My experiences with breastfeeding have taken me on a very unexpected journey I never imagined I’d be on. It’s something I didn’t think much about prior to getting pregnant. I always assumed that it would be as easy as I’d seen it happen with friends and family; baby comes out, mom hooks baby to boob, baby eats, all is well. Breastfeeding was many thing for me, but it was never easy.
When I was 21, I had a breast reduction surgery. My doctor at the time told me that there wouldn't be any problems with my ability to breastfeed later on in life. “All the plumbing has been hooked back up right,” he said.
I’m not sure that my reduction surgery contributed to my challenges with breastfeeding or if it would have been equally difficult for me anyway. There’s no real way to tell, but whatever the reason, nursing my babies was a marathon of trials and emotion for me.
When my first son was born I was eager to start breastfeeding. I worked tirelessly in the hospital after his birth to try to get him to latch on and feed. I had no idea what I was doing, even with the help and encouragement of the nurses. He wouldn’t latch, and when he would I felt like he was getting very little out of me.
I scheduled a lactation consultation three days after returning from the hospital. The woman who helped me at the appointment assured me that my son was getting some nourishment out of me and that I should focus on pumping and giving him breastmilk exclusively. I pumped and nursed my baby for hours on end that first week. As soon as he breastfed, I’d hook myself up to my pump. I was pumping almost no milk, even when I’d pump without nursing my son first.
My baby cried all the time those first few weeks. I looked at formula with a sort of dread and distaste. Giving him formula seemed like failure on my part. Finally, after consulting with my doctor and our pediatrician, it became very clear that my body wasn’t producing enough milk to help my son thrive.
His feedings those first few months were endless. I’d nurse him on both sides, feed him a bottle, and then pump. Each feeding took around three hours and I was exhausted. I was emotional. As a new mother, I constantly felt like a failure. Anything I read online spoke to the overwhelming benefits of breastfeeding and gave little to no support for women like me, struggling to do the thing I thought would be so easy.
After two months I had to stop. I had never been able to pump more than an ounce of breastmilk at any feeding and my son was eating mostly formula. I needed to find a way to balance his nutrition with my own physical and mental health. I was suffering from exhaustion and stress. It was hard to stop, but it made all the difference in my ability to be an effective mother in the other areas of my baby’s life.
When I became pregnant with my second baby, I thought I had learned enough from my first experience to make the second one better. But instead of being more gentle on myself, I doubled-down my my expectations. As soon as my son was born, I began chugging ‘mother’s milk tea’, a herbal tea touted to help with production. I took every supplement I could and drank enough water to drown a fish. I pushed it so hard. And still, I produced nothing.
I remember taking a shower when my second baby was about two weeks old. I felt like an incredible failure, like all my efforts has ended up with nothing. I sobbed. I looked at my body with resentment.
I was around then I noticed that I was experiencing a strange episode every time I’d get my baby to latch on. Anytime I could get him on my breast, I’d experience a huge drop in my hormones and felt intense anxiety for about three minutes after he latched. I took this problem to my midwife and she diagnosed me with a condition called D-MER, or letdown depression. In a small percentage of breastfeeding moms, dopamine levels plummet at latch and can take up to an hour to reset.
Despite this information, I still pushed through and breastfed my second son for a month. The experience was incredibly challenging for me. I was later diagnosed with post-partum depression and many of my experiences with breastfeeding contributed hugely to the emotional struggles I developed after labor and delivery.
When my third son was born, I took a completely different approach. I was soft and gentle on my body. I set realistic expectations and learned to love and accept my body for what it was able to do, and not focus on what it couldn’t produce. I didn’t produce any more milk than I had with the previous two babies, but I enjoyed the experience and let myself be more ‘in the moment’. I breastfed my third baby for three weeks, but the experience was the best one I had. I learned to relax, accept my body for what it was, and focus on the good.
Breastfeeding is such a vastly different experience for every woman. For some, it’s an effortless and euphoric process. For others, it can be significantly more difficult. As a woman, I consider it my responsibility to support my fellow mothers in whatever breastfeeding looks like for them. I understand and love the bottle-feeding mama and I respect and support the mother who breastfeeds openly in public. We’re all in this together. Let’s lift each other up.