Why my short breastfeeding journey isn’t a failure

Breastfeeding as a work-at-home mom can be hard but it's worth it

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The birth of my first son was traumatic. Nothing went as planned and he ended up being an assisted delivery. It killed me to let go of my perfect birth plan, but with time, I did.

Then we had trouble breastfeeding, and I won’t lie, it made me feel like a failure at times. 

He failed to latch right away after birth, which could be due to the traumatic birth. 

I can vividly remember my first pumping session in the hospital. I got only tiny drops of colostrum and thought something was wrong. The nurse reassured me that it was fantastic and encouraged me to go ahead and feed it to my little guy. So I did and for a moment I felt strong.

The first latch

A lactation consultant visited our hospital room 28 hours after birth and we finally succeeded. I’ll never forget my relief at the first time my son latched on and nursed directly from me. 

I felt triumph. I felt needed. I felt complete.

And then we got home and for some reason nursing without the lactation consultant watching was a different story. Everything hurt and getting him to latch again felt impossible at times. But then he would settle down and we would try again with success.

Two weeks in though I sat in the rocking chair at 4 a.m. begging my son to be done. Wasn’t a 20-minute nursing session enough for my sore, cracked nipples? I swore in that moment that this would be the last nursing session because I couldn’t do it.

A cry for help

Instead of quitting like I’d promised myself, I called and set up a lactation appointment for the next day. Until the appointment, I started pumping every three hours to keep up with my little guy. 

Thankfully, I had a great supply and had no problem satiating his huge appetite.

I walked into that lactation appointment still wearing my maternity pants and a feeling of defeat. The lactation consultant took one look and knew my son’s latch was too shallow. I questioned tongue tie because I knew my nipples didn’t look right after feeding. My concerns were waived off due to the shallow latch.

We latched, unlatched and re-latched to make sure I knew what I was doing when I went home. I felt confident walking out of there, but the burning sensation never went away. He was latching deep just like he should, but a week later I sat up at night with the same thoughts I had just wishing my little guy would be done nursing. 

I was done because this was just too painfully. I Googled how long it should take for the pain to go away countless times. Most women said it got better within two weeks and pain-free in four. It wasn’t getting better. It was getting worse.

I’m hard-headed though so I didn’t quit that day either. I went back to the lactation consultant when my son was three weeks old. His latch was indeed good, but I had a trifecta of problems that would take weeks to recover from.

A thrush-mastitis-abscess diagnosis

Bottles of pumped breastmilk is still breastfeeding
Bottles of pumped breastmilk is still breastfeeding!

The lactation consultant told me that the week prior she had suspected I had thrush but didn’t say anything and didn’t refer me to my provider. That’s what had caused the extreme pain while nursing, which gave me a huge aversion to nursing. 

The nursing aversion developed a plugged duct, which led to mastitis. To add one more pain to the whole situation, the undiagnosed mastitis then led to an abscess the size of a quarter right next to my nipple.

I asked again about the tongue tie still feeling strongly something wasn’t right. I was told once I got healed up, nursing would be great and not to worry about tongue tie.

Receiving the diagnosis sent me into a flurry of doctor’s appointments, medications and treatments. As I sat at the Kroger pharmacy waiting for one of those prescriptions, I bottle-fed my son pumped milk that I had meticulously planned out. I scheduled my doctor’s appointments around having time at home to pump in between the chaos.

And I got the dreaded question from a well-meaning spectator: “Why aren’t you breastfeeding? Breast is best you know?”

What that person didn’t know was that the abscess was so large it was close to impossible to latch my son. They didn’t know that I was in a living hell at the moment trying my best to make it all work. I don’t remember what I responded to that well-meaning person, but a part of me died inside at having to answer tough questions. I firmly believed my breastfeeding journey was about to end.

An 8-week pumping marathon

I visited breast specialists who asked about my breast “lump” as though I had cancer. I had ultrasounds, got poked and prodded and just prayed for the experience to end. Two weeks in, my doctor finally made the call that it was time to drain the abscess because it had grown.

The process was uncomfortable but provided some relief, for which I was grateful. My son was now a month old and had been direct fed so little compared to my grand plan and had so many bottles. The abscess continued to drain on its own for another two weeks; that’s how large it had been and the problems it caused.

The struggles with my trifecta diagnosis led me to pump nearly exclusively from when my son was two weeks old until he was 11 weeks old. Sometimes we would nurse from the non-abscess side when we were out and about, but I knew something was still wrong because it still hurt like heck even once the thrush and mastitis had healed.

Every day was a day I swore would be my last. I remember crying in the kitchen at 6 a.m. one morning as my husband got ready for work. I swore I was done. Then he got home that night after I’d watched YouTube videos on effective breastfeeding, and I was certain I’d figured out the key and would continue.

