Breast is best. Fed is best. These are two phrases that any woman who has had a baby has heard. I grew up knowing breastfeeding is the best way to feed a baby. My mom successfully breastfed both of her babies and is still an advocate for breastfeeding. When I had my first baby there was no question as to how I would feed him. In fact, instead of the warm-fuzzy-Hollywood moment I expected when seeing my baby for the first time, I was preoccupied with having that golden successful breastfeeding within the first hour after he was born. He was a pro and it was easy (after the first few weeks). While I had doubts in my mind as to whether we were doing this right, he was gaining weight beautifully, I was dropping pounds with zero effort, and everyone was happy.
Then came my second baby. I was no longer anxious about making breastfeeding work. I had done it before and it was no problem. And for the first few months, my daughter lived the same breastfed life as her big brother. When she was five months old my Mom told me that my daughter looked like she had lost weight. I have seen that girlie every day of her life, so I did not notice the little daily changes that had been happening for the three weeks prior to my mom’s discovery. But upon further examination, it was clear that my daughter had lost weight.
In fact, she had lost a good three pounds in just three weeks. We took her to the hospital, not sure what was wrong, but knowing she needed help. We spent six days there. Blood was drawn, tests were performed, and we were admitted as we awaited results. There were many horrific reasons as to why my baby could have lost weight and a few options that were easily fixed. I was told to pump, just to be sure my milk supply was adequate. Twenty minutes later I started crying; I had barely pumped an ounce of breastmilk. While I struggled to accept that her weight loss was because of my low milk supply, it at least ruled out life-threatening problems for my daughter.
Because of the weight loss, my daughter needed to start off with three ounces every feeding, and then increase the amount every week. We went from a baby who slept 11 hours every night to one who needed to be awakened every three hours, day and night, to be fed. And I could not even produce one-third of what she needed. I was an exhausted, emotional mess.
Formula. My exclusively breastfed baby now required formula. I asked about donated breastmilk, but in my area, it was exponentially more than I could afford and insurance would not pay for it once we were home. A speech therapist helped analyze my girl’s tongue, her swallow, her suck. A lactation consultant tried to help me build up my supply. A team of 15 doctors worked with my daughter to get her weight back up. She refused a bottle and swatted at anyone daring enough to try to give her one, so a feeding tube had to be placed down her nose and into her tummy because she had to have calories. Those calories would come in the form of the tiny amount of breastmilk I could pump and the rest from formula.
I wrestled with both gratitude that we had another option and disdain for the formula being shoved into my baby’s stomach. I thought about my husband’s great-grandfather going door-to-door in his neighborhood begging lactating women to feed his daughter after his wife suffered from postpartum depression (then called a nervous breakdown). I was so glad my husband would not have to beg our neighbors to nurse my baby. I was mad that my daughter’s life depended on powder manufactured in a lab and that I was no longer enough for my girl.
You see, giving up nursing felt like part of my identity had been ripped from me without my consent. I had turned my nose up at women mixing formula for decades, promising that my future babies would only have the good stuff. I had rolled my eyes when women told me breastfeeding did not work out for them after a few days of trying. And now, this precious gift I wanted to give my baby was gone.
Now I am that mother shaking up formula in the middle of a restaurant. It turns out that my thyroid went into hyper-drive at the same time that my daughter was fighting a virus. The only reason anyone can come up with for why my milk supply dropped to one-third of what she needed is that these two things combined led to a less-enthusiastic nurser — with no way for me to know. Then when the demand decreased, so did my supply. I am doing everything possible to get my body back to producing what my daughter needs, but after a month, my supply has not increased a milliliter. There may come a day when I stop the pumping every three hours, doing the extra dishes, drinking the nasty supplements, and eating the dry, dry, dry lactation cookies (all while parenting a 3-year-old and a six-month-old).
Please, learn from my mistake. The next time you see a mom whip out a can of formula and bottle, hold back your judgment. Some people are truly heartbroken that exclusively breastfeeding is no longer an option for them. While I used to roll my eyes every time I heard “fed is best,” now I am nothing but grateful that my daughter can get the nutrition her life requires. It still hurts that I cannot fully supply that nutrition, but it has changed my perspective drastically. I believe that every woman should give breastfeeding an honest try. There are no dishes to wash, bottles to pack, measurements to make, and there’s no special water to buy — nor the great expense to breastfeeding. But please, before you judge another mom with formula, remember the people like me and be thankful she can still feed her baby.