When Breastfeeding Doesn’t Work … Again

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woman covering her face and self with handsI’m in the newborn season where life happens in two-hour intervals. Short stints of life occurring in between an around-the-clock cycle of feeds, diaper changes, pump, repeat. Despite the diligence of adhering to that exhausting rhythm coupled with my biggest hopes and all the optimism I carried, breastfeeding isn’t working out for me … again.

I had such struggles with breastfeeding my first daughter. She was a preemie and born so early she didn’t even know how to suck. She spent time on a feeding tube after birth so the actual act of breastfeeding was out of the question. I was exclusively pumping, but my supply was basically non-existent. The nurses told me stress (like the stress of being in the NICU) could impact milk supply and was reassured it would get better when we were home. I just needed to keep at it.

So I did. I kept at it, except it didn’t get better after we got home. Eventually I had to come to terms with the fact that this beautiful act of bonding between mother and baby that was was supposed to come naturally just wasn’t going to work out for us.

Calling it a disappointment would be an understatement, especially for a person like me: a “type A” achiever used to success. This was a failure. A failure on top of a failure. In my eyes, my body had already failed at being able to carry a baby full-term and it was failing again at doing yet another thing it was supposed to be designed to do.

Eventually I heard the phrase “fed is best” and it changed my course of thought. My daughter was growing, healthy, and loved. Looking at her now, you’d never know any of it – that she was a preemie, that she couldn’t eat, that she wasn’t breastfed. I’ve released the guilt of not being able to give her that, or so I thought.

When I got pregnant again, I was terrified I would have the same struggles I had the first time, yet inexplicably I didn’t. I was monitored closely and none of the issues I had with Kate presented themselves this time around. There was no bed rest, no cervical clamping procedures, no signs of preterm labor. I worked up until my scheduled c-section and had a beautiful baby girl who we were able to bring home two days later.

The doctors couldn’t really explain why things were different this time. I was told “every pregnancy is different” and the more I heard that, the more hopeful I became that things after the pregnancy would also be different – like breastfeeding. After all, this baby would be close to full-term (my scheduled c-section was at 36 weeks), she would know how to eat, and there would be no NICU stress. It might work this time.

Second Chance

I tried to reassure myself I would be okay if it didn’t work out. The baby would be okay just as her big sister had been. But all of that reassurance did little to diminish the actual blow of reality when the struggles started again just hours after birth.

There was nothing there for her. I knew instinctively she wasn’t getting anything and that she was going hungry. She would suck and suck and eventually fall asleep from the exhaustion of doing all that work for nothing. I started pumping right away after every feed to find only droplets. Multiple nurses and lactation consultants during each shift encouraged me to just keep trying and no one would provide a clear answer of when we would start formula.

Finally I had enough. I was convinced she hadn’t eaten since she was born over 18 hours ago and I asked the nurse for formula. She brought it in and Clara delightfully ate. It was such a relief to finally hear those delicate little sounds of a baby happily eating and burping.

After we came home I kept trying to make it work; I wasn’t ready to call it quits yet. I listened to the nurses and consultants and kept at it. I told myself I was only “supplementing” with formula, but it was so obvious she wasn’t getting what she needed from me.

It wasn’t long before I felt like I was only a slave to the pump. Already lengthy feedings were extended even more so by pumping sessions yielding only 2 to 3 milliliters at a time. The toll it was taking on my mind, my body, and quality of life was not worth the output.

I knew it was time to let go and so I did. I’m done breastfeeding and I’m done pumping. But that’s not to say that accepting it has been any easier the second time. I got my hopes up and it’s hard wrapping my mind around why it wouldn’t work yet again when everything else had been so different.

Conceptually, I understand these things happen sometimes. It’s nothing I did wrong. That it doesn’t make me less worthy or less of a mother. It doesn’t make me a failure. I understand that. I know I should give myself grace, count my blessings, and look on the bright side. Clara will be ok and that these feelings will pass.

But for now it sucks and that’s okay too.

Right now what I need is time. It’s a kindness to give yourself time; time to time to sit with the suckiness, to grieve, to process. I’m finding that’s what I need and that’s what is helping me through.

If you’ve struggled or are struggling with breastfeeding, you are not alone. I hope you’ll also give yourself the time you need and come out on the other side with a sense of peace. As always, feel free to reach out and share. There’s no shame in your story or your struggles.

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Eva lives in WDSM with her husband, Zack, and daughter, Kate (2019). She is a prosecutor with the Polk County Attorney's Office where she handles primarily child welfare cases. Outside of work, Eva enjoys recreating Pinterest recipes that are beyond her level of expertise, trying to find the perfect skincare routine, and buying way more on Amazon than she needs to. Eva shares openly about her experiences involving Zack's deployment, her high-risk pregnancy, Kate's NICU stay, and just about anything else you might care to ask about. She's a big fan of podcasts, personality tests, the Shark VacMop, and ordering her coffee "kid temp" at Starbucks. Connect with her on Instagram @evaateresaa

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