Late in my third pregnancy, both of my ears suddenly stopped working. I went to the doctor, who said it was probably fluid buildup from an ear infection. But after I gave birth, I still couldn’t hear a thing, so I asked my doctor for a referral to an ear, nose, and throat specialist. When I finally got an appointment a month after labor, the ENT sent me for an MRI for my left ear and quickly discovered I had a 3.5-centimeter tumor shoving against my brain stem, which was messing up my hearing nerve. I needed to undergo brain surgery immediately.
At the time, my baby was 10 weeks old. Our breastfeeding relationship was, as they say, well-established: with all of my kids, I'd been a milk machine, donating extra milk and leaking all over town, and this baby was no exception. So while I was in surgery, I asked my doctors how I should deal with the milk buildup while under anesthesia. "Could somebody pump me in the middle of brain surgery?," I asked. The answer was no.
So I tried again: "Can my baby come to the hospital right away when you're done so I could breastfeed?" (Again, no.) "Could someone...be on hand with a mop?" (Nyet.). I was concerned that I might actually explode during the surgery, which was supposed to take almost a full day. But they didn't want any extra equipment in the operating room, so I eventually gave up.
A few minutes after I went under the knife, I requested a pump. You can imagine my surprise when I tried pumping and there was almost nothing left. Pumping all day got me less than half an ounce total. After brain surgery, my milk supply almost totally dried up, which forced me to try relactation.
To be fair, I had been warned in advance that this might happen. My doctors and lactation consultants told me it wasn't uncommon for women to lose their supply after surgery, for reasons that aren't totally clear. I suspect that it happened to me because my heart rate dropped dramatically after my surgery, and my body was so freaked out about people fiddling with my brain that it had no energy to create food for another person. But I was still surprised. I had always struggled with oversupply, so it didn't seem possible that my milk would disappear after just a day.
Still, I was persistent. While I was in the hospital recovering, I had nurses pumping me. I asked my sister to pump me. I even called in a lactation consultant, who told me that she had gotten adoptive mothers to lactate in the past, so my situation seemed doable in comparison. But I was still left with only a few tiny drops of milk.
I desperately wanted to continue breastfeeding my baby, so I was willing to try anything.
When I got home, I started reading up on relactation. There's very little information on relactation, but it's basically defined as the process of getting your baby to breastfeed after a few months of not breastfeeding her at all. It also refers to the process of building your milk supply back up after it disappears. (Loss of milk supply is fairly common and can be attributed to a number of different factors, from not breastfeeding often enough to a nursing strike.)
Although the little research I found indicated that relactation is difficult, I desperately wanted to continue breastfeeding my baby, so I was willing to try anything. It’s hard for me to explain exactly why it was so important to me: I think mostly I just wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, because when someone else says "jump," my natural inclination is to say, "how high." So I embarked on the process of getting my milk supply back. I worked at it, and worked, and worked, and worked.
The first thing you need to know about relactation is that it takes a really, really long time. It's an incredibly slow and gradual process. Remember when your milk first came in after you gave birth, and your boobs felt like bowling balls that had been sitting under the hot sun for several hours? Relactating has none of that drama, and none of that efficiency. Every day, your breasts are just a little milkier than they were the day before.
My body was like, “Seriously, we have to concentrate on healing that head wound” and my stubborn ass was like, “Seriously, make milk now."
The lactation consultants told me that the best way to get my milk supply up was to remove all the milk from the breast as often as possible, which sends a signal to your body to make more. So I did that, either by pumping or putting my baby to the breast. I also tried all of the shortcuts I found on the internet to increase my supply. I ate my weight in oatmeal, took fenugreek, ate hundreds of lactation cookies, used essential oils like clary sage, and practically drowned myself in fluids. But the only thing that worked was consistent, annoying, make-me-feel-like-a-cow pumping. I did it seven times a day, every day. It was just endless pumping and pumping and pumping.
Trying to force my supply to increase by a magnitude of 20 was physically exhausting. This was especially true at first, when my body was like, “Seriously, we have to concentrate on healing that head wound” and my stubborn ass was like, “Seriously, make milk now." Sometimes, I was so exhausted after pumping that I'd have to lay down for half an hour afterwards.
I was also surprised to find that even though we were supposed to be working as a team, my baby was not on board with this project. Before the surgery, she was a nursing pro, but it took about a day of me offering her my boob before she realized that it was now just an overblown pacifier, which made her really, really pissed off.
Feeling like my baby was screaming and starving because of me was devastating. I was supposed to be able to comfort my child, even if I couldn’t yet perform the basic tasks required to take care of her. My body had already failed me, and now, it was also failing my newborn.
Throughout the process of getting my supply back, I had to keep reminding myself that formula was not the enemy. I had never used it before with my other kids, so I had a negative view of it — it’s expensive, you have to wash a million bottles, and people in certain circles tend to narrow their eyes and hiss when they see it — but I also understood that I needed to feed my baby, who, if we were in the Middle Ages, would have starved at this point. Supplementing gave me the time I needed to get my milk back.
To top it all off, relactation was both physically and emotionally draining. I'd just learned that I had a life-threatening brain tumor and underwent invasive surgery. I wasn't able to drive or hold my baby or cook food or move from my couch. Feeling like my baby was screaming and starving because of me was devastating. I was supposed to be able to comfort my child, even if I couldn’t yet perform the basic tasks required to take care of her. My body had already failed me, and now, it was also failing my newborn.
About two weeks after my surgery, I came down with a horrible case of strep throat that didn’t immediately respond to antibiotics. I can’t say for sure that it was because I was pushing myself too hard, which made me susceptible to illness, but I suspect that my immune system couldn’t keep up with healing my head wound, creating food for my baby, and fighting off bacteria. At that point, I cut back on my pumping sessions and made peace with supplementing while trying to slowly build my supply back up. Slowly, I got back on track.
After about six weeks, my supply got back to normal, and my baby was willing to latch again. A few weeks after that, I stopped supplementing; she now almost exclusively eats at the breast. I estimate that I make about 25 ounces per day now.
My breastfeeding relationship still feels incredibly tenuous. Every single day, I wonder if it will fall apart again.
Despite countless sleepless nights, grueling pumping sessions, and incredible physical and emotional stress, I managed to succeed at relactation. For weeks, I went on blind faith that something would somehow eventually take hold, and somehow, eventually, it did. So here I am, with a 5-month-old baby who nurses just like my others did, even though her mother had brain surgery.
That said, my breastfeeding relationship still feels incredibly tenuous. Every single day, I wonder if today it will fall apart again, and when I asked the lactation consultant if I would always have to work at keeping my supply up, she sort of shrugged and said she didn't know. But I'm grateful that I was able to rebuild my breastfeeding relationship with my daughter. It's been an amazing way for us to bond.
There were times along the way when I was sure that relactation wouldn't work. Ultimately, it did turn out to be possible for me, but had my efforts not succeeded, I think everything would've been OK regardless. Because after all, a fed baby is a happy baby, no matter what that looks like.