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When Breast Is Not Best

Allison Hope has worked in communications and journalism for nearly 15 years, with clips at the Washington Post, Slate, New York Magazine, Conde Nast Traveler, among others.

Stop shaming women for not breastfeeding when there are plenty of good reasons not to

Right after my son was born, the nurse placed him on my breast. He wiggled his newborn body up and his mouth immediately found my nipple. It was hospital protocol to do this and to encourage breastfeeding. I sighed happily and thought that this was the beginning of a beautiful breastfeeding relationship.

I was wrong.

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A lactation nurse came to see me in the hospital shortly after and shared some tips for proper positioning. The baby was having trouble latching, and she told me how important it was to keep trying as she pushed his little screaming head into my breast. My baby was frustrated, his little face red from crying, his body shaking from upset.

Still, I persisted.

“I don’t think anything is coming out,” I said.

The nurse comforted me with a reminder that the first incarnations of sustenance for baby is the colostrum, which comes in very small amounts and that baby didn’t need anything more. She helped me express a spoonful and fed it to the baby.

When the nurse left the room, I tried to repeat what she taught me about how to hold the baby and position the nipple and when to move in for the latch. But my baby did the same thing — he rooted frantically, not coming close to the nipple, and then started screaming. I got ready to push his little head in toward me the way she had, but I couldn’t bring myself to upset him further. I instead hand expressed and fed him by spoon.

That night was my first time alone with my new baby. He was less than 2 days old. It was 3 a.m., and he slept in his bassinet while I lay in the hospital bed several feet away. I was exhausted after 18 hours of labor followed by 24 hours of family visits and no sleep, but still awake. I was afraid to let him out of my sight, to slip into dreamland and miss a cue to help him.

I was also still running on the adrenaline and happy hormones from giving birth, in awe that my body had created a little human.

The calm rise and fall of my tiny baby’s chest as he slept soon gave way to a wakeful cry. I picked him up and tried to rock him back to sleep, but his cries only grew louder and more urgent. I changed his diaper and rocked him some more, walking around the room to try to calm him to no avail. He was crying blood-curdling yelps.

I pressed the call button for the nurse (don’t we wish we all had those at home too?!), and she came a moment later.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with him,” I said.

“He’s hungry,” she told me.

I didn’t know what to do. I had expressed every bit of colostrum that I could. He wouldn’t latch to try to get more. His screams were heart-wrenching. I felt there was no other choice. “Can I have some formula?” I asked.

More: The craziest things bottle-feeding moms have heard

He took a long swig of the formula bottle and immediately relaxed. After feeding for a bit, he fell into a calm and deep sleep. Rather than feeling relieved that my son was fine, even satisfied and healthy and doing what babies do best, I felt nothing but guilt. I had planned to exclusively breastfeed. The hospital staff had even taped a “breast milk only” sign to his bassinet so no one accidentally fed him formula.

“It was just one time,” I told myself, reassured that I would go home and resume my plan to breastfeed exclusively. My little guy clearly had other plans, though.

Perhaps because I had a C-section or because something else was going on or perhaps because my baby or the universe knew it wasn’t meant to be, my supply was incredibly slow to come in.

After nearly a week, I still wasn’t producing enough milk to feed my baby, and he still wasn’t latching properly. I had two lactation consultants come to the home and consult by phone, plus our doula and advice from anyone and everyone who would offer it up. And despite my guilt, after that night hearing my baby scream out in hunger, I vowed never to let him go without the nourishment he needed again. So I started supplementing with formula.

In efforts to increase my supply, I took herbs including fenugreek and milk thistle, drank nonalcoholic beer (the yeast is supposed to aid in milk production) and pumped every three hours interspersed with power pumps. I also continued to try to get Baby to nurse and fit in plenty of skin-to-skin time.

Finally, after three weeks, my supply started to match what he was eating and we switched to breast milk (though expressed in bottle because he never did latch properly or for long enough). As luck or fate would have it, he immediately became gassy and fussy and bloated and basically just plain miserable all day and night.

It went against all popular wisdom that my breast milk might be causing my baby distress. I was in disbelief and tried everything from cutting out the milk-enhancing herbs to an elimination diet of the obvious things that tend to upset babies, but nothing seemed to work. I did research on the most obscure corners of the internet — could it be a lactose sensitivity that only people in Australia seemed to talk about? Could he be allergic to something more obscure like tomatoes or green beans? Or perhaps his digestive system just wasn’t developed enough to handle anything but sensitive formula.

We cut out the breast milk from his diet, and I continued to pump to keep my supply up, waiting several weeks to see if his system might be more tolerant as he grew. Sadly, the same thing happened. He was a happy and healthy baby on the formula, and when we switched back to my breast milk he became a screaming, gassy, bloated mess. He would cry through feedings and slept fitfully, waking every hour crying.

I felt I had no choice but to throw in the towel on the breast milk. I felt like a failure, that my body was a mystery, because the breast-is-best philosophy just didn’t pan out in my situation.

I read forums on the internet and Facebook feeds about moms and breastfeeding and how much they loved it and how it was the best thing for the baby, and I cried. I had worked so hard to get my supply up to meet demand, and now it was all for waste.

Except in the end, it wasn’t all for nothing. I had 1,200 ounces of frozen breast milk that I donated to preemie babies in need. After meeting one of the babies that I donated my milk to — a 28-week girl who spent three months in the hospital and was severely underweight. She couldn’t tolerate anything but breast milk and mom’s had dried up — I realized that I had nothing to feel bad about.

More: I can't believe I had to pump there

The culture of shaming women for not breastfeeding when there are plenty of perfectly good reasons not to is intense.

All that mattered was that my baby was getting the sustenance he needed and he was thriving. How he got there was just a minor detail.

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