On Nursing

After failing to quit drinking Diet Coke throughout my pregnancy I was already fairly well-acquainted with Motherguilt, but now that I’m formula feeding my baby as opposed to nursing, I’m pretty much an expert on it.

Logically I know it’s not my fault (though here I realise even the word “fault” implies that there is something wrong with not nursing, and I fully believe that women should be allowed to choose to nurse or *not* to nurse without feeling guilty; but I also believe that breastfeeding is scientifically, medically healthier for babies and I personally wanted to make it happen for our baby [once again stressing that I don’t profess to judge women who choose otherwise]). I tried to nurse. My body didn’t make enough milk to sustain my baby.

When Hutch was four days old he stopped having wet diapers and became very lethargic and difficult to wake, and I panicked. I called the health hotline (available 24 hours a day here in Alberta) and the nurse on the other end of the line recommended we take him to see a doctor.

Hutch One Week

We took him. The doctor here in Mayberry recommended we feed him formula—just a tiny bit until my milk came in—and referred me to a lactation doctor in the bigger city about 30 minutes away from us. My appointment with her was a week later.

Kyle and I rushed to the pharmacy here in Mayberry to buy a small supply of formula. We decided to splurge on the pre-mixed liquid kind because we wouldn’t be using very much for very long, and we felt entitled to all the convenience we could get during those early days. Every three hours I nursed Hutch for 15 minutes—timed!—per side and followed up with a one-ounce bottle of formula. I felt the tension melt away when he started peeing again.

I kept waiting for the horrible breast engorgement I’d read about, but it never happened. My breasts sometimes felt a little fuller or heavier than normal, but never even remotely swollen or hard.

The lactation doctor recommended we clip his frenulum, which might be preventing him from latching successfully and getting enough milk. She gave me extremely helpful pointers on positioning (the best tips I got out of probably seven or eight doctors and nurses I’d seen since the moment Hutch was born). She wrote me a prescription for Motilium, a drug that’s not even legal in the US. She got me started on the maximum dosage for Fenugreek and Blessed Thistle supplements (16 of each per day…you read that right: 32 total herbal supplement pills per DAY). Start eating more oatmeal, she said, which I did for every breakfast for three months [and I hate oatmeal]. She recommended I rent or buy a breast pump and begin pumping after every.single.feeding. I had to trick my body into thinking it was making milk for twins. She gave me a recipe for lactation cookies and told me to quadruple my water intake. When my nipples got dry and cracked she wrote me a prescription for the end-all of nipple creams, the kind you can’t get over the counter. She suggested I buy this (ridiculously expensive) bottle to trick him into thinking he was breastfeeding when he was actually taking formula, which would supposedly help him to keep taking the breast. Make sure to eat a balanced diet, she said. Try raspberry leaf tea, too. Then I got thrush, but because I was already taking Motilium I could not take the other drug to treat thrush (at least not without an EKG from the hospital to verify that my heart could handle it—scary!), so I had to go the old-fashioned way and treat it with gentian violet. Also had to buy probiotics both for Hutch and for me, but no, not the cheap kind you can get at any pharmacy, they had to be the $60/bottle kind that only came refrigerated at the hippie health food store.

Aftermath of our gentian violet treatment. If you think this is bad you shoulda seen my nipps.
Aftermath of our gentian violet treatment. If you think this is bad you shoulda seen my nipps.

I did it all. I did it all without questioning.

Week after week I dragged my postpartum self out of bed and into the bigger city for our appointments. We weighed Hutch naked without a diaper and then we weighed him with one. Then I nursed him and we weighed him again. Week after week I sat there praying that *this* time he’d gotten enough to subsist on without having to supplement with formula.

One ounce here. Two there. But it was never enough.

I pumped like a dairy farmer, and the dejection after each measly bottle made me feel worse each time. Why couldn’t I just make enough to feed my baby?

We’d long since run out of those first few cans of formula. I started thinking it might be better to buy the cheaper powder kind, since this formula supplementing nonsense might take a little longer than I expected. We still bought the name brand stuff though. Surely it was worth it since it would only be a while longer.

At the peak of my milk production I got 80 mL (2.7 ounces) into my baby. That was at a time when he needed at least 110 mL per feeding.

Everybody touts how cheap it is to breast feed as opposed to formula feed. Here is how much it cost me to try (unsuccessfully) to breast feed:

$450 breast pump
$192 herbal supplements ($12/bottle of Blessed Thistle and Fenugreek, 4 bottles/month for 4 months)
$120 probiotics
$80 eight different refills of Motilium prescriptions (after insurance)
$50 random ingredients for over 8 batches of lactation cookies
$50 fancy “breastfeeding” nipples for formula supplementing
$35 More Milk Plus liquid supplement
$30 three different refills for prescriptions of Newman’s Nipple Cream (after insurance)
$20 extra pump shields to see if a different size might increase production
$20 raspberry leaf tea
$15 nursing pillow (used from Craigslist)
$10 gentian violet
$1,072 estimated total

And that’s not counting all the formula we had to buy on *top* of this because none of the above allowed me to produce enough to keep him alive on breast milk alone. I don’t even want to estimate that cost. It makes me too sad. (But because I’m a masochist I looked it up: the average formula-fed baby costs between $1,138 and $1,188 to feed for the first year according to this website).

