SANTA ANA, Calif. — Of course I was going to breast-feed.
There I would sit, ensconced in my light blue glider rocker, a halo of soft light surrounding me as my baby nursed at my breast. I’d smile beatifically at him, satisfied in my womanly ability to provide the perfect nourishment for my beautiful boy.
Then my son Sawyer was born, and as fast as you can say flatnipplesnomilkpoorsuck, my idyllic image was shattered like the wail of a hungry infant breaks a quiet night. The most natural thing in the world seemed completely impossible.
I could not feed my child. What was wrong with me?
Breast milk is best
Just over 30 years ago, the number of women who chose to breast-feed hit an all-time low. Fewer than 20 percent did it once they left the hospital in 1971, and the handful of women who continued after the first few months were considered to be a bit wacky.
Now, at least 70 percent of women start out breast-feeding and about 30 percent are still at it six months later.
This change is obviously a good thing. The Academy of Pediatrics recommends breast-feeding exclusively until a child is 6 months old. The countless benefits include passing on immunities. Studies also claim that breast-fed babies are smarter and healthier and less prone to obesity and disease later in life than their formula-fed counterparts.
So if you don’t breast-feed, you are made to feel, in no particular order, like a bad mother, incredibly selfish, guilty — in short, like a pariah. Add to that raging hormones, possible postpartum depression, sleep deprivation and the inherent worry of every new mom, and an already stressful situation becomes almost untenable.
“You feel like you have to justify why it’s not happening,” said Christy Thompson, 33, a teacher from Mission Viejo, Calif.
The formula folks don’t make it any easier.
Pick up a can.
There, right on the label, is “Breast milk is best.”
Well, duh! The only reason many of us use formula is because we couldn’t breast-feed. We don’t need that helpful reminder — one that Thompson receives every time she feeds her son, Reece.
Thompson never questioned whether she was going to breast-feed. It was only a question of how long. But after Reece was born in January, the question soon became whether she could do it at all.
Reece lost 1 pound before he left the hospital, and within the next week became so lethargic she had to wake him to eat. Thompson continued to breast-feed. But Reece wasn’t getting enough.
When she had to take antibiotics for an infection, she and her husband agreed she had to stop.
“We cried the whole weekend,” Thompson said. “I had Brian take a picture of me the last time I breast-fed. You would’ve thought Reece died the way we cried. We felt this huge loss. I’m already letting him down. I’m already not being a good mom. I felt I let my husband down. Even now, I have to tell myself that it’s OK.”
The first difficult days
The nurse walked over to my hospital bed an hour after I’d pushed out my son. I was still in a haze but eager to nurse him. She grabbed my naked breast and squeezed it like she was trying to get the last drops of juice out of an old lemon.
Nothing. Not a tiny speck of colostrum, the pre-milk milk. She informed me that I had flat nipples. I wanted to demand that every woman in the room expose her breasts so I could see how my nipples, suddenly, were not like everyone else’s.
We saw a lactation consultant the next day. She had me wear what is essentially a fake nipple made of silicon while my husband, David, used a syringe to drop formula under the fake nipple’s shield. This supposedly would encourage Sawyer to suck, as he’d be instantly rewarded with food.
But Sawyer had lost 9 ounces by the next day. His pediatrician said Sawyer was starving! But I shouldn’t stress out — because stress impedes milk production and we wouldn’t want to have to supplement with the “Devil Formula.”
That your child is starving — and it’s your fault — is not something you ever get over. So I became a pumping madwoman. Using an electric breast pump, which is an instrument every bit as ridiculous as it sounds, I milked my breasts for a half-hour every three hours. The pumping is supposed to stimulate milk production, as breast milk is a supply-demand function.
Meanwhile, I watched with longing and sobbed as David gave Sawyer a bottle, either of formula or the paltry amount of milk I produced. How was I supposed to bond with my new baby?
Those imagined golden moments in my glider rocker turned into a nightmare. I was either trying to keep Sawyer awake enough to eat, or comforting him as he shrieked with frustration.
This went on for a month, until we noticed that the pump had pulled my nipples out enough for Sawyer to latch on. Still, all was not perfect; Sawyer was not gaining weight as quickly as he should have been.
‘Everybody produces plenty of breast milk’
Melissa Pedro, 33, heard the steady drumbeat of “Breast milk is best, breast milk is best” in her head for the first month of her son Gregory’s life. The chant was so insistent, it took her reaching her lowest low before deciding the bottle was better.
Pedro, who lives in San Mateo, Calif., never produced enough milk.
“I was devastated,” she said. “Part of me felt like I wasn’t a real woman. Because women breast-feed their children. It made me feel like I was lacking something in the female department. It’s such a primordial thing to do, and I couldn’t do it. It was compounded by the fact that so many people around me reminded me of how important it was to breast-feed my baby.
“When I went and saw a lactation consultant for $90 an hour, she said, ‘If you are not producing milk by Monday, you must come back and see me; there must be some reason you’re not producing. Everybody produces plenty of breast milk.’ “
Pedro took fenugreek, a supplement believed to increase milk supply. She also used a contraption in which a container of formula is attached to a tube, which you tape to your breast. The tube opens at the nipple. When the baby latches on, you drip formula onto the nipple.
