Breastfeeding, exclusive pumping, and beyond…

One Mama’s journey from breastfeeding to exclusive pumping to formula, plus all the feelings along the way!

“Whee ooh whee ooh whee ooh whee ooh…”

The sound of my Medela has been a constant companion for the past five months, so it was only fitting to write this post while pumping. I’m halfway through the weaning process, so I’ve dropped from 5 pumps to 3 pumps a day, which already feels like an enormous amount of freedom. However, I think the hardest part is still ahead of me, both physically and emotionally. I’m ready to have my body back, but I feel guilty about weaning when I still have a full supply of milk.

I know (I think?) that it’s the best thing for me, to be happy and free to enjoy my baby rather than resentful about the time spent at the pump. I know that I’ve picked a good formula for him, and that he’s thriving and full of joy and life and sturdy and strong as ever. I still feel guilty that I’m not giving him the “best” that I can give him, and I feel especially ashamed that so many women give so much to continue to provide breastmilk for their babies, while I’m throwing in the towel and working harder to quit that I would have needed to work to continue. 

Before I gave birth, I told myself to give breastfeeding at least 6 weeks; I knew that it would take time to figure out and get past the initial discomfort (ha! Such an inadequate euphemism!). However, I told myself, if it wasn’t going well, I wouldn’t go to any heroic efforts to continue. I wasn’t going to be a slave to needless mom guilt (ha! Little did I know!) when there was a perfectly good option in formula. Looking back, I don’t think I really believed I would ever need that option, but I liked having an escape plan. My mom breastfed my older brother and me until we were about 18 months old, and she did it while working and using a syringe-type manual pump in an era when employers were far less friendly about breastfeeding. If she could do it then, surely I can manage! I even chose a doula who was a certified lactation consultant so that I would have help if I happened to need it. Totally set.

Labor was quick and easy (you know, for labor), with no pain meds or complications, and Ben easily latched and began nursing soon after birth. The nurses said everything looked great with his latch.  Everyone said that it shouldn’t hurt, but that I should expect some soreness. “It should be a tug, not a pinch.” “Make sure his lips are flanged out.” “Make a sandwich with your breast to get as much in his mouth as possible.” All of the advice, I dutifully listened and noted and watched. So far so good! (But wait, what’s the difference between a tug and a pinch? This kinda hurts already…)

Everyone said breastfed babies lose weight before their first checkup, but Ben didn’t! He was a champion eater, nursing for an hour or more at a time, guzzling milk and growing like a weed! We joked that I had MiracleGro in my boobs, and everyone marveled at how fast he was lengthening and plumping.

Meanwhile, that “soreness” was kicking in full swing. I was texting my doula constantly about breastfeeding questions, so she stopped by to check his latch and said that everything still looked good. “Don’t worry if you’re bleeding a little, it doesn’t hurt babies to ingest blood.” (Uuuuh…?) Try some Soothies, try some ice packs, try Lanolin, try some saline rinses (although for the love of God, if you ever do this, DON’T use the Epsom salts with menthol. Hell. On. Earth.)—nothing was stopping the slow, steady erosion of the skin on my nipples. I cried every time I took a shower. It was easy enough to keep the water away from my chest, but I couldn’t stop the cold air from hitting my exposed skin and causing agony. If the towel brushed against them, I felt like I was going to scream. I was still dealing with postpartum bleeding and soreness from a second-degree tear, but nothing compared to the discomfort of engorgement and cracked, raw nipples.

Feeding Ben became torture. My chest would tighten with anxiety, and I started crying when he stirred and began to root, because I knew what was coming. I would lash out at my husband in anger and panic any time he said, “I think he might be hungry…” He was ALWAYS hungry. He was clearly getting enough milk, because he was gaining weight and peeing constantly, but I couldn’t get a break for my skin to heal. I would scream and curse every time he latched on, although luckily the searing pain would subside after a few seconds. My husband looked on in serious concern, unable to help; my dog ran out of the room. If it took more than one attempt to latch, I would be sweating, screaming, crying, and shaking. It felt like being slashed with a knife. It was starting to look that way too.

My mom came back to visit when Ben was 3 weeks old, and I told her, “Don’t say anything if you see my nipples. Don’t make a face, don’t wince, don’t comment on them. It will just make it worse.” I saw her face tighten when I fed Ben, but she kept quiet.

I made it to my 6 week goal. In the meantime, my husband and I had sold our house in preparation for moving from Louisiana to Virginia for his new job, and we drove to Alabama to stay with my mom for a few weeks until our new home was ready. After saying hello and unpacking, I sat down to feed Ben while chatting with my mom. As soon as I pulled my bra down, she gasped and cried out, “Oh my god!” I looked up in surprise and she apologized and said, “I’m sorry, I know I’m not supposed to say anything, but that’s not right. Something is really not right.”

By this time, I had a deep, raw crack in one nipple, but the other was far worse. It looked like, for lack of a more delicate term, it had been flayed. The top layers of skin were completely gone on one side, and it was only getting worse with each nursing session. Maybe the issue was a tongue tie or a lip tie or his marathon nursing or a combination, but it was clear that my skin wasn’t anywhere close to healing.

