I Love Giving My Daughter Breast Milk—But I Hate Nursing

"breastfeeding" and "nursing" are often used interchangeably—but they are not the same. One mother shares her journey, and why she's now being intentional with her words can mean the world to moms who want to give their babies breastmilk.

A little over eight months ago, still in the thick of breastfeeding my child, I would have never been able to actually utter the truth: that I hated nursing.

Today, I proclaim those words with ease.

Saturday, July 15th, 2023 started as the worst day of my life. It was 5 a.m. and I couldn’t figure out why my daughter was awake… again… when I had just put her down to sleep less than an hour ago… again. It had been like that for two days straight. As I fumbled to get my daughter to latch, I felt the adrenaline start in my neck and creep down to the tips of my fingers and down my legs to my toes.

That was how the panic attack began. 

Keep it Simple

Throughout my entire pregnancy, I said I wanted to breastfeed, but that I was OK using formula if necessary. “I’ve watched too many people physically and mentally wreck themselves to fully commit to breastfeeding. Fed is best,” I would say, over and over again.

I made it my mantra because part of me was afraid I wouldn’t be as confident if the time ever came that I struggled to breastfeed. 

But the reality is that the “breast is best” philosophy that undoubtedly infiltrates our society and cultural conversations is just hard to shake.

The AAP recommends exclusively breastfeeding through six months, and the WHO echoes the recommendation and encourages breastfeeding through age two (and even beyond). I just assumed that’s what I would end up doing. I found a book that offered tips to simplify breastfeeding and read it as if I were studying for an exam. Eventually, I  felt confident in my ability. 

But, in the days before my daughter was born, the doubt started creeping in. The book harped on the importance of breastfeeding for bonding and mother/baby health. It also proclaimed that tribal cultures where girls are exposed to breastfeeding their whole lives have success rates upwards of 98 percent. 

As a type-A overachiever, I thought to myself, “Well surely if these women could do it, so can I.”

Turns Out, The Struggle is Real

The struggles started almost immediately in the hospital. After I gave birth, my doctors thought I might need a blood transfusion, so they put an IV in my right elbow. It was extremely difficult to bend my dominant arm to hold my daughter, let alone position her for nursing.

While the lactation consultant assigned to my room was helpful when she was there, sometimes it would take over an hour for her to come after I paged her, and she only worked until 5p.m. 

When I got my blood transfusion, I was given prophylactic Benadryl in the event that I had a bad reaction. I was told to take a second one when I got home, but not told that it could impact my milk supply or given instructions on what to do if that happened.

I never got the hang of self-expression, so on the night I got home from the hospital, when my baby was screaming inconsolably, I couldn’t figure out if there was actually any milk coming out. 

On Monday afternoon, my pediatrician helped me get on a formula-feeding regimen that would still allow me to nurse if my milk came in.

My doula, Danielle, offered lactation advice for two weeks after I gave birth, so she texted me tips to try to get my supply in and teach my daughter how to nurse in the meantime. As my postpartum hormones raged, I sobbed, “What if it never comes in?” 

 

The first 48 hours seemed like weeks, but when I woke up Wednesday morning, as I had my daughter practice latching, I noticed an unfamiliar sight in the silver cups I had been wearing. “Is… is that milk?” I sent in a text to Danielle. “Yes! You did it!” she replied.

I sobbed a sigh of relief, and each time my daughter latched, I leaked more and more milk. I thought the struggles were over.

More Milk, More Problems

A few days after my milk came in, it was like everything got worse.  I found myself in a cycle of latch for 10 minutes, syringe feed for 20 minutes (because I couldn’t tell if my daughter was getting enough from the latch) and pump for 20 minutes at a time my daughter was eating every three hours.

Danielle consulted at all hours of the day until my contract with her was over, and I still felt like I wasn’t doing it right. 

I called the lactation consultant at my pediatrician and saw her every other day for a week. At the first appointment, I was visibly anxious and exhausted, so she suggested that I schedule a PPD check, which I had (and failed) that Wednesday.

My OB recommended I be put on Zoloft and offered, “It’s OK if you don’t breastfeed.”

I said, “It’s OK, I was at the LC this morning and I think I almost have it.”

