Breastfeeding is probably one of the hardest things for many moms, but people make it seem so easy — almost like you just “do” it. Breastfeeding is also the thing other people (other moms, family members, total strangers) will judge you about the most, whether you do it or not. If you do, you hear “cover up, don’t do that in public, don’t do it too long, you aren’t doing it long enough” and so on. And if you don’t, you are made out to be the worst mother ever, regardless of why — and really, it shouldn’t matter why. If you choose or are able to breastfeed, it is probably the thing you’ll be hardest on yourself about. After being able to breastfeed three babies myself, to varying degrees of “success”, I feel like I’ve learned a few things that might help other mothers who also hope to breastfeed. And maybe even the ones who don’t.
1. Not every mom can breastfeed, and it is ok. Not every mom wants to breastfeed, and it is ok. And not every mom that tries to breastfeed is able. And it is ok.
I have been lucky enough to have had the choice to nurse my babies, but not everyone has the choice to breastfeed, and not everyone wants to breastfeed. I fully support mothers choosing whatever works best for themselves and their families. One of my biggest pet peeves is seeing comments from “well-meaning mothers” who like to suggest that breastfeeding is the only way. Or if you do breastfeed you should breastfeed longer. Or if someone is giving a bottle to a baby they automatically assume they chose not to breastfeed (it could be breastmilk, it could be their only option, or it could be a bottle of formula — what difference does it make!?) We all know breast is best, but breast isn’t for everyone, sometimes by choice and sometimes not.
2. Good moms feed their babies however they can.
I did really want to breastfeed and with my first baby it was a struggle. At around one month we realized my supply was really low, but I didn’t know why. I saw a lactation consultant who told me to pump pump pump. She told me to try a drug called Raglan (that wasn’t FDA approved for milk supply help and had some nasty side effects that didn’t help what I was already experiencing, which I later realized was PPD). She told me that every mom can breastfeed, you just have to work at it. So when I couldn’t, I pretty much felt like a failure. I beat myself up about it.
I came to a realization once my baby was older and I was doing better with my PPD. I realized that lactation consultants don’t know everything (although there are mostly wonderful ones out there — I just happened to have a bad experience with a specific one). I realized that my formula-fed baby was strong, healthy, smart, and happy. I had a very low supply and no amount of pumping, teas, supplements, water, etc. could help me. I was a good mother. I am a good mother. I fed my baby however I could, and that is what matters.
3. Sometimes breastfeeding is going really well and then something unexpected happens and you need help. It throws you for a loop. But everything will be ok. You can’t “fail” at breastfeeding.
Flash forward to when my second baby was five months old and stopped gaining weight after nursing well up to that point. My pediatrician advised me to start offering a bottle of formula after every feeding to get his weight back up. After two weeks of supplementing he did gain weight and he was back on track. He started napping well. He was much happier. I realized my supply had like a 4-5 oz max and once he needed more than that, I needed help from formula. Gradually he started preferring the bottle to the breast, and it was also around the time he started solids. So I decided to follow his lead and fed him bottles of formula after every nursing session, which eventually turned to only nursing in the morning and at bedtime, and offering formula bottles for his other meals. This didn’t mean my breastfeeding goal was a failure.
4. Breastfeeding is hard. You are allowed to decide when to stop.
During that breastfeeding-formula feeding combo time with my second baby, I pumped when I could so some of those bottles had some breast milk too. I didn’t get much milk when I pumped though, and I finally stopped. In all honestly, all the pumping I did the first time around really made me hate pumping. I’m sure no one likes pumping. No mom says “ooooh, I can’t wait to pump!” But after the first time around I gave myself permission to just do my best and to refuse to pump if I didn’t want to. You can make the decision to stop pumping.
I still nursed first thing in the morning and the last thing at night until my baby started biting when he nursed, which was around 8 months old. I tried but couldn’t get him to stop and couldn’t work past it (if you’ve ever endured the pain that is a solid nipple bite while nursing, you know, and if not I’m sure you can imagine). I was really down about it at first — the end happened so fast and unexpectedly. But I knew I tried my best. I didn’t feel guilty about giving formula. I didn’t feel like a bad mom. And I gave myself permission to stop because I couldn’t bring myself to go through the pain of being bitten any longer.
5. Don’t go into breastfeeding (or anything in your motherhood/parenthood experience) with big expectations. It never leads to anything good. Instead, just do the best you can, enjoy it while you can, and don’t be too hard on yourself.
By the time I got to baby #3, I had no expectations about the experience. I didn’t put any pressure on myself with regards to labor and deliver, or breastfeeding, or anything. And do you know what? I breastfed that baby until 20 months! I never pumped (except in the beginning to help my milk come in and because Quincy was in the NICU for a week). He never had a bottle once we were home from the hospital. He was by far the easiest to breastfeed, but I also had the most experience. It wasn’t totally smooth sailing — I had mastitis and clogged ducts for the first time ever. He had a latch that caused my nipples to crack and bleed. It was the most painful in our early breastfeeding days, but I didn’t put too much pressure on myself. I had a lactation consultant come visit us at home and help us with Quincy’s latch. I found a good nipple balm. I knew if it was too much I would stop. But we got through it and just kept going day by day. In the end, we lasted longer than I ever would have thought, given my history. I think not putting too much pressure on myself and not having high expectations helped me mentally, which made my final breastfeeding experience the best one for me.