How breastfeeding affected my mental health: It wasn't "the most natural thing in the world"
By Valerie Breitbach
I didn’t know anything about breastfeeding when my first daughter was born. I had registered for a class offered at a local hospital. I bought a few nursing tops and some nipple balm. I was all set. My daughter arrived four weeks early. I missed the breastfeeding class altogether. I imagined “on the job” training would suffice. I heard a story at my prenatal yoga class about a baby who practically Army-crawled her way out of the womb and latched onto her mother’s breast. I assumed that breastfeeding would happen naturally. How many times have you heard “it’s the most natural thing in the world”? Well, not to us, it wasn’t.
My daughter didn’t latch, there was no tongue tie or lack of milk, but we couldn’t figure it out. I lost all modesty during those early days after her birth. Every nurse in the L&D was lovingly grabbing my breasts and showing me how to feed her. “Hold it like a hamburger” they would say as they handled my sore breasts. What? How the heck do you eat a hamburger like this, I would think. Or they would ask “Have you tried the “football hold”? They would nestle my infant onto my side and try to get her to latch. How many women does this analogy work for? The football hold? The lactation consultant would come in and out of my hospital room those first three days. She would show me how my hands needed to be placed on her head to allow my daughter to really “get a full mouth and clamp down on the whole nipple”.
We become obsessed with “making a transfer” of milk. My nipples became raw and bloody from multiple attempts per session. The second night a nurse began to show me how to use a 5mL syringe to catch the droplets of colostrum. I couldn’t believe this is how we were going to feed my child. But, it wasn’t working. She lost over 10% of her little 6 pound 7 oz self and it was recommended that I begin pumping. We gave her a bottle of formula that night and it hurt to watch how quickly she sucked it down. She was hungry and this solution felt so easy, so effortless. The nursing team wheeled in the hospital grade Medela Symphony, what I now know as the holy grail of breast pumps. It was painful, and I hated it. I cried a lot during those first sessions.
We were sent home with our infant and a pharmacy's supply of syringes, tubing, and nipple shields. We were taught how to pump milk into the tubing inserted into the nipple shield for our daughter to suck through. This system required my husband's full assistance. I would hold our daughter, and my husband would fill and pump the syringe. It was a long process, and I would pump the milk before we started. We were instructed to feed her every 2.5 hours. The pump, feed, diaper change, swaddle routine took well over an hour before we had to repeat it. We were religiously washing and sterilizing every pump part in between sessions. We didn’t trust the idea of putting the bottles and parts in the dishwasher, so my husband washed them all by hand. I remember setting my alarm for 42 minutes of sleep at one point. This schedule lasted for weeks -- in and out of lactation consult appointments with different supplemental systems to try. We weighed her almost daily.
At 6 weeks postpartum, I couldn’t take it anymore. It felt like my daughter was rejecting me as a mother. I felt like I had failed. I began to have scary and unfamiliar thoughts of harming myself. My husband quickly recognized the severity of my mental health and sought the help I needed. My sister and my sister-in-law came almost immediately. They cooked for me, they held my child, gave me time to shower, and they stayed with me when I felt like I couldn’t be alone. During this time I made the decision to exclusively pump and bottle feed. It felt like a loss to me. I didn’t want to quit. I blamed myself and wouldn’t let other people say it was my daughter who couldn’t figure it out. I craved that mother-baby nursing experience. I was jealous when my friends would nurse their babies so easily.
Once I stopped using the supplemental systems, started "exclusively pumping”, and getting more sleep at night, I felt more like myself. And I started taking a daily antidepressant. I feel like it’s important to share this last part. It took multiple approaches to recover and it’s important to mention all of them. At the time I didn’t tell my Mom, or my friends, or my closest colleagues. I was ashamed of the thoughts that I had. Looking back I wish I could have told myself that exclusively pumping wasn’t quitting or giving up. That asking for help, real help, when you need it, isn’t a weakness.
Pumping became easy, and I actually started to look forward to my alone time with my pump. As soon as I turned on the Medela my breasts would start to lactate from the soft swishing sound. My body produced over double the milk I needed to feed our daughter. I exclusively pumped for 8 months. I pumped so much milk that we bought a deep freezer, and I would give bags of my milk away. My daughter continued to drink my breastmilk months after I had stopped pumping. If you came over to our house for dinner with a baby in tow, you left with a grocery bag full of milk. My husband suggested we try and make soap, or better yet cheese, out of it. We did not.
I have since had a second daughter, who after two weeks of help from our same lactation consultant did latch and was breastfed. It was an entirely different experience. But, because of the pandemic and working from home she ended up being exclusively breastfed for most of her first year. But throughout both my daughters' first years they each received my milk no matter the process. I now joke that my older daughter just preferred bottle service while my younger daughter preferred it directly from the source.
Both my daughters now drink cows milk from sippy cups side-by-side in their highchairs. The entire experience seems like a blink of an eye. The struggle and the heartache of breastfeeding will always be an issue that is close to my heart. I think it’s so important to share with other moms and dads about the challenges of breastfeeding. The dads need to know too. My husband's response to the severity of my mental health needs were crucial to our family.
Author Valerie Breitbach and her family are currently stationed in South Korea. You can follow their adventures at Dayton Dames Travel Blog.