I mean, sometimes you just have to name a post for what it is. Sure, you can buy a box of hair colour called “ICY COPENHAGEN” but sometimes it’s much easier to just buy the one that says “MEDIUM BLONDE” and be done with it.
And so! This post is called A Long Post About Breastfeeding because it is a long post about breastfeeding. And make no mistake about it: it’s going to take you 2-3 weeks to read. So buckle up.
But…why now? Why am I writing about nursing when my kiddo is three years old? Because just under three years ago, I made a promise to a former version of myself. It was the version that was up at 2am, timing her pumps on the “BOOBY TRACKER” app (that’s not what it was called but my memory is foggy), and reminding her husband to “CLEAN THE SUPPLEMENTAL FEEDING TUBE THING WITH BOILED WATER ONLY!”
I said to myself many times over back then: “This is nuts. I need to write about this someday.” And in those blurry, sleep-deprived days, I’d spend long hours scouring the internet for words of comfort from women in my position, so it’s only fair I pay it forward. With a new baby joining us in just under 6 weeks, the pressure finally did its job and “someday” has finally arrived.
Now where do we begin?
CHAPTER 1: The first week
Ah yes, here. The TL;DR version of that post is as follows: Traumatic birth story. C-section. Full anaesthesia. Obviously, I’ve spilled enough ink on that particular chapter already. But I bring it up again because it determined the beginning of my nursing story: mainly, that whole ish meant I was not able to even try nursing until 24 hours after my surgery and the anaesthetic was out of my system. I didn’t realize it at the time — which is probably for the best— but that set me behind right from the start. In an ideal world, a baby starts nursing almost instantly. That was, obviously, not the case for me and C.
And so, 24 hours after my c-section, we gave the whole nursing thing a shot, and it was…awkward! Very awkward. Not, like, embarrassing or anything (you lose all shame sometime around 5cm dilation). Just clumsy. My milk hadn’t really come in yet, so after a few half-assed attempts to get a latch going, the nurse brought in some formula and a supplemental nursing tube (more on that later). After fumbling with the tube and spilling formula all over my jammies, we gave C some formula via a bottle and vowed to try again soon. I wasn’t worried yet, but I knew it was not the cosmic connection some ladies get with their little ones the first time they nurse.
The next day, we went home.
Those first few days at home are just a blur. It was evident from the start I’d have to get well acquainted with a breast pump (and evident shortly thereafter that the single pump I bought was woefully insufficient – DOUBLE OR BUST, Y’ALL). I did all the things you do to get your supply going. I pumped. I had a Guinness in the bath. I took the fenugreek and blessed thistle pills in maximum amounts (that will never not sound like something from a witches’ brew to me). Really, I just tried to make some sense of this new reality, and feed my kiddo.
I wasn’t panicking yet. C was nursing – sort of. I had milk – sort of. I was pumping on schedule – sort of. But I knew it wasn’t where it needed to be.
Thankfully, my midwives were still visiting quite frequently, and I’m forever grateful for their measured and calming presence in a time that was neither measured nor calm. On one of our visits, I vented my frustration that no matter how long I let C nurse for, he’d always clean off a bottle of formula right after – I never seemed capable of giving him enough. At that point she said something that would turn out to be incredibly helpful in the months ahead:
“Well, that may just be what he likes.”
It was one of the first times I realized a *large* part of this breastfeeding business was totally out of my hands. I’d have to learn that lesson a few times over in the weeks and months ahead, but that was the first time: That may just be what he likes.
Anyways, at the same meeting, she recommended I schedule a visit with a lactation consultant, and wrote a prescription for domperidone (that will never not sound like a fancy champagne to me).
Chapter 2: The LC
Shortly thereafter, the lactation consultant came a ‘callin (one tiny benefit to having major surgery that re-arranges your organs: people come to you!). I liked her. She was no-nonsense. She almost immediately diagnosed C with a tongue tie (top and bottom), and I was grateful to have another thing to “fix.” We had that corrected within the week or so, and I booked a follow-up appointment at the lactation clinic.
Unfortunately, fixing C’s tongue tie wasn’t the magic switch I realized I wanted it to be. It seemed a little more comfortable for me, but his intake was about the same. The domperidone? Also not a magic switch. I never had that “big moment” where my milk just started to flow. It seemed it was always going to be a low supply. It was becoming ever-more apparent that a magic switch to fix all my nursing struggles may not actually exist (in hindsight: duh).
At my next meeting with the LC, she brought out the thing I had been avoiding for the past two weeks: The aforementioned tubey thing, a.k.a: a supplemental nursing system.
Really, it’s a very basic device with a fancy name. It’s just a super small, soft tube. It works like this: while your baby is nursing, you sneak one end of the the tube into its mouth. The other end of the tube is connected to a bottle of milk or formula. So, all the sudden the baby is getting a much better flow of goods. And the idea is they’ll be more enthusiastic eaters as a result. It also keeps the baby on the breast rather than the bottle. And I almost hated to admit it, but it totally worked for C in that appointment. After measuring him post-feed, we saw that he not only got the supplemental stuff from the tube, but drank much more from my breast in a shorter period of time.
