dear la leche league

dear la leche league,

when my daughter was three & a half weeks old, she grew a tooth & stopped latching. her latch was already questionable because she was born two months early. she was intubated shortly after birth & had machines breathing for her for a while. once her lungs became more reliable, her doctors switched her over to CPAP, but she still had a mask over her face to make sure she was breathing & getting enough oxygen. it was a few weeks before we were allowed to start experimenting with breastfeeding, & at five pounds, she was too tiny & weak to get all of her nutrition that way. mostly she was fed through a tube that wound through her nose & down into her belly. i pumped eight times a day to make the milk that went through that tube. even though she was in a level 3 NICU 45 minutes away & i could have conceivably spent those early days sleeping through the night in my own bed, recovering from my emergency cesarean & the severe pre-eclampsia that necessitated it, i got up every night at midnight, 3am, 6am…every three hours, around the clock, every single day, to pump & make milk for her, with the hope that eventually she would be strong enough to breastfeed.

after my daughter was released from the NICU & grew that strange tooth (had she been born on time, she would have been born with it), i kept pumping & giving her bottles of my milk while i tried to figure out what to do. we saw her pediatrician & made an appointment with a pediatric dentist to have the tooth extracted, but my daughter lost the latching instinct while we waited for the extraction. i looked up la leche league on the internet & saw the mission statement, claiming that la leche league supports all forms of human breast milk-giving–not just breastfeeding. i decided to attend a meeting & hope that someone there might have some insight for me on what to expect if i wound up having to pump exclusively for my daughter. how much milk should she be drinking? would i always have to pump eight times a day? could i eventually scale back if my supply remained stable? what was the best way to store all the milk i was producing? how does a person go about weaning a baby that is fed breast milk in bottles?

i packed ramona into her carrier & went to the meeting. ramona hadn’t even been home with us for five weeks yet. i was still feeling sore from the surgery. we hadn’t even yet gotten to what should have been our due date. i explained the situation to the 25 women in the room, almost all of whom were accompanied by happy, chubby babies or playful toddlers. there was one other woman with a newborn, but hers had been born healthy & right on time.

after i shared our story, the questions started, & so did the judgments. “why did you ever let the hospital give her a bottle?” well, because the NICU was 45 minutes away & she had to be fed around the clock. we couldn’t be there to try breastfeeding for every single feeding, & even if we could have, she wasn’t strong enough to eat all the food she needed by mouth anyway. “you could have found a nearby hotel.” we had a premature baby on the budget of a graduate student & a social security disability income. there was no way we could have just stayed in a hotel for three weeks. “well, there’s no way you’re making enough milk for her.” “actually, i’m making about three times the amount that she eats. “then she’s not eating enough.” she eats 30 ounces a day. isn’t that actually a bit more than is typical for a newborn? “well, you’re not going to be able to keep up with her. eventually she’ll start eating more & your supply will tank if you’re just relying on the pump & it just won’t work.”

i asked if anyone in the room had any personal experience with exclusive pumping. one woman had. her first child had also been premature. she exclusively pumped for almost a year. she was breastfeeding her second son. no one else had ever exclusively pumped. most women in the room had never even heard of exclusive pumping before. when i asked how to store milk, no one knew because they didn’t have to store milk. when i asked about bottle nipples, no one knew because they weren’t using bottles. when i asked if anyone else had given birth prematurely, the only woman who had was the woman who had exclusively pumped. everyone else had healthy, pudgy, full-term babies & had never had to see their children intubated, with feeding tubes in taped to their faces. they had never had to leave their babies behind in the hospital after giving birth while they went home, which was the most horrible, unnatural thing i’ve ever experienced. none of them had ever had to think about what they would do if circumstances conspired against them & their natural crunchy mama instincts.

