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Insufficiency: Breastfeeding in Real-Life

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(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.) 

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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 repositioning 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 

unmoving, 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. 

 

Was 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 

me. 

 

“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.

 

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(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:

https://www.facebook.com/rowdyprisoners 

 

and on twitter

https://twitter.com/rowdyprisoners

 

 

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-

 

Comments (13)

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I remember those days. My first has an attached frenulum, and I have pcos, and the
combination landed us in much the same situation you are in. I remember those horrible feelings of failure even though I knew I was doing the best I could. She ended up completely on formula and is now a very healthy, intelligent, and active five year old. I wish you all the best.
I also have IGT while both my births were great breastfeeding really got me down. It's something that I think needs more attention and more focus. IGT is real and is an issue that needs resolution, prevention a reason.
I completely empathize!!  I also have self-diagnosed severe IGT/hypoplasia and just about killed myself and my 1st boy trying to breastfeed.  Dealt with the SNS, fenugreek, domperidone, goat's rue, been there done that and wow did it kill those happy newborn baby feelings.  Did have to supplement all 3 of my boys, by the third I was producing a whopping 1/2 oz per boob per feeding, but the little fighter managed to nurse for 3 years:)!!  Our stories need to get out more so we don't feel so alone, overwhelmed, and disappointed with our bodies! 
Thank you both for your comments. As mothers, we want everything for our children, and with that comes a deep desire to bond with them and nurture them at the breast. But it can't always happen and we need to support women and their children in this.
 
We are not failures and yet we all feel guilty when we can't give what we so hoped we could. 
 
I am grateful Mothering was able to share my story and spark the conversation about IGT and other difficulties. 
 
blessings to you both,
Jessica
Jessica, your story echoes my story so closely that I was nearly in tears this morning upon reading it. I gave birth in April 2012, by emergency c-section after a difficult pregnancy. After two weeks in the NICU (in a developing country where breastfeeding was seen as something only lower-class people would do), our daughter came home and my struggle began.
 
Almost immediately, we were weighing her before and after meals to ensure she'd eaten enough. By the time she was two months old, I was frantically seeking breastfeeding support in a country where it just wasn't available. At 10 weeks, we brought her to visit our family in Canada and I had my first meeting with a lactation consultant a day after my arrival. 
 
I spent my first summer as a Mom cooped up inside, smelling like maple syrup, feeding Maëlle through an SNS, pumping immediately after feedings and also every three hours, and generally feeling miserable. This was not how I'd pictured motherhood.
 
I was so embarrassed to feed Maëlle with the SNS or to need to pump so often that I would take her away from our family or friends every time she needed to be fed. During that trip home, we never spent more than 2 hours away from home so that I could feed and pump in privacy. By the end of the trip, I was crushed -- I hadn't had the quality time I'd envisioned my family spending with our baby and I was feeling completely inadequate. Not to mention the envy I felt when seeing my other friends casually nursing their babies without any issues. 
 
My heart aches for your struggle. I want to tell you all of the things you've already heard -- that you're an amazing mother, no matter how your child is fed; that breast can't always be best; and that you're not doing anything wrong. But those things won't help you right now. The only thing I can tell you is that you're not alone and it will get better.
 
The hope that it will get better stays with me today. I'm hopeful that in our next pregnancy, we will avoid the complications and challenges of the past. I still keep the hope -- and I encourage you to as well.
I have a similar story too. I had breast cancer at age 27 before I had both my babies. I was fortunate to have them both at home. I only had one breast to feed off of. I had one breast removed. I would cried for the first year of breastfeeding my kids. they always seemed hungry. I would have them both latched on(at different times) all day! It was very difficult but I never gave up and ended breastfeeding both my kids till they were both 3. So many nights we would all just be crying in tears. my kids are both healthy and although they did not gain a lot of weight when they were babies. They still gain gradual weight and were both healthy. 
I had three beautiful births, and three incredibly difficult, time-supplement-contraption filled breastfeeding experiences. It wasn't until my third pregnancy that I was diagnosed with insufficient glandular tissue- that seeing pictures of breasts that looked like mine made me seriously wonder what was wrong with the lactation consultants and midwives I'd seen to not have seen how clearly different things were for me. I never felt such camaraderie with women until I wore my SNS bottle around my neck when dropping my preschooler off and three women shared their stories with me. We all have our own struggles and journeys- you got an ounce in a feeding at 6 weeks? That rocks. My supplement filled body produced a teaspoon in half an hour of feeding. My kids are growing, healthy, and curious- they are a wonder to me. I hope to get to the point of not crying about our missed breastfeeding relationship. However, nearly 6 years of motherhood have taught me that we are always growing and learning, and we shouldn't judge ourselves any more harshly than we would our most loved friends.
Wow. Your stories are so, so beautiful. I wish we could have a group hug. I remember being so afraid to go out in public (and still was until this story posted and now all my friends have seen this) because of my breastfeeding issues. 
 