At my Friday appointment with the LC, I successfully had my daughter latch and drink, and I was deemed a graduate. That day my daughter turned four weeks old.  

In the early part of the following week, things seemed to be going well. My daughter napped on the three-hour cycle as expected, and there were days she didn’t drink formula at all. Eliminating formula and pumping every feeding helped me sleep more. 

At my daughter’s one-month appointment, my pediatrician high-fived my husband and me, saying “Wow! When I first saw her, your daughter had lost 11 percent of her birth weight and was jaundiced. Look at her now, she’s a healthy nine and a half pounds! You did it!”

I didn’t even balk when my daughter had a nursing spurt Wednesday afternoon, which I chalked up to comfort nursing after her vaccines. 

It felt like it was finally over. Then Thursday came, and things went off the rails. 

My Breaking Point

“Why isn’t she sleeping?” I cried to my husband. “I put her down for her nap and it’s only been 45 minutes and she’s up again.” We looked at each other confused, because seemingly out of nowhere our baby went from sleeping two to three  hour stretches at a time to exactly 45 minutes.

When she finally slept for a longer stretch, I agonized over what I had done wrong before:

Did I give her the pacifier too early?

Or maybe too late?

Or was she swaddled wrong?

The next time she napped, I tried the same tricks as the nap before but she only napped for 45 minutes again. As the day wore on, getting her to sleep more than 45 minutes at a time got harder and harder. 

Since it took so long for my milk to come in, I assumed that she was hungry. After all, that was the only reason she’d woken up previously. I called the pediatrician and got the advice, “Try getting her to latch longer and make sure she fully drains you.” 

After 12 hours of 20 to 30 minutes on each breast and 45-minute nap cycles, I was ragged. My husband took the first part of the night shift so I could try to sleep. When she woke up for her first overnight feeding, she didn’t want the bottle. “Dad should try for 30 minutes max, and if she is still bottle averse, Mom should nurse,” was the advice we were given.

Despite his best attempts, my husband couldn’t get our daughter interested in the bottle, so I nursed her until she slept again. 

Friday was more of the same. “It’s just cluster feeding,” several people told me, as I sent half-lucid texts when people asked how I was doing. “It happens around one month. It’ll be over soon.” 

“You wanted to nurse all the time too, some babies are just like that,” my Mom said. So I kept telling myself to lean in and that it would all be over soon.  

Thoughts kept circling my head: When you finally get it right, you can wean off formula. You worked so hard to nurse. So many people helped you. You spent so much money on appointments. Don’t be a letdown now. Those tribal cultures have a 98 percent success rating, you’re a failure if you can’t figure it out, too.  

On Saturday morning, when the 45-minute cycle started again around 5 a.m., I started having a panic attack that wouldn’t go away.

As I was shaking and sobbing, half-naked, wearing my nursing pillow around my waist, trying to keep my daughter latched, I grabbed for my phone: I needed help.

Calling in Reinforcements

Despite my borderline psychotic haze, I had visceral clarity that something was wrong and had to change. I texted Danielle. She wasn’t up yet, so I called the OB’s weekend line.

As I was waiting for the doctor to call me back, Danielle called and told me she’d be over as soon as she could. When my OB called back, she prescribed a really long nap. If I still wasn’t feeling better after, she said I should come to the hospital. 

After my nap, Danielle sat me down on the couch, looked me in the eye, and said, “What do you want? Don’t think about it, say the first thing that comes to mind.”

And I said the words that changed my life: “I love giving my daughter breast milk, but I hate nursing.” 

I had complained to my friends about how much I hated nursing, but had never considered that quitting was genuinely an option. I had breast milk, and I wanted to give it to my daughter. Therefore, I had to nurse… right? 

Once Danielle gave me permission to say for real just how much I hated nursing, I couldn’t take it back. She told me, “You can still achieve your breastfeeding goals without nursing—you can pump. And if you need to continue to supplement with  formula, that’s OK too.”

More importantly, she said, “Your daughter needs you to be healthy more than she needs your breast milk.” 

Within a few minutes, she devised a pump schedule that allowed me to give my daughter 50 percent milk and 50 percent formula… without extreme sleep deprivation. “Does this achieve your goals?” Still not sure I was ready to give it up, I hesitated, and out of the corner of my eye I could see my husband nodding his head in assurance. “OK, let’s try it,” I said. 

