Written by Fed is Best Foundation Co-Founder Christie del Castillo-Hegyi, M.D.
Not many people know the rest of my breastfeeding story, the part that happened after my son’s hospitalization. People assume that because I spend most of my time advocating for safe infant feeding practices by educating moms on how to breastfeed safely, that I am against breastfeeding or want mothers to feel like exclusive breastfeeding is unsafe. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Clearly if a mother has enough breast milk, exclusive breastfeeding is a wonderful way to feed her child, if that’s how she chooses to feed them. But I had to learn the hard way that being a good mother is not defined by exclusive breastfeeding.
During my son’s hospitalization, he was fed as much formula as he needed. I continued to pump and handed over the 1 to 2 mLs that I could produce every three hours. It was very little, but I got the advice of additional lactation consultants who recommended that I pump every two hours, day and night, and I diligently followed that plan. In the weeks following, I tried everything recommended – I took fenugreek, domperidone (which, at the time I did not know caused cardiac arrhythmias), Reglan, drank copious amounts of fluids, and breastfed for many hours a day while supplementing after each breastfeeding session.
I got very little sleep for weeks. But because of the messages I received about breastfeeding and how important it was for me to feel like I was giving my son the very best, I persisted. I persisted with breastfeeding while supplementing with formula knowing I would never compromise my son’s life and brain by allowing him to go hungry again.
Every single day I pumped and my milk supply grew drop by drop. I didn’t have the benefit of my milk coming in to boost my supply until 9 weeks of life. So every drop was won with hours of pumping, breastfeeding and little sleep. All the while I gave him no more than one ounce of formula after feeding at a time being so fearful that giving him more than that would cause my hard-earned supply to diminish. After one ounce of formula, I would make him “earn” one more ounce with 10 more minutes of breastfeeding. I once clocked 17 hours of breastfeeding in one day.
I look back at that time and those hours with shame, because I realize I deprived him in ways I can’t take back, by making him work hours for milk, when all he wanted was to be fed. Every ounce of formula I had to give him hurt, because it reminded me of how much I failed him as a mother by not producing the milk he needed when he needed it, and by continuing to not have enough milk to exclusively breastfeed him. I even shared these feelings with my obstetrician at my six week follow-up. She tried to comfort me by telling me that I was giving my son what he needed, but I couldn’t hear it. It felt like second best. I felt like I had given my son second best, which no loving mother wants to give her child.
Weeks went by, and as he got more milk from me I got more sleep. I was lucky because I had money, privilege, a supportive husband, a three-month paid maternity leave, and only one child to take care of. Compared to many other mothers, I had all the time in the world to make it work. I also realize if I did not have just one of those elements, I would not have been able to continue to breastfeed.
Then came the day, eight weeks later, when my son no longer fussed for more milk after breastfeeding. I remember the moment he went a full 24 hours without a drop of formula. I was lying next to my husband and told him, “He got no formula today.”
My milk finally came in at 9 weeks after passing retained placenta, which doubled my supply, and with it, my son quickly grew healthy and chubby. I was able to breastfeed him exclusively until he was six months old, then continued breastfeeding him until he was 20 months old.
The hours I spent breastfeeding my son are among my most cherished memories. I loved breastfeeding. While I support every kind of feeding, I personally chose breastfeeding for the sheer joy that I found in doing it. In my mind, however, I also relished in the pride of being “one of the exclusive breastfeeders.” I now look back on that pride with regret because it came with an ugly need to feel superior to moms who couldn’t exclusively breastfeed. I reject that pride because I know many moms who could not exclusively breastfeed who were better moms than me – because they listened to their babies before anyone else, rightfully gave up their pride and made sure their babies never went hungry like my son did.
So for my second time breastfeeding, with my twin girls, I knew that I would not let another child go hungry again. They were tiny 5-and-half pound near-term preemies with little fat, and I knew I had no colostrum. So I breastfed them each after delivery and supplemented them both from their very first meal. They were tiny in comparison to my son and readily took two ounces with each feeding. After receiving 2 ounces every three hours for the first 24 hours (16 ounces total), they only gained 1 ounce. Luckily no one gave me trouble about it. I knew all the risks and benefits of my feeding choices and there was no way I was going to risk hospitalizing another child again.
I was delighted when my milk fully came in at day four of life, and I was able to pump four ounces at one time. This would have been plenty for one baby but it was not enough for two. So I continued to supplement them after breastfeeding hoping I could pump enough to exclusively breastfeed. This time I did not have as much time to devote to breastfeeding, and I had a shorter maternity leave. When I returned to work, I had to work full time in order to pay for childcare. I had a toddler who was not speaking and had increasingly difficult behavioral problems that were undiagnosed and frightening. Even with 3 to 4 adults in the house, I could not get enough sleep with a toddler and two twins waking up around the clock.
