Losing This Battle: Breastfeeding and Combo-Feeding

baby sucking breast

As I nursed 4-day-old baby Savannah, she suddenly yanked her head back, ripping off a piece of my already raw nipple. As she screamed, I stared in shock at her bloody mouth and I felt a wave of panic wash over me. Nooo! Why did you do that? I silently begged for an answer, as my heart broke.

My nipples already had open sores and now one was destroyed. Our breastfeeding challenges were spiraling out-of-control. How much longer were we going to be able to do this? Weeks? That sounded impossible. Days?

My mind drifted to all of the health and emotional benefits of breastfeeding that we’d talked about in my breastfeeding class. I wanted everything for my precious baby. I sat there devastated and bleeding, not sure what to do next. She was only 4-days-old and she was counting on me.

A couple of hours later, we drove to see another lactation consultant—we’d already met with one in the hospital.

The new LC asked to observe me breastfeeding. I began to squeeze my breast into a bite-sized sandwich, as they’d taught us in breastfeeding class. The LC stopped me before I even began and gently explained that I had plugged ducts right where I was squeezing.

She walked me through nursing in a new position and offered a very specific strategy for getting a deep latch. She also explained how to “massage” out the plug (ouch). Last, she suggested Lanolin for my wounds.

I popped a couple more Advil and decided that I could struggle through this for a little longer.

Over the next week, Savannah gained weight and my sore nipples improved a little… it was working!

When Savannah was 3-weeks-old, I recalled that the LC had suggested I start pumping and offering bottles. I puzzled together a breast pump and gave it a whirl. It seemed to work—I got about an ounce of milk.

But after that pump, my breasts seemed to just stop. Savannah cried and pounded on my chest, as though she wasn’t getting any milk. I figured I’d make more and she’d get it soon. Six hours later though, she was still crying, popping off my breast, and pounding. And she still hadn’t napped.

At her next appointment, we found out she’d lost weight. We had no choice. We had to feed her more. Her health was more important than exclusively breastfeeding.

I could hardly swallow with that lump in my throat, as I mixed up that first ounce of formula. I choked back tears and swore this would be temporary. I’d build my supply up.

That evening, at a Le Leche League meeting, an LC told me to pump more—she insisted that it was critical to building my supply.

Embarrassed but desperate, I sat topless with her (and a small audience), as she checked my pump and my pumping technique. She told me to burp the baby more—she said that would take care of our problems. Right

Again after that pump, my breasts’ shut down. Again, Savannah pounded and cried and didn’t sleep, until I finally increased her formula.

I went to a breastfeeding support group, held by the guru of breastfeeding—the lactation consultant who’d taught my breastfeeding class. When she turned to me for my question, I struggled to keep it together. “Everyone says I need to pump to build my supply, but every time I pump, it seems to make things worse,” I explained, now choking up a bit. “I think I’m losing this battle.”

The lactation consultant suggested I use bigger flanges and sent me home with a hospital grade pump, after a practice pump with her. Maybe this was the key.

But I had the worst plugged ducts I’ve ever had, that night. My milk became salty and Savannah didn’t want to nurse. Then after the plugs all finally came out—which took a week—Savannah became fussy and her poo turned bright green.

If one more breastfeeding disaster happened, we might be done. But I still had it in me to fight through this for a few more days.

But this time, I was trusting myself.

Everyone told me I’d lose my supply if I didn’t pump. But I was positive: After each pump, my supply plunged, and the next day I’d end up needing to double the amount of formula we were giving.

So, I returned my pump. If my supply faded away—fine. That was better than watching it plunge overnight if I kept pumping.

And you know what? It worked.

I never got back to exclusively breastfeeding, but my supply didn’t drop anymore either. I nursed on-demand and I followed with formula, if Savannah was still hungry. My nipples healed. My daughter was a much happier baby when she was fed… she gained weight and thrived.

I eventually stumbled onto a picture one day on the Medela site that showed the correct fit for pump flanges.  The site stated that incorrectly-fitted flanges could cause plugged ducts. I knew it!

Eventually with everything I’d learned, I found a combination of products that let me pump successfully too, when I went back to work. One morning I pumped 7 ounces! I was so happy, I took pictures of the bottles.

It was hard to imagine a happy ending to our breastfeeding story, in those early days. But I ended up enjoying breastfeeding. My daughter had great health, never had an ear infection, and still received most (maybe all?) of the benefits of breastfeeding. And when we hit my original goal for breastfeeding, I wasn’t ready to stop. So, we kept going for a few more months, until after her first birthday.

For moms who find themselves in a similar situation, I want you to know that even if you can’t rebuild your supply, you can keep breastfeeding. I’d heard very little about supplementing or combo-feeding, but it ended up saving breastfeeding for us.

I also want you to know, you’re not alone. Breastfeeding is way harder than expected—even with the help of pros—for a lot of women. Please don’t feel embarrassed or disappointed if you have to give formula. You’re still feeding your child well.

Last, try not to feel bad if you face some challenges and some things don’t work out the way you’d planned. That’s part of your amazing new role as a mom—try to soak up the good stuff and know that it will get easier soon.

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