I have two beautiful and healthy children. By most standards, I cannot say that I was able to successfully breastfeed either one of them. I have shed tears, felt shame and have questioned the essence of my womanhood in a body that could not adequately perform its basic function of producing enough milk to nourish its babies. Thanks to amazing peer support and the compassionate expertise of lactation specialists, my perspective has changed considerably. I am now able to see the truly successful feeding relationships that I established with both children, and the major role that breastfeeding played in both of them.
Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/radarxlove/2099803730
When I was pregnant with my first child in 2011, it didn’t even occur to me that I wouldn’t breastfeed. As a child, I had watched my mother exclusively breastfeed my two younger siblings and it was a given that I would breastfeed my children too. I expected to breastfeed my son until he no longer wanted to nurse. I never would have expected that would happen at five months, but I also never would have expected that I would have supply issues that could not be ‘fixed’.
During the first month of James’ life, I began working closely with a lactation consultant and met with other moms at a weekly breastfeeding support group. The lactation consultant confirmed that I needed to supplement and my heart broke as I watched my son hungrily guzzle that first small bottle of formula in her office. It’s been over five years since that day and I can still remember how hard I cried and can still feel the self-loathing as I realized that my body was simply not producing enough to meet my son’s needs. He was so hungry!
While I continued to work to increase my supply, I was embarrassed to feed my son formula in public. I fought the urge to tell strangers passing by that I was only giving him formula because I couldn’t successfully breastfeed. That I had nursed and pumped to exhaustion to increase my supply. That I had kept Excel spreadsheets with pumping schedules and amounts produced to track any possible progress. That I had consumed copious amounts of mother’s milk tea. That I had fed formula to my son at breast using a supplemental nursing system (SNS) in the hope that it would stimulate milk production. That I was trying so hard. And that I was failing miserably.
Over time, the mothers in my breastfeeding group and my lactation consultant helped me to both come to terms with my limitations and to celebrate my breastfeeding victories. I can proudly say that James received every drop of breastmilk that I was able to produce. By feeding him at breast with the SNS for months, I was able to firmly establish and preserve the breastfeeding bond, even when he wasn’t getting the complete nutritive benefits of being exclusively breastfed. Through his very last bottle of formula, James always snuggled as close as he could get to me and turned his head toward my breast with his mouth open, waiting for the bottle’s nipple to be placed in it. To me, that tender feeding relationship can be attributed to our early breastfeeding efforts.
I suspected that my supply issues were rooted in taking hormonal birth control too soon, at the advice of my doctor (who knew I was committed to breastfeeding). One of my greatest lessons learned was to to consult lactation specialists when it comes to breastfeeding questions or concerns, rather than relying solely on the advice of doctors or other medical providers. Lactation specialists are dedicated to maintaining a working knowledge of the most current, evidence-based lactation information available. It is unreasonable to expect that same level of expertise from other providers.
Given my struggles, I wanted to gain more knowledge about breastfeeding to increase my chances of being able to exclusively breastfeed any future children. Also wanting to be able to support other struggling mothers as others had supported me, I became a Certified Lactation Counselor in 2012. I felt that my own struggles and my experience with supplementing gave me a unique perspective when communicating with other mothers facing disappointment and frustration in their own breastfeeding journeys.
In June of 2014, I gave birth to my daughter Amelie. Labor and delivery were so much easier the second time around and I was cautiously optimistic that this time I’d be able to exclusively breastfeed my child. Despite her great latch and early indications that things might be going smoothly, it quickly became apparent that I was facing the same supply issues, even without the presence of hormonal birth control. Though I knew supply issues were possible, it still hit me hard and those first feelings of self-loathing returned.
I quickly began working with a lactation consultant at the military hospital where Amelie was born. I also reached out to my peer support network of friends and lactation counselors. After the initial heart-wrenching disappointment, I was able to set better boundaries in terms of deciding which measures I was willing to take to try to increase supply. With a three year old to take care of as well as a newborn, I simply couldn’t commit to all of the time-consuming measures I had taken when James was my only child. This time I decided against using the SNS, because it caused me more stress than I was willing to shoulder. I pumped with a hospital grade pump, put Amelie to breast frequently (while also supplementing with formula) and made some dietary changes. Despite these efforts, I was only able to minimally increase my supply and was not able to meet Amelie’s demand.
Again, I found that peer support helped me through the struggles and gave me perspective to recognize my victories. Though I wasn’t producing enough to exclusively breastfeed Amelie, I definitely was producing more with her than I had with James. And Amelie very much found comfort in her nursing. I established a feeding pattern with Amelie, in which I first bottle-fed her formula and then nursed her at every feeding. She almost always fell asleep at the breast…it was clearly her happy, comfortable and peaceful place. She continued to nurse until she was over a year old, even though she was primarily formula fed. In fact, I had to end our nursing relationship because of a surgery that I was having that wouldn’t allow me to continue nursing. Amelie is now over two years old and will still seek comfort by placing her hand on my breast!
The common thread in my breastfeeding journeys with both children, aside from the inability to exclusively breastfeed, is the importance of knowledgeable peer support. Mom2Mom provides a tremendous resource to military communities by fulfilling its mission to provide consistent, high-quality peer support. It is through Mom2Mom KMC that I earned my accreditation as a Certified Lactation Counselor. When I was asked to serve as Finance Director for Mom2Mom Global, I was excited to be able to use my business background to support the work of an organization whose mission is so close to my heart.
The challenges I have faced in breastfeeding were first glimpses at the parenting truth that things don’t always go as planned! And when they don’t, the importance of a strong support network can’t be overstated. I’m proud to be part of a global network of military mommas who are committed to supporting other military mommas achieve their personal breastfeeding goals.