all i heard was a chorus of, “it will never work,” “you need to somehow get that baby to latch again,” “if you can’t get her to latch you might as well give up now & start formula because that’s what you’re going to be using within a month anyway.” all i heard was a chorus of what sounded like, “you couldn’t even bring your birth to full-term. you’ve already failed as a mother & your baby is already screwed beyond redemption. why even bother?” then ramona started fussing & i got out a bottle so i could feed her. a few other moms shielded their children’s eyes from the counter-revolutionary sight of a newborn baby drinking from a bottle.

fast forward thirteen months. ramona will be fifteen months old at the end of february. i still pump for her. i have never, in all this time, had any supply issues. i’ve never had thrush or mastitis or any other milk-related problem. ramona consistently gained an ounce a day everyday until she started crawling at ten months. she remains in the upper percentile for weight–for her ACTUAL age. she’s off the charts for her gestational age. she’s happy, social, playful, & verbal. most of her diet is now table food, which she feeds herself & likes. basically, she’s thriving. no thanks to le leche league. i never went back to another meeting & i would strongly recommend that other mothers of premature babies or babies with health problems give la leche league a great big pass. maybe it’s a helpful & supportive environment for women who had reasonably good births & healthy full-term babies (which, admittedly, is most women). but they did nothing but make me feel like shit, on top of not being able to answer any of my practical questions. they are advocates for breastfeeding. they know fuck-all about other forms of human milk-giving. they even frown upon informal breast milk-sharing networks, even though breast milk banks are few & far between & prohibitively expensive for the average mom that is simply having some supply issues. in my almost-fifteen months (& counting) of exclusive pumping, i have managed to give my own baby nothing but breast milk (i’ve never had to supplement), & i have donated excess milk to a dozen other babies in four states. several of those babies had been struggling to gain weight or overcome pernicious health problems on formula, & blossomed once they were given peer-to-peer donor milk.

i guess i just wanted to say, fuck you, la leche league. thanks for absolutely nothing.

xo, ciara

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14 responses to “dear la leche league

  1. I had a reasonably good birth experience, and my son was born at 42 weeks. He had a very small mouth and a very tough time trying to latch. I had flat nipples and he hated the shield. Because I was flat, the pumping was a huge challenge. I produced virtually nothing in the hospital, and his blood sugar dropped very low, so he had a few bottles. When I got home, I turned to La Leche for support, and had pretty much the same experience you did in terms of feeling judged and being told I would fail. So even though my baby had all that extra time to grow inside…same experience with the pumping issue. It still makes me angry to not only have been treated like that at all, but to be treated like that by a group that is supposed to exist as a support. Oh…he just turned 6 months old and is absolutely thriving. My lactation consultant told me to be glad we live in a part of the world where there are other ways to feed your child anything, especially your own milk. She is right.

    • it’s amazing how many people i’ve met who had a bad experience with la leche league! i remember back when i was 24 & my first close friend had a baby. it was a home birth, i was her doula, everything went great. she breastfed & i think that was the first time i heard of la leche league. no sooner had i heard of them than i heard how controversial they were, with so many people hating them. i put it out of my mind for a long time & assumed that it was related to breastfeeding just being a (surprisingly) divisive/emotional topic & la leche league being kind of a stand-in whipping boy. & then i had my own crappy experience & was like, “ohhhhh. this is why people hate them.”

      there’s another breastfeeding support group in my town unaffiliated with la leche league & apparently it’s a lot better in terms of supporting people who are having various feeding issues. but somehow, i never heard about it until my daughter was like eight months old, by which time our pumping situation was well-established & going fine. i think i never heard about it because i didn’t take any childbirth education classes. i didn’t think i needed them, since i went to midwifery school, & it never occurred to me until literally last week–last week!–that childbirth education classes would have been a good way to meet other local pregnant ladies, start making mom friends, & get clued in to things like local breastfeeding support groups that are not la leche league.

      oh well. now i know for next time, i guess?

