When Elaine learned that she was pregnant with her first baby, she describes herself as "determined" to grant her baby every possible advantage. From the moment of that positive pregnancy test, she was endlessly researching all facets of pregnancy and care for a newborn, avoiding soft cheeses and opting for an all natural, drug-free water birth. A big believer in the "breast in best" chant, breastfeeding was definitely on her parenting agenda as she tells me that she never even "considered" formula feeding.
"I was even secretly smug when I found out a co-worker formula-fed her baby," says the mother. "I thought my kid would be so much better off than hers just because I would be breastfeeding. This sense of smugness would later turn to hardcore guilt when co-worker gave me advice on which formula brands were best and told me where to get coupons and the deepest discounts."
Yet, Elaine would ultimately encounter many challenges on her quest to breastfeeding, including a painful infection and a mastectomy.
Right after the birth of Elaine's daughter around Christmas time, she was blessed with quite the holiday gift: a helpful and kind lactation consultant at the hospital who boosted Elaine's confidence in her decision.
"The lactation consultant made me feel empowered by my choice to breastfeed," she remembers. "I felt my baby would be less likely to get sick, less likely to become obese, and more intelligent than her formula-fed counterparts. " [tagbox tag="breastfeeding"]
The first few weeks of nursing her baby girl went well. Aside from both the standard holiday stress and entertaining company, Elaine was constantly excusing herself to go breastfeed. As the days rolled by though, she felt so assured in the decision that she was making for her daughter's health and genuinely enjoyed the connection with her child. Yet, when her daughter turned five weeks old, Elaine discovered a plugged milk duct in her left breast.
She called a lactation hotline, provided by her lactation consultant, and the expert recommended using hot and cold compresses and to nurse frequently from the plugged breast. Elaine followed the instructions, but found that the plug was worsening. Within a couple of days, her breast began to take on a "red-ish hue" and a hard lump began to form. Two days later, she was in her doctor's office with what she describes as a "hard, red lobster breast."
After several other doctors on staff examined her and ordered a same day sonogram from a pimple forming under the infected breast, Elaine was told that she needed emergency surgery.
"After that my life felt like it was stuck in some horrifying fast-forward. I had to leave my brand new baby whom I’d never been away from," she says. "My surgeon was a surly man who introduced himself by informing me they were going to slice open my breast to drain the abscess and that he wasn’t responsible for the cosmetic appearance afterwards."
Elaine awoke with a very heavy pain in her chest and was told that she would not be released until the origin of the infection was uncovered. The day after surgery, she was informed that she had Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a type of staph infection. She figured that she probably procured the strand from the hospital or at the birth center, most likely entering her breast from a crack in the nipple and infecting the plugged duct.
She was hospitalized for five days. And while laying in bed with an open golf ball-sized wound in her left breast and on a heavy dose of Vancomycin, Elaine continued to "pump and dump," putting her daughter on formula for the time-being. It took Elaine a full month to recover, at which point she resumed breastfeeding her daughter with just her right breast.
At no point did a doctor or lactation expert suggest to Elaine that perhaps she should stop breastfeeding.
On follow-up visits at the hospital, Elaine asked "the Milk Maids" as her husband called the lactation consultants, if she should perhaps supplement with formula since she only had one breast for nursing. Among the six different lactation experts that Elaine visited with, none advised formula.
"They all told me 'supply would meet the demand' and that if I started supplementing my supply wouldn’t go up like it needed to. They told me stories of women with one breast removed feeding like champs, having more than ample supply. They pointed out mothers of twins did just fine. One breast per kid is all you really need."
Elaine rented a hospital grade pump as per the lactation consultant's advice, pumping and then dumping every three hours while in recovery. Following surgery, breastfeeding, and pumping, the new mother was understandably emotionally and physically exhausted. When asking what to do in the case of her daughter not latching on, she was merely offered the contact information of breastfeeding support groups while also encouraged to have a consultant come to her home for a hefty hourly fee.
"No one ever suggested that breastfeeding might not be best for me," she recalls. "After I left the hospital, a lactation consultant called weekly to find out my breastfeeding status. It was almost as if these women had a personal stake in whether I nursed or not. I didn’t want to let them down. I didn’t want to fail my baby. All of the lactation consultants were from the hospital where I had my surgery with the exception of the [one] consultant I met immediately after giving birth."
Once she returned to nursing, Elaine was relieved to see that her daughter latched on without any problems. But only a couple of weeks later, she awoke suddenly in the middle of the night with a fever, shaking, sweating, and her breast throbbing with pain. She ran to the bathroom and stripped down to see that now her right breast was turning red.
"I pressed down. A hard lump met my fingers. It was happening again," she says,
At urgent care, a doctor prescribed an antibiotic to tackle the infection. She urgently asked if she could still breastfeed while on the antibiotic, to which he advised that a healthy mother was more important. Elaine remained resistant until she spoke to her personal doctor, pumping and dumping well into the night as her husband watched in disbelief. Her doctor then performed a fine-needle aspiration (FNA) on her right breast, a diagnostic procedure, and subsequently vocalized her agreement with the doctor in urgent care.
Breast would not be best for this mom.
"She felt my immune system wasn’t back to where it should be and that if I continued breastfeeding I would continue to have problems. I was heartbroken. Breastfeeding had been so important to me and now I was being advised not to do it. I gave my baby a bottle and watched her gobble it down eagerly. She didn’t seem to mind, she was just happy being fed and being near me. I didn’t want to go to the hospital again. I threw away my pump and nursing bras."
Looking back, Elaine is admittedly "heartbroken" and "a little pissed" that of the many lactation consultants that assisted her during her pregnancy post-birth, and even post-surgery, formula was never presented as a viable alternative to breastfeeding. She agrees that lactation consultants provide an "invaluable service" to mothers, coaching them through the sometimes bumpy route of nursing. However, she finds the "breast is best" focus to be a fundamental disservice to women who, for whatever reason, find formula to be the best for their circumstances. Every time she mixes a bottle for her baby, she says that she is reminded of her colossal failure in not giving her child the very "best" choice, despite her ordeal.
"I just wish the lactation consultants would have said something along the lines of, 'breastfeeding is our preferred method but if you need it there’s plenty of formula out there. Here’s a pamphlet on how to choose what’s best for you and your baby.' Would that have been so hard? Maybe then I wouldn’t have felt like I had wronged my child."