“Your baby is starving,” my midwife told me.
It was three days post-partum. My nipples had bled and scabbed over from a voracious baby with a poor latch frantically searching for food I couldn’t provide. Large at birth, Alice had lost 12% of her birth weight which made everyone panic. In my exhaustion and inexperience, and my concern for this tiny creature I immediately couldn’t imagine my life without, we did what we were told.
Every three hours, we woke the baby from her slumber and I nursed her while my husband Ryan tried to keep her awake long enough to take in some food – cold washcloths on her body, jiggling her arm, blowing on her neck. Then he’d tape a soft tube on his finger and feed her formula while I pumped meagre amounts of milk. When we were done, we’d collapse into bed to sleep for 60-90 minutes before the alarm rang to do it all again.
I studied YouTube videos about the best breastfeeding holds and maximizing milk output when pumping. There were tears – mine and the baby’s. One sleep deprived night, only 20 minutes after we’d gone to bed, I got up in a daze and started pumping again. After several minutes I awakened fully and realized I was on the wrong task.
In the second week, we visited a hospital breastfeeding clinic. “Your baby is starving,” they said. It’s not something any parent wants to hear once, but to hear it again is more than demoralizing, it’s downright terrifying.
“She needs to gain at least 20 grams a day. If she doesn’t gain by the end of this week she needs to see a pediatrician.”
I worried someone would take my baby away from me. Despite doing everything we were told, we had a baby who was more interested in sleeping than eating, and even when she ate, it just didn’t work that well.
At four weeks, she was diagnosed with a lip and tongue tie – both relatively common conditions where the tissue connecting the lip and tongue to the mouth is too tight and limits movement. I couldn’t bring myself to let the doctor cut her mouth with scissors.
“I’d rather give her bottles,” I told Ryan defiantly.
It was still early, when I thought our problems were short-term and would work themselves out. As the weeks wore on, and things didn’t get better, I began to second guess my decision. We finally went through with it when she was three months old.
I spent my pregnancy planning a beautiful, natural childbirth. I refused to be afraid of labour. When the baby was born, my husband would happily catch her, lift her to my chest, and she’d immediately feed. It never occurred to me that breastfeeding would be a problem. But it hadn’t occurred to me I’d end up with a C-section either.
I sometimes feel jealous of friends whose babies eat well, their chubby, well-fed bodies falling into deep, milk-drunk sleeps. Then I feel guilty for envying their success. It’s not that I don’t want it for them, I just want it more for me. We consulted five different lactation consultants. My milk never came in the way it was supposed to; I take 34 pills a day – a mix of herbs and prescription medication to increase supply. I still can’t make enough to breastfeed exclusively.
Our feedings have gradually improved, from supplementing or even replacing every meal with bottles, to making it through most days with just one or two bottles. But when she’s tired or grumpy, or going through a growth spurt that I can’t keep up with, the baby’s angry screams demand easier access to food. Even after all I’ve done, all the work I’ve put in, every time she rejects the breast an immense wave of failure washes over me. I think maybe this time is really it, maybe she’s giving up. But the next day is new again, she nurses as if nothing has happened, and I continue in limbo between bottle and breastfeeding.
I’ve wanted to quit so many times, but I can’t let go. I’ve set deadlines for myself. Just one more week. I just need to make it to two months, then I can quit. Just get to three months and that will be enough.
The anxiety caused by not being able to feed your child is tremendous. I pack more jars of formula than I know I will need on each outing because I never know if she’ll nurse. I fear getting stuck in an elevator or on the subway with a baby who won’t accept the food that is right in front of her, instead choosing to wail inconsolably like she has done so many times before. Though her weight gain is slow, but acceptable, I worry that she lives in a constant state of being a little bit hungry and I wonder if my determination to continue has been a selfish act.
“It’s just food” people tell me as a show of support. But it’s not just food. Nothing in parenting is that straightforward. It’s a cultural demonstration of “good parenting.” It’s the “natural” way to feed your child. And the pressure feels almost overwhelming.
As a recent Washington Post article perfectly put it: “The professional guidelines are based on good science. But for many new mothers, the recommendations carry the force of a threat: if I don’t breastfeed, my child is more likely to get sick; if I don’t breastfeed, my child won’t be as smart; if I don’t breastfeed, I’m not a good mother.”
Alice is five months old now and we’re still at it. She’s had the benefit of breast milk at least some of the time, and on a good day it is so satisfying to provide for her. But I’m not sure I’d do it again. I have no regrets, but breastfeeding added an enormous amount of stress in our lives at an already stressful time. Breast may be best, but some bodies just don’t do what they are supposed to.