What to do when breastfeeding just doesn’t work

Guest post by Laura Libert
Sammy and Laura: trying…trying…and trying some more.

Today marks the last time my son, Sammy, will be getting any breast milk from me. Despite what I was told, simply possessing an ample rack does not guarantee that one will be successful at breastfeeding. Whenever I would express any doubts about being able to breastfeed, the person I was talking to would eye my cleavage and then say something along the lines of, “Well, you certainly shouldn’t have any problems.” Apparently my body didn’t get the memo that my awesome boobs were supposed to be able to feed a small horde of babies.

There were issues from the beginning: first of all, Sammy refused to go on the breast and acted as though I was trying to kill him with my nipple any time I attempted to get him to latch. He screamed like a banshee and flailed wildly; had he any teeth, I’m sure he would have bitten me in his anger and frustration. Even without teeth, he managed to draw blood on a few occasions with his nails — not exactly the Lifetime Movie experience I had been envisioning in which I cuddled my angelic baby close to me in peaceful bliss as he nursed contentedly while soft music played in the background.

During our time in the hospital, I worked with every lactation consultant on staff in an attempt to get him to breastfeed. Each time a new one would come in, I would tell her of the difficulties I had been facing with Sammy, and they would nod, probably thinking, yeah, I’ve heard that before but it’s nothing I can’t handle. By the end of each session, however, they were singing a different tune. One actually patted me on the shoulder and said, “You should be commended for your dedication.”

Physically, there weren’t any reasons keeping Sammy from breastfeeding; the only explanation that anyone could come up with was the simple fact that Sammy was a lazy feeder and he didn’t want to have to work for food. Normally, the solution would be to keep at it until hunger and desperation finally got him on the boob, but that wasn’t an option for me as he was severely jaundiced and had to be supplemented with formula every two hours on doctor’s orders. In between finger feeding him in an effort to avoid nipple confusion in the future, I was hooked up to a pump while I willed my milk to come in. To say the experience was a little stressful would be an understatement and I felt completely betrayed by my body. How could something that was supposed to be so natural be so hard to do?

My milk finally came in two days after we left the hospital. I was still finger feeding Sammy formula and pumping around the clock, but now I was able to give him a little breast milk here and there. Eventually I was producing enough milk to cover most of his day feedings, but I was far from where I needed to be to cover his every meal. I was also attempting to get him to nurse at every opportunity, but he was still fighting me tooth and nail. My stress levels were through the roof.

At about day ten of doing this I just couldn’t take it anymore — I was trying to get Sammy to latch, pumping for twenty minutes, and then finger feeding him, which took another twenty minutes or so. Then I had to wash the pump and before I knew it, it was time to start the whole process again. So I made the executive decision to bottle feed him expressed breast milk. In my mind, it was the best of both worlds–he was getting breast milk and other people could help me feed him, so it wasn’t all on me all the time.

This continued without complication until Sammy hit his six-week growth spurt. I was pumping like crazy, trying to keep up with him, and popping so much fenugreek that I reeked of maple syrup. My supply just would not increase to meet his needs. Eventually his formula feedings began to outnumber his breast-milk feedings. A few days ago, I noticed that I was producing less and less milk with each pumping; on Saturday it took me all day to produce four ounces, which equals one feeding for Sammy. On Sunday, it was even worse; I only netted three ounces for the day. It seems that the proverbial well had run dry.

And so it ends. On one hand, I’m happy with my decision to forgo pumping because I no longer have to worry if what I’m eating will effect Sammy in some way–I can have as much chocolate and caffeine as my little heart desires, not too mention the new-found free time now that I’m not tethered to a pump every two hours. On the other hand, I mourn the loss of what never was. My goal all along was to breast feed for at least six months; when that became a no go, I decided that I would try to give Sammy expressed breast milk for at least that long. Well, at least he got about two months’ worth, which is more than Jim or I ever received, and we turned out okay. Besides, Sammy is happy and healthy and that’s what really matters the most.

Comments on What to do when breastfeeding just doesn’t work

  1. oooooh man do i ever feel your pain! my kid *never* accepted nursing, we had the heartbreaking, nervewracking, tenaciously consistent screaming at the sight of a boob thing, too. she is now nearly 2.5, i pumped for 19 months, did the fenugreek (and reeked of aunt jemima), was traumatized by lactation consultants, dealt with thrush, pumped a couple bottles of blood in there along the way, etc. that thing about lazy about feeding and needs to get hungry enough, utter crap. HUGE hugs of empathy from my corner, to you, and PLEASE pat yourself on the back for getting through this! if i had it to do over again, honestly, i would not try nearly as hard. seriously, big giant love pouring out to you over here!

