I knew people had issues breastfeeding, I was so ‘go with the flow‘ that when I interviewed our pediatrician at 30-something weeks pregnant and she asked if I was going to breastfeed, I told her “I’d like to, but we’ll see how it goes”. Yet somehow, I was not emotionally prepared. I don’t think there is a way to prepare.
Sloane first latched during golden hour and it was a really special time. Although breastfeeding took time and patience those first few days (ouch! this nipple cream was a life saver). I felt like we were really getting into our groove.
At 2 days old, Sloane had only lost 1 oz! Hoorah! This was incredible. Most babies do lose a bit of weight in their first week of life and ideally gain it back by week 2. But in the days that followed, I worried that I wasn’t producing enough milk. One of my breasts hadn’t grown at all while pregnant and wasn’t really responding to the pump- but I wasn’t sure if it was too early to pump or if I wasn’t using the pump properly, so I kept trying to have her nurse on that one first and then when she became fussy I’d switch her to the other. Everything you read says to increase demand to increase your supply.
At 6 days old we took Sloane to the pediatrician for her hearing test. There we were informed she had lost 12 oz since birth. We mentioned to the pediatrician that she also hadn’t had a BM in 3 days and the birth center had stressed it should happen every day. The pediatrician calmed us, she said it was normal to lose weight and Sloane would regain it soon. That breastfed babies often didn’t have BMs every day because the milk they were drinking was so nutritious and perfect for them, so they didn’t have an excess they needed to digest.
At 16 days old we went to the birth center for our 2-week appointment. There we learned Sloane was now 14 oz under her birth weight. Now it became alarming that she hadn’t had a BM in nearly 2 weeks. It was because she wasn’t eating enough. As soon as the midwife mentioned ‘supplement’ I burst into tears. I knew it wasn’t the worst thing, but when you’re on the brink of all of your emotions post-partum, it doesn’t take much. I sobbed and sobbed and the midwives held me and comforted me. I remember literally saying something like ‘I don’t know why I’m crying, I just can’t stop’. Man those postpartum hormones hit hard.
Learning that you’re under-producing and having to supplement baby these first few weeks is NOT uncommon. Of course, I didn’t know that then… Typically your care provider will recommend supplementing baby while power-pumping to increase your supply so that eventually you can cut out the supplementing. I remember watching someone’s Instagram stories and they had a baby one day older than Sloane. They showed their freezer stock of breast milk they had already produced and I just started crying. I would burst into tears at the thought of not being able to produce enough milk. I’m telling you- if you feel emotional about this- you are not alone.
Lucky for me, the birth center and midwives were big advocates of donor milk. I want to share some more insight here because I don’t think it’s a super common route mamas take. Often, babies are given donor milk if they are in the NICU. This milk is pre-screened for STDs, blood-related diseases, etc. because it is a bodily fluid and can transmit diseases to baby. But once they leave the NICU, it can be a lot harder to source. You can buy donor milk from milk banks that screen it, which can run you $3-4/oz (that’s about $100/day!). You can buy it online from other mamas who sell it at about $1-0.50/oz and sometimes they provide bloodwork panels from pregnancy or you just trust their word. This can also be very expensive because if you buy it from someone who isn’t local, it can cost $100’s to ship overnight and keep frozen.
PS yes, she was wearing this ‘I smile for milk’ onesie at our 2 week appointment. Irony.
Because I gave birth at a birth center, every other mama from the birth center also had a low-risk pregnancy and was essentially pre-screened for any issues. This means any of them can donate their milk to the birth center or another mama with an all-clear from the midwives.
So on this emotional day, the midwives sent us home with donor milk they had on hand and recommended we bottle feed a supplemental 20mL at every feed. I was completely devastated that I wasn’t enough, but also grateful that I had access to options and a supportive community at the birth center. We didn’t even know where the bottles were… somewhere in a box in the mess that was our packed up home amidst a big move. We hadn’t expected to use them for months! We quickly learned how to fill and feed bottles. I learned how to use my breast pump. We pace-fed to avoid nipple confusion or preference so that I could continue breastfeeding and that worked well for us!
