When Breastfeeding Isn’t Working

I distinctly remember asking my midwife while I was still pregnant, “Why does breastfeeding seem so hard?” Her response was brilliant. She said it’s like a dance. You and your baby have to be perfectly in sync at each feeding in order for things to go smoothly. If one or the other is out of step, you end up fumbling and stumbling all over each other.

I’ve been working with the perinatal population for a year and a half now, and I hear the stories over and over of how a mom was struggling with breastfeeding. She would seek help from one or even multiple lactation consultants, only to leave feeling defeated and like she’s a failure. The professional help doesn’t work and she’s back at square one.

I was talking with a former prenatal yoga student recently, Brittany Adee, a first time mom. Her story started similarly. Her son was having trouble with the latch. It hurt, she got bloody nipples, and she could tell he wasn’t getting the amount of nutrition that he needed.

Brittany Adee cuddles skin to skin with her newborn son.

She sought help from a lactation consultant. The consultant’s advice was to take each feeding in steps. First, try to breastfeed. If that isn’t successful, then try to breastfeed with the nipple shield. Finally, if neither of those work, feed him with a bottle of pumped milk. Anything to help toward Brittany’s goal of breastfeeding.

“I can tell you right now that was the worst advice I could have ever gotten,” Brittany explained. “Do you know how pissed off a baby is after all those steps? How much they are screaming? And in turn, how much I would be crying? Not to mention the toll it would take on me to have to go through various levels of failure just to end up at giving him a bottle each time.”

Don’t forget that as she was working through each of these steps every time her son was hungry (every 2-4 hours around the clock), she was also pumping to keep up a storage of milk and keep her supply going. Then she had to clean all the pump parts and nipple shields after every session. That is a lot of work!

And think about the vicious loop of negative self-talk this routine can spiral into. Her mental health was suffering, her sense of self-worth and self-esteem bottoming out every 3 hours as she struggled with the latch yet again.

Finally, her husband stepped in and asked her to please stop torturing herself and their son. Skip straight to the bottle. “Am I allowed to do that?” Brittany questioned.

“I hadn’t given myself any space to come up with my own routine. I felt like I had to do what the lactation consultant said, no questions asked,” she explained. But the lactation consultant didn’t see the fallout of the well-intended advice.

“So [my husband] encouraged me to give him the bottle directly. That was really hard for me because I felt like I was taking the easy way out, cheating or in some other way doing something I should be ashamed of. But at the same time, it was such a relief to be given permission to skip the breastfeeding attempts.

With time, the guilt of ‘cheating’ was overtaken by the peace of not having screaming and sobbing sessions every 3 hours. My nipples got a chance to heal since I wasn’t nursing. Feeding [my son] went from a horrible experience to a neutral experience which was a huge improvement.”

Feeding a newborn is a full time job. Calculating the hours, it equates to about 1,800 hours a year, while a standard 40-hour a week full time job is 1,960 hours. That’s a lot of time spent just feeding a hungry baby! And just shifting from all those hours from being an anxiety-inducing and guilt-riddled event to a neutral experience for Brittany, made a drastic difference. Eventually, she actually started to feel good about exclusively pumping. Her husband appreciated the opportunity to be included more, too, as he often helped with overnight feedings.

After several weeks of exclusively pumping and feeling like she was in a better head space around feeding time, Brittany decided to try breastfeeding again. Her strategy here was critical in her success. She would only try with the nipple shield here and there, when time allowed and she and her son were both in a relatively good mood. Brittany also gave herself short time limits to prevent any hours-long struggles. Still no success after 10 minutes? Bottle it is! Try again next week.

“I had to let go of what I thought I should be doing and accept what actually was happening,” Brittany said. “A lot of the things we talked about in prenatal yoga were so helpful for me. Focusing on what works for me, not looking at what others are doing. Feeling what feels comfortable within my own body, rather than trying to adhere to anyone else’s standards of what should be.”

Brittany sees herself as a rule-follower, trying to follow advice of others rather than taking the time to listen to her own needs. A lot of new parents can be like this. Facing an onslaught of advice (often contradictory) from everyone they know, it’s hard to weed out what works. Not to mention the intense physical and hormonal changes moms experience postpartum paired with the extreme sleep deprivation, it can be downright impossible to even give yourself a few moments to tune in and listen to yourself.

“I decided to stop putting expectations on myself,” Brittany explains. If that was already the end of her breastfeeding journey, that’s OK. Whatever their journey was going to look like, she was willing to accept. “And ultimately I didn’t have as much control over it as I thought I would. That was a hard pill to swallow but it was also liberating. I had to stop looking at it as something that I was in the driver seat of and more as something that I was on a roller coaster for. Who knew how long it would last and how the ride would look.”

What another brilliant analogy! You don’t know what the twists and turns will look like in your roller coaster breastfeeding journey. So you may as well strap in to enjoy the ride.

Brittany continued to sprinkle in breastfeeding attempts with the nipple shield whenever both her and her son felt like it. She even gave herself a treat with a special TV show she would only put on for breastfeeding, enhancing the positive associations with the event in her mind. This started to turn into more and more success in breastfeeding sessions as the weeks went by.

Nursing with a nipple shield

Brittany continues, “I don’t even remember the transition, it was so gradual and natural. That transitioned into I nursed him if I was home and had time but still gave him bottles at night. At this point nursing still took about 2 hours whereas giving him a bottle took 15 minutes so bottle feeding at night was the move for maximum sleep.

Once we were good and comfortable with nursing with the nipple shield on demand, I decided to try here and there to remove the shield midway through nursing and see what he would do. Always with the understanding that if he got fussy I could put it right back on, no harm done. I think that was the key, was to do it with no expectations no timeline. It was more of an experiment. I always had the nipple shield next to me and it was comforting to have it as my safety net. Again with time, under no pressure whatsoever and no expectations, I realized that we were not using the nipple shield anymore. It honestly surprised me. I don’t even know that it was ever my intention or expectation to get rid of the nipple shield completely. But that’s what happened. And I don’t know that we would have gotten there if my plan had been to get rid of the nipple shield completely to be honest.”

Now, Brittany enjoys breastfeeding her son pretty much full time. She said the transition was practically all mental. An intention shift, a lifting of expectations, and to stop comparisons and negative self-talk.

“I had to learn to stop creating false narratives over simple facts,” she explains. “For example: Fact: ‘I am giving [my son] a bottle right now.’ False narrative: ‘I will never be able to go out with [my son] without taking a whole arsenal of equipment, bottles, pump parts etc. I will forever be trapped. This is all my fault. [My son] isn’t getting the skin to skin he needs. I’m doing a horrible job.’ No. None of that is true. The only thing that is true is I am giving him a bottle. The rest is lies.”

Brittany and I wanted to share her story to show how important the mindset shift truly is. Let go of your “should.” Be kind to yourself. Listen to others’ advice as just that: advice–not hard and fast rules. However you decide works for you to feed your baby is what is best for you. That is no one else’s decision to make.

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