  2. yep. my daughter was the exact same way. she just flat out refused. she refused to latch on correctly & the first few months of her life that i tried this was horrible & miserable & her and i both cried all the time. i finally reached my breaking point & said to hell with it & put her on formula & life improved tremendously for the both of us. i really do think this is more common than any hospital or pediatrician will tell you. they push the breastfeeding thing so hard that they just refuse to believe it’s just not going to work for every baby and every family. and instead of being supportive when new moms need it the most, they just give guilt trips.

  3. Sometimes, it can be so painful that it causes all involved unnecessary stress. I don’t see the point of persuing something that brings pain, anguish and resentment!!

    I fed my daughter for 3 painful weeks, my son for 6 weeks. They are now 8 and 10. They are happy, healthy and top of their classes in reading and maths. They have no allergies and are very rarely sick. Who could tell when our daughter won the school spelling bee the other week, that she was only breast fed for 3 weeks and more to the point who cares? It’s not something you put on a job application. My point is, of course natural is best, but it’s not best for everyone and not always natural for everyone. As long as the baby’s nutritional needs are being met, does it really matter how?

  4. I know your pain so so so well! And my god, the smell, you’ll never look at pancakes the same way ;D While we were able to get through it all and come out “successful” (Alexa got a bottle or 2 of formula even in the best of times) it’s not something I think I could put myself through again. I truly believe I would have been a happier mom had I stopped torturing myself.

    I will say, nipple shields were my only saving grace. With a NICU baby there’s nothing you can really do about the nipple confusion. There was just no way I could have been there round the clock to finger feed. We did, however, try the SNS system when we first started to nurse since it seemed to help with the problem of a lazy eater.

    I commend you for going as long as you did. Had I been home with a baby from the start that had feeding issues, there’s no way I could have pumped and bf’d and bottle fed the way you did. I can’t even imagine how tired you must be!

    Your babe will grow up happy and healthy regardless, and you’ll know that you did everything you can. Now you can truly enjoy your baby without all the added stress 🙂

  5. It’s amazing isn’t it? Breastfeeding is really difficult work for so many of us. I always joke about how I’m going to fill my medela pumping bottles with vodka and have a little party for myself to celebrate the day I stop breastfeeding.

    Good job on giving it your all!

  6. Good for you! My son was partially confused – he figured out how to latch correctly on one side, but not on the other, so we were doing half nursing, half bottle feeding of expressed milk from the rejected side. It was hard. We made it to 4 months, and quit from a combination of milk supply decreasing and my stress level being way too high. The day we switched to formula was seriously one of my happiest days. Kudos to you for all the extra effort!

  7. Thank you for this. I too could not get the breastfeeding thing down. I was so upset by this, more so than having a C-section. I was so prepared to breastfeed my baby, but my milk never came in fully amongst other things. I pumped milk for a month while I also supplemented and then decided depressingly to stop. So much stress was lifted off of me the day I did that. I still feel guilty that I couldn’t establish it, but I’m much more OK with it now than I was back then.

    I totally commend you on this and how hard you worked at it! It’s such a hard thing and doctors and consultants make it seem like it’s easy. So I know all to well how much of a failure you can feel like while attempting! And even more so after you decided to stop trying.

    • Thank you for saying this; Sammy’s birth didn’t go as planned, but I always knew it was a possibility that things would come up that would keep me from having the labor and delivery that I wanted…my doctor was uber concerned that I would be disappointed and angry with myself because things didn’t go according to plan, but honestly, I could have cared less. Breastfeeding, though, was supposed to be simple, natural…I felt like such a huge failure, which was hard for other people, like my husband, to understand.

  8. Besides, Sammy is happy and healthy and that’s what really matters the most.

    This! It seems like whenever feeding issues get going, people seem to forget that the above is absolutely the most important issue of all, no matter how you’re getting there.

    Fantastic story. 😀

  9. I can’t even tell you how glad I am that this was posted. The same thing happened to me — right down to the ample rack — and no one seems to understand. It didn’t really help that almost nothing about the whole birth experience had gone as I had wanted it to, and to top it all off, I had a horrible experience with the lactation consultant at the hospital — she was trying to help me position my son’s head correctly, and when I expressed concern about his being able to breathe with his face being forced into my even-more-massive-than-usual boob, she got annoyed and told me that he would turn blue if he was suffocating. I was never able to get him to latch on, and was barely able to get anything out of pumping. We ended up having to give him formula, which was sad, but some things just can’t be helped.

  10. My mom is a pediatric nurse and a huge supporter of breastfeeding, but when I was having a hard time with breastfeeding she reminded me that even if formula isn’t as great as the all-natural stuff, it’s still pretty damn good, and she also reminded me that having a stressed out mom isn’t really good for a baby either. I told myself I could make it for three months, and the week before my three months were up, my daughter and I synched up. But, I too felt guilty even thinking of not breastfeeding. I think it’s important to remind and be reminded of the fact that being a mother is hard and only you and your baby know what is best for you both. Although I don’t mean to discount the importance of listening to doctors and other experts, it just seems to me that sometimes we get so caught up in what we planned to do that we don’t get to enjoy what we are doing.

