My son Darrol Henry recently turned one. First birthdays are always a huge deal, but I got an added bit of excitement when my little man hit 12 months: our pediatrician said we could stop giving him formula. I can’t tell you the joy and relief this gave me. Even before getting pregnant, breastfeeding was something I considered a no-brainer. Obviously, I’d breastfeed my child. It’s better for baby, better for mom, and let’s face it, it’s a money-saver. I agonized over things like which sort of cloth diaper we’d use and whether I’d let this kid use a pacifier or not. But breastfeeding? No question, that was on.

You can imagine my despair when I found myself unable to produce breast milk. Read on for my story.

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Photo by my mom

My Breastfeeding Story

My breastfeeding story is basically the story of my son’s birth. Because of an illness I had as a child, I was considered a higher risk pregnancy, and my birth did not go according to plan at all. What was supposed to be a meditative hypnobirthing adventure turned into a pitocin-induced, 34 hour nightmare that culminated in a somewhat botched C-section. My baby boy was totally fine, but I was a mess.

The hospital lactation consultants were terrible. They failed to catch that my son was severely tongue-tied. A tongue tie makes it difficult for babies to latch, and Darrol’s was so bad that it caused any attempts at breastfeeding to be so painful that it brought me to tears. Rather than check for a tongue tie, the hospital consultant just told me that “breastfeeding hurts.”

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Because of the complications with the C-section, the hospital had me on a liquid diet for five days. Between the incision from the C-section and the lack of calories, I couldn’t hold my baby for more than a few minutes at a time without becoming exhausted. Darrol and I were separated a lot, and since I wasn’t eating food I lost 35 pounds over those five days. I’ve always been on the slim side, and by the time I left the hospital I looked like a skeleton.

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Pumping, Pumping, Pumping

Between the separation and the weight loss, I found myself unable to produce more than a few mL of milk per day. I was pumping hourly all day and 2-3 times overnight. On a good day, I’d put out 20 mL. That’s not in one round of pumping. That was over an entire day of carefully collecting tiny drops of milk. It was heartbreaking. The almost constant pumping definitely increased my output, but it was nothing close to what I’d need to nourish a growing baby.

When I wasn’t pumping, I was struggling to get my son to latch on. This was when we discovered the tongue tie. I hired a private lactation consultant who was frankly a magician. She helped me double my output from 20 mL per day to 40 and she immediately caught Darrol’s tongue tie. The second he latched on and she saw my face, she pulled him off and checked his mouth. Fixing his tongue tie improved his latch immensely. No more pain!

By the time all of that happened, though, he was three or four weeks old and had gotten so used to being bottle fed that he refused to breastfeed.

Danielle, the lactation consultant that we hired, was a huge support during this time. On top of the home visits, she would text me back at two in the morning when I was despondent and call me in the middle of a Saturday to see how my son and I were doing. I wish she had been in the hospital with me instead of that horrible “breastfeeding hurts” woman!

The constant pumping and struggle to get Darrol to nurse was incredibly stressful for me, for him, and for my husband. I remember feeling helplessly tied to the pump. I remember feeling like I couldn’t enjoy my squishy little baby, because I felt like I was letting him down. And I remember the day that Danielle and I had a heart-to-heart where she suggested that I back off on pumping and just enjoy my new baby. It was painful, but it was also a relief.

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When Breastfeeding Fails: What I Learned

Breastfeeding is hard, you guys.

Before having a baby I had this idea that this was just what women’s bodies did. Since then, though, I’ve discovered that my story is surprisingly common. The details may be different, but so many women have trouble breastfeeding, and the guilt we feel is overwhelming.

The first thing that I learned was to let go of the guilt. Guilt doesn’t help you or your baby.

Breastfeeding is absolutely ideal, and if you can do it, you should. But if you can’t, know that you can still raise a happy, healthy baby. One year later Darrol Henry is doing great. He loves broccoli and will drink water happily. He is crazy for books but hasn’t mastered the art of petting cats. He’s a regular baby and doesn’t know that he missed out on anything.

I guess I’m just saying that there’s more to raising your baby than breastfeeding, but that’s hard to remember when you’re in the thick of it.

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photo by Becky Striepe

Looking Back a Year Later

After so much time to reflect I’ve also been able to get some perspective on why I wasn’t able to breastfeed. My body didn’t fail. Those lactation consultants in the hospital did. Their technique was basically shoving my boob into my baby’s face, then offering a bottle of Similac when he refused.

The separation, especially during those first days, was also a huge factor in my inability to produce. That would be my biggest piece of advice to new moms: don’t let the hospital separate you and your baby, and get the lactation consultation and support you need as soon as possible. Yes, holding my baby made me tired, but there are ways to work around that. No one offered me a nursing pillow, for example, until my husband happened upon them in a magazine.

For the staff at most hospitals, a birth isn’t a magical, life-transforming experience. It’s just another medical procedure. Most hospitals have virtually no support system for new moms.

Those first months were a struggle, and my hope is that by sharing my story I can help new moms in similar situations cope with the emotional turmoil. I wish that I’d been better equipped with that knowledge going into my birth and my baby’s first months. I also hope that by sharing where things went wrong for me, I can empower other moms. For better or worse, it’s up to us as parents to take charge in situations like this, even though we are at our most vulnerable.

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