Breast is Best — Until It’s Not

The internal crisis associated with weaning your breastfed baby

I just Googled “how to wean a breastfed baby.” This is shocking, given that when my daughter was born I couldn’t make breastfeeding work. I tried everything. I bled, I bruised, I wept. I wanted it so badly and was devastated when it wasn’t working.

Breastfeeding is hard. It’s no wonder so many women try to nurse but quickly move onto formula. I don’t blame them — breastfeeding hurts like hell at first. But once you get it figured out, it is so special. Being able to nurse your child is an incomparable gift.

And so is being able to decide when you no longer want to do it.

My breastfeeding journey goes like this:

Just moments after being stitched up post-delivery, my newborn daughter was on the breast and seemingly feeding fine. The floating lactation consultant visited our room, commented on the stunning bouquet of flowers my employer gifted us, and checked out my daughter’s latch. It’s great, she said. Everything looks good.

The day after we got home from the hospital, a nurse came over to check in with us and make sure everything was going smoothly. My daughter was four days old and seemed to be in perfect health, the nurse said. Like the floating lactation consultant, the nurse checked her latch and said she had a good one. She weighed my daughter and noted that she hadn’t put any weight back on yet, but that I could expect she’d be packing on the ounces soon.

When my daughter was one week old, we took her to a lactation consultant to double check everything was still going well, which my friend suggested after I told her how long our nursing sessions were in the middle of the night.

The lactation consultant weighed her and pointed out that she was about the same weight as she was when we left the hospital. She must not be getting enough milk, she said. She propped me up with a nursing pillow and had me breastfeed my baby so she could observe.

While nursing, she counted 18 sucks before a single swallow. I moved her to the other breast. Same thing: a lot of sucking, very little milk retrieval. The consultant weighed her after our 15-minute feeding and found she hadn’t put on any weight (ordinarily, an infant puts on an ounce per day and the weight gain is measurable after a feeding).

Then she told me what I had feared:

“Your daughter hasn’t been eating.”

For the first week of her life, my daughter wasn’t getting the nutrition she needed to grow. As a hormonal, emotional, first-time mother in the throes of postpartum recovery, this crushed me. I felt like a failure. Babies are meant to be breastfed; it’s natural. Breast is best; there are so many benefits. These are the stories expectant and new mothers hear, and as a result I felt like I was harming my baby by not feeding her the way I was “supposed” to.

Because of her difficulties sucking, my daughter worked so hard that she burned off the small amount of milk she was able to retrieve. Meanwhile, my body was given the signal that it didn’t need to produce milk, so my supply barely trickled in. We found this out when the consultant asked me to pump after nursing and I produced a minimal amount.

She put us on a plan: feed her every three hours (wake her up if she’s sleeping) and administer milk by tube and syringe. This way we could ensure she was getting the calories she needed. If I wanted to keep trying to breastfeed, I could attach her to the breast and have my husband insert the tube into her mouth so she thought the milk was coming from me instead of from plastic medical devices.

This is how we did it for a couple of weeks. Every time my daughter ate, it was a four-handed operation. I’d stimulate nursing while my husband released drops of over-priced donor milk from a syringe (I wasn’t producing enough of my own yet, and I still believed that breastmilk was the best milk), and then I’d go pump while he continued to feed her.

This process hurt mentally and physically. Mentally because I’d be in the nursery alone pumping while my husband was in the bedroom feeding my baby — something I, the mother, couldn’t do. The physical pain was such that every time she latched, a shock of energy spread through my chest and down my back. My husband told me repeatedly that I didn’t have to go through it all. That we could just give her formula. But I really wanted to make it work.

Because breast is best, as they say.

I power pumped to bring my supply up and spent hundreds on brewer’s yeast, goat’s rue, and various other supplements. I almost gave up.

Just before the one-month mark I ran into the lactation consultant, who I stopped seeing when, on our fourth visit, she gave us our final feeding plan. It was our last-ditch effort to get her to breastfeed properly, and it didn’t work. She asked me how my daughter was nursing and I said we were still working on it. In response, she told me if my daughter was going to be good at breastfeeding, she already would have been by now, and that she thought it was time I began to mourn my idea of breastfeeding.

