“Breast is Best” could very well be the mantra for millennial moms, and for many, this means feeding on demand. For our generation, breastfeeding is the default for new mothers. To choose another option (unless absolutely necessary) will quickly get you shunned from the hottest playgroups.
We all want to be able to breastfeed. We want to love everything about it. But for some of us it will be impossible, and for others it will be miserable.
When mothers strive to breastfeed, but struggle or are unable, the outcome is often devastating.
That is because the way that we feed our babies is about much more than nutrition. It impacts our confidence and the way we view ourselves as a mother.
In an ideal world, breastfeeding would come easily for all of us and our babies. But we don’t live in an ideal world, do we?
Infant Feeding Series
Over the next couple of months, we will be exploring the cross section between infant feeding and maternal health from a variety of perspectives.
You will have the opportunity to hear straight from the mouth of real mothers about how their experiences impacted them physically, mentally, and emotionally.
These mothers are warriors. They have fought to do the best for their children. Each of them was dealt a different hand in life, and each had to weight their options accordingly.
We will cover the challenges of feeding NICU babies to inducing lactation for adopted babies, and everything in between. Tongue ties, multiples, postpartum depression, low milk supply, medical conditions, pure exhaustion- you name it, we will address it.
And to make sure that this isn’t just an emotionally based series, we will have pediatricians, lactation consultants, and therapists weigh in on the subject as well.
The fact is, the journey of feeding our babies will look different for each of us. Try as we might, there are many factors outside of our control.
But we have one thing in common: we want to do what is best for our children.
My sincerest desire is that you will walk away from this series empowered to do what is best for your baby and you.
If you are looking for inspiration from someone who has fought your battle before you, I hope you get the encouragement and the resources you need to keep going.
If you are on the brink of throwing in the towel, and you need to hear that you aren’t a bad mom for giving your baby formula, I hope that you come away with the confidence to do it.
Whatever it is that you need, I hope that you find it.
In the spirit of vulnerability, I thought it would be best to begin by sharing my own journey of breastfeeding through postpartum depression.
My Breastfeeding Journey
For me, breastfeeding on demand and postpartum depression are deeply intertwined. I experienced postpartum depression for a number or reasons, but breastfeeding on demand was fuel to the fire.
My oldest daughter, Emmie, could easily be classified as a “high needs” baby. Colic, reflux, sleep adverse, temperamental, all of it.
On average, she took an hour and a half to nurse. The time between feeding sessions would range from 10 min to an hour. This left me little if any time to eat, sleep, or take care of myself.
To add insult to injury, she managed to make breastfeeding the most UN-intimate thing I could imagine.
She would suck voraciously while pulling back her head and pushing me away. If she wasn’t pushing me away, she was clawing at my chest, leaving red scratches up to my neck.
For six months, she woke me up about once an hour to eat. If I tried to withhold the breast from her, she would scream.
Her screaming (which she did a lot of) gave me a rush of adrenaline that would leave me staring at the ceiling for 45 minutes after she fell asleep.
And naps? Oh, those didn’t happen. I lived on increments of 15-60 minutes of sleep.
Words could never shine a light on my misery. Months of piecing together a whopping total of 4 hours of (very interrupted) sleep per day was killing me.
My mental and emotional health was shot.
The Effects of feeding on Demand
Breastfeeding on demand made me resent my daughter and my husband. I resented my daughter for resigning me to a chair all day. I blamed her for my isolation and inability to leave the house. Wouldn’t you?
I hated that I had to ask my husband for help when I wanted to do basic things such as eating or taking a shower. If he was busy or working, I couldn’t. I often went hungry or thirsty.
When we went back home for the holidays (we live overseas), I missed out on a lot of time with family because I had to nurse our daughter, or go to sleep when she did.
Every moment of sleep was precious when I was getting up every hour of the night. It was extremely isolating.
I was lonely, resentful, and depressed.
At that point in time, what I desperately needed was the ability to meet own basic needs. But breastfeeding on demand made it impossible. I was driven to the point of near insanity.
