breastfeeding failure: the emotional fallout

26 Jul

Have you noticed that all of the information about low milk supply available on the web (and in books, for that matter) says the same thing? “This is not your fault. You are not a failure. Any breastfeeding is better than none. Your child will thrive on formula too.”

It so happens that I believe all of these things.

And yet–none of this addresses the emotional reality of breastfeeding failure.

Part of the problem is just that: while you may call it low milk supply, it feels like failure. Many PCOS women have struggled with their bodies forever–to maintain or reach a healthy weight, to get pregnant, to control blood sugar or acne or hair loss or whatever. And then, when you reach this lovely milestone of having a sweet baby to nurse, you discover that you can’t. Add postpartum hormones washing around your bloodstream and you have the makings of some pretty major grief.

I’m not going to pretend I have answers for this problem. I don’t. I think it’s a struggle that every woman will end up having on her own. But I do want to acknowledge that there are lots of PCOS women in this boat, and give you a heads-up that you are NOT alone in hurting. Especially when:

* …a lactivist says, “Any woman can breastfeed.” This, along with “lack of education is the reason for breastfeeding failure,” “mothers who say they can’t nurse just don’t want to,” and “nursing is natural–any mom can do it if she tries hard enough,” is one of the most hurtful things that can be said to a mama with IGT or other low supply problems. And yet it is said, all the time. An OB said it to me after I had spent $500 on LCs and pumps, plus hours and hours and hours of my life with my sweet new baby, just to produce 6 oz or less per day. I would say, just let it go and ignore it–except that even lactation consultants, doctors, and midwives are often misinformed about this. You don’t have to let it slide. Direct them to material about IGT if you have to, and point out that these statements only undermine your attempts to have a breastfeeding relationship anyway.

* Your baby refuses the breast or cries at the breast. This might be the worst. I didn’t get the hang of the at-breast supplementer; I know that many women find them a godsend, but for me it made achieving a decent latch nearly impossible. I used bottles. My daughter was completely unwilling to nurse by the time she was 6 weeks old (and mostly unwilling long before that). I pumped exclusively for her for months. And every time I sat down to pump, saw another baby nursing, or filled her bottle, it hurt. (My son, on the other hand, nursed enthusiastically for 10 months even though he also got most of his nourishment from bottles. Babies just differ on this.)

* You get a judgmental look (or even what you feel MIGHT be a judgmental look) from another mom, or dad, or whoever, while you’re bottle-feeding. This one was really hard for me, because I am very pro-breastfeeding and it was a big adjustment to be part of the bottle brigade. I had no choice, though, and that’s the reality. Your job is to feed your baby, and if that means bottles, it means bottles. Do not let anyone intimidate you–you’re doing exactly what you must do to keep your baby healthy.

* You confront your own preconceived ideas of what your breastfeeding relationship should have been like. For a long time, it made me very sad to see my nursing pillow sitting there, because during my pregnancy I had imagined, so many times, using it and nursing my baby. And that just did not become reality.

* People tell you to get over it because you have a healthy baby. You can be thankful for your baby and in love with your baby and still feel sad. Grieving for the nursing relationship you’d expected is totally normal.

In a nutshell, being unable to breastfeed exclusively hurts. My daughter is almost 4 and thinking about it still hurts–enough to make me feel a little ill. But facts are facts: there is nothing more I could have done. I tried it all. Formula fed my babies and grew them into the amazing people they are today, and I’m grateful for it even though I am sad that I needed it.

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6 Responses to “breastfeeding failure: the emotional fallout”

  1. DL November 30, 2010 at 8:14 pm #

    Wow reading that I felt like I could of written it myself. I hear everything you say and 3 years on I still struggle with the guilt of not being able to exclusively breastfeed. Thanks for your honesty.

  2. Kate April 9, 2011 at 4:19 pm #

    I am currently struggling with insufficient milk supply and going through all the possible ways to increase my supply. I’m massively pro breastfeeding and it kills me every time I have to supplement my daughter. Thank you for writing what I’m feeling.

    • academama April 9, 2011 at 4:29 pm #

      It hurts, doesn’t it? I wish you the best of luck and also peace with the ultimate outcome, whatever it is.

  3. Krista Groen October 26, 2011 at 3:15 am #

    Wow – all my thoughts and feelings of the last 8 months right here:) I have pcos and was so happy when we had no problems conceiving and then asked my midwife if there was any further concerns associated(she said no) – completely oblivious that it could effect my milk supply. My daughter loved bfing and was a pro right out of labour – a week later she stopped gaining and wanted to be attached constantly. Then after a month of pumping, herbs and domperidone I finally googled pcos and bfing – voila! How frustrating to know at that point that this was the reason. At 8 months my daughter weaned herself off the one feeding we had left last week and I’m just devastated every time I see another woman bfing their child:( I know its not my fault and that I’ll try again better informed next time but nothing takes away the hurt of knowing I couldn’t personally give my daughter what she needed. Meanwhile my sister complains of an oversupply – I must resist punching her:)

  4. Minzy May 7, 2012 at 4:24 am #

    Your words are so comforting! I have PCOS and just delivered a baby boy 4 weeks ago. Was at the brink of depression due to low milk supply and everyone around me kept telling me breast feeding is natural and the milk will come, keep pumping and latching! My breasts were so sore and they bleeded due to over pumping. Now I know the reason and the clouds covering my head starts to clear. Thank you!

  5. Nancy July 25, 2012 at 10:33 pm #

    Thank you for writing this article! I am going through the same issue and trying to accept it. I insisted on exclusively breastfeeding my daughter (first child) and even wanted to delay pumping until I would go back to work. Well, little did I know that my PCOS had a negative impact on breastmilk supply! I struggle to pump 10-12 oz per day with fenugreek supplements. I gave in to formula feeding without regret, but I still wish I could make more milk. It also brings to light how many doctors are well educated about PCOS. I have the impression that many of them shrug it off to the dismay of their patients, based on what I have read and heard from other people. I feel good knowing that I share the same thoughts, feelings and frustrations with other who are in the same boat as me.

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