Where to begin. I suppose I’ll begin where my pumping journey began: with my son, Chip. I nursed my two daughters both til just past one, and while we had our fair share of challenges (reflux, thrush, Raynaud’s Syndrome, etc.), overall the entire experience was a good one with both girls. I pumped as little as a stay-at-home nursing mom would with the girls (about once a day before bed, at most). So I didn’t assume anything would be picture perfect with Chip, but I certainly felt well-educated when it came to breastfeeding after successfully breastfeeding two kids already.
Unfortunately, at two weeks Chip was already struggling. Although he had gained more weight than my doctor had hoped, he only nursed for 8-12 minutes total and I never felt empty afterward. I tried to relax after seeing his excellent weight gain, but just I didn’t have peace about his eating habits. By six weeks he was incredibly colicky, eating every two hours, and screaming during feedings. I’d cut out dairy, soy, gluten, and caffeine but really only found caffeine and dairy made a difference so I kept those out of my diet. I knew his issue was likely reflux because my first two both did the same thing, but I called a lactation consultant just to be sure and have her check things out. She confirmed he had no lip/tongue tie disfunction but also told me my supply was likely low from his poor eating. A weighted feeding showed that he wasn’t taking enough per feeding - which was my suspicion - so I began pumping after three feedings a day just to boost supply. By his two month appointment I asked for Zantac and our doctor prescribed it once he heard how unhappy Chip was most of the time. His weight gain wasn’t great and I voiced my concerns about his short nursing sessions. He suggested I come back in three weeks for a weight check after using the Zantac.
At that next weight check, things didn’t look like they’d changed at all - in fact, things looked worse. Chip had stopped crying during feedings (the Zantac helped tremendously), but he still refused to eat past 8 or so minutes, and he seemed to be eating even less. At this point, he’d also started refusing a bottle altogether so that complicated the issue. I couldn’t supplement (with breastmilk or formula) even if I wanted to. This time, my doctor suggested adding back in two night feedings (Chip had JUST started sleeping 11 hours at night, of course) and trying to get him to take a small bottle of more breastmilk after he nursed, if he would.
After this appointment, my mother-in-law, who worked at Vanderbilt in the NICU at the time, set up an appointment for me with two specialists she knew from the NICU — one a lactation consultant, and one a speech language pathologist (for feeding issues). At this appointment I explained our problems and we did a weighted feeding. He miraculously took 4oz in 8 minutes. (I think we just had a lucky feeding.) They assured me his latch was fine, he had no ties, and that he probably only stopped nursing so quickly because he was frustrated with a slow flow and was FULL. I was so relieved. This was the best news - and I hoped that since we’d added back in the two night feedings that would be enough to get him back on track.
Boy was I wrong. I took him in for his next weight check and he had just about fallen off the whole growth chart (for weight - he was born in the 35th percentile). I was so defeated. I discussed the options with my doctor, who said if Chip was taking a bottle willingly he’d have me exclusively pump for a week to see if increased volume helped - but since he wasn’t, just to keep “doing what I was doing.” He also instructed me to increase my caloric intake significantly in hopes that my milk would be fattier (I think he was grasping at straws because I’m 99% sure that is a myth - but perhaps he was also just concerned I wasn’t producing enough). He also added, “I mean, he’s not going to dry up and blow away… but I definitely expect him to be completely off the growth chart by his next appointment.” I was at the end of my rope, and frankly very worried about Chip. I know slow weight gain can significantly impact developmental growth - the brain needs fat to operate and grow. Amelia was also born late (like Chip) and therefore a bit higher on the growth chart than she probably should’ve been (like Chip), but she fell and then stayed on her curve and I never felt very worried. Bettye fluctuated a little here and there but ultimately stayed pretty consistent. I felt WORRIED about Chip’s weight. Whether it was instinct or just hormones, it really weighed on me. He seemed SO tiny and skinny to me, and not ever very content. [To be clear: our doctor was very supportive of breastfeeding and not gloom and doom at all. My gut was what caused me worry. I just felt something wasn’t working.]
On the other hand, exclusively pumping sounded like a death sentence to me so I was secretly a bit grateful Chip wouldn’t take a bottle. I had two other children to care for. How on EARTH would I find time to pump 7-8 times a day (which is how many times I was feeding him at the time)?! What would I do with Chip during that time? He still cried most of the time and preferred being held. I would’ve much rather turned to formula than to pumping if he was going to take a bottle of anything!
