On breastfeeding.

(I should probably warn you: there is some rather graphic information in this post related to my troubles with breast feeding. Proceed with caution.)

From the moment I found out I was pregnant, for me it was a forgone conclusion that I would breast feed. The information about the positive benefits of breast feeding floating out in the ether is so pervasive these days that, even though I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about having kids, I was very aware that breast feeding was, by far, the most beneficial thing you can offer your baby in their first year of life. I even had a negative vibe towards formula – somewhere, somehow, that opinion seeped into my subconscious and lodged there, emerging in full force when I got pregnant with the twins.

So I get pregnant, and assume I’m going to breastfeed – no question. Then I find out I’m pregnant with twins. Still: breastfeeding, for sure. No one ever told me that it might be more challenging with twins. Hell, no one told me that it might be challenging, period, no matter how many babies you had. None of the books I read mentioned anything negative about breast feeding. My OB never advised me of the challenges. My sister-in-law, who had four babies, had never had issues with breast-feeding – no one I knew had. Which is to say that I was completely unprepared for the difficulties I faced immediately upon trying to breastfeed the twins.

I had an emergency c-section because Jack had suddenly lost a great deal of amniotic fluid; add that to the fact that his growth had slowed down and you had a very nervous OB team. Immediately following the surgery I had an adverse reaction to the spinal and was throwing up every thirty minutes for about eight hours. The babies were in the NICU immediately – I had no contact with them whatsoever in the day following the surgery. About 24 hours after the c-section a nurse in the NICU asked me if I had started pumping yet and I thought, oh, yeah, I’m supposed to be breastfeeding, aren’t I? Right. Better get on that. I had no idea how to use a breast pump, so we asked for the lactation consultant to come by my room. As it turns out, there was only one lactation consultant for the entire hospital, so it was another 8-12 hours or so before she made it to us.  In showing me how to use the pump, she immediately noticed that my milk ducts were clogged – there were lumps all over in both breasts. She had to work for about thirty minutes, massaging so hard that it brought tears to my eyes. There was rarely a day from that point forward that I didn’t have at least one clogged duct, usually multiple clogs. I don’t know if it was because I was resorting solely to pumping or not. I tried breastfeeding — the lactation consultant helped me get Jack to latch on — but I ran into roadblocks there. Some of the nurses were wonderfully accommodating and encouraged me to try to breastfeed while the twins were in the NICU; but there were others who told me that the energy the twins would extend trying to access the breast would counter any nutritional value of the milk they would actually take in. Once I heard that theory there was no way I was going to try and train them to breastfeed — we were trying to fatten them up as fast as possible and if that meant pumping instead of breastfeeding, I was willing to do it.

Once we got home, we paid for a wonderful lactation consultant to come to our apartment to try and get the breastfeeding back on track. She was amazing, and patient, and was successful in getting both babies to latch on to the breast. It seemed like we were on the right path, but the next day, when I tried to breastfeed Jack, it hurt so bad I couldn’t do it longer than 45 seconds at a time. It took two days before I was willing to try it again, the nipple was so sore, and this second time it hurt even worse. The LC had commented on his “barracuda” latch and the best I can guess is that when she came to help, he had already had a few ounces prior to breastfeeding, so he wasn’t very hungry and wasn’t latching on so tightly. I think I could have breastfed Emme, but I couldn’t stand the thought of breastfeeding one while I was pumping for the other. (I knew that when Jack got in trouble in 9th grade for skipping class yet Emme was a star student I would blame it on breastfeeding vs. pumping. I’m a freak that way.) So I decided that I would solely pump.

In addition to, or perhaps because of, the chronic clogged ducts, I had trouble with milk supply. I did a ton of research and tried everything I read about on the Internet: oatmeal, fenugreek, hot showers, looking at photos of the babies while I pumped (if they were awake, Justin would sometimes hold them sitting next to me so I could be with them while I pumped), etc. For a while I was pumping every two hours. I rarely got to feed the babies myself; either Justin or Mom (or both) would feed them while I sat in the back room and pumped. I missed out on a lot of bonding time while I was doing this, but I know it was my choice. I know there was a chance that I could have toughened myself up and breastfed Jack, but I was recovering from the surgery, struggling with mild post-partum depression, and generally feeling overwhelmed…pumping was all that I could handle at the time. That didn’t stop me from feeling really guilty, though, and every time someone suggested that the low milk supply might be because I was solely pumping, I felt the guilt mounting. Justin was so excited one day because the twins were eating more and more on a daily basis and I burst into tears — I knew my supply couldn’t keep up with their demand and I knew we were going to have to start supplementing with more and more formula. I felt like such a failure.

The clogs were getting worse, and I couldn’t find anything about how to avoid them on the Internet. My doctor didn’t offer any helpful advice, either, other than saying, “Just stop. Why are you trying so hard? It’s not that big a deal. I didn’t breastfeed.” She offered this helpful advice when I went in with what she called the “worst case of mastitis” she had ever seen. One entire side of my breast was flaming red and hot to the touch, I had a raging temperature, and I felt like I had been beaten with a baseball bat. The antibiotics knocked out the worst of it within 48 hours but I lived in fear that I would get it again. I started taking hot baths and showers before pumping (so hot that my skin was flaming red afterwards, much like a lobster) which took even more time away from the babies and kept me from sleeping even the small amount I was getting (nothing like a hot shower at 4 am to rock you right to sleep).  I took Lecithin, after I read that it was a miracle worker for clogged ducts. I massaged my breasts repeatedly. I was constantly sore. I couldn’t even think about wearing a bra and sometimes even the loose shirts I wore hurt.

