On (Trying to) Nurse


I struggled nursing Sophie.

This time is even worse.

But, with Sophie, it got better—much better—and I nursed her for 13 months.

Now I’m at the four-month mark with my boys and we haven’t even reached the nursing stage yet. They get 100 percent breast milk—something I’m proud of—but I pump almost all of it and then give it to them in bottles.

It’s ridiculous, really. Before I had the boys I thought women who exclusively pumped were crazy. It didn’t make any sense to me. It’s double the work of formula (because you’re also pumping) and double the work of breastfeeding (because you’re also preparing and cleaning bottles).

But, even though I often like to stomp my feet and insist that things work out exactly the way I want them to, often, they don’t. My babies were born early. In the very beginning, when I was only producing a small amount of colostrum, Owen also was given formula. And James, because he was so small, qualified for donor milk—so he was given breast milk from another woman.

But I was lucky. My milk came in fast and plentiful and soon I was able to provide for them both. But because they were so small, I had to supplement my milk. So every bottle of pumped breast milk Owen and James received had a measured amount of extra high-calorie formula added to it.

When both boys were in the NICU, I was meticulous about pumping. I pumped every three hours, around the clock. I recorded the time I pumped and the amount I pumped. I poured my milk in small, plastic containers, which I collected by the dozens from a cabinet in the hand-washing room in the NICU. I wrote the time and date of each pumping session, and initialed each pre-printed label (also provided by the NICU).

While still in the hospital I’d pad down to the NICU, IV still attached to me, to drop off my milk and stare at my brand-new boys, even in the middle of the night.

Once home I’d store the carefully labeled milk in our refrigerator and then transport it to the NICU, in my parents’ old cooler. While visiting the NICU I’d always pump at least once in one of the area’s two pumping rooms. And always I’d keep track—date, time and amount—both on my spreadsheet and the pre-printed labels.

When visiting my boys, I’d try to breastfeed them. But because they were so very small, they had trouble latching. And because they were so very small, I was only allowed to try to breastfeed for 10 minutes. Otherwise they would become too exhausted and wouldn’t drink their follow-up bottle. And they had to drink their follow-up bottle because they had to grow. That’s why they were there. To grow.

Eventually, Owen came home. I continued to rent the hospital-grade breast pump and pump. I nursed Owen when I could, with a nipple shield to aide in the latching process. But nursing with a nipple shield required a follow-up bottle. Often, I found myself skipping the nursing and going straight to the bottle. Or someone else would feed Owen a bottle while I visited James in the NICU.

Then, James came home. And what felt like an already overfull plate seemed dangerously close to spilling. In the beginning I’d attempt nursing each of them at least once a day. A few months into it my mom helped me come up with a schedule in which each feeding session included a trial nursing session with one of the boys (Owen more often than James, because he was bigger and wouldn’t tire as easily).

But again, nursing required that follow-up bottle. And that follow-up bottle required pumping. Pumping required a clean pump kit. Bottle feeding required clean bottles. Cue the excuses: It was too much. I didn’t have time. Their not latching was too emotionally trying. I needed the help of other people come feeding time. I needed the extra time to play with Sophie.

Some of these excuses, perhaps all of them, are good ones. But still, they’re excuses. And because of them, four months into it, I’m in this ridiculous situation of doing the work of both breastfeeding and formula feeding.

I know that if I want out of this situation I have two (obvious) choices: (1) dedicate myself and time to teaching the boys to nurse or (2) formula feed. I don’t want to formula feed. It’s so expensive. I don’t know how the boys’ stomachs would handle it. I like the health and bonding benefits that come with nursing. And I’m so incredibly tired of washing bottles.

Our pediatrician gave me permission to go cold turkey—he said the boys are big enough. I think I’ll start with Owen. My mom volunteered to take James and Sophie for a day. And so, in the near future, I plan to spend a day in bed, with Owen, and simply try to nurse—no follow-up bottles, no cleaning, no laundry, no coloring with Sophie—nothing except trying to nurse. Our pediatrician warned me that it might not go well—Owen is four-months old. He’s used to a bottle. And he’s very impatient, especially when hungry (he gets that from me). So I expect a lot of frustrated tears, from both of us. But I at least want to try.

Maybe it will go well. Maybe Owen will get the hang of it and then James will get the hang of it and then I’ll actually get to use the awesome nursing pillow my in-laws gave to me last Christmas.

Or maybe it won’t go well. And I’ll continue this ridiculous cycle of pumping and feeding and washing, washing, washing. And I’ll have to pump, even more, because they’re drinking more. I no longer have a spreadsheet. I no longer keep track. And it’s so easy to skip pumping sessions. But with each pumping session I skip, the less milk I produce. And I know if I keep doing that I’ll have no choice but to supplement with formula.

If I do exclusively pump for the remainder of the year there will be some benefits. I’ll always have a supply of milk in the freezer. Andy and family and friends will always be able to help with the feedings. And at six months they’ll start to eat rice cereal and then maybe homemade apple sauce or mashed avocado. Slowly they’ll eat more, drink less. And before I know it a year will have gone by and I will have done whatever I felt like I could have done at the time. It will be the past, done with, and the boys will have grown in that very magical way that comes with breastfeeding (whether from the breast or the bottle): they will have grown very much because of a liquid part of me. And I love that.

Still, I often stomp my feet and want for something better—and on days when I’m especially worn and exhausted—something easier.

I hope this story ends like Sophie’s did. If so, great. If not, OK. And I know that. As long as the boys are growing, it’s OK. It’s OK. Only I always want more than just OK.

“No one could give her such soothing and sensible consolation as this little three-month-old creature when he lay at her breast and she felt the movement of his lips and the snuffling of his tiny nose.” —Leo Tolstoy