So, I worked at it. And I actually got pretty darn good at it too.
And lo, the Days of the Tubey Thing began.
Chapter 3: The Tubey Thing
After mastering the tubey thing, this became my basic schedule: C would nurse for about a half hour minimum, with the aid of the tube. After he was done, I’d pump for 15-20 minutes, and we’d clean the tube (with sterilized water and a syringe) to get it ready for the next round. Three hours later, we’d do it all again: He’d nurse, while also taking in the milk I’d pumped previously via the tube, and so it went:
Nurse. Pump. Rinse. Repeat.
Nurse. Pump. Rinse. Repeat.
Nurse. Pump. Rinse. Repeat.
Nurse. Pump. Rinse. Repeat.
Nurse. Pump. Rinse. Repeat.
Nurse. Pump. Rinse. Repeat.
In those early weeks, I somehow managed to do this process 5-6 times a day. The LC recommended I try for 8 times a day. HAHAHA — NO. I did not take that recommendation on account of a desire to retain some sanity. I also stopped feeling bad about sneaking some formula into that tube when I didn’t get a good pump in. (Fun side story: it was during these weeks that I watched so much Netflix that we were slapped with a surprise $250 overage fee, and Matt miraculously got that charge dropped after playing on the sympathies of our internet provider. But I watched all 6 seasons of Parenthood and can you really put a price tag on quality time with the Bravermans?)
Reading this, I realize it sounds insane. And it was. But I had a new deadline on the horizon: I decided that at my 5-week LC appointment, we’d *officially* assess the progress, and determine if all of it was worth it. After that appointment, I’d pick a lane: keep aiming for the elusive “exclusively breastfed” title, or become a formula mom.
That 5-week appointment came up surprisingly quickly, and it was totally anti-climactic. We did the usual routine: feed and weigh, but at the end of the appointment all she basically said was “Welp, keep at it!”
Uhhh…that’s it? That’s all you got? Yep. That was it.
She didn’t offer the definitive diagnosis I assumed we were working towards. It’s silly, but I expected her to say “keep at this for X amount of time, and I’m sure he’ll be exclusively breastfed by X!” But LCs are not all-knowing geniuses. They don’t possess some secret ability to predict the future. They don’t know your baby. They’re helpful, knowledgeable women who offer positive encouragement and good advice, but they don’t have any magic answers, either. Though I think it might be time they retire the “make your boob a burger” line.
(This is a gif from Jane the Virgin, which, for what it’s worth, was the best depiction of breastfeeding stress I’ve seen on TV! It’s also a warm, clever, witty show with lots of hunky dudes so really, you need to be watching it.)
SO, what was next? I’d hyped up that 5-week mark so much in my head, I felt a little unmoored once it was over. What was the next milestone? What was the plan? How many more feeding tubes must I buy from the weird old people pharmacy that sells an insane amount of differently shaped toilet seats?
I had no idea.
So, I just…kept at it.
Not because I was working towards some specific goal, not because I had a guarantee it would all become easier, just because, well, the whole silly system – tube and all – was actually working for us.
For the next two months, I did the nurse/tube/pump dance. I relaxed the schedule slightly, and still had to top up with formula every day, but I planned my life around it. It was utterly baffling to me that I actually did very well on a super rigid schedule. I, Julie, Patron Saint of Perpetual Lateness and Forgotten Appointments, found myself thriving by adhering to strict plan. I could actually still do all of the coffee/thrifting/restaurant eating I was accustomed to, I just had to time it to the minute. So that’s what I did! It also helped that C himself was a super chill baby, and he became clock-work predictable in his eating times.
This period also revealed to me that I am, fo sho, an IN-TRO-VEEEEEERT. Sure, I like to make jokes at parties and I’ve done my share of high school drama, but at the end of the day, I was totally OK with hibernating for January, February, and most of March (I live in Canada – those months are all “freezing-this” and “windchill-that”). I was also able to go deep, deep into a cave of introversion because I had two sisters that lived down the street, and they made sure to check in on me and make sure I showered. Truly though: my personality, C’s personality and the time of year that he was born were huge factors in making this particular arrangement work. If any one of those things were different, I could not have pulled it off, of that I am sure.
All that said, please don’t think it was all tickety-boo. I’d cry when I felt overwhelmed. I panicked when my domperidone prescription ran out while I was out of town. I’d throw the tube across the room when C wouldn’t cooperate. I resented women who could just whip out their tatas at the mall and feed their baby like it was the easiest thing in the world. I wanted to hurl all “breast is best” internet comments into the sun (WE GET IT—IT RHYMES). Things like C’s baptism and lunch felt insanely more complicated to plot out than they would’ve otherwise.
But still, through all that, it was working for us.
And then we decided to take a trip. On a plane. Far, far away. And that brings us to our next chapter:
Chapter 4: Pump it!