    • “We get so caught up in what we planned to do that we don’t get to enjoy what we are doing.” This is a great summary of motherhood guilt and regret. Sometimes I wonder if “offbeat” moms might have an extra dose of this because so many of us feel like we are trying to change the world through raising our children: phthalate-free, organic, open-minded, Waldorf-schooled, breastfed, cloth diapered, attachment parented children. It is very easy to get caught up in parenting idealism and get hurt and discouraged when trying to mediate it with real, in-the-trenches, every day parenting!

  11. Thank you for posting this. I went through a very similar experience, and I was at the Health Unit a few times a week working with a lactation consultant. I just didn’t have milk, simple as that. It didn’t seem fair when we were trying so hard, with pumping and finger feeding. But it turned out to be good. My husband was able to participate in the feedings, and enjoyed the glorious sensation of watching your baby suckle.

  12. I’m another big-breasted woman that didn’t manage to breastfeed for long. My milk just never came in at enough to cover my son’s needs. We were rehospitalised three days after I gave birth because he’d lost far too much weight, so he went onto formula inbetween what little I could manage, and the midwives had me on the pump almost constantly trying to get my milk in – but at most all I ever managed was 20ml.

    After about two months of juggling pumping milk and formula, I just chucked it in. For what it’s worth, my son is four now, and he’s perfectly happy and healthy. And he certainly wasn’t the sickly baby that all the literature tends to suggest formula-fed babies will be.

  13. Thank you for sharing your story! I went through a very similar ordeal with my daughter, and finally reached a point where I would spend most of my day crying and trying to feed her. I decided this was no good for either of us, and called it quits. I had done the same routine of lactation consultants, herbs, pumping, offering the breast every hour to 2 hours to try to stimulate milk… nothing worked. At one feed and weigh session the LC discovered that a 30 minute feeding had only yielded my baby about three quarters of an ounce. I got a lot of nastiness from other women about switching to a bottle. What got me the most was that these women didn’t know what I had been through, they simpky saw themselves as superior. And you can bet that no one was harder on me than myself. I am still working on forgiving myself for not continuing to try. But now Sam is growing, she is healthy, and we are finally able to enjoy each other instead of struggling to simply get food into her.
    Kudos to you for being so dedicated to your little one.

    • While I am huge breast feeding proponent, I would never judge another woman’s choice and understanding or her needs. Just remind the judgers, If I breastfed, who would you get to feel self righteous over! good luck!

  14. Thank you so much for posting this. It seems like in alternative type communities the pressure to breastfeed is just tremendous, and the assumption is that if you don’t bf then you were just too lazy, or didn’t care enough about your child. GRR!
    As I sit here with the pump whirring next to me, I think about how difficult it’s been for the past 8 months, and I feel tremendously sad and frustrated.
    Many bf’ing moms have some kind of trouble in the beginning, then they see an LC and work things out. Good for them, seriously. But when I tell them about my experience they look at me like I must just be doing it wrong…
    Good lord! Can’t we just trust that all the other moms out there are doing their best? Why is there so much judgment?

    • I agree, the pressure to breastfeed is really, really strong. I quit with my daughter after 8 months of trouble free nursing, and you would think I was the worst parent ever by the way “friends” reacted when I pulled out a bottle at a lunch gathering. My daughter is extremely active, and I was just plain tired of having someone try to take off crawling with my breast in their mouth, holding on by the teeth. The worst part was the people who told me I should try longer are the same ones who act like they are persecuted by the greater society for nursing in public (something I never came across myself). Anyway, long winded comment in short – you are amazing for trying that hard for 8 months. I cannot imagine working that hard with all the other parental demands, pat yourself on the back!

    • Yes! It is the judgement from other women that really gets me the most worked up. I have heard it all, including one woman who told me that if I wasn’t going to breastfeed my daughter, then I didn’t deserve to be her mother. (!) I hav eeven heard a lactation consultant tell a group of women that formula was more harmful to your baby than cigarette smoke. (!!!)
      As women, we should be supporting each other, and offering encouragement. We all struggle with different things and the last thing any mom needs is another woman tearing her apart for choices that she has probably already agonized over. Bottom line: BE NICE TO EACH OTHER. 😀

      • I work at a children’s hospital and get really frustrated with the parents who are all high and mighty “of course we breastfeed/have expressed milk. Breast is best”. Meanwhile, on the other side of the curtain is a tyke needing formula through an NG (nasogastric) tube and a teary mom. Sorry but food is best. Get it in there any which way.

