Breastfeeding maybe best, but boy does it put new moms to the test!
Being a new mom is not only challenging because of the toll it takes on your mind and body, but also because of all the conflicting advice and theories you receive. I am not an expert nor do I want to add additional guilt for new moms out there. I am choosing to share my story of breastfeeding because I wish someone would have shared a similar one with me, prior to my delivery.
Instead, it seemed like what I was hearing was that new moms fall into one of three camps: those that produce enough milk, those who overproduce, and then the rest, well they’re just screwed… I never heard a comeback story. A mom whose supply tanked and she managed to get it back, and all the challenges working moms face. So I’m choosing to share my story and all the techniques I tried throughout this post that have worked for me.
I leave it up to you as the reader to decide for yourself if you’d like to try them out, share them with another mom, and even welcome you to add your techniques to mine or mention how they fell short for you.
In case there is a concern, none of the links I have posted are affiliates links nor have the products or companies I have listed paid me for my endorsement. They are my own opinions based on my experiences, because again goal with this post is to support the sisterhood of moms.
Despite going through a number of baby classes on CPR training, infant care, child seat safety, baby delivery, lactation, and getting TONS of solicited and unsolicited advice on parenting from friends, family, and well-intentioned strangers, I felt like a total failure when it came to breastfeeding. I was 4 weeks into being a mom when I noticed that I just wasn’t producing enough breast milk to satisfy my voracious little one.
I didn’t get there overnight.
My little one was born with jaundice, which is pretty common in newborns, and the treatment for it is phototherapy. My newborn laid under a light for several hours throughout the day to help bring down his bilirubin and stop jaundice from spreading to other parts of his body. It’s kinda like sunbathing, and as you know when you are out in the sun for a long time you need to stay hydrated. We also had to reduce the volume of bilirubin in the blood to stop jaundice from spreading, again an easy way to do this is by feeding a newborn liquid.
Unfortunately, a newborn’s guts are sensitive. So they are limited in what they can imbibe. Breast milk is the recommended option, but a new mom’s milk may not come in for 3–5 days.
It can be expedited through pumping, but it still wouldn’t produce the volume to help a newborn hydrate.
Milk production is a supply and demand system.
The nurses at the hospital gave my husband and me some strategies. We could provide formula through a bottle or through a tube to mimic the flow of a breast. And every time we fed our newborn I’d also need to pump because I needed to send a message to my breasts: “Baby is hungry so make some milk!” Each time the breasts received this message they’d do their best to fulfill the order and learn to make more for next time. The ultimate goal was to speed up production and get milk come to come sooner.
During each of these initial pumping sessions, I wasn’t producing milk. I was producing colostrum, and I’d fed that to my baby in addition to formula.
After a full day of phototherapy, we got the green light that we could finally go home. At home, we’d need to continue to take him out into the sunlight for about 15 minutes 3–4 times a day — good thing we live in sunny California and it was summertime! We also needed to continue to feed him formula to help reduce the volume of bilirubin and keep our little one hydrated, which meant I needed to pump at home, to continue telling my breasts to produce milk.
I hadn’t yet bought a breast pump, because I had been told that you really don’t need one until your baby is about 4–6 weeks or you are getting ready to go back to work. In hindsight, I wish I had. Fortunately, the hospital let us rent one.
Before we left the hospital, the nurses did warn me about cluster feeding, but what they hadn’t warned me about was how hard it was going to be to get my little one to latch.
On day three I woke up to two very engorged breasts. While it hurt a lot, I was super excited that my milk had come in! For the next two days, I tried my best to get my little one to latch. I often had to express milk through hand compressions, and rub my nipple over his nose and mouth to help him smell the milk. But it just wasn’t working. He would squirm and cry a lot because he was hungry, making it even harder for me to get him to latch. Meanwhile, we were still feeding my newborn formula for his jaundice, and I continued to pump through every feeding.
By the end of the first week, my newborn’s jaundice had gone down a lot, and the pediatrician said if my milk had come in, I could start transitioning to exclusively breastfeeding. But I was exhausted and frustrated with breastfeeding. Getting my little one to latch was extremely challenging. Not to mention that I had just given birth and my body ached all over!
Getting even more help!
I decided I needed to see a lactation consultant at my hospital.
The LC immediately noticed a couple things. First, my newborn was super impatient during feeding time, which was causing him to squirm and scream. And second, I was using the cradling position to feed him, which was making matters worse. The cradling position is a fairly open position, giving babies a lot of freedom to move, i.e. squirm. The LC suggested a couple other positions like the football hold in conjunction with a boppy (breast friend) to help me control my little one, and get him to latch.
After an hour session, I got the hang of it. I took a few pictures to help remind me back at home.
My mom also suggested that I lay him on my side and feed him. Since he was small, I used a small pillow to prop him up and keep him stable. This was a game changer for me!
