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What to Do When Breastfeeding Isn’t An Option

When I started nursing my first child nearly eighteen years ago, I couldn’t turn to my my mother for advice. That’s because she, like many in her generation, had been told by her doctor that she couldn’t make enough breastmilk for her kids to thrive. So, like many of her peers, she stopped nursing and switched to commercial formula.

Instead of relying on the age old wisdom passed down from mother to daughter for generations, I had to do something scary — wade through vitriolic internet forums about breastfeeding on mothering boards. Thankfully, I’m a good researcher, so I could glean useful information even from some of the snarkiest contributors to the Mommy Wars.

The truth is simple enough. My mom’s doctor? Probably wrong. The vast majority of women can successfully breastfeed given the right circumstances.

Now, thanks to websites like Kelly Mom and the widespread work of La Leche League, mothers everywhere are encouraged to start breastfeeding.

The good news? Most do.

From my best-selling book, Beautiful Babies:

Now, thanks to the research and campaigning of organizations such as the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, and the U.S. Department of Health, most moms acknowledge that “breast is best.”

And according to data released by the CDC in 2010, roughly 75% of all babies in the U.S. are breastfed for at least some part of their infancy. Forty-four percent of all babies are still being breastfed at six months of age, and 24% are still being breastfed by the time they reach a year old.

Yet, the number of babies being fed formula has not decreased. Rather, what the numbers indicate is that moms are attempting to breastfeed, but failing. Only 35% of all babies are exclusively breastfed at three months of age. By six months old, the numbers drop to a paltry 15%. In other words, moms begin breastfeeding with the best of intentions, but soon end up supplementing with formula.

My breastfeeding journey.

I was a statistical anomaly. None of my three kids ever had formula. None of them ever nursed out of a bottle. All three of them exclusively breastfed until they started feeding themselves solids anywhere between the ages of 8 months and about a year old. And all three nursed well past two years old, weaning themselves sometime before their third birthdays.

I owe a great deal of that success to my life circumstances.

I worked at home, so I could have a baby glued to me 24/7. I fondly remember typing away at my desktop’s keyboard while my babies fell asleep sprawled in my lap. Because I was alone in my home, I could wander around the house bra-less (and sometimes topless!) to give my baby easy access to the breast and prevent all my nice blouses and tops from being stained with breastmilk.

I didn’t have to travel — for business or personal reasons.

I never had to take strong prescription drugs or other pharmaceuticals that are contra-indicated for nursing.

I didn’t mind nursing in public, so I would just go places with my breastfeeding baby in tow and nurse on demand.

There was literally no reason for me to ever be separated from my baby for more than a couple of hours — no reason at all for our breastfeeding relationship to be strained or paused.

I loved a lot of things about breastfeeding, but one of my favorites was how easy and economical it was. I never had to buy formula or bottles. I never had to prepare or carry a bottle bag with me just to leave the house with my baby. I didn’t have to wake up in the middle of the night to prepare a formula feeding; instead I just rolled over and nursed my baby while half-asleep, then rolled back into a quick & easy sleep as soon as the baby was done breastfeeding.

Are you sick of me yet?

I say all this not to gloat, but to assure you that I’m speaking from a place of success.

Yes, I had some challenges — everything from over-active letdown to a couple cases of mastitis. But when each little hurdle arose, I would just go online and read all the stuff my momma could never tell me about breastfeeding because she’d never really successfully done it.

With all this success, it became easy for me to think that breastfeeding was easy. After all, it’s 100% natural. It’s what the female body is designed to do.

But what about when breastfeeding isn’t easy?

What about when breastfeeding isn’t an option?

Yes, there are cases where it’s impossible to breastfeed. Many mothers find themselves in circumstances that don’t permit breastfeeding their baby. Maybe they’re undergoing chemotherapy. Maybe they’ve had breast implants. Or, perhaps they’re like my friend Lindsey.

She’d had breast reduction surgery as a college student. At the time, she’d asked the surgeon to preserve her ability to breastfeed. But the surgeon made a mistake and accidentally clipped her lactmamo gland.

If you wish to have any form of breast surgery, and keep the ability to breastfeed, be sure to hire someone who knows what they’re doing.

As a strong breastfeeding advocate and a birthing doula, Lindsey thought she had prepared herself for the challenge to come. She’d read Defining your Own Success: Breastfeeding After Breast Reduction Surgery and armed herself with an at-breast supplementer system, a hospital grade pump, and all the right herbs to increase supply.

She writes that despite all this preparation, “the reality of my very partial supply was still a giant blow. I really had to grieve the loss of that connection with my baby and experienced some depression in the early postpartum days.”

Finding donor milk.

Before the birth, she had reached out to a number of her friends who were nursing at the time — me included. Her desire was simple. She knew she’d likely need donor milk, and she asked us if we would donate milk for her daughter.

