I’m a lactation counselor. And while some people might have a heart-touching story about what landed them in the career they’re in, my story is different.
I decided to help moms breastfeed after my horrendous experience trying to breastfeed my own daughter. And the cornerstone of the advice I give moms is support: no matter what their decisions are about feeding their baby.
I’d done all the research about childbirth that I could. I attended classes, devoured books, and talked to professionals. I knew exactly what I was going to do when the time came to give birth to my first baby.
I was terrified to give birth. I couldn’t believe that this baby in my round belly was somehow going to come out of me; I’d heard it was like squeezing an orange through your nose. Amazed that women have done it over and over for the history of mankind, I wanted to be prepared.
I made the choice to have an unmedicated birth, and I look back on it fondly. In fact, labor and delivery were the best part of my story.
It’s what happened afterwards that leaves me scarred.
I cradled my new daughter in my arms as I was wheeled to my postpartum room. The hospital was “baby friendly” and they worked hard to make it known. While I dealt with many kind health care providers, there were a few providers and policies that were absolutely harmful to my daughter and me.
I’d done so much research on how to give birth and what to expect, that I had neglected to learn about postpartum. I figured I would be tired as a new mom, and I thought that breastfeeding would come to me like breathing. It’s natural, right?
Breastfeeding might be natural, but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s easy.
For the next two days in the hospital, I tried and failed to breastfeed my daughter. I held her skin-to-skin, I gave her ample opportunities, and tried at least every two hours as I was instructed. She would latch on … sort of. When she would try to suckle, it didn’t work. Then she’d either unlatch, cry, or fall asleep.
I had her on a Saturday morning at 3 am. I had to wait until Monday morning to see the hospital’s lactation consultant.
In the meantime, she wasn’t taking in any milk. She developed jaundice. It’s an accumulation of too much bilirubin in the body and can lead to dangerous seizures in newborns if it’s not corrected. Unfortunately, newborn babies only have one way to get rid of excess bilirubin: their poop. That was a problem because my daughter wasn’t eating, and therefore wasn’t pooping.
Her jaundice continued to worsen, which resulted in the nurses and doctors treating me in a different way. They started to question why I wasn’t feeding her more, why the feeding times weren’t longer.
My explanations about my struggles were met with frustration.
When I finally did see the lactation consultant, she gave me a nipple shield, showed me how to latch my daughter, and then left. She never saw her start to suckle, and never assessed her for problems.
The nurse I had grew increasingly frustrated with me. She mentioned that formula would be next if I didn’t get it together. And yes, that was a threat. She was sure to explain to me how bad formula is for my baby. She told me it was unacceptable that I was only breastfeeding for five minutes at a time, even though my daughter wouldn’t stay latched any longer than that.
I asked for a breast pump. The nurse refused to bring me one.
I couldn’t understand why, so I asked her.
She said that pumping and offering milk with a bottle made the baby averse to breastfeeding. They were a baby-friendly hospital so they could only promote breastfeeding. I shouldn’t give the bottle; I should just breastfeed my daughter instead. Funny, since she had just threatened formula.
Finally, she gave in and brought me a breast pump. She dropped the bag of breast pump parts on the bed and left without a word. I sat there with my mouth open as she shut the door behind her. Then I looked at the pump parts in my lap, figured out how to puzzle-piece them together, and tried to turn the pump on.
I had no idea how it worked. But eventually I figured it out. Drops of honey-colored liquid gathered in the small collection cups. When I offered it in a bottle to my daughter, she ate happily, and for the first time fell into a sleep that was content.
The struggles didn’t end there, but I found a lactation counselor who was supportive and acknowledged that pumping was a necessity until my daughter’s jaundice cleared up. Her advice was the first that didn’t make me feel judged, or like less of a mother because I was pumping instead of breastfeeding.
My story continues with difficulty, and ends with me pumping the entire first year of my daughter’s life. During that time, I decided to become a Certified Lactation Counselor and learn all I could about breastfeeding. I never wanted to go through that again, and I wanted to make sure other moms wouldn’t have to with my help.
Over the course of my education, I can’t tell you how many sideways looks I got. Other lactation providers couldn’t believe I was pumping. Occasionally I would meet other moms who couldn’t understand why I wasn’t breastfeeding. I’ve gotten comments you wouldn’t believe.
But I was still giving my daughter breast milk.
It’s even worse for moms who feed their babies formula. And let me tell you, I’m a huge advocate of formula … if the baby needs it or if mommy decides to give it. It’s the best alternative to breast milk, giving babies all the nutrients they need to grow and thrive.
When moms are shamed about breastfeeding, whether they can’t do it or they decide not to, it puts their babies at risk. My daughter is the perfect example. I shudder to think about what could have happened to her if I didn’t insist on breast pumping.
The mother’s health is another consideration that is often overlooked. Moms can decide not to breastfeed for a whole host of reasons. Each reason is legitimate and should be the choice of each mother, possibly with the help of her intimate support system. When a mom is shamed, results range from discouragement to severe postpartum depression.
Let me tell you something: Moms are doing their best! They are trying to feed and love their baby in the best way for their situation. So next time you see a woman bottle-feeding, mixing formula, or pumping … give her a smile and continue on with your day.
Breastfeeding is a wonderful thing for moms and babies that get to do it. But for those that don’t, there’s no need for shame, and it does more harm than good.