I always knew I wanted to breastfeed. I don’t remember ever seeing anyone do it. I just thought it sounded right. I read a lot on the subject and knew it could be hard work. I knew to watch out for hospital staff giving my baby a pacifier and a bottle as this might cause nipple confusion. I knew I needed to start immediately after delivery. It was on my birth plan and the nurses were on board. What I didn’t know was that breastfeeding would turn out to be the hardest thing I had ever done. And I say that having delivered a child with a head circumference in the 98th percentile through my vagina. I didn’t know that breastfeeding would test every insecurity and every last nerve. I didn’t know that breastfeeding would turn out to be the thing I am most proud of. I didn’t know that working through the horrors of breastfeeding would open up a whole new world of parenting and conspiracy. I didn’t know that when the nurses said I had to give my baby formula that they were motivated by a machine so big and powerful that these medical professionals themselves believed that this was the best thing for my baby.
Jack was one day old. One day. “He needs to pee or you can’t be discharged,” the nurse told me. Each nurse on shift would come in and say “I’m worried he hasn’t peed.” So naturally, I worried. A doctor told me that I wasn’t making enough milk. She suggested that I give him formula to help him pee. I had done the reading. I told her no. She said it was important for him to pee and he is fussy because he is hungry. I don’t know if there are mothers out there that are OK with their babies being hungry, but I doubt it. So I promptly gave him a small amount of formula. No baby of mine will ever go hungry. He took it well. He didn’t seem any less fussy to me, but I was relieved that he was no longer hungry. I know some things now that I didn’t know then. He probably ate about 3 times as much as his stomach could really hold at that age. I wasn’t making much milk because he didn’t need much milk. In order to make more milk I needed him to nurse, not suck on a bottle. Formula companies send free formula samples to hospitals, and introducing formula to infants has become customary—a sort of “understanding.” What better way to make money than to get an infant hooked on it right from the start?
In order to step up the drama a doctor ordered tests to be done on my baby’s liver and kidneys to make sure they were working properly. You know, because he hadn’t peed yet. My husband took him down to the tests. I sat in the room tired and scared. My husband returned. The tests looked good. “Oh, and he peed,” my husband said. My doctor arrived the next day and was angry that these tests were done. She said that she would have tried putting a wet wash cloth on him or dripping cold water on his johnson. However, she didn’t seem worried that my baby had now been drinking formula for every feeding. “Nurse for 15-20 minutes on each side then give him a bottle of formula” everyone said. They promised me he would come back to my breast “when I am finally making enough milk” and we would have no issue exclusively breastfeeding in the near future. I trusted them.
We took Jack home and found our routine of feeding every 2 hours. 30-40 minutes of nursing and then a bottle. The routine took about an hour. We got an hour break. Then we’d start again. It wasn’t long before Jack was getting upset while nursing. He would scream, wiggle around, unlatch, push away and cry, cry and cry. I cried too. My baby was rejecting me. My plan to breastfeed was failing. I was failing. It made me sick to think that my body had failed my baby. It made me sick to think that I was going to have to quit and I wasn’t even sure what I had done wrong. I was only half woman.
I tried different rooms of the house, different positions, relaxation techniques for me, massages for Jack, white noise machines; anything I could think of. My baby hated my breast. He didn’t want to breastfeed. He wanted that fast flowing bottle filled with filling formula. I felt so sad. I wanted this so bad. I had anxiety attacks. I had spells of depression. I wanted to bond this way with my baby. I wanted to have this experience and nurture him in this way. I wanted it so bad. I never wanted anything more in my life. I was terrified one day he would just stop all together. I started pumping. Pumping after every feeding. 45 minutes of nursing, bottle, then pump. My husband went back to work. My days were filled with anxiety. I would sit Jack in front of me and pray he didn’t cry so that I could finish pumping. Very little milk was being pumped. It made me more sad and anxious.
We brought Jack for his 1 month check-up. His pediatrician said to stop giving him formula. She said just do it cold turkey and he will be fine in a week. I couldn’t believe this woman was asking me to let my baby be hungry. She didn’t have children. She didn’t know the sound. I couldn’t imagine doing this. She said “of course he wants the bottle, it’s easier.” She said it with this tone like “what a lazy fuck of a baby you have.” I called a La Leche League leader in my area. She said to first try tapering down the formula and try supplementing with only pumped breast milk. She said to wait after nursing sessions before supplementing and only supplement if he seemed unsatisfied. She suggested I was probably pumping very little because was eating most of it. She did some math based on the average amount of milk consumed at Jack’s age. I was shocked to hear how much he was likely getting from me. Jack was growing fast, so we knew he was eating. She said soon he won’t ask for supplements and I will be building a freezer stash with the pumped milk. I didn’t believe her. There was no way I was going to end up ahead of the game if I did end up on top at all.
I sat up when I should have slept, reading everything from medical journals to posts in chat rooms and everything in between. I read more than I read in grad school. I learned so many things that I didn’t know. I learned why it was so hard for me to breastfeed and it was a surprise to me to find out that it was, in fact, not my fault. I was guided by people who didn’t have the correct information themselves. I live in a culture stuck in the 1950s when it came to breastfeeding. You see, at that time formula companies were trying to make a profit. They told women all sorts of lies about breastfeeding to force them into buying formula: that babies need to eat loads right after birth and if you don’t make all that milk yourself then something is wrong with the mother; that mothers can’t have a drink on occasion; that breastfeeding comes with many health risks for both babies and mothers; that breastfeeding is dirty and indecent; that breastfeeding is for third-world countries; that formula is equal to breast milk.
I was appalled at what I was reading. I began to lecture my husband on all this new information. I joined other breastfeeding mothers in resistance. I began to breastfeed in public as much as possible. I posted pictures of myself on the internet with pride. I attended nurse-ins. I began to identify as a breastfeeding mother through and through. I also stopped giving Jack formula. He would still take a bottle of breast milk after some feedings. Until about 2 or 3 months old. It’s sort of a blur now. But he is now 7 months old. And as far back as I can clearly remember he has been exclusively breastfed. Recently he was sick and we were trying to supplement some water after nursing sessions due to dehydration. He actually slapped the bottle out of my hands. The beginning months are just a faded memory now, but I remember the feelings: the fear, the disappointment, the anxiety, the sadness, the guilt and shame. This was all surrounding my difficulty getting started with breastfeeding. I am lucky. I started this journey with a positive self-image, pride and most importantly a fierce desire to breastfeed that some women do not have. I was going to win. I had to. I fought hard and persevered in the end.
But I have also learned that this pride comes with a cost. There is so much guilt and shame surrounding this topic of breastfeeding. Some women suffer negative body images and a lack of desire to work through the difficulties. Some women find it difficult to be available all the time for their babies and want to be able to have another person help with feeding. Some women tried and did not persevere. Some women believe that formula is just as healthy as breast milk. Some women have medical issues. Some women have unhealthy lifestyles. But most women who choose not to breastfeed just don’t want to. It is a very explosive subject. I have suffered the consequences of being so proud of my success with breastfeeding. I have come to empathize with all sides of the issue. But in the end I know I am doing what is best for me and my baby. I won’t get into the benefits of breastfeeding here. You can google it. It’s scientific fact. I know that my baby and I are benefiting in more ways than I can count from my tenacity and success. I am The Badass Breastfeeder.
Abby Theuring, MSW