“My view went from having this totally precious moment to I ended up with a screaming child, tubes taped to my breast, feeling totally humiliated,” Pedro said. “It went from the most beautiful moment between mother and child to the most embarrassing, frustrating, terrible time.
“You have no idea how hard breast-feeding is. It’s always perceived as something totally natural and everyone can do it. Nobody forewarned me.”
When Pedro decided to switch to formula, it was a relief for the whole family.
“Breast-feeding wasn’t delightful and comfortable and sweet,” Pedro said. “Once I started giving him formula, my entire life got better. If I had known that, I would have been a lot easier on myself.”
La Leche League weighs in
I was not breast-fed. Neither was my older brother or sister. It was the ‘60s, after all. Those who did choose to nurse their children were an anomaly. In fact, women were encouraged by the medical establishment to formula-feed.
“I was one of two mothers who were breast-feeding in my maternity ward with 30 other women,” said Mary Lofton, a La Leche League spokeswoman, who had children in the ‘60s. “What I experienced at that time was the same thing mothers who bottle-feed today are experiencing. We were looked down upon. I was nursing in a restroom, and a woman said I was crazy to breast-feed. Now it’s been reversed. It’s tragic.”
La Leche, the best-known breast-feeding support organization, started to really get the message out about the benefits of breast milk. The Academy of Pediatrics joined in, and American women began to listen — and to take it personally. So how did it get so out of hand? For Lofton, it’s partly that women are competing to do the best thing for their children.
“It’s like the argument between stay-at-home moms versus working moms,” Lofton said. “We can’t seem to say it’s OK whatever you do.”
For years, many women didn’t breast-feed because they didn’t have good information. Those who were proponents became almost militant; basically the only excuse not to do it was if you were undergoing cancer treatment.
“It was a sincere desire by women who had breast-fed to make it available to other women,” Lofton said. “Unfortunately, it can be misinterpreted to someone as being more rigid or aggressive. I’d like to defend La Leche, because, ironically, the people who are causing this difficulty for mothers who are formula-feeding are not in our organization.”
No room for compromise
There are excellent lactation consultants, and there are also consultants who make it impossible to feel good about opting to formula-feed. Melissa Bigelow, 27, of Tustin, Calif., had both.
When she had problems producing milk, a lactation consultant suggested she carry her child in a sling all day and never, ever introduce formula. Not only is it not as good as breast milk, but it cuts down the breast-milk supply, Bigelow was told.
Her son, Jacob, who is now 8 months old, was severely jaundiced from lack of nutrition. Bigelow pumped every two hours around the clock after he was born but didn’t get enough. Her pediatrician recommended she supplement.
“My husband and I were both sure Jacob’s head was going to spin around if he had formula,” Bigelow said.
But she allowed her mother to give him one bottle at night, and Jacob sucked it down and seemed happier. Bigelow then saw a different lactation consultant who noticed Bigelow had mastitis, which is a caused by blocked milk ducts in the breast and leads to flulike symptoms and requires antibiotics.
A day before Jacob’s 2-week birthday, he still had 9 ounces to go to regain his birth weight, a benchmark to show a child is getting enough to eat.
“I called the lactation lady, and she told me to pump every hour through the night, and maybe he could gain the weight,” Bigelow said. “My husband and I were sitting on the couch in the dark that night. I’m so exhausted and I’m crying hysterically that I can’t do this. My mom came over and said, ‘I don’t care what those nursing Nazis say. This whole breast-feeding thing is a trend. The trend will change again back to formula in your lifetime.”’
Bigelow quit that night. She felt free. Her depression lifted. She put on makeup. She got out of the same sweats she’d been wearing for two weeks.
“When I was trying to figure out nursing, I thought, ‘Oh, crap, this is my life.’ The second I stopped, I thought, `I can leave the house for more than 45 minutes.’ I mean, what about Mom? What about Mom’s sanity and Mom’s health? I should be, on some level, important. I’m part of the family.
“I felt the lactation people pushed that the only thing that’s important is the baby. This whole field is so brainwashed into (the idea that) nursing is the only thing.”
A bittersweet ending
Sawyer is now 6 months old. I would like to say that I finally got the hang of breast-feeding and that everything eventually went smoothly. Instead, I worried constantly about whether he was eating enough.
And, in the ultimate irony, after all the tears and stress, it turns out that he is allergic to my breast milk. I can stay on a strict diet that eliminates all dairy, soy, nuts and shellfish and continue breast-feeding him for the year the Academy of Pediatrics recommends. But I choose not to.
I have decided that I’m done. I want to spend less time obsessing about what I’m eating and whether Sawyer will have a painful allergic reaction and more time enjoying every achingly beautiful smile and belly laugh and all the firsts that are the miracle of a baby’s first year on Earth.
There were times when I finally did get my glider rocker fantasy, where I felt so close to Sawyer while nursing him that it was as if he were an extension of my heart.
Which he is. Regardless of how or what he’s eating.