IBCLCs: one part lactation consultant, one part therapist

Shortly after I purchased my Pumpinpal flanges for my elastic nipples, I got really frustrated because I felt like I was spending all of my time with my breast pump and not enough time with my baby. I had increased the number of pumps per day from 6 to 7, and I had also realized that a 20 minute pump recommendation from the lactation consultant at the pediatrician’s office would not be a one-size-fits-all situation, and I actually needed to pump for about 30 minutes to fully empty my breasts. Granted, it is actually impossible to “fully empty“ your breasts, as there is always milk that is still left. But the goal of pumping is to empty as much as possible to then signal to your body to create more milk. That is part of the supply and demand process of breast-feeding.  The supply and demand process of breast-feeding also does not consider your mental health: you need sleep (rest) to produce milk, but you also need to pump (or nurse) around the clock in order to continue producing milk and at the same levels. See how those are two very different messages?! It’s pretty ridiculous, and it boggles my mind, but that is a way that milk supply works with the human body. 

I was standing in the kitchen connecting my breast pump one day, and I got really exacerbated because all I really wanted to do was hold my baby and play with her, but I couldn’t because I needed a pump. I said to Chris, “I feel like I spent all of my time with the stupid pump.“ And he responded, yeah you do spend a lot of time with the pump. He didn’t really know what else to say, and I don’t really blame him. He knew that I wanted to give my baby as much breastmilk as possible and that I was upset nursing wasn’t working out, so there was really nothing else to be said. But that response did not satisfy me, and instead, it made me feel worse. I felt like I was having a downward spiral.

Well, during that pump, the Cleo lactation consultant Andrea had texted me to check in to see how things were going. It was almost like she heard the thoughts in my head and wanted to see if I was OK. So I texted her back and told her that I felt like I spent all of my time with the stupid pump and not enough time with my own baby, and it was pissing me off. I thought I was having a baby so that I could actually spend time with my baby. So why did it feel like I was spending all of my time with an electric breast pump of all things? I felt like I want to throw the pump out the window. 

She responded empathetically and said that she totally heard me, that it was a very common sentiment among women who are exclusive pumpers or who pumped milk at all for their babies. Even if you only occasionally pump milk, you still need to spend time with your breast pump to figure out the best settings for your body because every body responds to every pump differently. On top of that, we have to remember the end goal of pumping: that is to nourish our babies with breastmilk. That was what I wanted all along, and that was what I expressed to her during our very first meeting. She told me that if, at anytime, I wanted to stop pumping, then I should stop, and she would 100% support me and my decision. But, that was a decision that only I could make. Whatever way I chose to feed my baby would fit my baby, she assured me. I told her that if I was not able to give my baby breast milk through my breast directly, then the next best thing was my breast milk through a bottle, and I was determined to make this work. I was NOT giving up. She also reassured me and said that she knew I had dedicated so much time and energy into making sure that my baby had breastmilk, that I was a warrior, that I was not someone who easily gave up, and that because of all of this, I was a great mom.

 I saw this message, and I immediately started crying. I really didn’t feel like a great mom. I was upset that nursing was not working out. I felt like I wasn’t spending enough time with my baby. I blamed myself, even though it wasn’t fair or even true, for not having a great milk supply and ultimately crappy output every time I pumped. I wanted to fully nourish my baby so badly with my own breast milk, and I was failing. I really did feel like a failure. Even though my output was on an upward trend, I still didn’t think it was enough. It didn’t really help that on social media, most of the milk supply and pumping posts you see are of women who have an over supply. That is despite the fact that women who have an over supply are outliers. They are not the norm, but let’s face it: an over supply or freezer milk stash post is going to get a LOT more engagement than a “just enougher” pumping mom or an under supplier like myself. I highly doubt that I would ever have milk to stash in my freezer for my baby. I was not even sure that I would be able to get to 50% of her needs at that point. And it really bothered me because I was really doing everything within my power to ensure she had as much breastmilk as possible. I’d had such a frustrating journey to conceive, then the tumultuous roller coaster of IVF, and now, I was facing challenges feeding my child the way I wanted. It’s like everything was a struggle for my body and me, and it really just made me angry to no end.

I thought about all of the women I knew who formula fed, whose milk never came in because they had c-sections and their bodies never got the signal that hey, their baby came out, and therefore the milk needed to come in. The women whose milk never came in never had the option to breast-feed or pump. I really felt for them, because I knew that if that had happened to me that I would have blamed myself and agonized over it for a long time; that was also a major reason I was terrified of an emergency c-section: that afterwards, my body would not get the message to produce milk. I was lucky that my milk came in on day three after birth, and that I had any milk supply at all. I owed it to my baby to try harder to make this pumping journey work. I wanted to give her the world, and it started with breastmilk. 

This obsession was taking over my life, but I kept telling myself that this was temporary, that I would not be pumping milk forever. At the end of the day, my baby is a combo fed baby: she has both breast milk and formula because my body is not producing enough breastmilk to satiate her, and I had already made peace with that. But I also logically knew that if I were to switch her to formula completely, she would end up completely fine. I mostly had formula when I was a baby and Chris had only formula, and so we were fine. All of my acquaintances and friends who had formula fed – their children were completely fine. I had to stop pressuring myself so much to produce breastmilk and just go with the flow, literally, and accept what my body was able to produce and do what was in my power to increase my supply. Anything outside of that and any internal shaming that I was doing was not going to help. Stress does not help milk supply. Lack of sleep does not help milk supply. I had to keep reminding myself this so that I would not ruin my own goals.

Andrea, the Cleo lactation consultant, was like a godsend in many ways. I was never able to have the at-home lactation consultant visits I wanted that were covered by health insurance, but I had her, who helped not just as an IBCLC, but also as a make-shift therapist in some ways. She checked in on me regularly, whether that was through text or phone, and she even reached out when we were outside of the seven-day window when I would have access to her after our sessions arranged by Cleo. She genuinely seemed like she cared, and she was incredibly empathetic and always listened before she spoke. Unlike the hospital LC or the IBCLC/RN at the pediatrician’s office, Andrea genuinely centered her care and concern around me and my physical and mental health. The best IBCLCs are just that: one part therapist and one part lactation consultant. They respect your wishes and your boundaries, and they do their best to push you to meet your goals, and when you are not able to meet your goals, they reassure you and show you alternatives. She lives across the country, and so even if Covid did not exist, she would not be able to do a home visit with me. But I know that if she were able to, I probably would’ve had a better and more successful breast-feeding journey. But it’s okay. I can’t control everything. I am grateful for the support that I have received from her to date because I know that because of her, my journey has been more successful than it would’ve been if I did not have her.

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