"You just don't make enough breast milk for your baby." It's the single worst sentence a breastfeeding mama can hear. Some women liken it to experiencing a death. I am one of those women.
During my pregnancy, I regularly envisioned breastfeeding my baby. I could picture her in my arms. I could feel her on my body. If there was one thing I knew for certain, it was that I would be breastfeeding my baby for as long as possible. It’s the most nutritious food. It provides antibodies and builds immunity. Breastfeeding my daughter went without question. I didn't even want her touching a bottle. I had no plans to pump. Formula was a dirty word.
But much to my surprise, breastfeeding didn't work as I had planned. I suffer from a chronically low supply, despite every effort to boost it, which causes repeated episodes of plugged ducts, mastitis and painful nipples.
While I was pregnant, a lot of women told me that breastfeeding was hard. But I didn't understand. It seemed like the simplest and most natural thing ever. How could it not work? What could be so hard? And for many women, breastfeeding comes incredibly easy. But for others, it can be an ongoing struggle.
When my daughter became severely dehydrated at eight weeks and started losing weight, I felt abandoned and alone. How did I not know how to prevent this? Why weren't there any warning signs that something was wrong with my supply? I remembered friends and family telling me that breastfeeding was difficult, but life threatening was a different story. No one told me that could happen, and so quickly.
I'm still breastfeeding my baby; that won't stop for a long while. But we've had to add in extra calorie sources to make it manageable. With the help of experts, I have learned a few things along the way that I hope can help some other mothers dealing with breastfeeding issues:
1. Listen when people tell you that it's hard! This was my first mistake—assuming that all would go incredibly well 100 percent of the time. Straight away, my daughter took to the breast like a champ, but I wasn't aware of what to look for, nor was I even remotely prepared to deal with it once we realized we had an issue. Listen, especially if other family members have experienced supply issues. It may also happen to you.
2. Trust your intuition: I knew something was wrong long before I said anything to my partner. I could just feel that our daughter wasn't eating enough even though I had no proof. She's generally a happy and mellow baby. I never leaked or felt my milk let down either--and that also made it more difficult to tell if she was getting milk. Ultimately, it was a hunch I had that alerted me to her dehydration and weight loss.
3. Prepare for the best and worst: You have enough on your plate with a newborn, and I don't like sounding like a downer, but seriously, preparation is everything. Read, talk to your doctor, attend a La Leche League meeting while you're pregnant so you're prepared to feed your baby. And likewise, if you at least know what the worst case scenario will look like, you'll be better at handling it. That may mean having some bottles and formula on hand just in case. Or access to donated breast milk.
4. Take care of your body: It's really simple: if you're stressed, unhealthy, unfed, exhausted and dehydrated, your milk suffers. As a new mom, you will likely be all of those things at one point or another (and usually all at the same time). It's really important that your partner or caregiver knows how to take care of you first and foremost so that your baby will be well fed. It won't work any other way. You have to be healthy and rested.
5. Get help: A baby with a good latch is off to a good start. And you might not feel like you need any assistance. But latch problems can develop over time. You may not have the best feeding position. Your baby may not properly drain the breasts. You may simply not be reading your baby's cues and feeding her often enough. Or you may be having your own struggles healing from birth, a case of post partum, etc. Getting a consultation from a professional can help to prevent mismanagement of feeds and better establish a healthy breastfeeding routine for you and your baby.
6. Don't fear the bottle: I feared it. I rejected it. But had I introduced my daughter to a bottle early on, when I needed to give her pumped milk later, it would have been much easier. Experts recommend introducing the bottle by five weeks. That doesn’t mean you use it daily. Or fill it with formula. But just orienting your child to it can really be a lifesaver. There are some really high quality bottles out there.
7. Don't fear the pump: This was another mistake I made early on. I didn't like the idea of pumping out my milk like a poor, tethered dairy cow. I wanted my daughter to drink my milk all on her own. But when dealing with a feeding crisis, I needed to pump in between feeds to pull more milk for her. The stress and newness of pumping made it so much more difficult to use when I needed it most. Had I been using it already, I would have had a less difficult time with it during the crisis.
8. Research the herbs and foods that boost breast milk: You may or may not need support. Herbs like fenugreek can help boost a low supply and keep a strong supply flowing. So can foods like raw oats. It certainly doesn't hurt to incorporate these into your diet. And likewise, know what can inhibit supply. During a feeding crisis I was drinking a lot of peppermint tea and eating peppermint chocolate. Peppermint is known to decrease milk! I felt devastated when I learned I could have been depleting my milk by even an ounce.
9. Embrace supplementation: I don't say this lightly. We did everything we could to avoid formula. But we're lucky to have access to it in this country. At the suggestion of our lactation consultant and doctor, we added solids at four months—earlier than I would have liked—and they made a difference in getting our daughter's weight up. What's best for your baby might not be what you envisioned, but you can always keep breastfeeding while supplementing.
10. Don't panic! I completely panicked. I had meltdowns. I cried like someone died. It was cathartic. If you need a good cry, go for it. But panicking over whether or not your child will get enough to eat is pointless. She will be fed. Like I said about supplementing—we live in a land of plenty. And even though breast milk alone may not be enough for your growing baby, it can always be a healthy part of your growing child's diet.
11. Cherish what you have: Whether or not breastfeeding exclusively is an option for you and your baby, make whatever feeding ritual you have a bonding experience. Your baby will value that time with you whether it's on the breast, a bottle or a spoon. It's still one of the best ways to connect with your child. If you're all distraught over it not being what you want, your child will feel that. Embrace what you have and make the most of each moment. They only last so long.
Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger
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Image: Cristiana Gasparatto