An Anonymous New Mom’s Breastfeeding Story
I asked this mom to write up her story. She allowed me to share it with you.
-Emily Griffin, MSW, LICSW, LCSW-C
Happy Parents, Happy Babies LLC
I didn’t realize that I cared at all about breastfeeding until after my son was born. I had heard the mantra from doctors and message boards and the childbirth books I had feverishly read in the weeks before I gave birth – “breast is best.” As a formula-fed child myself, I knew that there were probably health benefits to breastfeeding but that formula wasn’t as horrible as certain people made it out to be. What drew me to want to breastfeed was the supposed bond it would create; the closeness you’d feel to your child; the ability to do something special together. I so desperately wanted that – so within an hour of my son’s birth, we set out on our breastfeeding journey, confident and determined.
The first few days were difficult, but I assumed that was the case for everyone. I didn’t sleep the night I went into labor. Or the two nights we stayed at the hospital “recovering.” Or the first night we spent at home. I didn’t know when my milk would come in and my son clearly needed to eat, so we started supplementing with formula. I was already in pain. I was exhausted.
A lactation consultant came to the house the second day we were home. She was wonderful – patient, attentive, helpful, and kind. I cried. She recommended renting a hospital grade pump and pumping after every attempt at breastfeeding to get my supply to come in. She gave me a miracle ointment to heal my cracked, blistered nipples. She showed me different holds and how to use a nipple shield. She gave me hope.
We continued on our journey. The open sores on my nipples healed, but I was still in pain. Once my milk came in, I cut down on pumping, but continued to pump a few times a day so that my husband could give our son a bottle. The consultant told me we would get better at this with time – our child would get older and learn how to breastfeed better, and the pain would subside. So we pushed on.
Once my milk came in – 8 days after birth, rather than the usual 3-5 -- it was still taking my son so long to breastfeed. He would breastfeed for 45 minutes at a time, every 2 hours. And his suck was powerful. He was biting down with his gums even though he was properly latched. The pain kept getting worse. It became a deep, throbbing pain that would make my breasts ache even when he wasn’t latched. By the end of the day, when he wanted to cluster feed, I would break down in tears and sob over him, desperately wanting to make this work, until my husband would insist on taking him away so I could get a break.
Given the continued pain, the lactation consultant and our pediatrician told us to have him evaluated for a tongue tie. We called to make an appointment, and were told that the earliest we could be seen was two weeks later. I told myself to just hold on until then. I continued to grit my teeth through each feed, placing faith that the solution was just two weeks and a short, relatively easy procedure away.
The appointment came and went. The tongue (and lip) tie now resolved, I thought the pain was subside. It didn’t. I was told to give it more time; that my son needed to re-learn how to suck now that he had better range of motion in his mouth. That he would get better in just a few days. It didn’t.
Still determined, I set goals for myself – I told myself to get through this week. Get to one month. I didn’t want to give up, but I also struggled to understand why something that was supposedly so “natural” – something that “wasn’t supposed to hurt” – could be so excruciating and exhausting. For the first time, I felt like I wouldn’t be able to accomplish something I set out to do. I felt like I was failing my son. Like I was failing myself.
The lactation consultant came back. More positions to try. More assurances that it would get better, that I was doing a great job. I knew he was eating and that I had a good supply. Yet my son seemed to be in pain. He would arch his back and scream during feedings, then clamp down, causing me to arch my back and scream, too. I sobbed over my son more times than I could count as he tried to eat and I tried to feed him. I was in so much pain that after feedings I would quickly pass my son off to my husband, a friend, a relative – whoever was around – so I could double over and hold my breasts until they stopped hurting.
I was beginning to resent this small, helpless being, in part because, in my attempt to endure and continue breastfeeding, I was denying myself quality time with my son. I was feeding him and then passing him off, either to pump, to sleep, or to cry. Our time together was filled with stress and pain rather than love and bonding. My breastfeeding experience was the opposite of what everyone told me it was supposed to be.
Yet I still felt like I needed to continue. I don’t know why. In retrospect, I think I was afraid of failing at something so early in motherhood. Maybe I felt like it would be a bad omen to give up on something so early on – that it signaled something about me and how hard I was willing to work to be a good mother. I was also afraid of being judged. So many people I knew were breastfeeding with ease, or spoke of how much they enjoyed it. I thought there must be something wrong with me for struggling so much. As it turns out, many friends also struggled greatly. They just didn’t talk openly about it until I told my own story.
After four weeks of relentless pain with no solution in sight, I was nearing my breaking point. My son was almost a month old. I wanted to make one final appointment with the “head” lactation consultant to see if she had any final solutions. I walked into the appointment unsure of whether I should continue breastfeeding at all.
The consultant’s explanations for my pain washed over me in waves. I had “blebs” on my nipples – milk blisters that needed to be popped with a needle. My son was clamping down on my nipples to stem an overactive flow. The nerves in my nipples were bruised. According to the consultant, if I wanted to continue breastfeeding, I would be tied to my couch for an unknown period of time – unable to leave the house for more than two hours at a time. The consultant delivered this news as if it was no big deal.
I left that appointment feeling overwhelmed. I wanted to make this work. I didn’t want to “give up.” I felt selfish for wanting some independence from my new child, for feeling unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to continue breastfeeding. I was drowning in guilt and self-loathing.
It took a panic attack in the middle of the night to convince me that breastfeeding was doing more harm than good for everyone in my family – me, my son, and my husband, who helplessly watched me struggle physically and emotionally throughout this journey. I finally – slowly – began to accept that this wasn’t working. Breastfeeding was not “bonding” me to my son. It was pushing us further apart. I texted the lactation consultant at 2am: “I’ve reached my breaking point. I need a plan to wean.”
The next morning, when waiting to hear back, I gave my son a bottle of formula. He locked eyes with me as he drank (something he never did while breastfeeding) and I felt a strange mix of emotions. Sadness that we were at the end of our journey. Relief that, for the first time, I was feeding my son without enduring pain. Love, for my son who was just doing his best to get by, and for me – who was doing the same. Strength, that I finally felt empowered enough to make a change after sitting on the fence for so long.
I spent weeks wanting someone to give me permission to stop breastfeeding. I wanted someone to tell me it was okay – that my son would still grow up to be healthy and smart, that I wasn’t a failure or selfish or a bad mother. But what I really needed was to give permission to myself. I needed to grant myself permission to engage in self-care as I care for my new child. I needed to accept that my happiness and physical and emotional well-being would make me a better mother.
Within days of switching to formula, it was as if a weight was lifted. I felt more like myself than I had since my son was born. I suddenly felt in control again. I felt renewed. I can’t say that I wish I quit sooner, because I think I needed that full five weeks to realize what was best for my family and to make a decision without regrets. But the entire experience made me realize how little support is out there for women struggling to breastfeed. It was an intensely personal decision to stop, but I wish women knew in the same position felt with confidence that if they, too, needed to quit, it would all be okay.
We are now three weeks out from the end of our breastfeeding journey. My son is healthy and gaining weight and I am able to fully enjoy him in a way that was never possible before. Now, with the pressure and anxiety of breastfeeding behind us, our bonding can truly begin.