Breastfeeding without the milk (using the Supplemental Nursing System)

Guest post by Trista
Breastfeeding my son, Cade.
Breastfeeding my son, Cade.

It seems that how you’re going to feed your baby is one of those “hot topics” of pregnancy. I planned to breastfeed, and had done a lot of reading about pregnancy, birthing, and breastfeeding in general. I wasn’t scared of labour or birth — I was looking forward to it. I was amazed that my body was going to take over, with the aid of my brain and my baby, and we were going to do something miraculous, yet totally normal and happens all the time.

I waited for my breasts to change the nine(ish) months I was pregnant — to grow or change in some way. I knew that they didn’t always get larger during pregnancy, but I never really experienced anything at all in the way of breast changes. The only time I remember any breast-related pregnancy symptom was having tender nipples once or twice — it was uncomfortable, but secretly I was cheering on the inside because I was worried about the lack of changes. On more than one occasion I did wonder out loud if I would have milk production issues since my breasts were not showing any indication that they would be up to the task.

Our son, Cade, was born on November 3 at 8:08pm. It was the most beautiful and transformative experience of my life — Cade was born as a human and I was born as a mother, just like that. He was immediately placed on my chest for me to introduce myself (though he had known me all along) and love all up. I was in a state of complete bliss, and perhaps a slight amount of shock, but most of all, I was ecstatic and beside myself. I was over the moon for this little being!

I remember the nurse that was helping me, bless her heart, said “Look, wow, he knows exactly how to do this, he is a pro.”

It wasn’t until we were up on post-partum, after I had showered and cleaned up, and Cade had been wrapped in blankets, warmed right up, and had a bath, that we attempted breastfeeding. He knew exactly what to do. I remember the nurse that was helping me, bless her heart, said “Look, wow, he knows exactly how to do this, he is a pro.” I believed her and we went on with our night, as rough as it was. Cade cried most of the night, despite frequent attempted feedings, cuddles, and skin-to-skin.

The next day I remember being a bit calmer. I would frequently breastfeed Cade, and I felt that things were going well. I was in a sleep-deprivation induced haze, but was over the moon and in love with everything. The tears poured out of my eyes over any and everything. I was tired, so I cried. I was in love with Kyle as a father, and so I cried again. I remember the nurses in the hospital telling me to rest up that day, as baby’s second night of life was usually chaotic and they wanted to be up eating all the time. I felt somewhat prepared, but that didn’t really happen.

Upon returning home the thought of using formula never crossed my mind. I thought things were going quite well… until that night. The sun went down and the evening reared its ugly head. Cade turned into a nightmare, and in turn, so did his mama. I must say, thank goodness for the best father ever, because he really was our rock at this time. I’m sure there were times where he wondered who he should comfort first, though obviously that answer is pretty clear-cut. Cade screamed. All. Bloody. Night.

He lost his mind the next night too. He screamed. He screamed some more. He cried, he yelled, he wailed. I cried. Kyle rocked and swaddled and patted and rocked and cuddled. I think it was about 8am that Cade finally crashed for a couple hours. Kyle and I were absolutely zonked. I knew in my heart that something wasn’t right, and I called the Healthy & Home nurses and demanded that they come for a home visit that day.

I was in tears on the phone with the nurse. They sensed my urgency and they came over within an hour and a half. They weighed my poor, sad, hungry little boy, and he had lost a pound of his body weight, which is a major red flag. He hadn’t pooped in a couple days, and I really don’t remember his wet diaper count, but it wasn’t good.

She understood my deep desire, my need, to breastfeed my son, and she understood my need to nurture him, with love and with nutrition.

The nurses with Healthy & Home are lactation consultants as well, and (our nurse) Cindy was a kind, compassionate soul. She understood my deep desire, my need, to breastfeed my son, and she understood my need to nurture him, with love and with nutrition. She also understood that he HAD TO EAT. This was not an option, and I was not producing enough for my son. When we came to this conclusion, I was heartbroken.

Cindy basically demanded that we had to get some calories into this boy ASAP. She asked if we had formula on hand, and sure enough, we did. I remember thinking when I got the formula samples “Oh, well, I’ll never need these, in the closet they go.” I showed her the only bottle we had on hand (also a free sample), and she encouraged us to try the Supplemental Nursing System.

