Friday, February 14, 2014

Why I Didn't Breastfeed My First Baby

My oldest son is 7. He was mostly formula-fed from birth, and completely formula-fed from about 7 weeks of age.

Given the person I am now, the breastfeeding advocate and educator, who has successfully breastfed three subsequent children, sometimes I look back and can't quite believe he wasn't breastfed. But his birth and my experience with him is what made me so passionate about birth and breastfeeding in the first place.

But why wasn't he breastfed?

Was it awareness, or lack thereof?
I don't think so. I was aware of the benefits of breastfeeding. I intended to breastfeed him. In fact, here's an excerpt from a LiveJournal entry I wrote when I was about eight months pregnant: 
The doctor asked if we'd taken any classes, which we have. She said, "Oh good, so you're prepared." Haha! Yes! I feel so prepared! Ok, I know the basics, and sort of what to expect. But prepared? I don't think you can ever really be prepared for your first childbirth. I mean, ok, the nursery is almost ready, he'll have clothes to wear and a place to sleep and something to eat (boobies!), but seriously. Prepared? I keep trying to remember the signs of labor and thinking how this class we took has a doozy of a final exam!
Then, about a week before the baby was born:
I went ahead and ordered a dual electric breast pump...Still cheaper than formula in the long run, and I hope that I will be able to give him breastmilk for as long as possible. 
So I was definitely "aware" of breastfeeding, of the benefits, that I wanted to breastfeed. I had made that decision and was planning ahead.

Was it education, or lack thereof?
This was part of it. And I think one of the big problems was, I didn't know I needed to be educated. I bought a couple of breastfeeding books, but I didn't read them. I didn't take a class, didn't attend any LLL meetings, didn't talk to other breastfeeding mothers about their experiences. Indeed, as the birth story I wrote just a couple of weeks after he was born shows, I didn't know what I didn't know:
They brought the baby to me and helped me latch him. He knew what to do, but I was still pretty out of it. I also have the timeline here a bit befuddled, because of what ensued. I know they needed to check his blood sugars because of his size, and asked us if it would be ok to give him some formula if he needed it, and if so, what kind. We said it was ok, but we didn't know anything about formulas, so just go ahead and give him whatever they thought was good. They suggested Enfamil with Lipil. Sure, why not.

If I had done any reading or taken a class, I would probably have known that he likely didn't need to be given formula, or we would have at least known to ask more questions. As it turned out, his blood sugars were fine, but I soon went into shock due to blood loss from the delivery. The nurses told me that because I'd lost so much blood, I wouldn't be able to make milk:
I didn't get a chance to try nursing again. I needed to rebuild my blood supply before I could even think about making milk.
I was stuck in bed for all of Sunday and Monday. They came and checked my bleeding periodically, gave me IV pain meds, brought me food. They brought the baby in on Monday for me to try nursing again, but I was pretty weak and sore. They were giving him formula, which was fine. With his size, he needed to eat, and I didn't have food for him. 
What no one told me, apparently, was that in order to make milk, I needed to nurse the baby. Even if my milk supply increase was delayed, I still needed to be nursing him and/or pumping to set up prolactin receptors and to encourage milk production. Even if he had to be supplemented with formula, that didn't mean I shouldn't nurse him. The colostrum would benefit him, too. I do recall that they fed him whatever colostrum I pumped, but it wasn't much.

Was it willpower?
Yes. I'm sure a big part of the problem was willpower. Now, I went through a traumatic birth, and I got off to a bit of a rocky start, but that alone didn't make breastfeeding impossible. The bigger problem in this story is that I didn't know how much hard work it takes in the beginning, especially when there's a rocky start, to breastfeed. I didn't know that if I stuck with it, it would get better and easier and really feel worthwhile, and so I didn't try.

Was it support, or lack thereof?
Yes and no. The support in the hospital was variable, as evidenced by some of the quotes above. Then there was this:
[On Tuesday, the lactation consultant] showed me how to use the pump and said I'd need to pump for 15-20 minutes every 2-3 hours to stimulate milk flow and establish a supply. She also suggested I rent a hospital-grade pump, because the one I'd bought would burn out if I used it that often. I think I pumped twice that day. With all the people in and out and all the activity, and my general weakness, pumping seemed like just that much more hassle, that much more of an energy drain.

Wednesday was better, and I did pretty well with pumping. A different lactation consultant came to see me and helped me breastfeed the baby. I tried the football hold, because of my sore abdomen, and the cross-cradle, which I found more comfortable. They told me I should breastfeed for 10 minutes per side and then pump for 10 more minutes.
This information is only sort of correct, and she didn't say the most basic thing, which is, "You have to nurse the baby to make milk, and here's why." She didn't say, "The best thing you can do to bring in your milk is to nurse the baby." She didn't say, "Spend time skin-to-skin with your baby and nurse on demand." She didn't say, "Watch the baby, not the clock." Etc. And no one, again, told me that it was hard work and perseverance that would matter the most. Everyone said it was fine to supplement with formula, and no one, not even me, fought for me to breastfeed.

On the other hand, my mom wanted me to breastfeed. She wanted me to so badly. But she didn't know how to support me, and I didn't know I needed support or how that support should look. A friend tried to help; she even offered to nurse the baby for me to show me how it works! She offered me the contact information for a local La Leche League leader. She knew I needed support, and she knew how to give it, but I didn't know how to take it, or that I should, and I was convinced that I should do what I was told by the hospital, not knowing, as many women don't, that the nurses at the hospital maybe weren't the be-all and end-all of breastfeeding information.

