When it comes to breastfeeding, it’s not always black and white. There’s a little breastfeeding sister called pumping that I don’t think gets enough attention, and I’m not just talking about the working mom type. What I’m referring to is exclusive pumping (EP), a unique form of breastfeeding that comes with its very own set of pros and cons and produces the same end result – breast milk.
Some folks argue the benefits of EP and nursing are not the same. But to me, breast milk is breast milk, a God-given miracle, regardless of how it’s extracted. Think about it, your body alone provides the nutrients needed for a baby to live and grow. Not to mention all the other added benefits. So when nursing didn’t fare so well for us, exclusive pumping was the next best alternative.
I worried about breastfeeding more than anything else when I was pregnant. It made me nervous, and I wasn’t comfortable or confident with the idea. I even looked into the option of exclusive pumping in the early months, but then I read how much work EP was and abandoned that thought. I told myself I’d give nursing a real try. Ideally, I could nurse for convenience, like at night, as well as switch between bottle feeding pumped breast milk at other times. If only it had worked like that.
We struggled with nursing from the very beginning. Our first attempt was accompanied by minimal aid. Then for the next feed, my son faced low blood sugar issues requiring a formula bottle in the nursery. Once that resolved, the 24 hours following remained rocky. We worked hard on the latch, but it was more technically challenging than expected and more work than comfort during our hospital learning curve.
I really did arm myself with all the breastfeeding knowledge and ammo I could, even took a lactation class while pregnant (the only class I took). While my first hospital nurse was not seasoned with breastfeeding herself, it seemed like most others were. Two different lactation consultants stopped by our room, one nurse was a previous lactation consultant, and two others were moms. I learned a little something new from each person and compiled it all together – armed and ready to nurse. It did get easier as I gained confidence and started to figure it out, but our story didn’t end there.
Once my milk came in, new road bumps emerged. My son was back up to birth weight, so it seemed like eating was on track. However, latching wasn’t always easy or great (it hurt and my nipples were sore), there was tons of crying at the breast, and diaper poops were bright, watery green. The doctor troubleshooted my diet and recommend seeing a lactation consultant about a possible tongue tie. My new mom self, though, chopped up the issues to milk overproduction, poor milk quality (think skim, not whole), and insufficient intake of hindmilk. I also questioned whether everything I was doing to help – nursing on one side, pumping to relieve the other, wearing breast shells, etc. – was actually causing the problem. Who knows. We never got that far.
The crying during breastfeeding was awful. It was such a chore. Everyone portrayed nursing as a comforting, bonding experience, but it wasn’t like that for us at all. My little guy would SCREAM. It took forever. I never looked forward to it. I never got to a public nursing comfort level. The feeds were so unpredictable, and I was trying to coordinate a million visitors around them. For example, the day after arriving home from the hospital, we had a full house. There I was tucked away for 1-2 hours with a screaming baby just trying to squeeze in a single feed. Tack on the vulnerable emotional state and running on fumes in the middle of the night… it was rough.
One week after birth, the stress of feedings had me over the edge – the time, the lack of sleep, the discomfort, the isolation of responsibility, the hormones. Did I mention the stress? We had also re-entered a crying and refusal-to-eat stage after I thought latching had improved. My husband and I agreed I needed a temporary hiatus – take a couple days break, pump exclusively, and then revisit – but making that decision, I was an emotional wreck.
I had put in seven days of solid breastfeeding effort, so I felt like abandoning it a week in was too early. I felt like I was giving up. And the thought of letting go the connection from nursing broke my heart. But also in my heart, I was debating if I really even wanted to revisit the subject. Did I want to spend the time, stress and money to see a lactation consultant when when exclusive pumping did work for us and our lifestyle? Would seeing the lactation consultant even help? I just couldn’t decide if the investment was worth it.
The last night I nursed was icing on the cake. It was the night before my husband returned to work, and despite already agreeing that a hiatus was best, I gave nursing one more shot. I cried. Baby cried. We fought. Awful, all of it. We were officially taking a break!
My two-day hiatus pretty much turned into forever. My parents visited later that week, and everyone contributing to the feeding factor, including my husband, was so helpful. It lifted such a weight of responsibility off of my shoulders, both in the short and long term. All of the sudden the doors opened to babysitters and helpers, something we took full advantage of. It also enabled us to host visitors and make plans without worrying about scheduling around feeds.
The flexibility, particularly in conjunction with our on-the-go lifestyle, was so nice. Yes, there’s an entirely different level of effort involved with EP, like the constant washing of pumping bottles and parts, toting around a pumping bag or finding a place to pump while out and about. But there’s also a different level of freedom involved as well.
I honestly planned to give nursing another go to see if something clicked, but through all the new baby chaos, it just never happened. Exclusive pumping worked. Though the decision was very hard and extremely emotional at the time, I’m perfectly ok with the decision now. We’re still going strong 8.5 months later, pumping 3x per day. It can definitely be a chore and I’ve been ready to throw in the towel at times, but at the end of the day, I’m proud and thankful that this breastfeeding option, at least this go around, has been a success.
Breastfeeding doesn’t have to be black and white. If nursing doesn’t work for you, consider giving exclusive pumping a whirl.