THE MAMA SERIES X ELIZABETH CLEMENTS ON SUPPLEMENTING + PUMPING
This is a beautiful and raw piece that I think many women will be able to connect with. I love Elizabeth’s outlook at the end of her story and I could not agree more with her on her thoughts around supplementing with formula and pumping. At the end of the day we need to do what’s best for our babies , what is best for our relationship with our children and for our well being. I also think it is important to point out the real unexpected challenges that can occur after birth. Not only is this a sensitive time in a mother’s life but add in the physical and mental exhaustion and it is not hard for self doubt to enter the equation. Elizabeth you are one strong mama! Thank you for sharing your story with us.
Elizabeth will take it from here:
Throughout my pregnancy, I received a lot of well-meaning but intrusive questions and advice, including assumptions about my plans to breastfeed. I fully intended on breastfeeding but that was the extent of my planning. I knew that my mom had breastfed me for over a year and I figured we would be equally as successful. I naively assumed that since breastfeeding was the most “natural thing in the world,” it would come, well, naturally to us.
After a happy, healthy pregnancy and a relatively uneventful labor and delivery, I welcomed a beautiful, baby girl. The following hours were a blur as we got to know our sweet girl and tried to process all the procedures and information being thrown our way. Multiple lactation consultants (LCs) came to visit us in the hospital and my husband diligently listened along to their tips and suggestions so that we could both be armed with the requisite knowledge. I really only clicked with one of the LCs - the one who taught me how to pump, which would ultimately became our saving grace. I remember starting to get stressed that my milk wasn’t coming in yet (I vaguely remember manually expressing a few precious drops of colostrum every few hours), but everyone reassured me that it would come in any time now and then we’d be off to the races.
By the time we were ready to be discharged, our daughter was losing weight, but we weren’t within the window of concern just yet. We were eager to get home and start our new normal, and assumed things would fall into place as we found our groove. My milk finally came in once we got home and I set up a little nursing station with my trusty breastfeeding pillow. My husband stood by, eager to help, and tried to coach me through the positions the LCs had taught us. After that, however, the wheels started to come off pretty quickly.
Still running on a swirling mix of adrenaline and anxiety, I swore I would stay up all night to watch her sleep. While my husband talked some sense into me and convinced me to get some sleep, our daughter would only stay down for ten minutes at a time before erupting in heartbreaking wails. We frantically tried to follow the 5 S’s and everything under the sun to soothe her back to sleep. I kept trying to nurse her around the clock, but each attempt ended with both of us in tears. I stood helplessly as we resorted to my husband finger feeding her via syringe with my small but growing stash of pumped milk.
At our first post-discharge pediatrician visit, we learned she had lost even more weight and were told to come back in 48 hours for another weight check. We headed back home feeling even more exhausted and dejected and decided to start operating in two-hour shifts so that we could each grab a few minutes of sleep. The next few days were awful - I dreaded feeding her, I was terrified of having to do this alone when my husband went back to work in a few days, and we were running on fumes. By the time we made it back for her next weight check, we were desperate for good news.
Our daughter had lost even more weight at this point and I completely broke down in the doctor's office. The pediatrician was kind but frank with us, telling us that our baby was quite simply starving and we were trapped in a vicious cycle where she was too hungry to sleep but too weak to nurse. We were hours away from having to take her back to the hospital to be hooked up on an IV. She instructed us to go straight to the grocery store to buy formula. She also told me to take a break from nursing since it was only causing me more distress and suggested I continue pumping each time we fed her. I flashed back to the doctor on call screaming at the nurses to get the formula samples out of all the recovery rooms and I broke down again in the baby care aisle, sobbing that I would be setting our baby up for a lifetime of health and academic failures by having to supplement. My husband brought me back to earth and reminded me that the most important thing we could do for our daughter right now was to feed her, any which way we could.
As we slowly but surely started to make progress with her formula and pumped feedings, I felt torn and conflicted. When I was given the “freedom” to take a break from breastfeeding and just pump, I felt like an enormous weight had finally been lifted off my shoulders. At the same time, I couldn’t help but feel like a failure. This beautiful, magical, natural experience that we were “supposed” to have wasn’t ours and therefore there must be something wrong with me.
I knew that I should be celebrating each weight milestone (she stopped losing weight, started gaining, and finally climbed back up to her birth weight) but instead I was wracked with incredible guilt for not being strong enough to give her what she needed on my own. Our pediatrician didn’t try to force the issue of switching from pumping back to nursing, but I agreed to get help from the LCs at our hospital once more. It was an exhausting evaluation throughout which I still felt like I was doing everything wrong, but it did confirm an underlying tongue and lip tie (this experience requires an entirely separate post, you can read Mrs. Nipple’s experience with that HERE ) was preventing my daughter from effectively transferring milk. Again, this should have brought me some relief but I was almost too overwhelmed to process it.