For about a week I woke up feeling sick and anxious every morning at the thought of feeding my child for the whole day. I called a friend who happens to also be a speech language pathologist (specializing in feeding for babies through age 3 - what a godsend), and, among other heaps of encouragement and affirmations that he likely didn’t have any mechanical issues, she told me if at the end of the day all I’d thought about was feeding my child - something needed to change. That was too much to carry. I so appreciated that dose of reality. I probably would’ve fought much longer than I should have if she hadn’t gently pushed me to accept that what I was currently doing just wasn’t working for us, and I owed myself the grace to make a change for my own well being. During that conversation, she also gave me tons of ideas for helping him get over the bottle strike, and finally a combination of them WORKED!
Once I got him back on the bottle, I started using what I was pumping after his feedings (for supply) to try and supplement. The only problem: he didn’t want to eat any more after he nursed. It’s almost as if he had the tiniest stomach and would only eat 2-3oz per feeding and just want to eat again in a couple hours since he ate so little — so supplementing after a nursing session was pointless. He was “full.” I could tell he still wasn’t gaining well, and I was so worn out from pumping after every feeding and trying to force him to eat more, so finally, out of desperation, I decided to try pumping for one day to just see how things went.
Coincidentally, it was January 1st. That’s really when my (almost) exclusively pumping journey began. I was heartbroken all day. I cried multiple times, but I started with still nursing him first thing in the morning and only pumping for the rest of the day. (He stopped willingly nursing in the morning a few weeks later.) We went to my in laws that day for a New Years meal and I remember handing Chip to Logan for his bottle while I went upstairs to pump and feeling so lonely and sad. This special time when I used to sneak away with my sweet babe to nurse him and snuggle him, just the two of us, had turned into hooking myself up to a machine while someone somewhere else gave my son his nourishment. It absolutely broke my heart. That day he wouldn’t take more than 2oz in a bottle and I remember feeling just as anxious - if not more so - than I was when he nursed. Seeing in actual volume how little he ate made me sick to my stomach. Why was he starving himself?
He also happened to be a little under the weather at the time, so I decided to give it another day and see if he’d take more in the bottle. That day was slightly better. The day after that was, too, and suddenly he was taking full feedings from the bottle and I finally felt a little relief. Thankfully I had a small freezer stash to help me get ahead of his feedings and, like a train slowly chugging and churning to full blown speed, within a week we were finding our rhythm.
When I was still experimenting and in the process of figuring out if this was something I could really commit myself to, a friend reached out who exclusively pumped with both her kids. I have to add this to my story because truly it gave me the perspective I needed to push through. I remember lamenting to her how much work it is to pump full time - and how I couldn’t believe she did it - and I’ll never forget her cheerfully responding saying, “It’s really no big deal!” and telling me all of the reasons it can be super convenient (which I’ve found to be 100% true!). She also urged me to learn to feed him at the same time that I pump - be it with a boppy or propped on a pillow or a bouncer or whatever. She insisted that would make things feel way less cumbersome. I had been throwing myself such a pity party that hearing her say, “It’s really no big deal!” parted the clouds for me. Oh - this can feel normal? This can actually be better and easier in some situations than nursing? Oh, okay… maybe you’re right… And her advice to find a way to feed Chip while I pumped was invaluable. I grabbed our bouncer and parked it on the couch (it still lives there) and suddenly what had been taking me an hour (to bottle feed then pump) now only took me 20 minutes - and I got to spend the time that he used to nurse still feeding him - mom to baby. This also solved the problem of what to do with him while I pumped. He was occupied with eating - so he was happy - and I wasn’t trying to calm a crying baby while strapped to the couch! This is really when exclusively pumping became doable for me and felt like something I could stick with. I owe our success to you, Martha!
Emotionally, it was really, really sad for me. I had a hard time accepting that he was better off this way. Nursing is so emotional and there’s such a deep connection it brings, it was hard for me to set that aside (selfishly) for his physical wellbeing. He was also my first son and that felt really special and different - and likely my last baby - so it was especially disappointing. I mourned for a very long time. I remember feeding him on the couch in our living room one day, before I’d switched to the bouncer set up, feeling particularly sad and also frustrated because feeding now took up so much of our time, and he just gazed at me while he ate - so content and peaceful - and I felt like he was saying, “Thank you, Mom. Thanks for doing this for me. Thank you for making me more comfortable. I’m sorry it makes you sad, but I’m so thankful.” He just looked so satisfied. After months of screaming during feedings and fighting to get him to eat, I couldn’t help but feel peace instead of sadness while I watched him eat that day. At some point in those early pumping days I had a physical therapy appointment and had to park outside early to pump while I gave him a bottle in the car and I just sat there and cried. It felt so broken - so awkward and strange when before I’d just lay him on my lap and he’d eat without machines or accessories or bottle warmers. I was surprised to find, however, that once I cried about it and let the sadness out, I felt better. I felt lighter about it all.
