International Breastfeeding Week–some lessons for the lactavists

Sunday August 1rst began International Breastfeeding Week.

This is a celebration I actually have mixed feelings over.  I support breastfeeding as the best way to feed your infant…but only when that also means it’s best for mom, and I think that the second half of that sentence isn’t something that the lactavist community respects or even acknowledges as valid.  Which they should, because while they are trying to spread a very important message and empower moms to have the courage to breastfeed in the face of adversity or to breastfeed even when it’s hard, they are alienating many women (and men, I’m sure) who would otherwise be proud members of the cause.

Take me, for example.   Elanor is only hours old in the photo below.

This is one of only ten or so successful nursing attempts we had.

Our breastfeeding failure consisted of many problems…

1-Low Blood Sugar at Birth—Elanor was born with very low blood sugar and although my milk was coming in, they could not release her from the NICU before her blood sugar was within normal numbers.  After a day of breastfeeding attempts coupled with syringing pumped colostrum (and a drop in blood sugar, into dangerous territory) we did a bottle supplement.

2-My supply sucked–I tried reglan, I got my hands on some illegal domperidone, and tried that too.  I also tried fenugreek until I smelled like syrup.  My supply never went above 16 oz (or rather, it briefly hit 18 and then dropped again).  I pumped every 2 hours.  I pumped for 30 minutes, sometimes 45, and on several occasions an hour just to get every last drop out.  I was classified as a Type 2 diabetic for the duration of my pregnancy (A1c and mealtime sugar numbers are lowered when your pregnant…that I’m 1/10 of a point on my A1c of being diabetic to begin with immediately pushed me into Type 2 territory the second the stick read “pregnant”) and was warned and have read a LOT of literature that says diabetics often have poor milk duct development and commonly have low milk production.

3-A hospital stay, half of it in intensive care—When Elanor was 6 days old she stopped eating.  At 7 days old, she arrived in the ER close to death and in organ failure, thanks to a nasty case of sepsis.  She spent 10 days in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, 8 of them on a ventilator (during which time she also had a stroke).  She was fed via IV during this time.  Once off the ventilator, they put a tube from her nose down into her stomach and fed her my expressed milk…yes, I kept pumping in a PICU room while my daughter had her breathing done for her by a machine.  While I was talking to her medical team, I pumped.  My tits were on full view through those pump flanges and I didn’t give a damn…largely because I wanted to give her the best nutrition possible, the hospital was supportive, and I dreamt that we might one day re-establish breastfeeding.  She was moved to a regular pediatric room on day 11 of her hospital stay (day 18 of her life) to finish her course of antibiotics.  She was still doing tube feedings.  She’d also lost a lot of weight.

4-Needing extra calories—On day 14 or 15, we started giving her bottles of my milk, fortified for extra calories with some formula (making her meals 25-30 calories an ounce instead of the 20 that plain breast milk or plain formula have).  If she couldn’t finish the bottle (and she often wasn’t…she was still very weak and had a poor suck reflex), it had to be given via tube.  Several days before her release, the tube was removed, but she was still not even at her birth weight as she approached her 1 month birthday…she needed the extra calories to gain weight.  So I kept pumping and we kept adding powdered formula to my milk to make it more caloric.

5–Reflux/Food Allergies–Once her weight began to catch up, I was given the green light to breastfeed.  So I hired a lactation consultant (who came something like 4 times), had my friends come over and help, and we gave it the old college try.  And at almost 3 months, she didn’t really want it.  In fact, she didn’t really seem to like eating at all.  When we saw the gastro, he tried treating her for reflux (which she did have) but it didn’t help enough.  She was evaluated for allergies and when they found blood in her poop using a reagent, I decided to go off dairy as they were advising.  She didn’t get better.  She was considered allergic to dairy, soy, egg and nut.  At which point, considering I was already thoroughly miserable, I was done.