In April of 2015, when C was approaching the 3 month mark, Matt said he’d really like to visit his brother in Alberta in May. Alberta, for my American friends, is another province that’s a 4 hour plane ride away. As soon as we decided we wanted to go, I decided it was time to say buh-bye to the tube. I’d become fairly adept at it, but there was no way I was going to fool around with that nonsense thousands of feet in the air. And we’d had a good run! A better run that most, from what the internet tells me. So, the tubey thing was out, and the bottle was back in. Although C hadn’t had a bottle in a few months, he figured out what to do with them again very quickly. (The trick to that? Using the ultra-cheap basic bottles they gave him in the hospital at the very beginning. Relatedly, if anyone is interested in an extensive collection of expensive, unused fancy bottles, drop me a line.)
So, C was back on the bottle a few weeks before our trip. And much to my relief and surprise, the tube-training must’ve done it’s job, because he still liked to nurse! Oh, he was still incredibly slow and lazy about it, but that worked in our favour on a 4 hour plane ride.
By the time the plane lifted off, I’d successfully changed up our schedule to: 1) pump all the damn time to keep up my supply 2) nurse occasionally 3) otherwise bottle feed. If you find yourself in a similar position, my best piece of advice for making this schedule work is to get comfortable with pumping eeeeeverywhere. I have pumped on a plane, in the air port, in the back seat (AND front seat) of the car. Basically, I have pumped in all the places where Dr. Suess refused to eat green eggs and ham.
Now, of course it’s a bit of a drag to take a pump with you everywhere. Of course it’s annoying to have to google how to clean bottles on a plane. But at this point I started to reap the benefits of having a baby on the bottle: Dad can help, you can feed your baby in the car, and you don’t need to whip out your tatas if you just don’t feel like it.
I should also mention that even with all the pumping I was doing, C was still topped up with formula every day. I had long since moved past my whole “EBF” (exclusively breastfed) goal — and found myself in a much better mental space because of it.
That trip was great, and set the tone for how I’d feed C for the next five months. I gradually starting slowing down my pump sessions, and when summer rolled around, I was only pumping two or three times a day. Before fall arrived, I made the decision to stop pumping all together. I was coming up on 9 months, and I had made peace with the reality that my supply might run dry without the constant pumps.
So I stopped.
…And C kept nursing. For almost two more years.
Chapter 5: The Other Side
Yep! When C was around 9 months, I entered into the chillest phase of our nursing story.
C nursed whenever he wanted, mostly before bedtime, but everything else was formula, and a few months later, homo milk. He still loved his bottles, and my supply stuck around.
This was also around the time that C started to find his voice. I noticed that whenever he’d want to nurse, he started saying “a-er side? a-er side?” It took me a little while to decipher what he was actually saying: Other side. AHAHA. That was obviously picked up from me always announcing that I was switching him from one side to another halfway through our nursing sessions. A lesson drilled into me in the early days.
To this day, that’s still what C calls anything boob-related. Bras. Bathing suit tops. Just this summer, we walked into Victoria’s Secret, and he immediately started exclaiming “OTHER SIDE! OTHER SIDE” as he pointed out all the bras. SO SILLY.
Anyways, that turned out to be the perfect name for this particular chapter in our nursing story, because I was finally on the other side of rigid scheduling and additional equipment to make it all work. I do not take it for granted, even for a minute. I know the only reason I even got to experience nursing like this was because he wanted to keep doing it. As ye olde saying goes: You can take a baby to the boob, but you cannot make it drink.
Am I proud of all the work I did to get to that point? Yes. I am. But I would’ve been just as proud of myself for choosing a different path. I chose to do what was best for me, and best for babe. For some ladies that’s EBF, for others it’s formula or exclusive pumping, and in my scenario, it was a little bit of everything.
I was going to write a little bit about weaning, but that was really truly just a gradual process. It sort of took care of itself. I am assuming potty training will do the same, right? RIGHT? No? Eeesh. That’s another post all together.
In any case, to the brave soldiers that have made it to the end of this post, WELL DONE! I award you three lactation cookies and a pumping bra that is really just a sports bra with holes cut out.
I think the last thing I’ll do is just compile a list of posts and stories that I found helpful back when I was in the thick of it. You’ll notice they span a range of tones, because for me, I really needed it all: I needed posts that let me revel in my sadness and mourn the experience I wasn’t having, posts that made me feel like it actually wasn’t that big of deal, and posts that made me laugh (BREASTFEEDING IS A SCAM). That way, if nothing in the above 10,000 words (I assume that’s what we’re at at this point) was helpful or comforting to you, perhaps you’ll find something below that does the trick!
Thanks for reading all. I’ll keep you posted on how it all goes with baby #2. I will probably get around to that post sometime in 2025.
Other articles that are helpful and shorter than Illiad:
From Nicole Cliffe at the Hairpin: On Being Unexpectedly Crummy at Breastfeeding
From Kaelah at This Charming Life: I Gave Up Breastfeeding…and We’re all Happier Because of It
From Kelsey at Snappy Casual: Why I Quit Breastfeeding
Esther at Her View From Home: Love is Best
And, practically speaking, Pumping on a Plane!