Four days after she was born, my healthy daughter went into baby hibernation. For one hour, my husband and I pinched her toes, flopped her arms, rubbed her small soft body with an ice-cold washcloth. Her eyes never even flickered. Suddenly she woke up, latched herself to my sore nipple, and started sucking.
This wasn’t normal, my husband and I told each other. Even though we were first time parents, we knew newborn babies shouldn’t do this. She had also lost weight, too much it seemed.
Half an hour later she popped off my breast. Within a minute she was sobbing again.
I called Virginia Hospital Center’s lactation consultant hotline. “Wait for your milk to come in,” the woman instructed, as if reading from a manual. “The baby should nurse for ten to fifteen minutes. She should have four wet diapers.” I recognized her as the same woman who hooked my small breasts up to the yellow medical-grade Medela breast pump in the hospital. When I had jerked forward in pain from the foreign sensation of the suction, she laughed. Now on the phone, I stiffly thanked her and hung up.
Hours later, I called an in-home lactation consultant. “We’ll weigh her,” the consultant suggested, “and see if it’s a problem with your milk supply or a problem with her latching.” I told her my daughter had lost weight and described the baby hibernation. “I’m coming over right now,” she said.
The consultant brought with her a scale and the same model of the yellow Medela pump. “She needs to eat,” she said. She took my daughter from my husband’s arms and weighed her. Down by a pound. She picked her up and pushed a bottle with formula into her mouth. “I’m all about breast milk, but right now, you need to get as much formula into her as you can. Start pumping and then you can have breast milk to give her in the morning.” My husband took our daughter back. The lactation consultant placed her palm between my breasts. “There’s something about your anatomy—women with wider-spaced breasts sometimes have a harder time.” She left the scale and pump, promising to check on us later.
My husband and I were crying with sleep deprivation and exhaustion as he wiggled our limp daughter’s foot, urging her to drink more, while I hooked the tubes into the pump, the plastic flanges into the tubes, and centered them around my brown areolas. I pumped seven milliliters.
“That’s normal, right?” I asked my husband. “It’s normal in the beginning, because babies don’t eat that much?”
No, we read. Babies needed twenty-four ounces a day. At least.
I was a woman possessed. I scraped my memory for my mother’s own stories of breastfeeding me and my brother. She wasn’t around—when I was 16, she died of a sudden heart attack—so ten years later here I was, her daughter and granddaughter, desperately trying to remember if she ever mentioned low milk supply. (She had not.) I called my acupuncturist, I texted my mom-friends, I even asked one of my bosses for suggestions on milk-boosting herbal supplements. I scoured the internet. I ordered Mother’s Milk tea, capsules of Mother’s Milk plus, fenugreek, blessed thistle, shatavari, goat’s rue. My sister-in-law and mother-in-law baked me lactation cookies, chockful of brewer’s yeast and flax meal. I took fistfuls of pills every day, double the recommended dose (to make up for my overweight frame, I reasoned) and spaced out through the hours so that the ones that needed food didn’t conflict with the ones that needed an empty stomach. I bought a hands-free pumping brassiere so my wrists would stop hurting and I could pause 30 Rock during my thirty-minute pumping sessions that happened every two hours.
I hated my breasts. “They’ve always been small and floppy,” I wept to my husband. “What kind of woman am I, who can’t even feed her baby?”
“I love you,” he said. “I love your breasts.”
My daughter continued to drink formula while I pumped around the clock. The Medela pump sucked a record four ounces of milk out of me every day. My daughter thrived on Similac and my meager offering. Despite her progress and approval of friends, family, and pediatrician, I despaired. No one counseled me on the perceived failure of my body and uselessness of my mammary glands. What was important was that she was fed, they said.
The lactation consultant referred me to another lactation consultant who dealt with low milk supply. She mentioned yet another lactation consultant who could prescribe Domperidone, a non-FDA approved drug. This consultant sounded like the grand guru of lactation: it felt like we were going to see the Great and Powerful Oz, following the yellow pump road to the Breastmilk City. The lactation guru prescribed me some medication and a detailed pumping regimen.