  15. I hear ya sister. I am not blessed with bigguns, nor was I blessed with plentiful supply. My guy was born early and at 5 lbs 6 oz also had to do formula because of doctor’s orders. He was a lazy eater, I was a slave to the pump, took so much fenugreek, all that was missing was the pancakes, ugh it was a nightmare. We finally made it through, but it wasn’t a walk in the park for sure. Hang in there lady, try not to beat yourself up about the six month thing I’m proud of you for the two months you did do it under rough circumstances and you’re right, Sammy’s going to turn out perfectly fine. In fact, I suspect he already is perfect.

  16. Thank you for sharing this. As another big breasted lady, I had a very similar issue with my first. However, the second was the exact opposite–milk came in the day before he was born, he couldn’t get enough of my breasts, still had accidents the entire time, and my supply took almost month and half to dry up after I weaned him. So not only is different for every woman, its different for every baby.

  17. You should be so proud of yourself–you really did everything you could, and I think you made a wise decision.

    I really believe in breastfeeding, but more than that, I believe new moms need all the support they can get and none of the discouragement that militant lactationists bring with them. It’s just so danged hard to survive in the days and months post-partum, and adding in judgement and hard feelings does nothing whatsoever to help the infants involved. A great mom should be a happy mom, and if breastfeeding is making mom unhappy, it’s better for baby to be on formula.

  18. I am also a very big (naturally) breasted woman.
    My lil girl would not latch either. The woman they call the Lactation Queen in the hospital told me, you should think about pumping … and actually gave me a free pump! My DD was set on refusing the boob. The min I gave her the bottle, I had to pull it out her mouth to burp, she would not let go. I dried up actually only 3 weeks into it 🙁 I pumped a lot before the end, so I started mixing half n half. The formula also helped my DD with the jaundice she developed when we got home.
    The next babe I will probably formula feed as well, as im sure my huge knockers will scare the next baby too 😛

  19. Laura here–I just wanted to thank all of you for your kind words and support! It’s so nice to know that I’m not the only one who had this experience…sometimes I still feel as though I didn’t do enough, but in the end, I know that I made the best decision for my son and my sanity.

  20. This is such a similar story to mine!! I also have large breasts, and was under the impression that this was an asset. Until my son was born and I realized that my boob was larger than his head. My areola (once referred to as “freakishly large” by an ex) was the size of his face.

    Needless to say, a good latch was unattainable (plus his upper lip kept curling under). My other big-breasted friend also had issues. We ended up envying A-cups who could shove half a breast in their babies’ mouths. Ah, well.

    I pumped + formula for 6 months, my original goal for exclusively breastfeeding, and am still learning to let go of that never was …

  21. Thank you so much for this post! I am about three weeks away from having my first, and I want very badly to breastfeed. However, I am trying really hard not to over analyze the whole future experience. I have more anxiety about this than I do about the imminent future (shouldn’t I be more worried about labor?!). Your post made me feel a little less pressure. I don’t want to be devastated if nursing doesn’t work for us, so thanks for sharing! You are incredibly strong for working so hard, and your story is truly inspiring!

  22. Oh honey do I EVER feel your pain. I had a baby boy through C Section due to a pelvis being the wrong shape to physically birth a child. already I was feeling like my body was rebelling against me. “I’m such a bad mother I can’t even have a kid the right way!!!” I thought. Then it came time to breastfeed. Poor baby boy, F cup boobs that were bigger then he was, and no milk. He tried, goodness did he try, but I never produced enough for him. The lactation consultant told me to get a pump, so I did, but the sound of that mechanical thing latched onto my breast made me just dry up. The boob felt full, but there was no way I could “let down” for a machine. Tried a hand pump and got slightly better results, but the time it took to hand pump and then bottle feed a tiny baby was taking away from everything else I wanted to do with him. I was a single parent, living off of savings before going back to work and I had lost my life, not to a baby, but to a broken set of giant boobs! He was thin and colicky and we were both miserable, and finally I began formula. I hid it from friends and family because I was raised in a hippie household and if my mom could feed 3 kids with a B cup, there’s no way the boob fairy’s ample gift to me couldn’t feed one. The second I introduced formula, my son gained weight, up to a normal baby size, and my boobs, long since running out of steam and patience, finally dried up. He is now 18 months old and is an amazing kid, not a “fat formula baby” not a junk food junkie, just a toddler who loves blueberries and Cheddar bunnies, and knows I love him even if my boobs had other plans 🙂

  23. I first read this post back in September, days before giving birth to my first baby. I thought it was a great story to show that breastfeeding is something you work for, but that was about it. Fast forward four months, and this story is essentially my story. It is reassuring to know that I’m not alone, and that not everyone has an easy time with breastfeeding. The most important thing is a healthy baby. Thank you for sharing this.

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