Despite my best efforts, I could not increase my milk supply. I had even gone to my obstetrician to check for retained placenta and got a D&C to remove a tiny piece that looked suspicious, which unfortunately did nothing to my supply. I spent hours in front of the pump, instead of in front of my children.
Every day that my milk supply diminished from the stress, I felt more and more like a failure. I developed postpartum depression. One day I realized all I could pump was 5 mL. That day I knew I was not going let another day pass not being happy and present for my children. And so I got help, and I switched to formula.
Formula saved all of my children’s lives. And it also saved me.
Because when I stopped pressuring myself to live up to a standard my body couldn’t meet, I could handle my life again. I got to play with my children again. I felt happy again for the first time in months.
I write this to tell every mother that I have been an exclusively breastfeeding mom, a mixed-feeding mom and an exclusively formula-feeding mom. I was the same loving mother through it all.
I want you to know that you are not alone.
Although there were many times I felt like a failure for not producing enough milk, the only time that I believe that I truly failed was when I failed to feed my newborn son. There is no failure as long as you’re feeding your child all that they need to stay safe and healthy. Making sure your child is fed and safe makes you the best kind of mom there is. We are lucky to live in a world with safe alternatives, where few children have to go hungry for lack of available milk. We are lucky to have devices to help us improve our supply without forcing a child to stay hungry for hours a day until that breast milk hopefully comes in.
I never want another mother to feel the kind of shame that I felt. I never want another child to go hungry and need to be hospitalized in order to be breastfed. I want every mother to feel supported and exalted for feeding her child all that they need to stay safe, healthy, and to thrive. Breast is not best if a child is going hungry. And formula is not the enemy of breastfeeding. Formula saved my children and my breastfeeding. So if your doctor is telling you your child needs formula, they are not doing it because they want to compromise your breastfeeding efforts. They are doing it to save your child from harm.
Fed IS best. It is not the bare minimum. To say that is to assume that every breastfeeding relationship is actually meeting that bare minimum – and not all do.
When the “breast is best” advocates protest the Fed is Best mission by saying cases like my son’s are rare, they are saying that my son’s needs do not matter. They are saying the millions of babies who have been hospitalized for going hungry while exclusively breastfeeding do not matter as much as their policies. Feeding a child means a child receives all they need to feed and grow their brain and body without compromise. It means EVERY child is protected by telling moms the whole truth about breastfeeding AND formula-feeding. The only prize at the end of motherhood is a healthy child who can go on to live a happy life. That is what both breastfeeding and formula gives us the privilege of doing for every single one of our babies.
Fed is best.
Fed Is Best Foundation Co-Founder Christie del Castillo-Hegyi, M.D. is a Board Certified Emergency Physician, and Newborn Brain Injury and Breastfeeding Complications Researcher. You can read more about her and the foundation’s mission here.
8 thoughts on “The Rest of My Breastfeeding Story”
I have 3 children ages 20, 18 and 14. My oldest weighted 9 lb 5 oz at birth and was a vacuum delivery. We were discharged at 22 hours because that’s what was done at the time. She never latched at the hospital and I never received any help to breastfeed. Basically she and I were never able to figure it out. I remember sitting on the floor of my shower sobbing because I was a bad mom because I was feeding formula to my baby. I never want a mom to feel that way! Now she is a college student on scholarship, and is taking an 18 month break to serve a mission for our church. She has always been super healthy. She was in the gifted, honors, and AP programs through school. Do you want to know my only regret about not breastfeeding her now? I regret not enjoying her as a newborn. I was so worried about the whole breastfeeding thing that I lost sight of the fact that I had a beautiful baby girl. I didn’t breastfeed my 18 year old for similar reaons, because I didn’t receive help, and this time I had a 2 year old at home. I did end up breastfeeding my 14 year old for a year. It was a good experience, but I can’t say that she’s any better off or that our relationship is better than the one I have with the other 2 children. There are so many factors involved in raising a child. Breastfeeding, while wonderful and healthy, is just one piece of a much larger puzzle. In the end, fed is best.
Don’t ever take Reglan. It is an old school antipsychotic that was given to severely ill patients such as schizophrenics. It’s like Haldol. It blocks dopamine receptors and can cause movement disorders. These uneducated, idiot doctors that hand these out for headaches and stomache conditions, should lose their licenses. It’s disgusting. NEVER take them..
There are definitely risks of taking Reglan. Not all mothers have negative side effects. In addition, the data on the efficacy of Reglan for increasing milk production shows minimal effect. The Fed is Best Foundation does not support the use of galactagogues like Reglan as it is not effective and potentially harmful.