Finally getting a tongue tie diagnosis

Being a work-at-home mom doesn't mean you have to sacrifice breastfeeding

At my son’s 1-month appointment he had only gained 13 ounces from his birth weight. His doctor said it was because of my trifecta diagnosis and that things would get better. While I was grateful the doctor wasn’t pushing formula, I pressed the tongue tie question one more time.

His doctor said maybe there was a super slight tongue tie and left the decision up to me about whether or not I wanted the referral. I still felt strongly that something wasn’t right so I took the referral to the specialist.

It took a couple weeks to get into the ENT, all the while that pesky abscess was draining. At 6 weeks old, my son saw the ENT who said he indeed had a nasty tongue tie and a mild lip tie. A part of me felt justified and I remembered that as patients we have to be our own advocates.

The ENT recommended revising the tongue tie but leaving the lip tie because it wasn’t causing an issue from what they could see.

We were at Mass for All Saint’s Day that evening following the tongue tie release. I almost cried as I watched my son stick out his tongue for the first time. I’d never realized that he didn’t stick it out but now he looked like he was having fun doing it.

Starting to succeed

We nursed the non-abscess side in church, and it didn’t hurt. A well-meaning lady leaned over when my son started to fidget and said, “he wants the other side.” I could feel my cheeks go flush because I couldn’t nurse the other side still. I sort of half smiled and just turned my direction to the altar to avoid further conversation.

She approached me after Mass and told me she had breastfed all five of her babies for two years or more and knew baby’s feeding cues forward and backward. I thanked her for her help and told her we were still learning, knowing that she meant well but being still frustrated from with the comments from the peanut gallery who had no clue what lurked behind our breastfeeding woes.

Finally true success at four months

At 11 weeks postpartum, my trifecta of illnesses had finally healed enough to return to full direct feeding all the time. We started back with a nipple shield during some feedings because I couldn’t go back through the process of sore nipples as we toughened up.

For about a month and a half I worked to reduce pumping and reintegrate nursing slowly. Thankfully, my son hadn’t learned to prefer the bottle and he hadn’t forgotten how to nurse throughout our struggles. He took right back to it as if nothing had happened.

In that month and a half, I got down to just pumping morning and night and nursing for all other feedings. I wasn’t in the kind of pain I had been before, but it still wasn’t comfortable. At four months, I was ready to quit again but I felt like there were a few boxes I had to check before I did.

I had new insurance so I called the lactation help line there. I was greeted by the nicest nurse case manager I could have imagined. She offered so many tips and tricks and urged me to go to a lactation consultant again to get to a better place. I told her I was confident my son’s latch was deep, but she urged me not to try and self-diagnose.

Visiting lactation again

So I went to the lactation appointment to check those boxes so that I could say I had done all that I could. This time it was a different LC though and I have to say, I was surprised by the outcome. She evaluated my son’s latch and said yes, it was deep, but he didn’t use his lips correctly.

I was in the right place for what I was going through because she claimed to be passionate about lip placement after having a story much like mine. She taught me how to teach my son to use his lips correctly to avoid clamping down and causing plugged ducts, which was likely the cause of the mastitis and abscess (where had this lady been four months ago!).

When I got home, I felt better and I had an email from the nurse case manager at my insurance company inviting me to breastfeeding support group. I’d been anti-support group up to this point because I wanted answers and didn’t need to be around other moms going through the same things and frustrated like I was.

I went to the support group for my own benefit though to show I’d done it all before I quit. I was greeted with something so different though: great tips, reassurance that I was doing all the right things and resources to continue to improve our breastfeeding relationship.

Oversupply and bottle feeding

Baby drinking a bottle of breastmilk

Spoiler alert, I didn’t quit at four months like I had planned to and by five months I had stopped talking about quitting. We were in it now, and I could start to see a world where we breastfed until my son was a year old.

After pumping for so long though, I had overstimulated my body to make too much milk in my fear of being behind on production. Because of this, I never fully nursed exclusively because I was so engorged in the morning that I would pump 14 ounces for my son who ate only 4 ounces.

A part of me now after the fact realizes maybe I was too worried about getting thrush, mastitis and an abscess again to fight through the engorgement to regulate my supply. But in the moment, those fears were just too real to fight through.

The benefit of the oversupply was that over the course of the next several months, we helped many other moms reach their breastfeeding goals through breastmilk donation. 

Despite oversupply, we continued to breastfeed for six fairly uneventful months. He was highly distracted so when we went on trips or to parties, I generally ended up pumping in the car or bathroom for him because he just wouldn’t nurse.

As he got older, it got harder and harder to interest him in nursing, especially once he started crawling at nine months. Each session – even the ones at home – became a wrestling match. 

