The Battle For Breastmilk: What I Learned And Why I Plan To Try Again

Robin Marty

Breastfeeding my first child did not go smoothly. First I was told my daughter was failing to thrive.  Later, I felt that our relationship was, too.

Now that I’ve made it past the halfway point on my second pregnancy, things are starting to become a little more real.  I’m realizing that actual plans to give birth should be made, and that I will soon need to make realistic decisions about how I plan to raise and care for this child once he is born. 

I assumed with everything that I learned and experienced having Violet, things would be easier the second time around.  For some situations, like the actual event of giving birth, I am hoping that I will have a second chance to succeed in the delivery room, and have the experience I was denied the first time.  Now I’m hoping maybe I can have a second chance at breastfeeding, too.

With Violet, I had every advantage a breastfeeding mother could ever want: access to a hospital pump for her first ten days, a bevy of NICU nurses all who said they were certified lactation consultants, a strong baby who appeared to have a voracious appetite and no issues with latching, and an endless supply of mother’s milk tea, peanut butter toast, apple juice and advice.

But every advantage came with a roadblock: my NICU baby was full term and mostly healthy, just on an antibiotic IV.   She was also the only child in the ward for most of her stay. The same nurses who encouraged and advised me non-stop on my breastfeeding adventures would also give her bottles when she woke up hungry, just to “let me get some rest” after a grueling labor, an emergency c-section, an infection, and massive blood loss.   After my stay in the hospital ended and Violet had another week still to go, they told me that I should concentrate on getting myself healthy by going home at night to sleep, while my daughter woke up to more staff cuddles and even more formula.

Appreciate our work?

Rewire is a non-profit independent media publication. Your tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.


I did all of the things I was told I needed to do.  I drank the teas.  I woke up every three hours, pumping at home with my Mendela electric, spending 30 minutes on each side, crying when a full night’s work combined to make three small ounces that were gone within the first feeding back at the hospital. 

Then, back to the formula.

I’d go to the family room to get more juice or heat more tea, weary, in pain, staring at the giant poster that listed all of the horrible things that companies put in formula that you would never have to expose your baby to if you just gave him the breast.  I was trying to give her the breast.  But it was never enough.

The nurses came up with a myriad of reasons why I just didn’t seem to be producing enough milk.  C-section surgery can stall your milk coming in, they told me.  You had a severe loss of blood your body is trying to make up first, said another.  You need to keep pumping more, I heard from a third.  I would feed my baby, hand her over to my husband or a nurse, and then go back to a dayroom in the hospital and pump some more. 

Except for the first moment they wheeled me into her room, I don’t think I ever just sat and held my baby during the entire first ten days of her life.  Instead, I only held her to feed.

Once her antibiotics were done and she was discharged, things became much easier.  I nursed her when she cried.  We began to have that feeling of closeness that people had told me about, but I always seemed to be missing at the hospital. On the nurses’ advice I’d feed her for 20 minutes on each side, then if she still seemed hungry I would make her a small bottle to top her off.

When we went into the doctor for her follow-up a week later, she had lost 6 ounces.  The doctor forbade me from breast feeding, because he wanted to monitor how much food she was receiving. 

Violet was officially being classified as “failure to thrive.”

Suddenly, I was in a completely different breastmilk world.  My husband’s paternity leave and vacation had ended, and I was alone for the first time with my daughter.  I was pumping now for 40 minutes every two hours, trying desperately to build up supply.  I still had hardly enough for one feeding, and now I had to combine pumping time and feeding time, forming this endless loop with either a bottle or a pump in my hands at all time.  It was never enough.  I found myself resenting the baby, who would be in a glider, crying for me while I pumped. Couldn’t she see I still had five more minutes left on my right side and I was doing this for her!

That was when I realized that it wasn’t just my daughter that was “failing to thrive,” but our relationship, too.

I began to taper down my pumping.  It had been four weeks, and she had begun to put on weight.  I pumped three times a day, getting just enough milk to make me feel like I was providing a little bit of antibodies if nothing else, mixing it with the water in her formula.  Soon I switched to twice a day, then once, finishing up the day she turned six weeks old. 

I held her more.  We had time to cuddle on the couch, where she would nuzzle up and sleep on my chest.  She was already pushing herself up on her arms, rolling over, things I had time to enjoy because I wasn’t stuck in the constant cycle of pumping and feeding and yes, even crying.  She started to sleep through the night.  I started to sleep through the night.  And I started to think maybe I wasn’t the most horrible mother in the world after all.

My milk never came in.  I never was able to really give her my breast.  But I was able to give her me.

Now, I will have a chance to try this all again.  This time I am more prepared.  I know that many of the roadblocks that might have hindered me previously will probably not be an issue this time.  With no induction, my likelihood for an emergency c-section is greatly reduced, since we should end up with either a vaginal birth or a planned c-section.  With IV antibiotics during labor, the baby should come out perfectly healthy, and I should be able to keep him in my room, away from well-intention but somewhat contradictory nurses.  We should be able to be together, from the moment of birth, through our discharge, and at home, providing the best foundation for potential breastfeeding.  And, having watched my incessantly moving, constantly underweight newborn blossom into a healthy, mentally-advanced and physically exhausting toddler has taught me that what may at first look like failure to thrive might instead be a child settling into its own skin.

But I’ve also learned a valuable lesson from my experience with Violet.  Despite all of your plans and best intentions, sometimes breastfeeding just might not work out.  I can only do what I am capable of, and this time, I will recognize that the milk from my breast is not as important as the time I get to spend with my baby, nurturing him, helping him grow and develop.

Mothers struggle constantly with their desire to breastfeed being hit head-on by extenuating circumstances, as fellow Rewire reporter Amie Newman discussed elequantly last year.  But while I will go into this second attempt optimistic, I will also be easier on myself, not falling prey to the potential feelings of shame and inadequacy that can sometimes accompany bottle-feeding should things not work this time, either.

Being a good parent has less to do with what goes into your infant’s stomach, and everything to do with what goes on when you hold that baby in your arms.

Load More