The guilt and shame is so sad. I breastfed my daughter for six months, more or less exclusively. At 3 months old she was diagnosed with a milk protein allergy, so from 3 to six months I ate no dairy whatsoever. This was on top of my own wheat allergy, which basically meant I had to cook all my meals from scratch to ensure they did not make one of us sick. I went back to work when she was 5 months old and switched her full-time to formula at 6 months. It was clear she was no longer getting enough to eat; I was pumping hours a day while working full time and still coming up short. She thrived on formula, going from 14th percentile in weight to 60th in six months (she is 95th percentile for height).
The amazing thing is that I felt guilt for switching even though I KNEW it was best for both of us. And this is despite the fact that I am 100% formula fed (my mom got colostrum but no milk so I was put on formula at two days old to prevent starving), and am very healthy, went to two of the world’s top universities (Cambridge and Yale), have a close relationship with my mom, and otherwise have no observable defects whatsoever from not being breast-fed. The evangelism needs to stop. Parents need to know that they are doing the best and that feeding their child is the most important thing.
I say this respectfully with no intent to upset or undermine any mothers effort but it would seem that most times breastfeeding journeys fail before they begin due to a mothers desire to be the ‘better mother’ which she hinges on a set of weird parameters. It’s almost like setting yourself up to fail before you begin.
This paragraph says it all ‘I now look back on that pride with regret because it came with an ugly need to feel superior to mom’s who couldn’t exclusively breastfeed. I reject that pride because I know many mom’s who could not exclusively breastfeed who were better mom’s than me – because they listened to their babies before anyone else, rightfully gave up their pride and made sure their babies never went hungry like my son did.
Watch your baby!
Read, be informed prepare for everything possible but be sure to keep at the back of your mind a baby regardless of it’s size can change your plans drastically, they are individuals.
I think a better stand to take would be to say to every mother at the end of the day watch your baby, watch your emotions and mental state because they have a huge impact on your baby’s feeding journey.
My story is so very similar to Catherine’s but my outcome was very different as I was much more fortunate.
My first born, Ryan was born very healthy at 10.5 pounds! Because of his size it was a difficult but successful vaginal delivery. One of the nurses noted ‘it looks like you had a toddler!’
I nursed Ryan and they took him to the nursery. But as I lay in bed I realized I was moaning from pain. One of the nurses said you need to talk to your doctor because I think your son broke your tailbone. Sure enough he was so big that he had. To address my pain they prescribed Percocet. The Percocet did alleviate some of the pain. So I continued to take it.
At this moment I was just so excited to be home with my new baby. Nursing my child with something I had planned to do and I loved every minute. But soon Ryan started crying all the time. In fact I remember at his christening in our house, he cried through the whole ceremony. He was also sleeping a lot. I had no idea what was wrong and never even considered there might be something wrong because with my milk because I could feel it ‘let down’ every time he nursed.
Then the appointment for his 5 week newborn check finally came. I was worried because he did not look healthy. When the doctor came into the room he picked at the skin on Ryan’s arm and said, “Can’t you see this child is starving to death! What have you been feeding him!” As a new mom I was completely devastated. They immediately gave him formula. He was my firstborn. How was I to know?
The reason for this chaos was the Percocet. I should never have been prescribed an opioid while I was nursing. The Percocet was getting through to Ryan and he was sleeping so much that he was not nursing enough to stimulate my breastmilk. Evidently even though my milk was letting down each time he nursed, after a few sucks there was no milk to nourish him.
At the initial check up a nurse who could see how clearly devastated I was. She told me that if I wanted to try to relactate she would help me. So for the next two weeks I nursed him nonstop every two hours. I wore a small ziplock bag around my neck full of formula. A catheter ran from the bag down my breast. As he sucked he got the formula he badly needed but he also stimulated my milk production. After two sleepless weeks my milk came in and I was overjoyed! I had so much milk I could have fed twins.
I was so lucky. He had gone from 10.6 pounds to 8.7 pounds! If he had not been such a big baby like the outcome could have been quite devastating.
Although the topic of breast-feeding comes up a lot I have not thought about this for many years. Ryan is a dad and at 42, a very healthy 6’3” guy. After reading this article by Catherine I was motivated to tell my story.
Everyone thinks breastfeeding is so easy, so normal. It it goes well you are lucky. Because if something goes wrong you immediately blame it on your body. There are so many things that with a little guidance and tweaking everything can turn out well. It’s not an all or nothing situation. If you really want to nurse, in most instances you can. And if you need help there are people and places who can support you. I nursed my son for two years.
Thank you so much for sharing your story. You are not alone. Too many families have been victimized by the current dogma.
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