Sisterhood Blog

Learning the Dance of Breast-Feeding

By Melissa Langsam Braunstein

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No two babies have identical eating habits. My husband and I picked up this tidbit when we took a Breast-feeding Basics class late in my pregnancy, and it has certainly been applicable to our daughter.

I remembered this truism when reading this article in The New York Times. It says that a new study found that new mothers who pumped, or expressed, their breast milk by hand were more likely to still be breast-feeding two months later. Those who used electric pumps were more likely to stop. The writer posits that the difference between the two groups is related to embarrassment.

As a new mother who has recently adjusted to both breast-feeding and pumping, I have a different theory: it’s all about expectations. In pumping, as in all difficult things, if you expect less, you’re less likely to be discouraged. Breast-feeding may be natural, but doing it right takes practice. Unless she grew up on a farm, nursing is unlike anything else a new mother has ever done. And without proper guidance, things can quickly go haywire.

I left the hospital feeling good about breast-feeding. Several nurses approvingly noted that Lila had a good latch. So while I found feeding time painful, I was pleased to have quickly mastered a mothering basic. But at Lila’s two-day check-up I was told she was not getting enough to eat. Our new instructions were to feed Lila at regular intervals for 15 minutes per side and then top her off with formula.

Formula. I felt devastated. My plan for as long as I could remember had been to breast-feed exclusively. Nursing seemed like the most maternal and caring gesture I could make toward Lila, and at this stage in her young existence, nourishing her was what I did. It seemed like I was falling short and failing her in this most important way.

After accepting that part of being a mother is ensuring your child eats enough, regardless of the source, we bought some Enfamil and prepared to return for an interim weight check. Lila’s weight bumped up at that first check, but it dropped again by the time of our two week check-up. That mandated another weight check and starting to use my shiny new Medela Pump in Style.

As a stay-at-home mother, I had opted for this particular pump thinking it might be overkill, but would be fast and efficient. I had no idea I’d need it so soon. In class we were advised to wait to pump until shortly before maternity leave ended. For most mothers, that’s presumably three months. But I needed to pump in my first month of motherhood to stimulate milk production.

Pumping after every feeding for 48 hours was exhausting, and I didn’t have much milk to show for it. Still, a pump is meant to make life easier, and in some respects it does. It can suck at any of 10 speeds and never tires or bites. But that’s why an electrical pump might inadvertently promote false expectations. A new mother could think that with the help of this fancy contraption she should be an instant milk-producing superstar. With something as difficult as nursing, reasonable expectations can make the difference between succeeding and quitting.

Until her own baby arrives, a woman may not know that breast-feeding is a delicate dance you need to learn before you can lead properly. The baby (usually) arrives knowing how to suck, but you both need to learn how you feed her. You learn only by doing, and that can involve pain on your end, hunger for baby and frustration for you both. If the baby is not eating well or your milk is slow to come in – possibly because of bad breast-feeding advice – it can be incredibly demoralizing.

That gets us back to the women in the study. Their babies were having trouble latching from the outset. They weren’t simply pumping to build milk supply or to relieve engorged breasts. They pumped to ensure their babies were eating, because they had made the conscious choice to breast-feed. Brava for them, because nursing is not a spectator sport. There are a lot of obstacles a new mother can encounter, and if she is unable or unwilling to stare them down, she might give up on breast-feeding altogether.

I don’t like to give up. In this case, that meant that we continued to supplement with formula. My acupuncturist added points for milk production. At the direction of a nurse with lactation expertise, I simultaneously began taking fenugreek and malunggay root daily. It took time for them to make a difference. When I told the nurse I didn’t notice a change in my milk production, she bluntly told me I might need to make peace with the idea I could be one of those women who doesn’t produce enough milk for her baby and would always have to supplement.

That felt like a blow to the heart, but I kept going, like a horse in a parade looking only straight ahead. Thankfully, Lila’s weight began to move steadily upward. That was a huge relief, but my husband and I began to question our feeding regimen. With the pediatrician’s sign-off, I began letting Lila eat at breast longer. That changed everything. Lila became less fussy. We needed to supplement with formula only twice a day. By ten weeks, we didn’t have to supplement with formula at all.

I am so grateful we’ve reached this point. It was a struggle, so I empathize with the mothers in that New York Times article. If I hadn’t been incredibly persistent and had the unshakeable support of my family, I’m not sure things would have ended quite this happily. As a lactation consultant I recently met with noted, Lila is “European.” Like her mother, she prefers to eat slowly and enjoy her meals. Adjusting our feeding routine to account for Lila’s eating style has been transformative. Now I pump so my husband can feed Lila if I’m exercising or out running errands. I no longer need to do it to increase my milk supply, but rather to relieve my engorgement.

It took some time to adapt, but slowly, slowly Lila and I have gotten the hang of this dance.

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