In an effort to promote exclusive breastfeeding as the optimal way to feed babies, we seem to have forgotten that it's not always easy or even possible for some people to do it. Unfortunately, in our "breast is best" culture, we hear a lot about the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding, but little (or nothing) about what to do when it doesn't work out. As a result, I blamed myself and struggled with depression and self-hatred over what was and was not coming out of my breasts. Sadly, there were many reasons why I blamed myself for having undersupply.
It never occurred to me that I wouldn't be able to produce enough breast milk to feed my babies. Literally everything I read about breastfeeding said that undersupply was rare. Books, articles, classes and websites about breastfeeding cite statistics that seem so small (usually 1 percent or 5 percent), implying that those statistics mean that undersupply is "rare" and not likely to be something new moms have to worry about. It turns out that this figure is bullsh*t. I'm not joking. Seriously, there's no way to measure how many people will not be able to produce enough breast milk, because lactation is complex, requiring the right physiological conditions to exist (in both mom and baby), and can be impacted by so many things, including medical conditions, social pressures, previous trauma, support, mental health, sleep, time, nutrition, and hydration, just to name a few. Some experts estimate that 10 to 15 percent of women suffer from overt lactation failure, and as many as 40 to 60 percent of moms experience undersupply. However, if you think about it, even if it's true that only 1 percent of people who try to lactate have undersupply, that figure could represent millions of people.
We need to talk about undersupply, not just because it's a reality for so many people, but because the myth that it is rare and that almost anyone can breastfeed is really ableist, privileged, and anti-feminist. It can be really damaging and dangerous, causing moms to accidentally starve their newborns and seriously impacting their mental health. Above all, moms deserve to know that their ability as a mother is not measured in ounces of breast milk or the physical ability to lactate. It's just not. I don't blame myself for needing contacts, being short, or having rheumatoid arthritis, but for so many reasons I blamed myself for having undersupply. This has to stop.
Everyone Said It Was "Rare"
When I couldn't produce enough breast milk, I felt so alone and like there must be something wrong with me. Now, years later, I have heard from thousands of people who had undersupply. It's not rare, and repeating this lie when someone is expressing fear, asking for help, or telling you about their experience is a form of gaslighting. It wasn't until I had my second child that I was diagnosed with insufficient glandular tissue and was told that no matter what I did I would not produce enough. That diagnosis allowed me to forgive myself.
I'd Been Brainwashed By "Breast Is Best"
I thought I had to breastfeed my daughter or I was failing at being a mom. I tortured myself for months to produce a couple of ounces of breast milk a day. It was not worth it, but I thought I had to do what was "best," even when breast wasn't best for us.
I Felt Like It Was My Fault My Baby Starved
In her first five days of life, my baby didn't get enough to eat. Everyone told me my latch was perfect, and she was getting enough, but then she lost 20 percent of her birth weight and had to be admitted to the NICU. I felt like it was my fault. I had failed somehow.
I Supplemented With Formula
All of my friends said that formula would ruin my baby, ruin our "breastfeeding relationship," ruin my supply, ruin her tiny tummy, and ruin her health. However, and regardless of those messages, I had to supplement to nourish her. I thought those few bottles of formula she got at the hospital caused my undersupply. As it turns out, research shows that babies who receive supplemental feeds in the hospital are often breastfed for longer. And, as I discovered when my son was born, it's possible to combo-feed with both formula and breast milk in the long term.
I Was Too Tired To Keep Up With Triple Feeding
I still shudder when I think about the months I spent breastfeeding, pumping, and supplementing with a supplemental nursing system about every hour. I did this around the clock to "boost" my supply. It was exhausting, and I couldn't keep up.
Everyone Had Advice
Everyone who learned that I was supplementing with formula gave me advice about how to increase my supply. Many times one person's or professional's advice directly conflicted with another's. It was impossible to do everything and at a certain point I gave up trying.
I Couldn't Afford More Supplements And Prescription Drugs To Boost My Supply
I literally spent hundreds of dollars on herbal supplements, foods, beverages, and even a prescription drug that is restricted by the FDA due to side effects to increase my supply. Ironically, I spent way more money trying to breastfeed than I did on formula.
My Chart Literally Said "Lactation Failure"
There's nothing quite like seeing your midwife write, "stopped breastfeeding due to lactation failure" on your chart. I cried for days.
I Eventually Stopped Breastfeeding
I eventually decided to switch to formula full-time, but when I did, I heard words like "gave up," "failed," "should have tried harder," and "bad mom" from my friends, co-workers, family members, and the voices in my head. I even heard these things from other moms with undersupply who chose to continue breastfeeding.
I Thought Breastfeeding Was All Or Nothing
I didn't know combo feeding was a thing that people did, even though by the time their babies are 6 months old, almost 80 percent of breastfeeding moms supplement with infant formula. Why aren't we talking about this and offering them advice and support on how to combo feed? I pretty much made it up as I went along, didn't tell many people that I wasn't "exclusively breastfeeding," and even hid in the bathroom to give my daughter bottles.
People Told Me How Selfish I Was
It's hard to imagine a situation when you'd call another person selfish for having a medical condition, but people did it all of the time when they learned I had undersupply,. Then they questioned whether or not I actually had it.
Postpartum depression was a lying b*tch. She told me I was a bad mom and convinced me that my undersupply was caused by one bottle of formula, one dose of Benadryl at the hospital before my milk even came in, and ultimately not trying hard enough. One contributing factor to postpartum depression, for some people, is breastfeeding not working out.
This doesn't mean that we should stop trying to breastfeed babies. I love breastfeeding, it just means that we need to start talking about undersupply, letting moms know that they aren't alone, and offering practical ideas for safely feeding their babies. Maybe then moms with undersupply will stop blaming themselves, and realize that babies thrive on love and can be nourished in many different ways. Fed is best.