Basically, we would fill a syringe with formula, attach a tiny sterile tube to the syringe, and then place the tube alongside my nipple as Cade latched on. We were still trying to perfect the latch, so adding an extra step in caused much grief, but we did it. For nearly four weeks, every feed, we would use this tiny little tube and place it as Cade latched, so that he would still nurse and hopefully stimulate my breasts to provide milk and increase my supply, but that he would still get substantial calories as well.

After going in to the breastfeeding clinic to meet with a lactation consultant there, Cade’s suck was evaluated and determined to be great. At one point, I was breastfeeding Cade, and the lactation consultant was doing hardcore breast compressions to attempt to get the milk flowing — and it still didn’t flow. The plan was to rent an electric hospital grade pump and attempt to pump after every feed for approximately ten minutes per side (or all at once if using a double pump).

I attempted to take Fenugreek and Blessed Thistle, two supposed galactagogues, but the only thing they did was give my body a sweet and spicy odour. I took these in combination with Domperidone, a prescribed medication used to treat stomach issues with the sometimes fortunate side effect of inducing lactation. Eventually, I returned the pump. I held onto it for a very long time, because I couldn’t bring myself to take it back for fear that it was signalling I had given up. I hadn’t used it in days, and it was sitting there, taking up space. I returned it, and I felt a twinge of sadness, until I realized why I was returning it.

It took me a long time to realize what our feeding routine was doing to my son and to myself. I was completely worn out, I was stressed, and I was depressed. When I realized that I did everything I could, and when I realized that it was worth it for our feeding routine to change, I felt a complete let-go of the stress that had been bogging me down. I felt this within myself, and I noticed a change in my son at feeding. He took to the bottle like a champ, and he took to the breast like a champ. There were no issues with him going from breast to bottle and back. He truly thrived when I was happy, and I didn’t realize that in the moment until we had decided to change our routine.

I had many moments where I felt extreme amounts of guilt, but then I learned that breastfeeding did not equal perfection — nor did it equal motherhood. In the end, I was doing for my son what I needed to do for him. We learned along the way. I’m hoping with future children that breastfeeding will work out, and that I will be able to use the tools that Cade taught me in order to be “successful.” But that’s for another time, and for now, this is where we’re at.

Comments on Breastfeeding without the milk (using the Supplemental Nursing System)

  1. Thank you for this. I’m sitting here sobbing because your story is virtually identical to mine. My daughter is 4 months, happy, healthy and exclusively formula fed since 8 weeks. I have made peace with my decision to formula feed, I feel twinges of guilt from time to time. Each story I read about women who overcome this challenge, empowers me more.

  2. Thank you so much for this post! I know it was written a long time ago… I have been trying to breastfeed for 12 weeks now. For the first 8 weeks of my baby’s life I did not know she was not getting enough milk because of a weak jaw/suck/bad latch issue. She screamed and screamed and it took me until week 6 to finally get into see a pediatrician (though I tried and tried to get her in sooner) and start getting her fed. I thought it was just my milk supply, and it wasn’t until the 2 weeks later when I found out about her jaw (after seeing a Lactation Consultant).

    I started pumping 8-10x a day to increase my supply, we were trying to have her nurse and then give her a bottle. I finally got her to latch better and her jaw is stronger but she’s so traumatized by now that she starts screaming immediately at my breast if my let down is too slow.

    So now we’re trying the method you describe, and it is going okay, but she still sometimes just outright refuses my breast.

    Everyone has told me to give up but I just can’t. I don’t know why. I just want so so badly to breastfeed my baby. And there aren’t many women out there who are in the predicament of wanting so much to breastfeed but for whatever reason, aren’t able to and their decision to let go and stop trying for everyone’s sanity.. I have SEVERE PPD symptoms and know I need to end the madness.

    If the SNS doesn’t take in the next few days I’m going to have to give up, I know it, and reading this made me feel just less alone in the agony. And there you are, now you can look back and know it was for the best to let it go. I just keep thinking I will feel like a failure forever unless I figure out how to breastfeed her. Even though I hold no judgment whatsoever on any moms who use formula! Anyway, just thank you.

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