You cannot imagine the shame you feel when you are a doula and your baby is admitted to hospital for failure to thrive due to inadequate food intake. I teach women to breastfeed for a living! But, I was a breastfeeding failure.
I failed myself and it put my son in the hospital.
When my second son was born at home everything seemed to go great at first. It was an uneventful birth. He was born healthy and seemed to do be doing well. On my Day 3 visit with our midwife she noted that he looked quite jaundiced and suggested going to hospital to confirm wellness.
We ended up in a NICU isolation room for 3 days with my baby under UV lights and me officially labelled “hostile” in his chart because I insisted that we find a way to allow breastfeeding to be his primary feeding method.
This was the start of breastfeeding with a tube tucked into the corner of my son’s mouth that delivered pumped breast milk and supplemental formula. Between feeds at the breast I used a breast pump to gather more milk and give my body the stimulation it wasn’t really getting from my sleepy newborn.
This pattern of pumping and supplementing and nursing with a tube became our daily routine.
I hated it. It was exhausting.
I had nursed my first son till age 2 so I was determined to do the same with this new baby. But, it seemed that no matter what I did, my baby wasn’t gaining as he should.
Weigh-ins at the midwifery clinic and the lactation clinic were disappointing, and I was urged to supplement with formula and pumped breast milk.
As a doula I had been exposed to an enourmous amount of breastfeeding evangelism. If you think the average Canadian parent receives a lot of pressure to breastfeed, try quadrupling that if you are a birth worker.
Doula trainings focused exclusively on one method of infant feeding. There were segments in our training manuals and in the childbirth education curricula we were taught to use about why breastfeeding was so important. It was referred almost exclusively as the perfect food. Optimal and superior were used liberally.
Even when the wider infant feeding support community started shifting it’s language to Breast Is Normal instead of Breast Is Best, it was understood by everyone: breast actually is best because any other infant feeding is inferior, less optimal and just plain not as good.
I internalized that message. And, as a result, I chronically underfed my newborn son.
I didn’t want him to have bottles (they do not offer the correct jaw stimulation the way breastfeeding does and there is no hormonal exchange between me and my baby). Nor did I want to give him formula (it was an inferior, inert food source lacking in hundreds of unique to him immune boosting factors that would permanently impair his gut function). I was determined not to be a breastfeeding failure.
Together we visited enough IBCLCs to field a football team. I took an expensive drug and multiple supplements that gutted our then meager income and put us in a financial hole it took a long time to crawl out of.
At our six week check up our alarmed midwife admitted us to hospital. The doctors instructed me to feed my son as much formula as he wanted to guarantee weight gain. But I didn’t listen. Again I was a failure to myself and my son. So focused on preserving the breastfeeding relationship, I knowingly limited my son’s formula intake to attempt to maximise how much breast milk he drank in proportion.
By the time 3 months rolled around I had hit a wall. As my baby fussed in my arms, skinny, hungry and unhappy with the breast and tube routine, I realised that I’d have to make a change.
I sobbed uncontrollably for a little while and begged my husband to make a bottle of formula and then take the baby from me to feed him.
After getting a little sleep, we began a new way of feeding that was exclusively formula in bottles. My son was fed on demand. Any time he seemed hungry we fed him.
He gained 3 pounds that week. THREE POUNDS!
And again I sobbed to realise that I’d been slowly starving my tiny baby.
I am sobbing now while I type this story and tell you about this incredibly painful part of my life. Will I ever get over this shame and grief?
It is vitally important that new and expecting parents know that infant nutrition is not always simple. Like every best laid plan in life, we sometimes need to make different choices for ourselves and our children that best suit the circumstances we find ourselves in.
As doulas, our goal is to help you do the best you can at following your own parenting desires. If you want to breastfeed, we will support you to do that to the best of our abilities – and we know when it’s time to call in professionals with more knowledge and expertise than we possess. But if you wish to make a different choice or you want to change your mind after facing a challenge that seems too hard for you, we will be there cheering your new choice and help you with your new plan.
I learned a valuable lesson from my experience with my second son: sometimes the best intentions damage women and babies. At the end of the day Fed Is Best.
Were you a breastfeeding failure? You’re in good company. As doulas we will give you lots of love as you heal and grow.
Worried about becoming one? Your Hamilton Family Doulas will support your journey and your decisions totally judgment free.
Oh, and that baby who became a full time formula feeder? He’s now a ridiculously healthy tween with a wicked sense of humour and loves cats.