Shortly after that consultation, I took a step back to consider our options, keeping in mind the ultimate goal, feeding our baby. I could suck it up and try to power through nursing, despite the anxiety it caused us both, or I could choose a different feeding journey of supplementing and pumping that seemed to alleviate tensions all around. Close friends shared similar experiences with me, and their reassuring words and guidance convinced me we could choose this path instead. My supply was steady enough that we were able to stop supplementing within a few weeks and I furiously tried to research everything I could find on exclusively pumping (“EPing”). I tried not to get discouraged by the limited research and naysayers, and forced myself to take it one step a time - could I make it to the end of the month? Her 1 month birthday? 2 month birthday?
I soon became a pumping machine, scheduling pump sessions around her feedings, appointments, and outings, and quickly grew to love my pump time. It forced me to slow down and stop trying to do everything at once - the extent of my multitasking was playing with her or catching up on Instagram if she was napping. When it was time to go back to work, I mastered my new pumping schedule and schlepped all of my gear back and forth. I pumped at the airport, in the car on long roadtrips, and put my “PackIT” freezer bags to the test safely transporting milk across town and up and down the East Coast.
I had set an arbitrary goal of making it to her 6-month birthday and as at that date grew nearer, my love for pumping started to turn. It was the first thing I did when I woke up and the last thing I did before I went to bed and it was growing tiresome and somewhat isolating. I mapped out a weaning timeline and gradually started decreasing my pump sessions. I worked out a (perhaps unnecessarily complex) system for working through my freezer stash and reintroducing formula. I started to beat myself up again, feeling guilty that I was stopping pumping for selfish reasons and nervous that she wouldn’t adjust back to formula. My last pump session was filled with mixed emotions - I remember feeling proud of myself for having made this option work for us for as long as it did, relieved that I could go about my day without factoring in pumping logistics, and sad that this particular chapter was coming to a close. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at this point, but she handled the transition like a champ and happily gobbled down whatever bottle was given to her.
I still cringe when I hear comments implying that the only way to bond with your baby is by breastfeeding. While I have no doubt that breastfeeding your baby is a unique, strengthening experience, I also know that pumping and supplementing allowed me to be the best mother to my sweet girl. I gained confidence with each pump session and I loved holding her while feeding her - two things that eluded us in our early days. Further, it provided a wonderful opportunity for other family members to bond easily with her, a win for everyone.
My daughter is days away from her first birthday and as I watch her thriving now, our early struggles seem like a lifetime ago. I wish I could go back in time and tell myself that we were doing an amazing job and everything was going to be okay. Since time travel is impossible, there are a few suggestions I’d like to pass along to others who may be in the same boat.
Be Kind to Yourself: One of my friends who gave me the courage to try EPing shared a phrase that really stuck with me: Motherhood =/= Martyrdom. No one was going to win if I stubbornly (and unsuccessfully) insisted on breastfeeding just because that’s what every other mother did. I became a different mother when I stopped beating myself up and I firmly believe that my relationship with my daughter fundamentally shifted for the best when we chose to supplement and pump.
Lean on your Partner: My husband has long been a partner in every sense of the word, but I’m eternally grateful for the way he jumped in to try to understand the mechanics of feeding. He knew that even though he wouldn’t be the one to physically nurse her, he could follow along with the instructions and support me from the side. When we had to try other forms of feeding, he was right there trying to figure out the best position for holding her. He listened to my frustrations, encouraged me when I was too hard on myself, and kept us focused on getting our daughter healthy and strong, and it really helped me feel like we were in this together.
Talk About It: Whether it was because I was feeling vulnerable or too exhausted to filter myself, I was brutally honest when friends would check in on us. If I had swept our challenges under the rug, I don’t know that our friends would have been equally as honest with me in sharing their own challenges. I had felt frustratingly isolated until I learned that other women had been in this exact same position. Their words of support and reassurance brought me to happy tears and gave me the push I needed to choose our own feeding path.
Trust Your Gut: This is easy for me to say with nearly a year of parenting under my belt now, but I do wish I had spoken up sooner and more forcefully. One of the LCs who first met with us (and later the first pediatrician) made a passing reference to the tongue tie, but it didn’t really register. I wish that I had flagged that (or at least asked more questions) when we were still in the hospital, since we could have had it addressed on the spot. There were a few other warning signs in those first few days that I wish I had pressed as well.
Focus on your Journey: I wish I could have spent less time worrying about what we were “supposed” to be doing and more time focusing on what worked best for us. How other moms were feeding their babies is frankly irrelevant. Their opinions of how you are feeding your baby is irrelevant. We got there eventually, but it took a lot of pep talks from our doctor and my husband to remember that fed is best. Period.