I said yes. Lindsey brought me a pump, and I set about learning how to pump breastmilk since I’d never done it during the whole time I’d nursed three children. I pumped every night for a few months — gleaning just an extra ounce or two at first, then moving all the way up to about 4 ounces a night.

I was embarrassed and disappointed. Here my friend’s daughter needed extra breastmilk, but all I could produce in one day was LESS than the amount a typical baby guzzles down in one nursing session. (And they usually have anywhere from 8-12 such sessions a day!)

My only encouragement came from Lindsey herself, who was so incredibly grateful for the donor milk that she repeatedly thanked me even when all I was handing over was a bag or two of frozen, pumped breastmilk at a time.

She writes, “Fortunately, a lot of my friends were breastfeeding at the time, and they graciously donated their extra milk to Sophia. I don’t think they’ve ever understood fully how much that meant to me; each frozen bag of milk felt like a bar of gold in my hands.

When that supply dwindled, I found local donors on MilkShare.com — each of them a gift from God. In all, Sophia received donated breast milk from over a dozen women — her ‘milk mamas,’ as I like to think of them. I love that she benefited from so many women’s milk; I always pictured nursing circles in the old days, when women would pass around their babies to get nourishment and immunities from many of the women in their communities.

At two and a half years old, Sophia has an incredible immune system and is remarkably healthy, which I believe is connected with our donor experience.”

Eventually, though, her baby’s demands outpaced Lindsey’s supply of donor milk.

What was she supposed to do then?

Making homemade formula.

Still struggling with depression and feeling overwhelmed by all the work involved in using her at-breast supplemental nursing system with dwindling donor supplies, Lindsey had a choice.

She’d known about the homemade baby formula in Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions, but just didn’t think she’d be able to do it.

In her words, “It seemed like a lot of work!”

So, she looked for a brand of organic, commercial dairy formula that she could feel good about giving her daughter. She found one, but unfortunately (or fortunately in the long run!), the formula constipated her daughter terribly.

Finally, Lindsey was ready to make the homemade formula.

She reports, “Even though the homemade formula was an extra 20 minutes of work each night, it actually was much more cost effective than commercial formula, and I knew it was much more nutrient-dense. I loved knowing that each ingredient was fresh and quality. It definitely felt like the next best thing to breast milk.”

You’ll be glad to know that Sophia thrived on the homemade formula. She continued to gain weight, reach developmental milestones, and bring her parents joy.

What did Lindsey learn?

She concludes her story this way, “I worked really hard to give my daughter what I felt was best for her, and I’ll do it again for future babies.

I have a number of good friends, though, who have simply switched to any random packaged formula when breastfeeding doesn’t work, and I make it a discipline to never judge them.

If I learned anything through my feeding struggles with Sophia, it’s that you can’t have a happy baby without a happy mama. Sometimes gathering donated milk or making formula just feels like too much to stay sane.

You never know what women are dealing with behind the scenes, but we are all fighting some sort of guilt or perceived shortcoming. No need to add snotty glances to a woman bottle-feeding. It’s not always the easy way out like many assume, and if it is — there may be valid reason.”

Empower Mothers To Make Informed Decisions

Lindsey’s experience was an eye-opening one for me. As a mom for whom breastfeeding came easily, I’d always assumed that the truly determined mother could successfully breastfeed. Lindsey proved me wrong.

She was determined, hopeful, prepared, informed. And she had to grieve, to struggle, to cope, to try to stay sane while her illusions crumbled.

So what’s my message here?

Be compassionate. If you’re a successful breastfeeding mother, be careful of what you say to moms who are struggling. Their choices are not easy, and they’re doing the best they can with the circumstances they’ve got.

What I learned.

Mothers have options — many of which they don’t know about.

Before Lindsey, I didn’t really think that finding milk from donors was possible. Now I’m aware of dozens of online forums dedicated to matching mommas with willing donors. Some of the more popular ones are: Milk Share, Human Milk 4 Human Babies, and Eats on Feets.

Did you know that it’s possible to make a homemade formula free of unnatural additives, GMOs, and on which a baby can thrive?

(You can buy a kit with everything you need to make a few month’s worth of homemade formula here!)

Most people don’t know. They leave the formula creating up to the scientists. And if they cringe when they read the latest story about rocket fuel or toxins in commercial baby formula, feeling outraged, they also don’t feel like they have any other options. Yet they do!

So, if you know of any mothers who are in similar shoes to Lindsey, why not let them know what options are out there?

And finally, don’t be discouraged if they don’t do what you would do. Each one of us is different. Remember, you are the only expert on your life. Only YOU have walked in your own shoes; only YOU know the daily struggles, compromises, and decisions you’ve faced. The reverse is also true. You are NOT the expert in your friends’ lives. You have NOT walked in their shoes. You do NOT know their daily struggles. You are not them. So, please, do not judge.

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