Everyone tells you breastfeeding is going to be hard, but you don’t really get it until you start. And then, it’s like, “Welcome to motherhood!” in blazing bold letters! It’s crazy how you may have had a lot of exposure through breastfeeding friends, but nothing prepares you for it. Every breastfeeding mom has been there. I was there. I am there.
If you are a breastfeeding/pumping mom and are dealing with low milk supply, I get it. Let’s just call it what it is – miserable. The pumping is relentless – it never ends. It feels overwhelming and at times – hopeless. And as a whole, dealing with low milk supply is in a word – traumatizing.
Personal Experience Dealing with Low Milk Supply
My first daughter was born with jaundice. Now, most babies are born with jaundice! But, any parent who has been through it knows that it still sucks! Baby was lethargic and so she could not stay awake while she ate.
Breastfeeding was painful. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying or delusional (at least in those first few days/weeks). I wasn’t used to all the changes my body was going through. Are my breasts supposed to be hard, soft, engorged? Are the nipples supposed to be hard or soft?!
Every single decision felt like it was going to end the world.
When the nurse suggested a pacifier at the hospital because baby had to be naked under the phototherapy lights, I nearly crumbled. I thought, “What about nipple confusion?! I wasn’t planning on giving her a pacifier!”
To keep baby breastfeeding, but get nutrients into her, I gave baby colostrum and formula through a syringe while she was nursing. It was so painful because she was nursing, and at the same time, I had anxiety because baby would stop sucking whenever we stopped the milkflow from the syringe. She was anticipating the free flow of milk, so I thought, “This is going to end my breastfeeding journey for sure!”
When we bottle fed her, I remember seeing her gulp down a bottle in a few minutes and I started crying. I was glad to see she ate, but seeing her eat that fast made me feel like I wasn’t able to meet her needs! “She must have been starving!” I thought, and, “She’s never going to want to breastfeed now because it’s so much easier to drink from a bottle!”
None of that compares to when I went to the doctor and they said she wasn’t gaining weight. Seriously, hearing that will scar you for life. They wanted me to cut back on breastfeeding because she was expending too much energy sucking, and instead bottlefeed formula. Also, they questioned whether I had low milk supply since baby wasn’t gaining weight. When they asked how much I was producing, it was hard to answer since I pumped between nursing sessions, but I estimated about an ounce per hour. The doctor told me that wasn’t enough, which again, will scar you for life. In my mind, I said, “So what you’re telling me is that what I’m producing is not enough for my child? I can’t give my child what she needs? I can’t meet the basic needs of my child?! So I’m not enough?!”
I would like to think I looked calm and collected on the outside, but on the inside I was a wound up stress ball on the verge of hysteria and a mental breakdown. I remember googling, “how to deal with low milk supply,” because I felt like I could not deal with it. I was hanging on by a thread, barely functioning. I found those sharp words, “low milk supply,” nearly debilitating. So this is the blog post and information I needed to get through those days. My hope is that it gives you a bit of encouragement to hold on and know you’re not alone.
I’m here to tell you, you are more than your milk supply.
Things to Remember to Deal with Low Milk Supply
- You are more than your milk supply.
- If you’ve come this far, you can do it.
- This is only for a season.
- Bottlefeeding can help baby conserve energy.
- Just go through the motions.
- No one single action you take will determine your milk supply.
- Think, demand & supply, not supply & demand.
- Give your body a break.
- Breastfeeding is one of the hardest, most sacrificial, and loving things in life.
You are more than your milk supply.
You have so much to offer, not just your milk. Your baby will love you for you. Being a mom is more than just making milk, so don’t ever think that you’re less of a mom if you’re struggling in this department.
If you’ve come this far, you can do it.
I read somewhere that most moms don’t make it past 2 weeks of breastfeeding. I think that’s the stat. Maybe it was 6 weeks. I can’t remember. But whenever I read that, I thought to myself, “Well, I’ve already made it that far, which means I can do it.” It was still hard. I still felt like I was in the trenches, but it made me realize, I already had the grit to get through breastfeeding because if I couldn’t do it, I would have given up by that point. So, on days when I thought I couldn’t do it anymore, I told myself, “Nope, you’ve already come too far. You have what it takes to do this.”
This is only for a season.