I was miserable.

In February, I decided that I was going to stop. I started doing research on how to wean. And that’s when I realized how unsupportive other women can be on the subject of breastfeeding. I found posts from a woman who was suffering from crippling depression because her anti-depressant medication was not compatible with breastfeeding; she wanted help on weaning so that she could go back to the only medication that had helped her stay emotionally healthy. She was advised to tough it out, that it was selfish to put her needs above her baby’s. I found a post from a woman who had just been diagnosed with cancer and was preparing to wean for her chemotherapy treatments. Women asked her if she had considered putting off the cancer treatment until she had breastfed her baby at least a year. I found a site that offered advice on weaning that was meant ONLY for women who were weaning for the “right” reasons which, according to this website, included the sudden death of an infant. Discussions on breastfeeding on the Internet are rife with comments like this one: “But if you cannot handle the challenges of breastfeeding, how equipped are you to be a great mom?  Sure, many kids survive (thrive even) formula feeding.  They also survive absentee parenting, abuse, neglect and other charming parenting styles.  Children are resilient for sure, but shouldnt we as mothers want the best for our children, not simply the easiest?” (By the way, that comment aside, which was left by a reader and not the author, I found that to be a pretty thoughtful blog post in which the author says that she feels frequently judged for breastfeeding — apparently, women are equal-opportunity judges on this issue.) The worst blow for me was when I found a thread on my beloved Twinstuff.com forum where a crazy fight broke out and a woman opined that formula should be by prescription only, and doctors should determine whether a mother actually had a good reason for not breastfeeding before allowing her to purchase formula for her baby. The thought that these kind women, who had never judged me for the ridiculous questions I peppered them with on a regular basis, might think I was a bad person for trying to wean crushed me.

I just don’t understand this divide, and I think the biggest irony of this situation is that these women who feel so free to judge those of us who are not breastfeeding probably consider themselves open-minded, supportive people — except on this issue, where something along the way has given them permission to impose their strong views on me. I think we can all agree that breastfeeding is the best way to feed your infant. But after we agree on this one fact there are thousands of reasons why it might not work out for a new mom. I think the more rabid arm of the pro-breastfeeding movement has decided that the best course of action towards making breastfeeding more prevalent is to act as though it’s ALWAYS easy and ALWAYS successful, when that is not the case.  Had I been emotionally prepared for setbacks, I might have been able to handle it better. Instead, everything I read and researched made it seem like it was a personal failing of my own. And to reach the very difficult, guilt-ridden decision to quit, and to be met with such hostility — while subsisting on three hours of sleep a night, working through PPD, and learning how to care for two infants — did nothing to make my sympathetic to their cause.

Though I tried to wean in February, it was another two months before I was able to successfully do it. I had that bout of mastitis almost immediately after I started reducing my pumps and to thoroughly get rid of that meant increasing pumps again for a while; my fear of another round of mastitis kept me from going very quickly along the weaning process. Plus, the clogs were happening after every pump at that point; I was pumping in the bathroom, so that I could take a hot shower, sit on the edge of the tub, and pump as I held a scalding hot washcloth against the breast I wasn’t pumping (though we had rented a top-of-the-line double pump, at that point I could only do one breast at a time because of this routine, thereby doubling my pumping time).  I pumped for the last time on April 30th, a little over 4 months after having the babies. Originally, the bare minimum I intended to breast feed was six months; I had not even been able to reach that modest goal. It was astounding to me how optimistic and excited I had been about breastfeeding, versus what it had become in my life: one of the most miserable, painful, demoralizing experiences I had ever had, and one that made me look at other women with babies and wonder what they would think of what I saw as my miserable failure.

This post sat in my draft folder for about 6 weeks, while I struggled to figure out what  I really want to say about this. I almost didn’t post because I’m not really saying anything new; it’s all been said before, in that kind of “can’t we all just get along” vein of rah-rah motherhood. But on the off chance that there is a mom out there, googling at 3 am how to handle perpetually clogged milk ducts, or who needs to wean early for whatever reason, I’ll say this: Read this article. It’s a pretty even-handed account of the various studies done and the facts about the benefits of breast feeding. When you get to the part where it talks about the study that determined that there might be a slight increase in IQ between breastfed and formula fed babies, consider this: you know that really judgy mommy in your life who is criticizing you stopping? Or that really hateful poster on your discussion board who equates formula feeding with child abuse? Their baby may have 7.5 more IQ points than your baby. But you can give your baby something theirs will not have: a childhood with a mother who is supportive, kind, open-minded, giving, and willing to help other mothers in distress. Because, apparently, compassion is not one of the magic ingredients in breast milk.

Oh, I’m sorry, did that sound judgmental?


Shirl - December 14, 2011 - 5:29 pm

Hi Lara Jo! Congrats on your new blog. A little birdie told me it was here.
This post will probably help lots of new mothers. I like how you think.

stasia - December 14, 2011 - 6:18 pm

holy crap! you are such an excellent story teller. (a little TMI for this non breeder;)) but excellent info and an intriguing story as well… great work!

katie - December 15, 2011 - 8:34 am

I cringe at the reminder of the “barracuda” latch, which Danielle had. I remember CRYING through those first feedings, swearing she had teeth 🙂

And if Ja

katie - December 15, 2011 - 8:35 am

… to finish that sentence…

And if Jack does gets in trouble in 9th grade for skipping class, just blame Justin 🙂

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