Those first few weeks were rocky for me - trying to figure out what normal was and balancing all the new logistics I had to manage with just living life with my kids. I felt like I was ruining the quality of life of my older children, so I decided to just set my goal at six months and re-evaluate how we were all doing when we got there.
The grieving didn’t stop for a very long time, if it truly has at all. Every time someone would bring up lip or tongue ties I’d wonder if we should’ve sought a third opinion. Every time I’d give him a bottle in public I’d wonder what other people were thinking. It’s all so silly, but it’s all so deeply personal too. So many things I’d looked forward to with this next baby I wasn’t getting to experience after all. It was all just hard to accept.
Six months rolled around and I was still pumping six times a day - afraid to drop to any fewer for fear I’d lose my supply. I was so over it. I decided to try some formula to see if maybe I could switch to formula during the day and just pump morning and night until my supply ran out since I’d made it to my goal. He’d had two formula bottles back when I first started pumping because I was afraid the pump wouldn’t keep my supply up and I wanted to know I had a backup. Both times he’d thrown it all up, which is why ultimately I stuck to pumping instead of switching to formula early on. I researched for forever, but finally just decided I needed to start somewhere so I got him a can of Gerber Good Start and Earth’s Best. He. was. not. interested. Not only was he not interested, but he also threw up a few of the bottles he did take. After about two weeks of attempting one formula bottle a day, I felt good enough about it to at least drop a pumping session while continuing trying to acclimate him to formula. To my surprise, my output didn’t change. Then I dropped another.. and it still didn’t change. Suddenly I was only pumping four times a day and still producing the 30oz I was feeding him. At that point I was so encouraged that I just gave up trying to get him to like formula and committed to finishing out his first year with breastmilk.
I ended up dropping down to three pumping sessions a day, but recently my supply has declined a bit - which is fine since he only takes 20oz a day now that he has solids, so I still make more than he eats - but that made me switch back to four a day, which I think will be sustainable til he’s a year old, or I start supplementing with frozen milk in the next few weeks.
As far as nursing goes, if he woke at all in the night I’d nurse him back to sleep, so I’ve been grateful to still get to experience a small dose of that special bond. However, there were times where I went nearly four weeks without an opportunity in the night to nurse him, so there were several times I thought we were done. I’d get really emotional thinking it was the last time and I didn’t even know it, but then inevitably I’d end up nursing him again. In the past few weeks he’s been less and less interested in nursing even in the middle of the night, which has been sad for me but I’ve also recently felt kind of ready to be done nursing. I held onto it just because I was afraid to let it go, to never feel that precious bond again, but this last time he nursed it was so sweet and peaceful and I decided it would be our last. A few days past nine months. I’m honestly kind of surprised I got to nurse him that long at all. It’s been kind of a fight if he’s done it at all lately and I don’t want to risk ending our nursing relationship on that note, so I have peace knowing that that part of our story is over.
So here we are. Three more months to go til his first birthday and I’m feeling weary of pumping but also grateful to have made it over the hump and be in the downward slide. I have about 400oz in the freezer that I’ll likely start pulling from as I wean from the pump - but I think I won’t start doing that til he’s 10 months old for good measure.
I’m really only writing all of this down for my own therapeutic benefit, but I thought making it public might also encourage someone who might be in the middle of a similar journey. It’s honestly become second nature to all of us (my husband included), and I’m really grateful for that.
Here’s to you, Chippy. For making me prove to myself that I can do more than I ever thought I could possibly do. Thanks for that, sweet boy. It’s all for you, my love.
Disclaimer - because it seems I always give one, ha! Feeding your baby is a very personal choice and experience. Whether formula feeding, breastfeeding, pumping and feeding, using donor milk, or a combination of those - there’s no wrong decision. Breastfeeding worked out for my first two kids, so I planned on doing it again, and as you (probably?) read - breastmilk ended up being all my son would accept. This is my account of the experience I had with my son, and when it comes to you feeding your child - you do you, friend!