Before I had babies, I never thought of myself being a breastfeeding mom. None of the women in my immediate family breastfed. Not my mom, grandmother, aunt, etc. I don’t think I ever even saw a woman nursing a baby until I was much older, and I remember a lot of the adults around me talking badly about her, saying that she was looking for attention by nursing in public. I honestly grew up with the impression that breastfeeding was gross and low class. Which is really horrible and sad. I want to smack my young ignorant self now, looking back.
Like most first time moms, I spent my first pregnancy obsessively researching every little detail of pregnancy and childbirth. I read the pregnancy books, joined the online forums, poured over product reviews. It seriously became my full time job. During all of this obsessive research, I of course became much better educated on all of the wonderful benefits of breastfeeding. I’m not going to lie, I was still a little freaked/grossed out about the prospect of nursing, but I was determined to at least give it a good try for my son’s sake. How hard could it be anyway I thought? HA! How clueless I was!
WHY DOES NOBODY TELL YOU HOW HARD IT’S GOING TO BE???!!!!
My very strong willed little boy made his way into this world six weeks and three days before he was due to arrive. It was sudden and unexpected and I was completely unprepared. I had no idea what challenges premature babies face, or what to expect his outcome to be. I was completely clueless, relying on all of the specialists and nurses to help us along the way. My son spent 18 days total in the NICU. First on a ventilator and IVs, then progressing to a feeding tube, and then finally learning to regulate his body temperature and how to eat. I started pumping breastmilk for him as soon as I got out of recovery. Every two hours during the day, and every three to four hours at night, I was hooked up to that sucker like a cow in a dairy farm. Even the precious time I got to spend visiting him in the NICU was absorbed by visits to the pumping room. It was beyond exhausting. Both emotionally and physically.
They first started giving him my pumped colostrum through a feeding tube, the tiniest bit at a time. Then worked up to larger amounts until his digestive system could keep up. The next step was to attempt feeding through a bottle. Preemies have a very hard time learning how to suck, swallow, and breath. Every bottle was a lesson in patience. It was so pathetic to see how hard it was for this tiny little baby to eat just a tablespoon of milk. He had to be able to take all of his feedings from a bottle for 72 hours before getting released. I would spend the entire day at the NICU feeding him myself, doing everything in my power to help him to eat. I would cry each time I walked in the next morning and saw that a night nurse had given up on him and reinserted his feeding tube. I started staying later and later into the night and coming earlier in the mornings, fighting for my little baby. When he was finally showing enough success, they gave me the opportunity to nurse him. Every feeding time, I’d sit with a nurse or the hospital lactation consultant trying desperately to get him to latch.
It never worked.
The few times we could finally get him latched and beginning to suck, he tired out before he was able to get any milk out. He struggled to breath and swallow and would get frustrated and scream and scream. It was so stressful. The lactation consultant, after a few days and many hours of trying basically gave up. She told me that some preemie’s sucking reflexes are just too weak to be able to nurse and that I should just continue pumping and bottle feeding for the time being and to try nursing again when he gets home and gets a little stronger. At this point it was still a struggle just getting him to finish a bottle.
Eighteen days after he was born, we finally got to bring him home. And that is when the bottom fell out from under me and the darkness overcame my life. I had heard of postpartum depression, I had done my research. I have suffered from anxiety and depression my whole life and even expected it to happen to me. But I was completely blindsided. Never in my whole life, before or since, have a felt that low. The panic attacks were overwhelming. The exhaustion and stress of taking care of a premature newborn was insane. I was consumed with worry over every single thing. I didn’t sleep for three full days after we got him home. We encountered terrible eating and sleeping problems from the start (we would later learn it was from a combo of reflux and colic), and trying to keep up with pumping enough breastmilk to nourish a baby with extra calorie needs was driving me to the brink of insanity. About a week after I brought him home, I finally broke and went to see my OB to discuss how I was feeling (and beg for anxiety meds!). At this point my nipples were completely raw from the breast pump, I had several clogged ducts and the beginnings of mastitis, and I was only getting enough milk each day for about 3 bottles if I was lucky, even though I was still pumping all day and night. I cried and cried to her about how insanely exhausted I was. How I couldn’t sleep at night because I had to heat up the bottles, slowly work to feed the baby, spend forever trying to burp him and get him back to sleep. Then pump, wash all of the parts, store the milk, try to get myself back to sleep, and then start the cycle all over again. I literally was not getting any sleep at all. She listened to me for a while, took my hand, and flatly said “Stop pumping. Just stop. Put him on formula, dry up your milk, throw that pump away, and give yourself a break.” My mouth dropped open. I couldn’t believe a doctor was advising me to give up what was supposed to be the healthiest option for my baby. She went on to tell me how she herself wasn’t breastfed and turned out fine. How I wasn’t breastfed and turned out fine. How there is SO MUCH PRESSURE on new moms to breastfeed that we forget that the health of a new mom, including her mental health, is just as important as the health of the baby. That formula fed babies do in fact turn out just as healthy and smart as breastfed babies. Is breastmilk healthier than formula? Probably. But will your baby fail to grow and develop and be healthy on formula? No.
