7 Things I Wish I’d Known About Undersupply Before I Started Breastfeeding
I had undersupply when I was breastfeeding my first child, I just didn't know it. In fact, I had no idea I was essentially starving my baby. Nobody educated me about what was going on and I didn't know how to ask. I took all the baby preparation classes, including "how to breastfeed," and the potential for a lack of breast milk was never mentioned. So to say there were things I wish I'd known about undersupply,before I started breastfeeding would be a gross understatement. If I had this information in my nursing arsenal prior to starting things could have, maybe, been different.
I was exactly as you'd expect a graduate student to be during her first pregnancy. I was prepared. I researched all the things and took all the first-time parenting classes made available to me. As a result, I feel confident that my lack of knowledge about undersupply wasn't due to a laissez-faire approach to having my first baby. In fact, I can't help but wonder if my lack of education about the issue of breast milk undersupply was a non-malicious, unintentional side effect of the exclusively pro-breastfeeding culture in which I live.
Before all the stalwarts on both sides of the issue come out railing against the way I'm portraying breastfeeding or formula-feeding, please just stop and take a look at what I'm actually saying. I don't believe formula is best any more than breast is best. My point is, we need to trust mothers with the accurate information about all feeding options and barriers. Even, and perhaps especially, the possibility of undersupply. Without the information, mothers are left to spiral into the shame, self-blame, and isolation of thinking we are the only mothers ever to fail their children in this way. It's not that I just wish I knew these things about undersupply, it's that I believe we should all know these things about undersupply:
That It Actually Exists
Everyone in my circle, including medical professionals, never talked about undersupply. I didn't even know it could be an issue. The people who were teaching me about breastfeeding were all people who espoused the belief that if the mom tried hard enough the baby would always get what they need. Not only is this untrue, but the omission of undersupply as a possibility caused a tremendous amount of guilt and self doubt during my already anxiety ridden new parent days.
That Supply Boosters Don't Work
Seriously you guys, I tried everything. So-called supply enhancing supplements? They don't work (at least, they definitely didn't for me).
Fenugreek tea, in addition to tasting disgusting, made my breast milk and skin (yes my skin) smell like maple syrup. The homeopathic drops? They just cost a lot of money, they didn't actually do anything to boost my supply.
Perpetual Attachment To A Pump Is Horrible...
My first baby stopped latching onto the breast when I had to go back to work at six weeks postpartum. Honestly, though, they never really latched that great to begin with. Despite those initial latching problems, and my undersupply (which I still didn't know was a thing I didn't have control over). I was still under the distinct impression that "breast is best."
As a parent who would do anything for their child I listened to the myth that pumping will increase your supply. I also bought into the idea that, no matter what, breast milk is the best thing for your baby. If I was to give my baby that true motherly love they needed, I had to sacrifice myself — my body, my autonomy, my mind— and agonize for each tiny little drop of liquid gold. So even if my infant wasn't latching, I was going to do right by my baby come hell or high water.
I attached myself to a breast pump for eight months. Eight months. I worked full-time, I traveled, and I sat on the couch attached to a pump when I could've been holding my baby. More often than not I was a sobbing mess of sweaty angst and hormonal shame.
...And It Doesn't Work
I did all of this because I was told that my ability to produce breast milk directly correlated to the amount of motherly love I possessed. So if I pumped hard enough, long enough, and with enough dedication and love, I would increase my supply.
Well, dear reader, guess what? I didn't. Eight months in and I was still pumping up to eight times a day and regularly producing only half an ounce of milk.
There's Nothing Heroic About Starvation
We have these stories about women who boldly and strongly hold out and practically kill themselves to get their breast milk flowing. When it "works" we hold these moms up as the epitome of what mothers should be. While I fully support these mothers' right to choose what to do with their bodies, and how to feed their babies, I do not support misinforming them. I was one of those misinformed. If I had known my baby could literally have starved to death because of my (what I thought were) required heroic efforts, I would have chosen differently.
Formula Can Help You Bond With Your Baby
Once I finally accepted that I had to supplement with formula, I actually threw away the f*cking breast pump and spent time with my kid. You know, quality time that didn't include a breast pump. Just me and my baby, cuddling, loving, and finally getting to know each other. I wish someone had bothered to educate me, or at least not actively keep information from me. If I had known this about undersupply I would've been able to start bonding with my baby much sooner.
All Or Nothing Narratives Are Too Simplistic
Any all or nothing narrative when it comes to feeding babies (and parenting in general) is damaging.. The truth is that knowing about undersupply wouldn't have encouraged me to not try breastfeeding. I know this because despite my first experience with numerous breastfeeding complications, I went on to successfully breastfeed two more children.
I feel confident in saying, however, that learning about undersupply before or during my devastating first breastfeeding relationship would have made me feel less like a pariah. It would have decreased my anxiety, self-hatred, and feelings of failure as a mother. Most importantly, it would've empowered me to make my own decisions about my body and my child.