It caused me to rethink co-sleeping instead of having him in the crib. The combo made feeding at night a cinch. I often dozed off, while he was still suckling, and woke up to discover that he had been feeding for over an hour. He had switched from feeding to soothing himself to sleep. So I’d gently pull my nipple back a bit, and most times it would slip out.
Three weeks in I was feeling pretty good, and prepared for the advent of another cluster feeding!
My little one was getting better and better at latching, but then he got so good, that he would latch and suck aggressively to the point that nipples developed sores. I was worried about developing an infection like mastitis, and I felt like I was doing something wrong. So I went back to the LC. The LC did confirm that my newborn was aggressive because he was impatient and that over time it would get better.
This time I was less enthused by the consultation, and three weeks in I was fed up with breastfeeding that I decided to give myself a weekend off, and just pump and put the milk in the bottle.
One weekend turned into a week…
As other people started feeding my little one, I realized that I desperately missed our time together. I wanted to have our bonding time back.
I went back to breastfeeding, and then on week four, we discovered our little one had colic…
My little one would constantly cry throughout the night making breastfeeding yet again a challenge. I was super tempted to say “screw it!” to all those #breastisbest campaigns, crack open a can of formula, pour it into a bottle, and shove it into junior’s screaming mouth at 3 am!
I did my best to resist, and breastfeed him. But after each feeding, he was still upset. A number of people suggested that I start supplementing with formula to fill up his belly and help alleviate the colic. It did work. He calmed down and slept for longer. But it made breastfeeding go from bad to worse…
Within one week my milk supply tanked. I knew because my breasts were super soft, and when I tried to pump I would produce less than an ounce each session.
After all that hard work!
I was caught in a downward spiral, and then my new mom determination kicked in…
I was vigilant about wanting to get my supply back!
I proceeded to do more research. I discovered that supplementing with formula had caused my supply to tank. Any feeding that didn’t involve me pumping or breastfeeding, sent a message to my breasts: “Baby isn’t hungry, no need to make milk.”
I had to figure out how to boost my supply. I discovered galactagogues, nursing vacations, and power pumping.
Over the course of the next couple of weeks, I changed my diet to be composed of breast milk inducing foods: oatmeal, leafy greens, healthy proteins like yogurt, nuts, and nonalcoholic beer and teas to stay hydrated. A dear friend who is quite knowledgeable about breastfeeding sent me a shipment of some galactagogues that had worked for her. So I decided to give them a try. Finally, I began power pumping sessions for a few days a week.
For two weeks I became hyper-focused on getting my supply back.
Through power pumping, galactagogues, and feeding my supply slowly started to rise, but my little one’s colic threw me off. He still cried before and after sessions. I took it as a cue that I wasn’t producing enough milk. To make sure, I fed him a little extra pumped milk a few times, but each time I did this I noticed that within 20 minutes he’d end up spitting the extra milk up. That’s when my mother’s instinct told me, he was just being greedy, and I was right.
Instead of giving in to his demands, my husband and I would soothe him after each feeding. We paid attention to see if he continued to root around, he didn’t. It was the colic. On occasion, we’d weigh and measure him to see that his numbers were going up. We didn’t care about the percentiles, we just wanted to make sure he was gaining weight and growing.
Six weeks into motherhood I finally felt like I was getting the hang of breastfeeding.
I had heard a lot of stories about mothers going back to work and their supply tanking because of stress, and not having time to pump because of back-to-back meetings or a long commute.
With a month left of maternity leave, I began to worry that all my efforts would be wasted.
I had heard about building a freezer stash for when your supply tanks. I started to build up my supply and got to about 40 ounces, only to discover that this freezer stash needs to be used sparingly or just like supplementing with formula it can cause your supply to tank.
What I really needed to do was be strict about pumping when I was away from my baby, and any time I dug into my freezer stash, I’d need to make sure that I was producing close to as much milk as he would be bottle feeding from the stash during the day.
Since I run my own business and work from home most days, I knew I’d be able to feed my little one. But what about the occasional business trip? Or being away all day for a conference?
Since breastfeeding was my priority, I became assertive with my ASKs. I asked every client and conference for a mother’s room. I also notified them that I’d be taking breaks every 2–4 hours to pump. Everyone was happy to oblige.
My third week back at work was the most challenging. For four straight days, I had to commute up to San Francisco from my home in San Jose. Each way was over 90 minutes door-to-door.
Each day, I’d walk into an office or conference, and head straight to the mother’s room to pump. And yes I felt like I should have been working and meeting with people, but cared deeply about my commitment to my little one.
My little one and I successfully got through the week with no dip in supply.
I noticed that doing breast compressions during the last 5–10 minutes of my pumping sessions would yield another ½ to full ounce of breast milk.
On days I exercised I produced more milk. I’m not sure why but speculate it was the increased blood flow.
I learned from Work And Pump to pump, shower, then pump again within an hour, and noticed an additional letdown producing 1–2 oz.