In that moment I finally felt better than I had since the day he was born. I felt like the weight of the world had been lifted off of my shoulders. I went home feeling so much relief. I started on some anxiety medication and eventually got through those rough few months. It took a bit to find the right formula for him, but by his four month check up my 4lb 14 ounce baby who wasn’t even on the growth chart had caught up to the 30th percentiles for height and weight! He also was hitting all of his milestones according to his actual age and not his adjusted age. By a year old he was perfectly on track developmentally and in the 50th percentiles for height and weight. He thrived just fine as a formula baby.
I never had regrets about my decision to stop pumping and switching him to formula until I started participating more in the motherhood community. Social media especially is a dark, dark place. I learned quickly to stay off the mommy forums, but I was surprised when I started getting judged out in public, directly to my face, as well. I started getting snide comments from other moms at mommy and me classes or play groups I had joined. One woman who had just met me at a playdate went so far as to call me selfish for putting my own desires for medication before the needs of my baby. I even had one stranger walk up to me in the mall as I was giving him a bottle to tell me that she’s going to pray for me and my poor deprived baby for the poison I’m putting in his system!
Okay bitch, you do that.
Unfortunately I let these comments get to me. I started wondering what I could have done differently. I blamed myself for not trying harder. I worried that I truly was a selfish mom who put myself first. I started feeling robbed of that “bonding experience” all of my breastfeeding friends talked about. Not that I didn’t feel bonded to my child, but other moms really made it seem that there was a special kind of magical bond I was definitely missing out on by not nursing. It really tore me up inside and made me feel like a failure. So when I got pregnant with son #2, I was determined that this time I was going to make it work! This would be my chance to get it right. To prove that I am a good mom and I can and do put my babies first. Nothing would stop me this time!
Nope, wrong again.
My second son was thankfully born full term. I had a repeat c-section but was able to nurse him in recovery right away. The lactation consultant was there to help with his first latch and he did great! She assured me that he was a natural and that we should have a smooth and easy nursing relationship. But over the next 24 hours I couldn’t get him to eat. I tried stripping him down, doing skin to skin, everything I could possibly think of and everything the doctors and nurses suggested I try. By day two they told me he was jaundice and that he would really need to get more fluids in his system, so I began to pump and feed him through a dropper to try to avoid giving him formula since he was still being such a lazy eater. By day three it still wasn’t enough and the jaundice wasn’t improving and we had to supplement. I was a bit disappointed but still very optimistic because the pediatrician assured me that once we got home and my milk came in and the baby became more alert he’d be just fine. But he wasn’t.
By his one week visit he was still jaundice and losing too much weight, even though he was finally nursing well. More supplementing. By week two, my nipples were bleeding and turning black. I called in a private lactation consultant to work on his poor latch. I was exhausted, in pain, and once again suffering from (thankfully less severe) PPD, but I was still determined to forge on! By three weeks old, his weight was finally catching up enough to stop the supplementing, but he had developed signs of severe reflux and a terrible diaper rash. The lactation consultant told me it looked like a foremilk/hindmilk imbalance and gave me tips to help regulate my supply and feed him in better positions. A week later there was no improvement and he had developed a nasty rash all over his face and neck. The pediatrician then told me they suspected a milk protein allergy, even though there was no blood in his poop, which is the leading sign of a milk allergy. I went on a full dairy free diet. He still got worse. I started a food diary and over the next month had cut out wheat, beef, fish, nuts, soy, the list goes on and on. Still, he got worse. I met with a pediatrician in our practice that I hadn’t met with before, and asked her if I should try giving him hypoallergenic formula for a few days to see if it would help him. At this point I was basically living on rice and chicken and my supply was taking a major hit. Plus I was completely stressed out and miserable. Clearly by looking at me one can tell I am not great at following diets, but I was still willing to do whatever it took to keep nursing my baby. This doctor replied “well, if you can’t be selfless enough to do what you need to do to give your baby the best nourishment possible, then I guess make the selfish choice and open a can of formula”
I left there feeling so defeated and horrible. I continued my awful diet of nothingness for the next month while my poor son continued to suffer. He had a full body rash, a diaper rash that was so bad the skin was peeling off and his tushy was raw and bloody. He had chronic non stop diarrhea, severe silent reflux with choking and coughing, and he was starting to refuse to eat all together. One day he started wheezing and profusely vomiting so I took him back to our regular pediatrician. She told me he was having a severe allergy to something in my milk and was failing to thrive and to switch him to hypoallergenic formula immediately or they’d have to admit him to the hospital. Since I was already following an elimination diet, there really wasn’t much else I could do. She said if the formula didn’t help any of the issues, we’d have to do testing to find out other causes of his issues and I could go back to breastfeeding. Within 24 hours of starting the formula, he was a completely different baby. Within a week, almost all of his symptoms had disappeared or improved. We still battled the reflux for a while, and we learned when he was a year old that he was lactose intolerant, and that nothing I could have done would have helped as the lactose in my breastmilk itself was making him sick. Still, at the time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there might have been something more I could have done.