  2. I also went to ONE La Leche League meeting, early on. And it was (in fact, as you know) THAT HARD to fit in between 45 minute pumping sessions every three hours. I was STILL trying to get the girls, or at least Ellie (who was both more motivated & less at risk with a potential “learning curve” weight loss) to nurse, both were still taking bottles. It was horrible. I sat in the back of my car squished between two very tiny babies in car seats and fed them bottles after the meeting before we drove away. And got dirty looks from the LLL attendees that peered through the window as they walked by. Also stellar was the mom with a 2 year old and a newborn who told me I had it “easy” having twins, because one of hers could run away. I am certainly lucky and blessed and in awe and endless gratitude for my twins, but I don’t for a second think it’s because I have it “easy”. Especially not when they were still preemie babies. (Rant, rant.)

    • ugh, that sounds so much like my crappy experience. & what kind of crazy person tells someone that they’re “lucky” they have twins?!? your girls are amazing & adorable, but i personally am very grateful that i have the choice to space my kids out by a couple of years. & little did she realize that your babies would be able to run away by the time they were a year old! (as where slow-mo ramona still isn’t walking. i guess what she lacks in walking she makes up for in cat food consumption.)

  3. The LLL actually confronted a friend who runs a children’s milk program out of the food bank because they were providing formula to children under 2. Don’t those mother’s know that they could just breastfeed for free?! I wish they would spend more time trying to help people like yourself (and me) who want to provide breastmilk and less time bothering people who are using formula. I likewise contacted LLL and was just discouraged.

    • confronting a food bank like that seems like such a waste of energy & resources. i think it’s true that formula companies tend to have a predatory relationship with new moms, but if you have to (or even want to) give your child formula but are struggling to afford it, i’m glad food banks are there to help.

      i also read something interesting a while back about the “myth of free breastfeeding”. in that it portrays the labor of breastfeeding (& i would definitely classify it as labor, especially in the first few months!) as economically worthless. i pumped for two hours a day, everyday, for an entire year. that’s the equivalent of spending an entire MONTH, 24 hours a day, hooked up to a breast pump. & it doesn’t even include the time i spent actually giving ramona bottles, washing bottles & pump parts, & organizing my stored milk. but apparently that time is economically worthless.

      • Oh for sure! At one point, I added up my costs related to breastfeeding. I did both pumping and breastfeeding, which is sort of a worst of both world’s cost wise. I bought three nursing bras, a couple tops that I could pull down easily, special shields for leaking that my LC recommended and then expensive wash to go with the special shields, a couple hours of private couching with my doula/LC when nursing wasn’t going well, prescription domperidone to boost my supply, as well as fenugreek, blessed thistle and a special tea. As for pumping, I had a pumping bra, the monthly rental for the pump, the kit for the tubes etc, replacement membranes, milk storage bags, bottles, nipples (three kinds before we found the ones that worked best for us)… And that doesn’t even include the time! First, the actual time involved with breastfeeding, pumping and associated work, but then the time involved with seeing a million experts and horrible, unhelpful public health nurses and the terrible, awful, no good LLL.

        As for the food bank, they don’t actual get any free formula or even a volume discount on formula. A lot of people children they give formula to aren’t being cared for by their parents or their parents aren’t eligible for maternity leave.

        Finally, and this is something I could get really rant-y about, but because of all the emphasis on breastfeeding, basically the only source of information about formula feeding is the formula companies themselves. In Alberta, the public health nurses will not provide you with info about formula feeding because they think doing so will discourage breastfeeding. The official publications that they send to all new parents have minimal info about formula. This means there is only the most basic info about choosing formula, bottles, timing feeds, dealing with babies with variable appetites, etc etc etc. In the vacuum, you basically turn to google + the formula companies for info. It makes me FURIOUS that my government has decided to withhold information from women on the basis that more knowledge = bad decisions. The health region should be providing parents with accurate information and support, and then letting them decide as they will.