I started to develop a strong feeling that I wouldn’t have to wean my son. He would self-wean shortly after his first birthday, or thereabouts.

The last latch

While I was right about my son self-weaning early, I was wrong about the timeline. On August 8, when my son was 10.5 months old, I left my in-office, part-time job to become an entirely work-at-home mom.

I remember that last pumping session in the office mothers’ room and feeling so excited to pack up all the pump parts and finish out our nursing journey with only occasional bottles when I had to be away.

Little did I know this would be the last day my son would ever nurse. I don’t know the reason why, but after August 8, my son developed a very strong aversion to nursing. He would push away from me anytime I unlatched my bra.

His front gums were super swollen from getting teeth. I figured once those popped through, he would return to nursing. Two weeks later the teeth came through, but he still pushed away when I would try to nurse him.

For five weeks I still offered and tried to re-establish nursing. Then the day came when I tried putting my nipple in his mouth and he would just laugh. It was as though he didn’t remember what we’d done for months. 

Accepting the end of the journey

In that moment, I came to terms with the fact that he was done. While it was crazy early and I’m not sure I had been truly ready, he was. I think the hardest part for me was that I had no idea that the middle of the night nursing session on August 8 would be my last with my son. 

Maybe it’s better that way because I would have been a sentimental nut. There I would have been trying to somehow etch it all in my memory perfectly. And every mommy knows that’s impossible.

I proceeded to exclusively pump until his first birthday. Then I got down to morning and night pumping. I decided I would stop that once I got 3 ounces or less. I figured that would be a while since I was pumping 6 ounces consistently. 

But then a trip to the south and crazy heat mixed with being on my period changed everything and there I was, getting 2.5-3 ounces every session at just 13 months postpartum. So it was time to bid this phase of life goodbye.

All the feels

They say breastfeeding is a highly emotional journey. I would agree with that, but not all feelings are always positive, and that’s OK. That’s the thing I wish someone had told me sooner in my breastfeeding journey, but I probably would have needed to go to the support group sooner for that to happen!

I remember feeling sadness when I realized that August 8 was the last time my son would nurse.

That sadness returned again when I started mixing in cow’s milk with breastmilk to start the adjustment process.

Additionally, I know I’ll feel sad when I do my last pump session because I’ll no longer be a huge part of my son’s nutrition. And when I pull the final bag of frozen milk from the freezer, that will be an emotional day too because it will mark the end of our journey.

Even though he isn’t nursing, he needs me for completely different reasons. He needs because he has bonded to me as his friend, daily companion and protector. When he feels uncomfortable in a social setting, scared by something around him or not at his best, he’s right there at my feet needing me not because I’m nutrition but because I’m his mom. No amount of breastfeeding can change that.

To all the moms and dads, you’re doing great no matter how you feed your baby!

So, to the mommy (or daddy) feeding your little one, I’ll never judge you no matter what that feeding looks like from my outside perspective. 

Pull out that bottle of breastmilk, formula or even cow’s milk for your older children. Nurse your little one in public whether they’re easy to nurse while you’re out or not. From me, you’ll just get a reassuring smile or head nod because I’ve been there.

Realize that you’ll never know a mommy’s hidden struggle and never ask why they aren’t breastfeeding. That bottle might be filled with breastmilk, in which case they are breastfeeding! Or it might be filled with formula because that’s what’s best for mom and baby. 

And no matter how you feed your baby, know that you’re doing a great job! Nothing about the transition to parenthood is easy or simple. Be nice to yourself and don’t let anyone tell you that you aren’t amazing.

Helpful products that got me through breastfeeding

  • Boppy Original Nursing Pillow – throughout our struggles with finding the perfect latch, having a pillow that put him at just the right angle was a life saver. I never nursed without it when I was home.
  • Avent Natural Bottles – these are the bottles we used with my son starting at 2 weeks old. He always took them well and we never had to size up. Even though they’re marked for 4 ounces, you can actually fit 6 ounces in them. Plus, the infant slow flow nipple is all you need even when you child is older. You don’t want the bottle to be easier than nursing!
  • Medela Hand Pump – exclusively pumping is hard work and takes tons of prep. Having a hand pump in your car at all times is great. Plus, this saved me on some family outings where my son just wouldn’t nurse.
  • Freemie Liberty – this was a lifesaver. Because my body never regulated that early morning milk production, I pumped every morning using my Freemie. I couldn’t have loved it anymore! Plus, once I went to exclusively pumping when my son quit nursing, this made life so easy. I could pump and change a diaper, clean up dishes or be a work-at-home mom with ease. It isn’t cheap, but in my opinion, it’s so worth it! I even pumped in the stands at a football game without getting any weird looks one time!

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