As a whole, breastfeeding is only for a season. You may nurse a few weeks, months, or years, but it won’t last forever. But more specifically, the hard part of breastfeeding in the early days is only for a season. Trust me, I know it can feel like forever. It can feel like all time has stopped and this one moment is so hard, and that’s all you can think of, and you don’t know if you can make it to the next feeding. But the truth is, the pain is temporary. The hard part feels like forever, especially since you’re doing this on repeat every 2-3 hours, and possibly more often, but if you take a step back, we’re really talking about weeks. Weeks. The hard part of the breastfeeding journey is really just a matter of weeks. Probably 2-4 weeks of the really hard stuff, and 6-8 weeks in total of it still being hard, but not quite as unbearable. You will get the hang of it. Your baby will learn to latch. Your nipples will become less sore, your breasts less engorged. Your body will get used to what it needs to do and eventually go on autopilot. I once went to a La Leche League meeting. This was when I was still really struggling. One of the women in the group described breastfeeding as, “the easiest thing.” You can imagine how that made me feel when I didn’t know if I could go another day breastfeeding! But, it gave me some perspective. She spoke to the ease of walking out of the house not having to think twice about formula, water, heating milk, or bringing bottles. That seemed inconceivable to me at the time, but just holding on to her words helped me continue breastfeeding just a little while longer, and eventually I got there too.
Bottlefeeding can help baby conserve energy.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was determined to breastfeed. Not bottlefeed, but specifically breastfeed. I viewed the bottle as the enemy that would give my baby too much milk too quickly, and make her reject the breast, quickly ending my breastfeeding journey. But the reality is that nursing is hard work for a baby. It takes a lot of energy and they burn a lot of calories trying to get the milk out. So sometimes, it might be best for baby to just take expressed breastmilk or formula so they can quickly get the nutrients they need without expending too much energy. During that time, you can pump. But, you have to pump so that your body knows baby needs milk.
With baby #1, I was terrified of nipple confusion, but she was fine. She switched back and forth between breast and bottle seamlessly. When baby #2 came around, she was in the NICU, so I honestly didn’t care that she had to take a bottle or eat through a tube, I just knew she needed to gain weight! I asked the lactation consultant about the best bottles to use and how to avoid nipple confusion. She said “nipple confusion” pretty much never happens. It was very rare, and she may have had one patient ever who rejected the breast. But otherwise, all the babies she’d worked with took to both just fine. She said it’s actually best to introduce a bottle within the first 2 weeks! Any later, and baby might never take to a bottle! That made a lot of sense to me since I know a few people whose babies were breastfed and never took a bottle. I think they were all introduced to the bottle much later and baby refused, which makes life a different kind of difficult!
After baby #2 left the NICU, I still primarily bottlefed with expressed breast milk. What I told myself was, the easier it is for her to eat, the more calories she can retain and grow. This will make her stronger quicker, and then she will have the strength and endurance to nurse. At first, I gave her all bottles but would try nursing before the bottle, maybe 1-2 times a day. Over time, a nursing session would replace a feeding. Then I slowly increased the number of nursing sessions and reduced the number of bottles. I think this logic worked! Baby came out of the NICU at 10 days and we were able to abandon the bottle at 1 month. Maybe we could have done it sooner, but that’s when we went to the doctor and they told me she was healthy and gaining weight well.
One of the things I hated most with baby #1 was when I was super stressed and all the medical professionals told me not to stress because it affected my milk production. That would just send my anxiety soaring! I know it’s hard, but what I will say is, breathe. It was hard for me to “not stress,” but I had to breathe to survive! Kind of like how you have to breathe through the contractions during labor, try breathing deeply while nursing/pumping. This will help lower your stress hormones and get blood flowing to the right places, and get the milk to letdown. The Feher meditation was super helpful and allowed me to breathe deeply and relax while pumping. It also helped me feel more in tune with my body and what was going on. Prior to doing this, I didn’t necessarily feel a letdown. But when I used the Feher meditation, I learned what a letdown felt like, which helped me whenever I switched to nursing baby. Then, I could tell when she was actually drinking milk and not just passively sucking. Breathing will also help you get through the pain in those early weeks. I’m not talking about the pain from a bad latch, but the general sensitivity and newness to breastfeeding – type pain. Just take deep breaths, you can do it.
Just go through the motions.
There are going to be times, when nursing and pumping will feel like torture or absolute drudgery. Especially in the middle of the night. After going through this with #1, I realized, it’s just part of the process. So with #2, I would tell myself, “Just go through the motions.” For instance, when I was exhausted but needed to pump before going to bed, instead of complaining or grumbling, I’d think to myself, “Yes, this sucks, but just go through the motions.” This helped me to get it done and not fixate as much on how unpleasant or painful it was.
No one single action you take will determine your milk supply.