She set me up for my first pump, and after 10 minutes, she looked at me and said, “Um, Jess, your bottles are almost full, do you have a container I can dump these in quick?”

After 20 minutes, we looked at what I had just pumped: nearly 10 ounces. “Jess, if you’re making this much milk, no wonder your daughter was crying. It wasn’t because she was hungry, she was probably uncomfortably full.” I looked at her perplexed. “How can that be? Her naps are only 45 minutes.” 

“That can be normal for babies her age,” Danielle said back. “Their REM cycles become 45 minutes around one month, so that’s probably what’s happening. Some babies sleep through to a second REM cycle, and some don’t. I can give you some tips to help her sleep longer, or you may just want to run with it and see if she starts sleeping longer stretches at night.” 

My mind was whirring as I processed what she was telling me. “And maybe,” she continued,” she hasn’t had enough activity while she’s awake, do you have a tummy time mat? Since she’s fed, we’ll put her down to play.” 

As my daughter laid on her playmat, cooing happily for the first time in days, I thought how terrified I had been that I had broken my baby.

As it turns out, nothing was wrong with her. I just finally had the information I needed to succeed. 

Our Babies Need Us Healthy More Than They Need Our Breast Milk

Although it started as the worst day of my life, that day led me to the best choice I could have ever made for myself and my family. As the hormones have subsided and my sleep schedule has gotten more regular, I often think back to that time and ask myself, how, and maybe more importantly, why, did it get so bad?

The conclusion I’ve come to is that the simple ways we can advocate for moms’ mental health and better support every feeding journey are fundamentally missing.

First, I’ve noticed “breastfeeding” and “nursing” are often used interchangeably.

It wasn’t until one of my favorite creators on Instagram posted a video about her breastfeeding, and later posted that she exclusively pumps, that it hit me: breastfeeding is just giving your baby breast milk, it doesn’t have to be directly from your breast.

I’m now intentional about my words: yes, I breastfeed my daughter, no, I don’t nurse.

It may be a small distinction, but for someone trying to achieve their breastfeeding goals, it can mean the world. 

Second, feeding education is lacking. The book I read about breastfeeding did not bother to hide its disdain for formula, and entirely missed the lesson on REM cycles and wake windows affecting feeding patterns. 

In a recent survey called The State of Feeding, conducted by Emily Oster, Bobbie, Willow, and SimpliFed, 87 percent of respondents used some combination of breastfeeding (although I believe they mean ‘nursing’ here!), pumping, and formula.

If combo feeding is so commonplace, why are there so many inputs making moms feel terrible about themselves if they don’t successfully and exclusively nurse? 

I also learned next to nothing about pumping before beginning my pumping journey. From ordering about 15 different pumping bras (13 of which I hated) to learning how to measure my nipples to figuring out flanges vs. cups (and how often to change my parts), there was such a steep learning curve that in hindsight was over complicated and could have been easily avoided with more prevalent resources during pregnancy. 

Third, we need to improve access to high-quality formula. There are many valid reasons that exclusively breastfeeding isn’t attainable, and we need to continue to normalize this feeding journey.

Stigma isn’t formula’s only issue that needs to be solved. Quality control issues that lead to horrific shortages have been in the news more than once in the last few years and must be prevented.

Formula—especially the quality brands—can be $100 a month or more, which creates an economic barrier for some families. Families shouldn’t be stretched thin—mentally or financially—to feed their babies. 

Moms can do many hard things. But maybe feeding our babies shouldn’t be one of them.

Author

  • Jess Kirsche Morrow

    <p>If you asked Jess in college what she wanted to do when she grew up, she'd have told you she wanted to be the next Miranda Priestley (only a little nicer). During grad school, she fell in love with digital marketing and never looked back... until now.</p>

    <p>She is currently on sabbatical to learn how to be a Mom, and has been exploring her experience and new identity through writing. Jess lives in Annapolis, MD on the Chesapeake Bay with her husband, daughter, and rescue lab named Coffee.</p>

    <p>She recently launched @creatinglittlereaders with her college best friend, with a mission to make it easy for parents to foster a love of reading in their little ones.</p>

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