When Elanor was 5 months old, she had her last bottle of breast milk…which is in the picture below

There are few times in my life that I felt like such a failure.  In fact, the only instance that comes to mind is when I blamed myself (for lack of anyone else to blame) for my miscarriage of my first baby.

The difference between when I miscarried and when I stopped breastfeeding rather than do the full elimination diet, is that when I miscarried people tried to tell me that it wasn’t my fault.  When I stopped breastfeeding, there were plenty of people (even to this day when I’ve shared our story) who are eager to tell me all the things I’d done wrong and “if only X had happened, it all would have worked out okay”  As if I hadn’t taken a class, worked with hospital Lactation Consultants, hired a private Lactation Consultant, bought a boppy and a my breast friend, tried nipple shields, tried every herbal and prescription option to stimulate production, read everything from the nursing mother’s guide to books on milk production.  As if I hadn’t read/heard/been lectured about it all before.

Let me be VERY CLEAR…these were not friends in my every day life who had gone on the journey with me.  I have several close friends who are very successful breast feeders and they supported my decision 100% and never did or said anything to make me feel like anything less than the best mother I could be to Elanor.  Largely these are people I’ve met socially, or online.  But when people are telling you that you failed, that you gave up too easily, when you are already grieving the loss of the breastfeeding relationship, something you wanted so desperately…those are the voices that stick with you.  Over a year later, they still sting.

As I’ve opened my eyes, I see that I’m not alone in the shaming.  Moms who don’t breastfeed because they are repulsed by it (in some cases, this may be due to rape trauma, and in others, it’s just how they feel) are judged.  Mom’s who don’t breastfeed because their work makes it too hard to keep pumping are judged (as if they could go get a different job or force their work or the nature of their job to be more breastfeeding friendly–I’m sorry, but would you like it if your heart surgeon needed to stop to pump?  I didn’t think so….).  Moms who can’t make it work because of existing children (if you have two under three and one needs to be nursing and the other is running around drawing on walls, what do you do?  sometimes it just doesn’t work out).  Moms who genuinely have poor milk supply.  Moms who need to take mood stabilizers or other drugs that are dangerous to the baby (pregnancy, for the record, tends to be a mood stabilizer in and of itself…but many women need to get back on them post delivery). Moms for whom breastfeeding just is too painful (it’s not always a latch issue).  Moms who tried it and it just didn’t work for them for reasons they don’t want to share with you.

There needs to be room for all of us.  To get the word out, but to accept that breast isn’t best for every mom…and that mom’s rights are just as important as the baby’s. You may not agree with a mother’s reason for not breastfeeding, but there are ways such as asking “would you like to hear some information about breastfeeding that might help with your issues the next time around?” Don’t assume she’s dumb or hasn’t read anything.  If a mom has already stopped, there is no point if making her feel bad or guilty about her choice.

To some extent, the lactivist movement is about female empowerment.  But sometimes, saying no is just as empowering for individual women.  Breastfeeding may be the “best” choice, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only choice.  You got to make your choices…but you don’t get to dictate mine.

The most important gift a baby can have is a happy mom…after all, if Mama ain’t happy…ain’t nobody happy. The truth is that I was a far better mother to Elanor and a far happier woman when I stopped pumping.  When I stopped trying to force a breastfeeding relationship.  When I made the choice that was right for us.  When I became a happy mom.

Will I try to breastfeed #2 when he or she come along?  Yes…I’m an upper middle class stay at home mom…I have that luxury.  But if there are supply issues or allergy issues, I’ll put them on formula without a second thought.  Unlike with Elanor, with siblet I’ll be a stronger and more experienced mom, and I’ll do what’s right for our family and what keeps me a happy mom while cheerfully flicking off (metaphorically) anyone who tells me I did it wrong.

I believe in breastfeeding, and I believe that breastfeeding women should have laws protecting them…but I don’t believe that I have the right to make a choice for anyone but myself…which is the biggest lesson of all that many lactivists need to learn.

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