“Your milk is not working,” my almost 3-year old says, looking up at me with her wide blue eyes. She crawls off my lap and starts rummaging in the closet. I watch as she approaches me with her wooden toolbox.
“I fix it with my tools,” she announces, a small smile spreading on her face. I think she knows it’s impossible, but she’s not willing to give up so easily.
I have more than exceeded the breast-feeding recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The AAP advises that mothers breast-feed their children exclusively for six months, and once complementary foods are introduced at that point, it’s recommended that mothers continue until their child reaches a year. But what does the current generation of mothers feeding their babies actually look like, and are these guidelines practical in the only developed country with no mandated paid maternity leave?
I’ve nursed my three kids for a total of 75 months combined, or over six years. Most people look at me wide-eyed when I tell them this — but it’s not a fact that I’m particularly proud of. I was young and inexperienced when I had my kids. I breast-fed to prove something to myself, and then I continued because it’s what my child wanted, even if it impacted my mental health and left me exhausted and defeated.
The older and wiser version of myself wouldn’t have sacrificed my body, my health and my sanity for over half a decade. But I’m not the only one. Women I spoke to for this piece said when they became moms for the first time, the pressure to breast-feed was intense and overwhelming.
Here are their stories.
Three kids ages 7 and under
Furlong says that she always wanted to breast-feed her children, partly because it’s what her mom did for her and her siblings.
“I did a lot of research on how to breast-feed, and even watched some educational videos on YouTube. Everything I read emphasized that nearly everyone could and should breast-feed,” Furlong said.
When Furlong’s first child was born, she discovered that it was more challenging than she expected. She struggled with clogged ducts and recurrent mastitis — a painful inflammation of the breast that can lead to infection. She was also dealing with anxiety and postpartum depression.
“Every time I spoke up about what I was experiencing my concerns were brushed off … as if my mental health didn’t matter,” said Furlong. She started thinking about running away, and eventually began having suicidal thoughts.
“It wasn’t until I eventually attempted suicide at four months postpartum that I finally got professional help. And part of that treatment plan meant switching to formula for my mental health,” said Furlong, who added that she nursed her second child for a year, but felt that she sacrificed her mental health to do so.
By the time she had her third baby she knew that she’d go straight to formula feeding. She loved the experience.
Two children, ages 6 months and 3 years
Uppaluru says that her breast-feeding journey with her two kids has been problematic in different ways. With her first child, she became consumed with attachment parenting ideology, and sacrificed her mental health and sleep to live up to unhealthy expectations.
“I think there are a large amount of women who want to breast-feed, at least some of the time, but also want to sleep. But the message that a lot of women get is that if you choose to breast-feed you have to forego sleep,” said Uppaluru.
With her second child, she says that sleep training saved her sanity and helped her to go back to work and feel like a new person; she even found a lactation consultant who is also a sleep consultant. Uppaluru is now back to work, and continuing to breast-feed her youngest child.
“It’s 2020, a lot of women are working. Not just because we financially have to, but because we want to. There’s not a lot of support in the breast-feeding community for the sleep that most humans need to function properly the next day,” she said.
Two children, ages 2 and 11
Ossom-Williamson says that her experience breast-feeding each child was very different. Thirteen years ago, when she had her firstborn, the culture around breast-feeding was very different.
“I faced overwhelming pressure to use formula … I really struggled to learn how to breast-feed,” said Ossom-Williamson of her experience with her first child. At the time she was a student, and nursing was challenging to plan around her class schedule. By the time she had her second child Ossom-Williamson was working with a supportive employer, and was able to use her private office to pump for as long, or as frequently, as she needed to.
She likened breast-feeding to running.
“I ran a race this weekend, a half-marathon. It’s a healthy thing to do, but it’s not the only healthy thing to do. If you don’t want to run a half-marathon it doesn’t change who you are,” said Ossom-Williamson.
Five children ages 6 and under
Umunna says she faced alarming pressure to breast-feed by medical professionals.
“I had goals that I would definitely breast-feed, and at least for a year,” said Umunna. But when she had her first child, she started struggling with nursing immediately. Umunna says her mom, grandmother or aunts didn’t breast-feed, but she was determined to make it work.
As soon as her first child was born, Umunna experienced pain from breast-feeding. “I informed the nurse that breast-feeding was hurting me, and I didn’t think it was going well. The nurse scolded me for crying and told me that it shouldn’t hurt,” she said. Once she was released from the hospital it didn’t take long for Umunna to notice that her daughter didn’t seem okay. She was crying inconsolably, and wouldn’t latch. The next day Umunna returned to the hospital with her daughter, just days old.
“The pediatrician came in the room, smelled my daughter and said ‘Oh, this is a sweet baby. She’s dehydrated for sure. I can smell it,’” said Umunna. They gave her formula immediately and took her daughter to the pediatric intensive care unit.
Umunna said that while she was with her daughter in the PICU, the nurses were chiding her for not pumping, and were continuously checking in to make sure she was pumping every hour. Once she returned home she continued to pump around-the-clock, but could barely produce a few ounces.
“I hated those days. I felt like a failure. I was embarrassed to make bottles in front of my friends, and I was suicidal at one point,” said Umunna, who was supported by her husband and family when she chose to switch to formula.
She attempted to breast-feed her second child for a few days, but eventually decided that formula feeding worked for her. “I had my doctors put it in my chart that this is what I wanted to do, and I was so happy. It was no stress or pressure,” she said.