For a solid month, if not longer, it took every ounce of my self control not to drop my daughter off at a fire station and hop on an airplane, while filing for divorce from somewhere abroad.
I knew that if they were both gone, I could convince myself, if only for a little while, that it had all been a bad dream.
I don’t love breastfeeding, but I do it anyway
Over time, things got easier, but we found ourselves with a new set of baggage to work through.
I sought counseling, which brought me to the realization that what we were doing was causing far more harm than good, and Chris and I have poured countless hours into restoring the damage that breastfeeding on demand did to our marriage.
I still nurse my daughter. She is two now. And three months ago, her sister was born and joined the party.
I wish I could say that I continued to nurse Emmie because we turned some magical corner and I began to enjoy it. Nope.
I stopped resenting her, but “enjoy” is not the first word that I would use to describe our nursing relationship. “Tolerate” is more fitting.
I don’t hate it anymore, but I don’t love it either.
Don’t get me wrong, there have been many moments when I have enjoyed our time together while she is nursing. There just haven’t been enough to offset the damage.
And we have fun doing other things too. I don’t need breastfeeding to bond with her.
The reason that I have nursed her for this long is because she is a damned good fighter. I know that weaning her will be a battle, and I’m not ready to deal with that level of conflict yet.
What I’m Doing Differently with Baby #2
When it comes to my youngest daughter, Petra, I am less concerned about whether my she drinks breastmilk or formula. I am far more concerned about my mental and emotional health.
What I learned through my experience with Emmie is that while there is a substitute for breastmilk, there is no substitute for love.
If I give Petra breast milk at the cost of my well being, I will be short-changing her. If I am not mentally and emotionally healthy, I can not be a good mother.
So we supplement with formula. And you know what? I love it.
Our bond is amazing, and our whole family is thriving.
It is also a big relief to be able to have others play the role of caregiver for her. Shouldering that responsibility alone has never been something that I thrived on.
I can sleep, eat my food when it’s hot, shower when I need, and am able to have a social life. None of these things were possible when I was solely responsible for feeding/burping/calming a screaming baby around the clock.
Whether I’m feeding Petra breastmilk or formula, by bottle or the breast, our bonding experience is the same. I can’t say that I feel more connected to her either way.
I have considered pumping to increase my milk supply and decrease her formula consumption. My mother in law just sent an electric pump, so I will start soon. If I am able to comfortably fit it into my schedule, I will stick to it.
But if keeps me stuck in a chair for hours a day, unable to be productive or care for myself, I will stop without hesitation.
I have learned to put my mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing first. Because when my wellbeing is jeopardized, so is the bond with my children.
My Advice for Other Moms
My instinct is to scream “Never feed on demand!!!” at every woman sporting a baby bump.
But I realize that not every baby will be like Emmie. And not every mother will be like me.
If by some stroke of sh-tty luck, you are in a similar position to where I was, my advice is this: be flexible, and be gentle with yourself.
If you are losing your sanity over breastfeeding, count the cost, and factor yourself into the equation.
Consider putting your baby on a schedule, pumping, or supplementing with formula. Do whatever it takes to be a happy mom. Your baby needs you to be a happy more than they need to suck a boob.
If sleep is an issue because of unnecessary night nursing, I highly recommend Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.
Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child is the book that we followed to get Emmie sleeping through the night at 6 months.
This book literally changed our lives. In three days, Emmie stopped night feedings and began sleeping through the night. And when she did, our whole family finally became happy- including her!
Weissbluth breaks the book down by age, so it’s never too late to help your baby get the sleep they need.
And if all else fails, watch some Ali Wong.
Update: I just found out that Emmie has a freaking lip tie! And possibly a tongue tie too.
After further research, I discovered that lip and tongue ties are directly related to painful nursing, long feeding sessions, colic, and reflux.
Petra also has two lip ties (and possibly a tongue tie as well), but her fussiness and reflux haven’t come close to the misery of our experience with Emmie.
We will be getting Petra’s ties clipped soon, and I plan to write more about it later. Stay tuned!