The first month after switching him to formula was hell for me. Having to stop nursing cold turkey led to the most immense pain I have ever dealt with in my life. It took a full month for my milk to dry up. I couldn’t sleep or lift anything, or have my children lay on me, the pain was so excruciating. The emotional toll was just as bad. I couldn’t believe I had fought through the most difficult phase of nursing, only to have my victory taken away from me. Having to wean a 9 week old baby was not easy. He cried for days because he wanted to nurse. Every time he cried I cried too. I longed to just latch him back on. I was so mad and let down that I was once again failing at what was supposed to be such a simple, natural part of motherhood. I was a broken failure. Why were so many other women able to breastfeed and I wasn’t? What was inherently wrong with me as a mother that I couldn’t get my shit together and find a way to nurse my kids?! The postpartum hormones went into overdrive. It was a very very difficult time for me. I couldn’t even be around other nursing moms for a long time, it was like a knife in the heart. I felt so cheated.
When I got pregnant with my third son, I spent most of my pregnancy debating whether or not to even try again. I wasn’t sure I could handle the emotional outcome of a third failure. I was terrified. I started focusing on all of the reasons why it would be better and easier to just go straight to formula. What would all of the sanctimommys have to say about me “giving up” three times in a row?! I really wrestled with the decision, but ultimately in the end I couldn’t imagine looking down at that tiny newborn face and not instinctively putting him to my breast. I tried for his brothers, how could I not try for him to? It was a decision I ultimately made for my son and for myself, not for what others would think. And I am so so happy I did.
My third was a great nurser from day one. He ate like a champ in the hospital and kept going. He grew and he thrived with little issue. Was it super easy? No. Breastfeeding is not easy. It was definitely hard figuring it out with two older, yet still very young kids at home. I was tired and hormonal and there were days where I so wished I could just make a bottle and give him to someone else for a while (or get help during those late night feedings!). At times it was painful, overwhelming, stressful, and just plain hard. I again encountered some oversupply issues which sent me into a fit of panic thinking he was dealing with the same issues as his older brother, but luckily thanks to my pediatrician and an amazing lactation consultant, I was able to work through the issue and keep going strong. My baby is now 9 months old and still breastfeeding. He’s never had a single drop of formula.
Having fed three different babies three different ways, I can honestly say that whatever way you feed your baby is the right way. Fed is best. Period. My oldest son who received the least amount of my milk is ironically the healthiest of my three. He’s the only one who doesn’t have any allergies or asthma and he gets sick much less than his brothers do. He’s extremely bright and active. You would never be able to tell from a group of kids which ones were breastfed and which were not. What matters is that you take care of your child. Love them, protect them, nurture them. I have friends who chose to formula feed from the start, and friends that nursed their kids until elementary school, and I support each one of them. They are all amazing moms with healthy, beautiful, smart kids.
I decided to do a breastfeeding photo shoot to embrace all that I went through on my breastfeeding journey. I needed these pictures as a way of healing and celebrating. Celebrating not just my success at breastfeeding, but my ability to finally look back and realize that I was not a failure. That I love all of my boys the same, and that the way in which I fed them had nothing to do with the incredible bond I have with each of them. I wanted these pictures because I am proud of myself for trying a third time when most moms wouldn’t have. I wanted to capture those precious fleeting moments that I get to bond with my youngest child, moments that are just for him and I. Our only moments of peace and quiet in days filled with noisy chaos. I wanted these pictures for me, not for anyone else. Not to prove anything. Not to push a “breast is best” agenda. Not to show off or get attention. Not even to feel beautiful or have cute pictures of my son. And they are everything to me. I’m not focusing on my cellulite or double chin or any of the other flaws I see in myself. I focus on my son and the way his little hand curls up on my chest, and the way he crosses his pudgy little feet while he eats. I get to see the way he looks at me, with his wide innocent eyes.
When I look at all of the pictures of me feeding my children, however I may be feeding them, I see the incredible bond between a mother and a child. I see us.
I see love.
Photo credit to Paulina Splechta Photography
I cannot say enough wonderful things about Paulina and her beautiful work! I’ve seen her photos across various media outlets over the past few years and was so thrilled to finally have a chance to work with her. She made me feel so comfortable and perfectly captured exactly what I was looking for. I had never met her before yet felt like I was hanging out with a good friend. Everything was laid back, natural, and easy. She was sure to keep in touch many times before and after the shoot to make sure all of my questions were answered and I had all of the information I’d need. If you’re pregnant, nursing, or looking for some great family photos I would very highly recommend her!!!