I would try to fill my sweet baby with formula before I left the house so he wouldn't be too hungry and hope that my breasts would fill with enough milk to comfort him when we were in public. I would fear that he would cry and then I would pull out formula and explain to the people with me my situation, feeling judged and inadequate. 
 
When I look back at this, it looks selfish - and motherhood should be selfless. But it was out of the best intentions to try to give more of myself to my child. I am now able to go out in public and feed as I need to. I see this as a big step. I am now able to focus on kisses, cuddles, playing and watching my baby boy grow big and strong, savoring every few feedings I can breastfeed in between formula feedings.
 
Thank you all for responding. Thank you all for your triumphs. Motherhood, as with many situations in life (marriage, love, etc...) is shown as a Cinderella story, but we know it takes a lot of work - this is the same with motherhood. It is so challenging, so revealing and yet, the greatest experience I could ever, ever have.
 
All my love.
I just want to say THANK YOU for writing such a beautiful piece and calling attention to a struggle that so many mothers suffer from silently.  Your story could have been taken from my journal.  Birth plan, baby won't come, eventual c-section, SNS, not gaining weight, shame, tears, herbs, round the clock pumping/nursing.  
 
My baby was 4 months old when I decided to start supplementing with formula.  His doctor said he finally popped on the weight chart...at 2%!  I knew he wan't getting enough from me alone, but this was proof.  We continued to nurse/supplement until 10 months, I remember a lot of shame giving bottles in public or having to continually switch breasts, while my friends babies happlily suckled at one.  
 
It's great that we live in a society that embraces and supports breastfeeding.  But we certainly need much more in the way of education when it comes to IGT and other issues that make exclusive breastfeeding difficult or impossible. My OB had not even heard of IGT (my pedi had).  Your story will help spread the word.
 
My son is now 14 months and I no longer have the sense of regret I carried for so many months.  He is an absolute joy and I know I have so much to offer him, even if it's not breast milk.
Reading these stories it just makes me so sad that we have swung from a society that discouraged breast feeding to one that judges and makes other women feel so bad if they cannot breast feed.  I wish that feelings of adequacy in motherhood were less tied to whether or not one is breastfeeding, and more reflective of the time and caring and love that all these mothers so clearly show toward their children.  There are other measures of a parent's devotion to a child!  Keep up the good work, all of you.  Breast might be "best" in some circumstances, but loving your baby and understanding your child's needs is even better!
moyie - The same thing happened with me, as far as some of my medical professionals not knowing about IGT. It wasn't until I met with a lactation specialist/midwife from a different program other than my healthcare insurance, that she mentioned this. 
 You've inspired me to write my doctor and pediatrician. Let's keep this inspiration rolling...
So well said, manysplinters. I've even talked with mothers that tell me the judgement varies in each state. For example, many Californians are very pro-breastfeeding, while a friend I know in Texas is looked down upon when she breastfed. 
 
You are very correct that our love, time, attention and care is such an important aspect in motherhood as well. 
 
I was chatting with someone the other day about our two roles as mothers. One, there is the need to provide food, shelter, sleep...the main things that help a child live. Secondly, cuddles, singing, playing, and so many other important qualities are taught to our children through the love you mention above. 
 
Thank you for reminding us of this.
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