Everyone told me "breast is best," but I opted to exclusively pump anyway
Motherhood—and mothers’ voices—should be celebrated every day. But that also means having conversations about the complexities of parenting. In our weekly series, “Millennial Moms,” writers discuss the simultaneously beautiful and daunting responsibilities of motherhood through the lens of their millennial experiences. Here, we’ll be discussing things like burnout from the several side hustles we work to provide for our kids, dating app struggles as young single moms, rude comments from other parents about pumping versus breastfeeding, and so much more. Stop by every month for a judgment-free space on the internet where women can share the less rosy aspects of motherhood.
On posters and pamphlets at every prenatal visit, the message was loud and clear: Breast is best. I wondered, though, if I even could breastfeed. When I was fifteen years old, I had a breast reduction surgery, which means the ability to breastfeed or produce milk would not be guaranteed. Every time I read that phrase or saw a poster of a new mother breastfeeding, I was reminded of my perceived shortcomings—how my body might not be able to provide. The guilt sunk in every time someone asked if I planned to breastfeed. “I want to,” I would tell them. “But I’m not sure if I can.”
As soon as my daughter was born, a nurse lifted her wiggling body onto my chest for an hour of skin-to-skin. My husband and I marveled at her tiny face and fingers when a nurse came over to teach us how to express colostrum, or what most call “liquid gold.” To my surprise, I was able to produce milk for my daughter despite my previous surgery, but soon after we found out that she had a tongue-tie (a condition that limits tongue range and ability to properly latch), it complicated the breastfeeding process further.
Although we had her tongue-tie fixed, it was difficult to teach her how to latch again once she was introduced to the bottle, and I didn’t have it in me to force her to keep trying. Lactation consultants and family members alike tried to encourage me from the sidelines: You can do it, they said. Keep trying! Some said: This may be reversible!
But, I started to realize this didn’t need to be reversed, and I didn’t want to put either of us through the pain, discomfort, and the ultimate struggle that breastfeeding was becoming.
My baby needed to gain weight or she would continue to slowly lose it, and I wasn’t going to put her at risk just so that I could say we were successfully breastfeeding.
Eventually, I found my way to a method that many new moms choose: Exclusively pumping. Fiona Jardine, lactation expert and doctoral candidate at University of Maryland says in Our Milky Way, “EPing [exclusively pumping], is defined as only expressing milk and not directly nursing at the breast. This can—and successfully does—provide the solution to many [breastfeeding] barriers while still providing the benefits of feeding human milk.” One potential drawback is the lack of direct contact between breast and baby, which some believe facilitates more bonding, but extra skin-to-skin contact can make up for any lost bonding time.
Like many mothers in a similar situation, I struggled with the decision, but I didn’t have many options. For me, it was either force my baby to try to continue breastfeeding, formula feed my baby, or exclusively pump breast milk for my baby. I chose the latter after joining an online support group for moms who exclusively pump, and there, I found encouragement and stories just like mine, as well as a swath of new information and resources that helped me establish my supply further for my little one. Here are some things I’ve learned thus far:
Pumping is just as valid as traditional breastfeeding
Pumping is breastfeeding, is one argument from those who exclusively pump. At first I didn’t really understand, but EPing moms in the online support group explained: You are still feeding her breast milk. So, technically you are still “breastfeeding.” Many of the moms in this group argued that moms who work hard to make, pump, and deliver breast milk to their babies are qualified to claim the term. They often come up against others who challenge this idea on technicality.
While I haven’t experienced a confrontation about my method of feeding, many other new moms in the group have. Some group members wrote that debates broke out over their holiday dinners as aunts and sisters chimed in to let them know that pumping is NOT the same as breastfeeding. Personally, I am neutral here. I understand where many EPing moms are coming from in claiming the phrase, but I also see how others may not view EPing as technically equivalent in method to breastfeeding. But all in all, both are equally valid ways of feeding your newborn. In fact, I’m not sure there is a wrong way to feed your baby, (unless they are losing weight).
Pumping is super hard work
Some people like to say that pumping is “taking the easy way out,” and this could not be further from the truth. When I first began EPing, I was completely overwhelmed. I didn’t know anything about it, had just gotten out of the hospital after suffering an infection, and quickly had to learn the rules before my supply started to dwindle. Right away, I created a schedule with alarms that included: Pumping every two hours around the clock, each time for thirty minutes in order to increase my supply. This included 2:00 a.m. pumps in the dark, being hooked up to my machine, and stuffing crackers down my throat to keep the nausea at bay, because sometimes the sensation and lack of food could be stomach-turning.
I was and am completely committed to giving my daughter what I can, even if it means sacrificing much-needed sleep. Because EPing involves a strict adherence to a schedule, multiple alarms on your phone, and the dedication to see this method through for months, it’s actually one of most difficult ways of feeding your baby and requires a commitment like no other.
In fact, a writer at Kelly Mom, a site devoted to providing evidence-based information on breastfeeding and parenting, said, “Mothers who choose to exclusively pump are very dedicated mothers determined to do the best they can for their babies. They deserve respect and support.”
Making breast milk is a supply and demand process
The more you empty the more you make! Because producing breast milk works on a supply and demand basis, you have to move milk to make milk. When your body realizes that you are empty (because a baby, or pump, has taken the milk) it works to make more in order to fill that need. If new moms are experiencing a low supply, there is likely a reason.
Kelly Bonyata, IBCLC, wrote in Kelly Mom, “Studies have shown that most healthy breastfeeding [or EPing] women maintain an abundant milk supply while taking in 1800-2200 (or more) calories per day. Consuming less than 1500-1800 calories per day (most women should stay at the high end of this range) may put your milk supply at risk, as a sudden drop in caloric intake [may occur].”
I did not know this beforehand but because of the support group, I learned that drinking lots of water, eating enough calories, and creating and sticking to a pumping schedule are all good ways to ensure that the supply and demand process has ample time and space to work. For me, this was (and remains to be) difficult. I’ve never been a huge water drinker and have dieted in the past, so drinking and eating more have taken an active participation from me.
Feeding your baby is all that matters
Whether you breastfeed, exclusively pump, supplement with formula, or only use formula, a child who is fed is truly best. Although many new moms may be attached to an ideal way of feeding a baby, it’s sometimes best to realize your needs and let go of previous expectations you set for yourself and your journey.
When I found out I could breastfeed, I was thrilled, only to have the option taken away a few weeks later when I found out my baby was hardly getting enough. Having to let go of the idea of breastfeeding was sad, but I was more motivated to continue giving my daughter breast milk any way that I could.
From my own experience with a lactation consultant who visited me during my hospital stay while there with an infection, I learned that if the baby isn’t getting enough milk (and sometimes this is hard to tell at first) they will begin to lose weight, ultimately giving up and giving into starvation. This was beginning to happen with my own daughter when we were unaware of her tongue-tie and the issues it was causing her. My lactation consultant explained my struggle breastfeeding this way: “It’s like trying to run a marathon with your shoes tied [together]. You can barely do it, and not very well.”
Adjusting my frame of mind allowed me to avoid pain (for me and baby) as well as avoiding further weight loss for her, especially in the early days after her birth when she needed to be gaining weight the most. I learned that it ultimately was not worth my baby’s safety, health, or my own mental health to try forcing a method that just wasn’t working. It took some reframing on my end, as well as shoving off everyone else’s ideas for how they thought I should be doing things. Choosing to exclusively pump alleviated the pressures I felt to make breastfeeding work when it simply wasn’t for me.