To summarize the following 3 weeks… we kept trying different amounts of supplemental donor milk until we hit a good spot. The 20mL was too little, then we did 2 oz every 2 hours and it was too much, but eventually, we found a good rhythm and weight gain trend. After moving, we drove an hour back to the birth center twice a week for weight checks and to talk game plans with the midwives.
Meanwhile, I was desperately trying to increase my supply of course. I tried everything… power-pumping, oatmeal, lactation cookies, hydration, and herbal supplements. The midwives and I kind of circled around the idea of glandular tissue issues since I’ve had PCOS and I started taking some herbs that are targeted for this issue. A few days later I started to have heart issues- like stop in your tracks type of heart pain, a few seconds long but sporadically for about 5 minutes. It occured a few days in a row and I was alarmed, but brushed it off as a weird post-partum side effect. Nonetheless, I mentioned it at out next weight check for Sloane at the birth center. Apparently it is not normal and the midwife listened to my heartbeat and heard an arythmia. I’ll skip the additional doctors visit and talk of the ER to say that we decided the arythmia wasn’t continuous and therefore not a huge scare (just a minor one). I was told to cut caffeine and hydrate more and eat more calories and NONSENSE. Justin and I decided we knew better. I immediately cut out all of the new herbal supplements I had been taking for milk supply and my heart issues went away within a few days. This was definitley disappointing because I could tell my supply was increasing with the supplements, but the last thing I needed was some crazy heart issue landing me in the hospital- that wouldn’t be very good for supply either!
Simultaneously, Sloane finally returned to birth weight at and was on a good gain trend at 5 weeks, the midwives said I could try exclusively breastfeeding now. Justin and I were a little anxious about going cold turkey on supplementing, so we decided to slowly ween out the supplemental milk. A week later I had a bad gut feeling that things were not going well. I bought a scale. Sloane hadn’t gained any weight in a week! So back to the supplementing we went. I had been working on my supply for 4 weeks now and really felt like I was hitting a wall. We continued the breastfeeding/supplementing/power-pumping for another week or two, but eventually at 8 weeks post partum I was exhausted out. We mellowed into just breastfeeding and supplementing, I would pump two or three times a day, but I wasn’t putting as much pressure on myself anymore.
We continued to source donor milk from various mamas from the birth center. We spent our weekends driving around DFW for hours. Every week or so I would reach out to a new mama that I had connected with via the birth center, asking if she had any milk to spare. I think Sloane has had milk from maybe eight or nine different mamas- she is such a community baby. Thankfullly now we have one or two mamas from the birth center who are able to provide us enough milk on a continous basis – such a blessing!
The week I returned to work I decided to exclusively pump. I cried again. That connection with your baby is just so precious and I really felt like I was waving my white flag in surrender. For some mamas, breastfeeding is just not their cup of tea… but the grass is always greener on the other side and all I wanted was to be able to! But now, a month into exclusively pumping, I couldn’t be prouder of my decision. A soon as I switched to pumping and we exclusively bottle fed, Sloane started packing on the weight that she was so slowly gaining earlier. Not only are we certain she’s drinking enough, but she’s not putting a ton of energy out into breastfeeding- which for us meant 20-25 minutes for 1-2 oz of milk. Although it was a tough decision, I’m happy to see her thriving!
For months I felt like this was way too personal and sensitive a topic to share, but now I’m feeling more confident and can reflect on this experience. I felt so alone in my struggles until a month or two in, when I connected with other mamas who were also struggling with breastfeeding issues. So I want you to know that if you’re experiencing struggles, you’re not alone! And it’s okay to be emotional about it. Keep your chin up, mama! A happy, healthy mama and happy, healthy baby are always what’s most important and that looks different for everybody.