But then she tapped into the core of why it hurt so much.
“You’ve had these breasts since you were thirteen, and when it comes time to work, they don’t do what you expect. And your mom isn’t around.”
We left the guru with a bottle of moringa pills, a pack of Domperidone, and an industrial-sized pump that swooshed almost soothingly with mechanical precision. I would brace myself before turning on the machine—my body always jolted when it began sucking.
My nipples felt like they were on fire. They, along with my breasts, had gone from something very private and loved, shared between me and my husband, to being seen by the following: five lactation consultants, my mother-in-law, my doula, dozens of nurses, two doctors, and several nursing/medical students. They were squeezed, pumped, suctioned, massaged, stared at, judged (furtively), assessed, and scraped with spoons and syringes.
They were tired.
I was tired.
I eventually realized that the past few weeks of breastfeeding were not just about my daughter, but also about me. Of course I wanted my baby to eat, to thrive. But I wanted my body to function the way I wanted it to. I knew I was lucky to have breasts and a healthy baby and an uncomplicated pregnancy.
But I didn’t know how to reconcile with a body that I perceived as broken. I felt that I was somehow not the woman I wanted to be, though I know my love isn’t measured in ounces and a mother (and a woman) is more than her mammary glands. I didn’t know how to love myself in all of my under- or over-formed parts. I felt guilty that I could even afford to go this far, when many other mothers would have followed a cheaper or more convenient route.
Audiobooks helped my depressive mental state. En route to grad school from work, I would listen to Tina Fey’s Bossypants and laughed out loud at her description of “teat Nazis” and her nickname for the pump she used. When I came home from class I would declare, “Time to hook myself up to the ol’ titjuicer.”
“Hey now,” my husband said.
I listened to Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bebe, her observations as an American mother raising children in Paris. I was shocked to hear that French mothers gave their newborns formula right away—and despite this, French babies were not stupid, obese, or disease-ridden. I realized: breastfeeding is a cultural construct, and there is more to health than this single factor. My baby would be fine. I would be fine.
Scouring the internet eventually paid off. I found a group of women dedicated to low milk supply and the condition known as Insufficient Glandular Tissue (IGT). Also known as mammary hypoplasia, this means that a mother does not have enough breast tissue to make all the milk that a baby needs to survive. It means that her breasts did not develop enough in utero, during puberty, or during pregnancy. Her breasts are “hypoplastic,” or, under-formed.
While never officially diagnosed with IGT, I also learned that low milk supply can be caused by more than this condition. Complex hormonal issues such as estrogen dominance, thyroid issues, and vitamin and mineral deficiencies can lead to not having enough milk. Immediately I scheduled an appointment with an endocrinologist. Blood was drawn—he found nothing out of normal range. Frustrated, I asked members in the group what to do. One member told me about her experience with a functional doctor, a practitioner who looks holistically at the body’s gastrointestinal, endocrine, and immune systems. I found one in my area and scheduled yet another appointment.
Right now, I’m under treatment of a functional doctor. She diagnosed me with a number of hormonal imbalances that a traditional Western doctor would not have considered unusual, since all my hormonal levels were within “normal range” (but not necessarily “optimal”). I adjusted my diet to include more vegetables, less red meat, and more low-glycemic foods, stabilizing my blood sugar, energy levels, and moods. I began taking high-grade supplements. I began to be kinder to my body.
Low milk supply was a catalyst for investigating longstanding problems that have plagued me since adolescence—inability to lose weight, unexplainable fatigue, predisposition to mood swings. Although I grieve for my breastfeeding relationship, saddened by my body expectations and guilted by American cultural expectations of mothers to breastfeed their children for more months than I could, I am grateful that this experience led me to find healing for my entire person.
Should I have another child, I will not have the same expectations for my breasts to swell and flow with milk. I will give my child what I can. I will do it because it feels good for the two of us. And I will find love in the nourishment between our two healthy bodies.
Guest post submitted anonymously.