I cried the whole way home. I can’t tell you what made me want to breastfeed so badly, but I can tell you that that moment — when I was told I couldn’t do it — was exactly when I knew I could.

And then I did.

Not long after running into the lactation consultant, I reached out to another one. She came to my house the next day and spent an hour with my daughter and me. She did a few cranial adjustments, hung my daughter upside-down by her feet, and pointed out her tongue and lip tie, which we had released the following week.

We eventually figured out our rhythm. My milk supply caught up with the demand once my daughter started sucking properly. Now that it was working out for us, my goal was to get her to one year. When we hit a year, I moved my goal to 15 months, which is how long my pediatrician told me she either needed to be consuming breastmilk or formula. Once she turned 15 months, I pushed back my goal to 18 months.

Here we are, a year and a half after I struggled so hard, and I’m Googling how to stop, because breastfeeding is best — until it’s not — and right now it’s not best for me.

And sometimes it’s never best. Elaine Kasket wrote a terrifying story about how the breast is best concept nearly cost her baby her life. The external pressure to breastfeed buries mothers in a desire to provide for their children and blinds them to whether or not their babies are actually getting the calories they need to grow.

The question should be: is your baby ingesting calories? Not: are you breastfeeding?

I have many friends who either chose not to or could not breastfeed, and I haven’t spent a moment judging them for it. It is a deeply personal decision, and one that nobody but the mother should be able to speak to.

My body has either been growing or feeding a child for more than two years. I’ve decided it’s time for my hormones to normalize and for me to take my body back. This decision has brewed up a miniature internal crisis, however, which looks something like this:

  • She loves breastfeeding so much. Why would I stop?
  • The antibodies are good for her. Why would I stop?
  • Breastfeeding is good for the mom, too. Why would I stop?

Short answer: Because I want to.

If you’re thinking about weaning or have already done it, you might need to hear these messages (I did — and still do):

Your baby will be fine

Whether you nurse for 18 months or 18 hours, your baby will be fine without breastmilk. There’s a reason baby formula is a $70 billion industry. Choosing to feed your baby with formula is okay. It’s more than okay. I was formula-fed. My friends were formula-fed. It is so normal. Deciding to no longer breastfeed will not harm your baby, despite all of the breast is best buzz.

If it hurts, it’s not right

One word: teeth. You’re already superwoman by nature of being a mother. You don’t need to suffer through teeth clamping down on you. It was when our breastfeeding sessions began to hurt a couple of weeks ago that I decided it was time to start weening. There is no reason I should endure this kind of discomfort now. Going through pain now won’t have the payoff it did when my daughter was a newborn and we were figuring it all out. Now, it feels superfluous.

Babies need to grow up

Independence is something I want to pass down to my daughter, and yet I find myself hanging onto the threads of her dependence on me. It’s time I acknowledge she is no longer a baby, but rather a person who thinks and moves on her own. Keeping her dependent on me, while special, will not do her any favors. I need to let her grow up, and weaning her from nursing is the first step to clearing her path.

It’s okay to be sad

I’m really sad about this decision. Each time I nurse her I wonder if it’ll be my last. I see her look up at me while I’m feeding her and I think it’s the best moment of my life, and then I go through the internal crisis above. I wasn’t ready to mourn my idea of what breastfeeding looked like all those months ago, but today I am mourning its end. And that’s okay.

You should be proud

Breastfeeding is a damn big accomplishment, no matter how long you do it. Not only did you grow your baby, but you sustained it once you birthed it. Additionally, being the one getting up for night feeds is a Herculean responsibility. If breastfeeding is the path you decided to take, and your body allowed you to do it, you should be proud of yourself.

You matter, too

Does breastfeeding hurt now that your little one has teeth? You can stop. Do you not want to breastfeed anymore but you don’t really have a good reason? Great. You matter, too. Stop breastfeeding. Your body deserves a break, so if you want it, take it. You are not in existence for the sole purpose of caring for a child — you are a person, too. Don’t let motherhood take away your individuality.

Breast is best — until it’s not. The choice is a personal one and sometimes, despite external pressures, it simply isn’t best. And I am just now coming to this juncture.

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