I tried a nipple shield, but the plastic digging into my skin only made it hurt worse to nurse. My mom suggested using the pump to take a break from nursing. “Pump for a few days so that you can heal, and we’ll bottle feed him.” I felt odd watching him drink from the bottle, because I felt like I had failed somehow, even though he was still drinking breastmilk. I went upstairs and pumped (with no pain). I think at that point I knew that something had fundamentally changed. (I can feed my baby without pain? There’s something here…)

During my lonely pumping sessions, I started researching exclusive pumping. Maybe I could do this to feed him, maybe I wouldn’t have to go back to nursing at all… I never had that beautiful, magical bonding experience with nursing. Feeding Ben felt like anxiety, PAIN, discomfort, relief that it was over, and then a slow building of anxiety in anticipation of the cycle starting again. At least with pumping, I could feed him peacefully or even—oh joy!—take a nap while someone else fed him. It was inconvenient to pump every two hours while also feeding a baby every two hours (or less) but at least my skin was slowly healing. After a week, I tried nursing again. My skin opened right back up, and I went back to the pump.

Things were going well, I was healing, Ben continued to eat more and more and more, until… There was no more to eat. In one growth spurt, he demolished my meager store of milk in the fridge, and I faced another giant dose of mom guilt: supplement with formula, or start jumping through hoops to increase my milk supply. I was already pumping for 20-30 minutes every two hours, and getting at least 5 or 6 ounces every session. I decided to supplement with formula. I stood in the aisle of CVS, sick to my stomach as I looked at all of the cans of formula. They looked dirty and toxic. I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know how to choose or what to look for, but I noticed that every label said, “BREAST IS BEST.” No shit. Thanks for the reminder. I bought a can, immediately regretted it, and refused to open it when we got home. It was just a backup, just in case… (I won’t need it, I won’t need it, I can’t feed my baby that…)

A few days later, all the milk was gone. We supplemented with his first bottle of formula. I cried. Ben was fine. I kept pumping.

As we prepared to move to Virginia, I became concerned about how I would manage to pump and care for Ben on my own. My husband had taken several weeks off work to help, plus we had been staying with my mom, so there had been 3 adults to split baby duties. Although I told everyone that I would try nursing again once I healed, I think I knew I was done with breastfeeding. I would just have to figure out how to manage pumping on my own.

And manage I did! From 8 weeks old to 5 months old, I continued to exclusively pump. My husband and I bought a home, moved again (from our apartment to the new house), and dealt with a myriad of issues and inconveniences along with way, and I pumped my way through it all! My supply was fine—not overly abundant, but I almost always had a few extra bags of milk, and I had made my peace with supplementing with formula as needed. I even started lengthening the time between pumps, and I was still making plenty of milk. Ben was thriving, everything was fine, and we were trucking along.

And yet, I found myself fantasizing every day about quitting. It wasn’t all that inconvenient at this point; I had a good routine, pumping for 15 minutes every 4 hours or so, and I could time it around Ben’s naps or easily entertain him with toys while I pumped. But there was no joy in it—I was motivated mainly by obligation and fear of feeling selfish if I quit. At best, I felt satisfaction for a job well done, for doing the “right” thing for Ben. At worst, I felt trapped and sullen and angry, halfway hoping that my supply would drop so low that I would have a legitimate excuse to quit. Not exactly the magical breastfeeding experience I heard about from others. I could keep pumping physically, but mentally I was fighting a losing battle.

I started to float the idea to my husband that I would stop pumping, and we had some honest conversations about our priorities for Ben. My husband and I both wanted Ben to have breastmilk for as long as possible, and I wanted to finish pumping as soon as possible. There was no clear compromise.

While reading different articles and forums, I came across several posts that extolled the benefits of even minimal amounts of breastmilk. Women were asking if it was worth it to continue pumping if they were only producing a few ounces a day, and the responses indicated that even 4 or 5 ounces a day can provide many of the benefits (such as antibodies, beneficial bacteria, etc.) as exclusive breastfeeding. I felt like someone threw me a lifeline: maybe if I stored enough milk for Ben to have at least one bottle a day for the next few months, I could stop earlier without completely cutting off his supply. It was ironic that this information was intended to encourage women to continue pumping, but it was providing the encouragement that I needed to quit.

With this plan in place, I started the gradual process of weaning from the pump. I fed Ben a bottle of breastmilk each day, and froze the rest to use once I finished pumping. Yet, I was still torn, and I still struggled to articulate why I needed to stop. However, in the process of writing this, I had a revelation. While trying to accurately describe my experience of breastfeeding, I felt myself actually transported back into that place of panic and pain, with an almost physical reaction. As a mental health professional, I was surprised to recognize the hallmark response to a traumatic event. A small trauma, but trauma nonetheless. I wanted to quit because I needed to distance myself, to sever my connection to that experience.

I don’t have a neat and tidy ending to this story. Even after all of this, I’m still not sure I’m doing the right thing, mainly because I don’t think there is a “right” thing in this situation. I don’t hate my pump. I’m thankful that it enabled me to continue to feed my baby breastmilk without pain for several months, when otherwise I wouldn’t have had that option. I will probably continue to wean, and I will have mixed feelings when I pump for the last time. I also don’t know if I’ll have the courage to try breastfeeding with my next child. I definitely plan to do another unmedicated labor and delivery—that doesn’t scare me—but breastfeeding is a different story.

I know I’m glad that Ben is healthy and that he’ll eat anything I give him. I’m glad that I found a decent formula to feed him, and I’m glad that I have the resources to make that option feasible. I know I feel less anxiety about the prospect of quitting than the prospect of continuing. And I know that I’m glad for the opportunity to share my story, so that other moms mired in their own struggles might feel a little relief at knowing they aren’t alone. None of us has this motherhood thing completely figured out, and we’re all just doing the best we can. That’s all we can do!

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