How did I feel about "failing" to breastfeed?
Well, there's this, from about 3 weeks postpartum:
I know these are questions best put to a lactation consultant, but I really want a more unbiased analysis. I want a totally practically-minded opinion, and I feel like an LC would push me to try breastfeeding, when I find it so discouraging. It's the lactation consultants who first told me to pump 8 times a day, and I didn't manage to do that and it just made me feel bad. I know that's what I'd need to do to boost my supply, but it's really hard. I don't know whom to turn to or whom to ask, and it's very upsetting. Breastfeeding is the one thing only I can do for my son, and I'm not even sure I want to do it. I know I'm not alone. I know there are other mothers out there who tried to breastfeed and just didn't want to. But I never thought I'd be one of them. I never thought I'd find it so difficult or, frankly, unpleasant.

I mean, anyone can mix some formula in a bottle and put it in his mouth. Many people have over the last 3 weeks, although it's his father who does it most often. But only I can produce breastmilk for him.
"I don't know whom to turn to or whom to ask...Breastfeeding is the one thing only I can do for my son..." I was so torn, and confused, and I didn't have the information I needed. I didn't want someone who would "push" me to breastfeed, and I thought all lactation consultants would be like the ones I saw in the hospital, who I didn't find to be helpful and I did find to be pushy. But that was exactly what I needed, someone who would "push" me to breastfeed. I didn't realize, you either breastfeed or you don't, and I certainly could have. (In that same post, I lamented that I "only" pumped 2 to 3 ounces in a sitting, having no idea that's actually quite good!)

And there's this, from one month postpartum:
I've been crying a lot. I think one reason is that I feel bad about having to give up on breastfeeding. I know I had so many extenuating circumstances that it would have taken a rather heroic effort to really get in there and exclusively breastfeed, but knowing the reasons doesn't make me less frustrated that things aren't working out the way I'd hoped they would.
And this:
A couple of women I know have recommended an LC in the neighborhood. Maybe I should talk to her. I don't know. I just want to feel better. I want to feel like I've resolved this for myself, and right now I obviously don't. If I try and fail, will I feel worse, or will I at least be able to say I tried? If I try and succeed, will I find the joy in it that I am hoping to find, or will I just get discouraged again? 
And then at six weeks, I thought I might try to relactate:
[I tried putting him to breast...] And even more exciting, milk came out! I thought my milk was dried up, but he got some out. Not very much, but enough that he was willing to keep sucking. So I let him. (Ow) 10 minutes on each side, he sucked. And milk came out on both sides. I let him keep going until it got too painful and he got too squirmy. I think he got a little frustrated when he wasn't the least bit satisfied after 20 minutes of sucking. I would be too, hehe.

Then we gave him a bottle of formula and he gobbled down 6 ounces, so I know he hardly got anything from me. But I wasn't so much interested in volume as ability. That was pretty exciting. My nipples are still sore this morning from it, but it felt really good emotionally.

I was not successful, but it's clear that I wanted to try, and I gave it a go. I even finally contacted the La Leche League leader that I should have spoken to in that first week! If my birth had gone more smoothly, I probably would have breastfed. I can't change the craziness that was my oldest son's first six weeks of life, but I think the lessons of what I went through can give us all some perspective on what other women might actually need, and how we can provide that.

What can we learn from my experiences?
I think we need to give most women, especially middle class, educated women, enough credit to assume they know about breastfeeding. It's not a lack of awareness that causes women not to meet their breastfeeding goals. After all, something like 90% of women state an intention to breastfeed upon giving birth, yet less than a third of them are still breastfeeding at six months postpartum, and not even half are still exclusively breastfeeding at six weeks. Something goes wrong in those first few days postpartum and in the early weeks.

I think the biggest factor in improving breastfeeding rates and success is education, followed closely by support. Education and support work hand-in-hand. First, we educate women not about why they should breastfeed (or not just about why), but about how breastfeeding works and what they can expect. Second, we educate women about finding and/or building a support network, to have phone numbers on hand they can call, websites to visit, books to read, to let them know that they can and should ask for help, that they don't have to - and shouldn't have to - go it alone, and that there's no shame in having a little trouble at the beginning. Third, we provide that support network, with continuity prenatally, at birth, and in the weeks following the birth. Whether they join a La Leche League meeting, are friends with an experienced breastfeeding mother, or get all their help online from blogs and Facebook, women and their partners need to know (a) they probably will need help; (b) it's okay to ask for help; and (c) where that help can be found.

It's amazing that I documented my experiences with such detail in the moment. It's hard to look back seven years through the lens of who I've become and remember what I was feeling at the time. Because I wrote it all down at the time, it's all out there, raw and visceral, and I can see right there what I knew, what I had, and what was missing. Filling in those missing pieces for other women can make a huge difference in their lives and the lives of their children.


To read the full account of my oldest's birth, see the four-part story starting here

For a quick-start guide to breastfeeding that answers many of the most common questions new mothers have, check out my e-book, The Jessica on Babies Breastfeeding FAQ, available for Kindle from Amazon.


  1. Your experience is similar to mine. I had huge blood loss trying to deliver my placenta and gave birth to a small, sleepy baby who was given formula straight away as I was whisked into an operating theatre. I tried so hard for weeks to get my supply going double pumping several times a day after each feed. It was hugely exhausting being ill myself, breast feeding then formula feeding then pumping every 3hours then washing and sterilizing. I got virtually no sleep. At about 10 weeks my daughter refused to feed from the breast which was heart breaking. I offered a few times a day but she did not go back. I continued pumping for a few weeks but my supply just got smaller and smaller. I don't think I ever had the pump set up to work that well looking back. I'm now trying for baby 2 and am encouraged to hear it can work out so I will give it my all again.

  2. Your story is just like my first as well! Thanks for sharing.