I have 8–11 pumping/feeding sessions in a 24 hour period. 2–3 at night and the rest during the day. On days that I have a lot of work, I aim to pump every 3–4 hours.
I produce a lot more milk in the mornings between 1–6am, around 3 to 5 oz. Mid-day and afternoon my production goes down to 1–3 oz. Then it picks back up in the evenings 6–11pm, 2–4oz. It helps to spread out my intake of galactagogues to help with this.
Bottle versus breast.
About a month after I went to work, I started to notice that my little one started to prefer drinking from a bottle, especially during the day when he was alert and could tell that my breasts were slower to satiate his hunger.
I figured it was fine, and I’d still have time to breastfeed him in bed at night and in the morning.
But he only grew more impatient. I decided it was easier for me to just stay one bottle ahead of him at night. For about a week, I’d wake up when he was hungry, have my husband give him a bottle, and I’d pump. I ended up pumping 2–3 times during the night. I didn’t sleep well but I was fortunate to have a flexible schedule.
After about a week, my little one went back to breastfeeding throughout the night. Hence, I’ve learned to just adapt to meet his needs. I’m fortunate to be able to do this because of my flexible work schedule.
A broader approach to breastfeeding.
At my son’s 4-month checkup, he received a clean bill of health, but our pediatrician was concerned about his height and weight. He has always been a lean baby and the pediatrician thought it would be best to help him bulk up. Our pediatrician recommended we supplement with formula after providing breastmilk at each feeding and provided us a formula that has a higher fat content.
When I heard the news I was initially disappointed. After all my hard work of pumping, I was still falling short. I was pumping about 20–24 oz a day, but it seemed like my little one needed 32 oz or more, especially during growth spurts.
I realized I needed to look past my own disappointment and accept that my little one needed more than I had the capacity to provide.
My husband and I decided to take a broader approach to breastfeeding. We’re aiming to feed our baby breastmilk, and when he’s still hungry supplement his feedings with formula.
We’ve been doing this for about 3 weeks now, and the results have been positive. He’s slowly gaining weight, my milk supply hasn’t dipped, and overall our household is more relaxed.
I’m sure things will change as our little one continues to grow. I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is to be adaptable and do my best to meet my little one’s needs.
Other moms I’ve spoken to have their own approach. I know some who exclusively pumped from day one and were able to make it to a full year or beyond. Others who fed for 3 months and when they went back to work, due to a lack of flexibility to pump, switched to formula. And some who set a goal like making it to 6 months and then deciding.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends nursing for 2 years. I think it’s incredibly challenging for working mothers, especially for those who have demanding schedules.
My own goal is to get to a year with a combination of breastfeeding, pumping, and supplementing with formula if my little one is still hungry.
Gendered Debate Around Breastfeeding
I know there are a lot of politics around breastfeeding and social double standards based on mother’s socio-economic background. As a result, I know some moms aren’t fortunate to have people around that are supportive and understanding of their decisions. I do wish that each mom was given the option to decide what is best for themselves, their little one, and their family.
No one told me I needed to breastfeed. I’m fortunate to have an extended family of working mothers who were willing to support my decisions. Ultimately, I chose the goal to breastfeed for a year, and much of it has been possible because I have a lot of freedom and flexibility in my career, and the means to make it happen: time, money, and support!
Here are some resources I’ve found helpful:
- Kelly Mom: blog by a lactation consultant and mother of 3 kids
- Work And Pump: blog for working moms who want to pump at work
Posts on formula feeding:
- What to Say When Someone Asks Why You Aren’t Breast-Feeding
- The Politics of Breastfeeding
- Millennial Moms Choose Formula Feeding For Convenience
Here are the galactagogues I use and others I’ve tried:
- Legendairy Milk: there’s a lot to choose from here. I’ve tried them all! It helps to rotate to see which combination works for you. I’ve gotten the best results from Lactivist, Cash Cow, Liquid Gold, Pump Princess, and the Tea-Ta’s tea (versus Mother’s milk).
I’ve tried other things like Booby Boons and Milk Maker’s Lactation Cookie Bites but they didn’t seem to have quite the same effect. I prefer making my own cookies and here is a great recipe I found (do NOT omit the chocolate chips like I did the first time…)
I surveyed a lot of my friends and there was quite a split between the Medela and Spectra. I wasn’t sure which to go with but two of my good friends who have similar personalities as well as lifestyles seemed to like the Spectra, so that’s the one I choose.
- I use a Spectra S2, which I purchased through my insurance provider. I’m quite happy with it. I don’t mind the additional parts. I play around with the settings a lot and try to consistently replace all the parts using this guide.
- I recently purchased the Willow Pump just to see if it would make a difference. Here’s a more detailed post about it. The verdict is still out for me, and I will report back!
Poornima Vijayashanker is a new mom as of June ’18.
When she is not breastfeeding her baby boy, she is busy running Femgineer an education company dedicated to helping techies build product, companies, and level-up in their careers.