I never thought I’d be bottle-feeding my breast milk to my son in the first few weeks of his life. But that’s where we are.
So many things have been different than I thought they would be as I initiate into motherhood. For instance, I started intending to have a home birth, but after 26 hours of labor at home, I chose to go the hospital for some extra support. Fourteen hours after we arrived at the hospital, my son was born.
In the first few days of his life, my son nursed from my breasts. It wasn’t easy, but he did it. To get there, this required the use of a nipple shield to accentuate the landing area for his latch. My milk was just starting to come in, so the supply was not huge, but he was getting what he needed for those early days.
On July 4, everything changed.
My son must have taken this holiday to heart because he suddenly became “independent” from my breasts. He no longer seemed to grasp the concept of latching and instead, would just cry and scream at my breast. This is heartbreaking for a mom. It was heartbreaking for me. Our breasts are our source of life for our children. They are where we nurture, love and cuddle our children to provide them with all that we have to give them as mothers. I know not every mom may be keen on breastfeeding, but I think many moms can agree that our breasts carry a strong symbol as “mother,” whether we are breastfeeding or not
So here I was on July 4 with my baby, just four days old, and he was rejecting my breasts. I know that “rejecting” might seem like too strong of a word for some, but that’s how it felt to me. So what was I going to do?
Since my son was hungry and wasn’t getting enough to eat, my midwife suggested that I pump my breast milk and feed it to my son through a syringe.
My husband and I followed our midwife’s advice. All through my prenatal care, she was always spot on. We trusted her wisdom and expertise. So my husband and I created a routine where our son would suck on my finger at feeding time, and my husband would dispense my breast milk in our son’s mouth via the syringe. Our son was happy. We were happy. Our boy was being fed.
We fed like this for a couple of days, still trying the breastfeeding in between. But I wanted to be breastfeeding exclusively.
I want to mention here that when the pediatrician made her visit to the hospital the day after our son was born, she suggested that our son may need his frenulum clipped. The frenulum is the tissue that attaches the tongue to the floor of the mouth. If it is shorter than usual, this can limit the mobility of the tongue, and therefore make breastfeeding difficult. She said that it didn’t look urgent and that we should see how the breastfeeding went over the next few days to see if the clip was needed.
Since Bodhi (that’s our son) started to have difficulty with breastfeeding a couple of days after her visit, we opted to have his frenulum clipped at her office the very next day. But unfortunately even with this procedure, breastfeeding was still proving difficult for Bodhi.
While we already had an incredible birth team, the team was about to get bigger. My midwife had been acting as a lactation consultant; my post-partum doula was supporting me with different positions for breastfeeding and my pumping schedule; and our pediatrician also was offering great advice. Now it was time to hire an independent lactation consultant. Our birth team suggested this was the best next step.
When we met with the lactation consultant, she said that she thought Bodhi’s frenulum needed to be clipped even more. She also said that we needed to move on from the syringe feed to a bottle. “He needs to suck,” she said. She was adamant that he needed to get more breast milk and get it fast. She suggested two options: a Supplemental Nursing System that looked like you needed better fine motor skills than I would ever have at 2 a.m., or a bottle feed. She also recommended that I supplement my breast milk supply with formula because my son needed more milk than I was pumping at the time.
Formula? Oh boy. This was a biggie. I never imagined that I would be feeding my little guy formula in his first weeks of life. I was a proponent of breast milk. Not only was breast milk the natural way to go, I knew that studies had shown that breast-feeding was far better for our children than formula. It includes benefits like reducing the risk of ear infections, gastroenteritis, severe respiratory tract infections, eczema, asthma, obesity, type 1 and type 2 diabetes, childhood leukemia, and sudden infant death syndrome. Breast-feeding is also said to be health-enhancing for moms.
As Dr. Christiane Northrup states in her book, Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom: “It is a well-known fact that the composition of human breast milk is superior to that found in any formula, including its balance of the essential fatty acids so necessary for brain development.”
This is what I wanted for my son. But there was also a stronger instinct in me: I’m going to feed my son what he needs RIGHT NOW. He is hungry. It is my job as his mother to supply him with what he needs to grow and feel safe and cared for. In this instance, that meant supplementing my breast milk with formula until my milk supply was up. My midwife and pediatrician agreed that this was the best route to take.
As more of my breast milk came in, I was happy to have formula as a back up. Without that formula, my son would have been struggling over these last couple of weeks to feel nourished. I think this ultimately would have caused some longer-term issues.
“I believe it is our job as parents to help our children feel safe, loved and nourished. Without these three elements in place, particularly in a child’s first weeks of life, I think we are doing our child and ourselves a disservice.”
I am happy to report that as of a couple of days ago, my milk supply is up to the level that Bodhi needs for his feedings. So breast milk it is for my boy! With this said, I am very grateful for the formula that we used. It served as a bridge for us.
So when I read Alissa Quart’s OpEd in the New York Times this past weekend about breastfeeding, I was not only comforted by her words, but inspired to use my voice to share my story:
“We need more balanced, reassuring voices telling women not to feel guilty if they can’t nurse exclusively for months on end. Given how difficult it is for some women to nurse, we should understand that we might sometimes be asking too much.”
As a woman who always expected that I would breastfeed my child, I now see that there are so many nuances that come along with breastfeeding. It is not all about what I want. I have another player on the team. My son. What we do is not based solely on what I want or solely on what he wants. It is a dance between the two of us. It is where both of our energies meet.
So for now I am pumping my breast milk and feeding it to my son via a bottle. At several feedings throughout the day, I give him the option to breastfeed. While I have seen some improvement in terms of his patience at trying to latch, there still seems to be a strong learning curve we have to embark on together. While we have sought the advice of many experts (including a second independent lactation consultant), I realize it’s now up to my son and me to find out what works best for us. Our breastfeeding journey is unique to us, in the same way that every woman’s labor is unique to her and her baby. I think respecting our journey with our baby is what’s most important, no matter if we nurse, bottle-feed our breast milk, or bottle feed formula.
What is your experience with breastfeeding? I invite you to share your comments below.
Tabby Biddle, M.S. Ed., is a well-known voice speaking out for the human rights and empowerment of women and girls around the world. As a writer and speaker, she has been featured by The Huffington Post, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, UN Dispatch, NPR, among other international media. In 2011, Tabby was the recipient of a Press Fellowship from the United Nations Foundation to expand the dialogue around global health issues affecting women and girls. Through her work as a coach and workshop leader, Tabby is committed to giving women and girls a greater voice in the world. For more information, visit tabbybiddle.com.