottery!
Unfortunately, even with my strict regime of breastfeeding/pumping/pills, my milk supply just wouldn’t keep up. I was exhausted, smelly, and an overall emotional mess. This went on for five weeks, at which point my midwife looked at me and said “That’s it, you’re done. You’ve tried damn hard for this to work, but this is not helping you or the baby”.
I was devastated, but I knew she was right. I had no time to bond with my baby, I was resenting my body, I was spiraling into depression, all so I could give my son one to two ounces of breast milk. I knew in my heart at the time that giving up and switching exclusively to formula was the right thing to do, but it still felt like giving up.
My husband, despite not really understanding the obsession I had with breastfeeding, but was 100% supportive the entire time, was finally able to take a deep breath. I was finally able to get longer stretches of sleep, and started feeling almost human again.
I can’t even begin to describe the feeling of (almost) making peace with exclusively formula feeding. I still (even to this day) regret the fact that my body was not able to properly feed my baby, but the fact that he’s now a healthy seven year old and we have an amazing bond tells me that I didn’t fail him.
The Wellbeing Of Mom
I sometimes wonder if knowing ahead of time about all the possible breastfeeding challenges, including not being able to produce enough milk, would have made a difference. I wonder if I wouldn’t have been so hard on myself, and switched to exclusively formula feeding sooner, thus allowing me more time to actually bond with my baby.
I 100% understand the importance of breastfeeding, but maybe as a society we’ve taken it a bit too far? I feel like as health professionals and fellow moms we need to also look out for the wellbeing of the mom, and realize that the ability to bond with a newborn may be just as important.
As moms, we need to stop beating ourselves up when things don’t go as planned. With statements such as “virtually all mothers can breastfeed” (WHO, 2019), it’s no wonder that those who can’t feel like a failure.
We Need More Research
Years later, as I’m doing some research for this article, there are still very few relevant articles that address inadequate milk supply, and the statistics around the percentage of women in North America who don’t produce enough milk is all over the place – anywhere from 1-15% (Harmanci, 2018; Stanley, 2019).
Stanley (2019) talks about anecdotal experiences of women with difficulty breastfeeding, so at least we have started the conversation. It is clear, however, that a lot more research needs to happen in the health care field to determine the physical, psychological and societal barriers that exist surrounding issues with milk production.
In the meantime, lets support new moms on this journey by not making them feel bad about how they are feeding their baby. Let’s realize that the emotional well-being of the mom and the ability to bond with her infant is just as important as breast milk, and that formula really isn’t all that evil.
Those first five weeks as a new mom were the hardest weeks of my entire life, but I survived, my son survived (and thrived), and it has made me a stronger person. If you are reading this as a new mom, or soon to be new mom, know that you will get through this too, and I’ve got your back no matter what.
- World Health Organization (2019). https://www.who.int/topics/breastfeeding/en/
- Harmanci, R. (2018). https://www.thecut.com/2018/05/the-truth-about-not-being-able-to-breastfeed.html
- Stanley, L. (2019). https://www.parenting.com/baby/the-breastfeeding-police/