This is important, repeat after me – no one single action I take will determine my milk supply. With baby #1, I thought every single decision I made could possibly tank my milk supply and end my breastfeeding journey. I remember, there was one morning I woke up feeling so exhausted I felt like I was going to pass out. My husband felt so bad for me that he let me sleep in the next day. That was a sweet gesture, but I woke up in a complete panic because it had been several hours since my last nursing/pumping session. My stress level skyrocketed because I thought this one day would ruin my milk supply forever! But realistically, that wasn’t the case. Sure, I was engorged, but things ended up just fine. That was pretty early on in my breastfeeding journey, and I went on to nurse over a year. This just goes to show that there may be some off days, but as long as you’re consistent most of the time, then that one action isn’t going to wreck your milk supply.
Think, demand & supply, not supply & demand.
I know I just talked about milk supply, but now I want you to change your framework about how you view milk supply. You’ve probably heard that your body produces milk based on supply and demand. I used to think that there was this milk supply, kind of like a reservoir that has a set amount of milk, and once that’s established, that’s it. In my mind, I thought I produced about 1 oz per hour, totaling 24 oz a day. When I didn’t pump as much or let’s say baby didn’t empty me out, I thought that now my supply was down to 22 oz. I thought, I have this much supply, but baby didn’t demand it, so now my supply went down. OR, sometimes I thought, I only have this much supply, so I can’t keep up with baby’s demand. Then, I would supplement and give a bottle. The problem with this is then my body wouldn’t know my baby needed more milk, thereby potentially lowering my supply and perpetuating the cycle of low milk supply.
Now, I want you to change your thinking to demand & supply. The idea is, when your baby demands milk, latch baby or pump so your body knows baby needs milk. Then, your body will respond with the supply. Whenever baby is hungry, do this. This is how your body regulates the supply and keeps up with the demand. This is what baby is doing when cluster feeding. Baby is hungry and growing, so she demands milk more frequently. When she latches on, and nurses, she is increasing your milk supply to keep up with her needs. She is telling your body, “I need more milk!”
Once I understood this concept, it was a game changer. I started to nurse baby on one side, switch to the other when I was empty, then, if baby was still hungry, I’d switch back to the first side. I would do this to see if baby could initiate another letdown, and most times, she did. This just goes to show that when you think you’re empty, as long as baby is there to demand more milk, your body will produce more. Maybe not every time, but many times this is the case.
Give your body a break.
With baby #1, I put way too much pressure on myself to nurse baby every single feeding. This was hard and stressful because I was in so much pain. And, baby was nursing so frequently so there was never any relief. And since she wasn’t strong enough to extract milk efficiently, she was eating non-stop and nursing sessions were taking forever. Then, I nursed in between nursing sessions. Basically, this whole set up was just too much! So with baby #2, I took a different approach.
I allowed baby to bottle-feed more often in the beginning in order to get more liquid in her in less time. This helped her eat better, sleep better, and it gave my body a break. I had to pump during those times, but even so, it was easier on my body than having baby nurse nonstop. On days where I felt super sensitive, I might have pumped more. Overtime, my nipples were less sensitive and baby got better at latching and nursing, so it didn’t hurt as much. Doing a combination of nursing and pumping was a lot nicer and gentler on my body than forcing myself to nurse every single session and pump in between to increase supply. That was just insanity.
Breastfeeding is one of the hardest, most sacrificial, and loving things in life.
Honestly, breastfeeding is by far THE HARDEST thing I’ve ever done. I say this as someone who did marching band in Texas (which is hardcore), and someone who was/is in a Ph.D. program (which takes a whole lot of perseverance). Those may not be the hardest things ever, but I’m just saying they both take a lot of determination and hard work, but breastfeeding far surpasses both for me. There is a lot to learn when you’re breastfeeding, from latch, to clogs, to hand expression, to nursing position, and more! So if it feels difficult and overwhelming, that is because it is. I know we think that we’re made to do this, therefore, it should come easy. We tell ourselves this should come naturally, but the truth is, it’s still freaking hard.
Confession – I don’t think I fully understood what sacrifice was until I breastfed. Sure, you kind of sacrifice your body for 10 months while you’re growing the baby, but you don’t have a choice. When it comes to breastfeeding, it is a constant sacrifice to make the decision to feed your baby. Day-after-day, feeding-after-feeding, you make the decision to offer up your body to provide nourishment to your child, and that’s loving and hard. You could feed baby in some other way, but if you choose to do it through breastfeeding/pumping, that takes a lot of love and sacrifice. And I’m not saying that you don’t love your baby or sacrifice in other ways if you decide not to breastfeed/pump. I’m just calling breastfeeding what it is, an act of sacrificial love, and that’s such a beautiful gift you can give your baby. It’s not easy, but it is so loving.