(Photo credit Cheryl Spaulding Photography)
One Mother’s Story of Breastfeeding With Insufficient Breast Tissue
I love natural birth and (of course) I teach birth classes. This has truly been one of the best things in my life and has opened so many doors. One of the greatest things however is that I have been able to meet and learn from so many families and women.
In one of my recent birth classes I had a couple come through that was eagerly planning and preparing for a wonderful home birth.
Alas, it did not turn out as planned.
Life can be cruel.
Of course, I always hope that even if a woman has a difficult birth, that the breastfeeding relationship will give her some joy and healing. But again, life can be cruel.
For this mom, breastfeeding too turned out to be difficult due to a physiological condition (which you will read about in her own words) that literally made it so her body would not produce enough milk for her baby.
She sent me this essay about her struggle with this and I had to share it here on Mothering.
There are a lot of reasons why this story needs to be told, but one of the most important is that many of us who have been able to nurse can be a little hard on women who can’t. Sometimes we suggest they try some skin to skin or drink more water or co-sleep or various supplements.
Those things often work and/or help. But sometimes … they don’t.
I won’t ruin this with any more lame advice from me. Read what she has to say and share it with somebody you love. This is good stuff.
(And you probably noticed she is a better writer than me. That is because she is a real writer. Check out the bottom for her full bio and links where you can read more by her.)
I gaze at Amanda’s breasts. They are full of femininity, oozing life into Angelo’s mouth.
The persistent gulps of her child seem to mock me like the repetition of a broken record.
I cannot look away from her large breasts and the hissing laughter inside my mind is
inescapable. Silence pours from me. I am lucky if I’ll hear three solid gulps from Isaac
before re-positioning my straps, covering my breasts and preparing the powdery substance
that is able to provide for my child what I cannot.
Your body will provide what it needs for your baby, my midwife had encouraged me, not
yet aware that my body could not provide for my baby – just as my homebirth ended in
an emergency trip to the hospital; my abdomen cut open after the five hours of pushing
that only continued to push my unborn child’s heart rate down – his placement still
unmoved, wedged tightly inside my pelvis.
It’s my first play date since Isaac’s birth despite the fact he is only six weeks old
and cannot yet even sit up. It is mostly a time for me to share my shortcomings in
motherhood, hopes, joys and frustrations. I met Amanda in our natural childbirth class
and she’s now become a solid foundation for my shattered self. She was open-minded
and fearful of her hospital birth. Hers was beautiful, fast and close to perfect.
I was stubbornly set on my homebirth, had repeated affirmations for months, envisioned the
scene and created artwork over how I hoped it would go. It was nothing as I’d hoped. She
was easy going; I was strong-willed and judgmental. She hadn’t thought of cloth diapers
or breastfeeding, and I had created a well thought out plan ignorantly expecting it to
follow suit. Today our children both sit in their disposables – hers still seamlessly gulping
and mine punching my dry breast in frustration.
“It’s ok,” she tells me. “Do what you have to do.”
And so I shamefully set Isaac down to prepare his bottle, the scent of maple following me
and my covered breasts that will need hours to provide what hers can in minutes.
“You smell like IHOP,” she laughs, trying to ease the mood.
“I was told I am taking sufficient amounts of fenugreek when I start to smell like maple
syrup. Guess it’s working.”
I’d successfully smelled like the scent of determination. There was no smell associated
with Goat’s rue, chlorella, and brewer’s yeast – other tricks that were guaranteed to
increase my milk supply. My midwife made it seem that simple. But it wasn’t that
simple. After feeling inadequate about my son’s birth – his cord wrapped twice around
his neck, meconium filling his lungs – I was diagnosed with low prolactin and polycystic
ovarian syndrome, a finding linked to inadequate duct development in the breasts, which
physiologically causes low milk supply.
Is this why his screams throughout the night, no matter the eight straight hours I fed
him – left, right, left and right breast – did nothing for my starving newborn? Just let him
cry, my stepfather once told me. It’s good for him. But my still-recovering gut told me
something else. I was unwilling to follow his advice. This is a cry of pain, a need I cannot
fulfill, but I will not just let him cry.
I visited doctor after doctor, lactation clinic and specialist after another. He has a great
latch, they’d all say. Your breasts look great. You’re not having any soreness? He should
be getting enough milk.
But he’s not, I persisted. It was finally when he was weighed before and after a feeding,
I only trickled out a mere ounce total from both breasts when he needed at least three to
four per feeding. There I was again calculating his life and mine, measuring his life in
ounces, weighing it on a scale, watching the clock to expect the next feeding.
Maybe I was a new mother. Maybe there was a lot I did not know. Although the scar
left on my skin shows the wounds of his hard birth, I would not leave him with a scar of
hunger and deprivation. Although he was pulled from within me and now pulled from
atop my breast, I would fight to give him all I can, even, if all my brokenness tries to stop
“Angelo and I would love for you and Isaac to come to the library reading next week.”
Amanda changes the subject. I sense her kindness as a way to draw attention away from
the bottle I grip in my hand.
“That’d be fun,” I reply politely, Isaac’s gulps now harmonizing with Angelo. The two of
them now peacefully create a song together.
“I hear they sing songs and have a puppet show.”
Amanda ignores the SNS contraption, a small wire that allows the formula to flow into
his mouth as he suckles my breast. I feel as though I am a mad scientist, the mixture
of lactation tinctures and pills alongside his formula, bottles, wires, tubes and various
equipment makes it all seem so technical. How beautiful for a woman’s breasts to
provide food for her child, and how beautiful for her body to birth him. For me, modern
equipment makes motherhood possible. For me, anesthesia and a blade brought my child
into this world. For me, my laboratory of a kitchen creates endless meals for Isaac. For
me, I’m finding humility in my insufficiency.
You’ve had an easy life, I hear my mother’s words echo days after our phone call. You
were popular in high school, got good grades, made the cheer-leading squad. I want to
tell her, what about having an alcoholic father, divorced parents, a husband with testicular
cancer? With my “easy” conception of Isaac and my “easy” pregnancy, had I assumed
his birth and breastfeeding would follow suit? Would I have traded more nausea for more
milk, more weight for a successful push instead of a pull from my body? There is always
a fullness and an emptiness in life.
Isaac is now full; his lips pull back from my breast. From his cheek I see a faint white
trickle running down his face and for that moment, I gaze at my own breast, imagining it
all flowing from within me.
(Photo credit Cheryl Spalding Photography)
Jessica Latham is a writer, translator and poet who writes about health, motherhood, happiness and more. Her writing has been featured on NPR radio and published in various journals. She is also the creator of Rowdy Prisoners, a site that features stories, poems and interviews about people daring to live with passion and love. Her personal website is found at jessicalatham.com
You can find her on Facebook here:
and on twitter
About Sarah Clark
Sarah Clark is a mother of four and a natural childbirth educator in the Santa Rosa CA area. Jessica actually interviewed Sarah on her blog! You can find that here-