Despite all this, I kept trying. I was encouraged by an article I read on Kellymom that basically said “If you simply can’t produce a drop, that’s one thing, but there’s no such thing as underproduction. If you can produce milk at all, you should be able to produce enough for your baby by following XYZ tips.” I followed them. Still not enough.

I read somewhere else that having thyroid problems might affect milk supply. Hypothyroidism runs in my family and though I’d already been tested for it, I went to get re-tested just in case. The blood work came back negative.

One week I even felt that Hutch seemed quite satisfied after each breastfeeding session so I cut out his formula supplements altogether for a few days, reasoning that even if it was a few millilitres shy, my body would supply more if I didn’t hinder the demand by giving him formula. I genuinely believed that at last I was producing enough. At my next lactation doctor’s appointment his weekly weight gain was so low that my doctor immediately asked me what I’d done differently and reprimanded me (gently) for making that choice. I felt horrible for semi-starving my baby.

When Hutch started refusing the breast almost completely at around 4 months old something snapped in me. I couldn’t keep riding this milk supply roller coaster. I started feeding Hutch full bottles of formula. Instead of considering the formula a supplement to my breast milk, I changed my mentality; formula was now the main food source and breast milk was supplementary. I still believed that whatever little bit of breast milk I could get into him was beneficial, but stressing about it anymore was simply not worth my time or energy. I had done everything I could. I had given it my all. I was a first time mother of a happy healthy baby and I needed all the energy I could muster to keep him—and me—that way. I was done wasting my time in lactation’s pit of despair.

That was when I started buying generic formula. In bulk.

But even though it’s been three months since I essentially gave up on breast feeding (I still nurse before every bottle possible but it’s only about five minutes total before the ol’ milk bags run dry, and there’s only one position he will nurse in [laying down next to me in bed, which isn’t exactly feasible when we’re out and about]), I still wonder what I could have done differently.

Of all the books, blogs and articles I read before giving birth, it never occurred to me to research breastfeeding. I was so consumed with how I would get him here I never thought to research how I would keep him alive once he was born. Despite hearing how painful it might be, and despite how badly the thought of nursing creeped me out, I assumed I would breast feed mainly because I was cheap and didn’t want to have to buy a bunch of formula. But I never considered that I wouldn’t succeed at nursing. So I never read about it.

And now that I have, I feel angry at myself for dropping that ball. What if we hadn’t given Hutch a pacifier his first night in the hospital? (Now that I’ve researched it I know we should have waited until at least a month to introduce it [although I did ask my ob-gyn when she came to check up on us in the recovery room and she said she always used pacifiers right from the start and never had problems, so at least I tried to be a little educated.]) What if I hadn’t let him sleep for seven hours that one night? What if I’d walked around topless for a week and let him latch on every single time he squawked? What if I drank 8 litres of water a day instead of 4? What if I pumped triple the recommended amount? What if I just stayed hooked up to the pump all day and all night? What if what if what if?

But I didn’t, and no amount of money we threw at the problem could buy me a better milk supply.

I have a feeling this will be just the first of a long history of parenting lessons for me, the moral of which will probably be: You Can’t Control Everything. You Can’t Even Control A Little Bit of Things. Not Your Body. Not Your Baby. Not Anything With Even the Remotest Mind of Its Own, Like the Weather or Your WiFi Connection. And the Sooner You Accept This Fact the Sooner You Can Move on With Your Life and Attempt to Find Some Semblance of Peace With the Way Things Are.

Because at the end of the day that’s all anyone can do.

So Motherguilt, be damned.

About Camille

I'm Camille. I have a butt-chin. I live in Canada. I was born in Arizona. I like Diet Dr. Pepper. Hello. You can find me on Twitter @archiveslives, Facebook at facebook.com/archivesofourlives, instagram at ArchivesLives, and elsewhere.
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3 Responses to On Nursing

  1. Alicia says:

    Your dedication to nursing really impresses me! I love that you wrote this for us all to read. How brave of you! I think we are all experts in mommy guilt and struggle with our decisions. Best wishes in formula and nursing world. You are doing a great job.

  2. anna says:

    You forgot a maybe… maybe you could have kept trying to do all this for a few more months and driven yourself to a crazy house, leaving PK without a wife and little Hutchie without a mom. :) I am a BIG fan of nursing. But when my best friend had twin boys the month after I had Clara and she stopped nursing because it was making her crazy, I told her a mother’s sanity is more important.

    Also, I kind of hate it when doctors act like all kids should grow and gain weight at the same pace. Perhaps that’s not what you experienced, but my doctor kept telling me to supplement with Clara because she was in the 90th percentile for weight at birth and she didn’t gain weight fast so that steadily dropped. But she was happy, healthy and alert. There was nothing wrong with her and so I didn’t supplement – I view doctor’s suggestions as advice, not commands.

    Sounds like you did your best and that, my friend, should leave you guiltless. :)

  3. Geneva says:

    Way to try so hard! I know I wouldn’t have been able to handle all that. I’m proud of you. I think it’s important to remember most French babies are formula fed, therefore it must be fine :)

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