        • all excellent points. i don’t think pumping has cost me as much because i didn’t have so many issues with supply. but i’ve still been paying almost $60 a month on pump rental since december 2012 (i think we are finally returning it this month! yay! but also 😦 . because it means my baby is growing up.) i’m looking forward to being able to cross that expenditure out of the monthly budget. i was also thinking last night about how annoying it is to have to sit there & pump (even though i’m down to just 15 minutes a day–just tapering down slowly to reduce my supply) once ramona is in bed, when i should be enjoying my mommy free time. oh well.

          i really don’t know what i’ll do whenever we have another. breastfeeding probably is easier in the long run, because you only have to put time into it when your kid is actually eating & there’s no clean-up. but i dread the thought of those first few months when the kid is eating around the clock.

  4. Ugh. I’m so sorry you had that experience. 😦

    We were very lucky that Lilian latched on quickly and was a good eater. The big problem I had was going back to work and trying to keep up with her by pumping. I never did anything with LLL, but I did a lot of googling to try and figure out how to make it all work. And, I swear, there are no good resources out there for people who want to take a moderate approach to feeding their babies. It was all “don’t give your baby a drop of formula or your breasts will shrivel up and die!!!” or “eff breastmilk, give your baby formula and don’t look back!!!” I just wanted to figure out timing, storage, and (yes) the possibility of supplementing.

    I ended up breastfeeding exclusively for six months, but looking back on it I wish that I had eased up on myself. I was killing myself with the pumping, and it was all so stressful. I enjoyed being a mom so much more when we started supplementing. It was easier for my husband to help out. And I wasn’t constantly terrified that we were going to run out of milk.

    I mean, I look at it this way. We are so fortunate to live in a place and time where no baby has to starve if they have difficulty latching or their mom’s milk never comes in. Breast milk is still better, but formula has also come a long way. Basically, unless you’re giving them chocolate milk or something, there isn’t really a bad way to feed a baby these days. That’s so amazing! And then we just take it all for granted and spend time judging and yelling about it.

    I think it’s so great that you were able to make the pumping work. Ramona is so clearly thriving. And you’re helping so many other babies! Good for you! πŸ˜€

    • i don’t know if you’re ever planning to have another, but if you do, maybe check out the kelly mom website. that’s where i found all the most useful information for pumping. there’s really not a lot out there, & there’s also the complication (for me) that most people who pump at all are doing it at work & then breastfeeding when they’re home. exclusive pumping seems to be this tiny fringe underground, but it does involve a slightly different set of protocols from pumping just at work/when you’re apart from the baby for some reason.

      sometimes i wonder what i’ll do whenever we have another (& we do plan to have another). hopefully i’ll avoid all the complications we had with ramona & have a healthy, full-term infant. i should be able to breastfeed without too many issues. but exclusive pumping is what i know! & it has its advantages. maybe i’ll do a mix of both. it was REALLY NICE for jared to be able to feed ramona just as often as i did, since we were both feeding her the exact same way.

      it’s also funny to me that i feel sad now that we are weaning her. jared & i talked about giving up the nighttime bottle yesterday. i was like, “i don’t want to! it’s my special time to snuggle with her & cuddle at the end of the day! if i was breastfeeding, i’d still breastfeed her at bedtime! this is the same thing!” but jared pointed out that she’s getting old enough to get attached to a routine & we don’t want a bottle being part of her routine when she’s, like, three. so i might have to give it up soon. 😦 i’ll be happy to stop pumping though!

  5. BTW, I’m curious about whether the mom with exclusive pumping experience had anything to offer.

    • she did, but i honestly don’t remember the details. she came up to me after the meeting was over, when i was packing up ramona, & was like, “hey, i did this with my first kid, & it’s really hard, but you can do it. good luck.” unfortunately, right after that, another mom came up to me & was like, “i think what you’re doing is amazing! keep up the good work!” which was validating, but then she was like, “try cactus juice & B12 supplements for arthritis. it also helps to give up gluten & only eat rye,” & i was like, okay, we’re back on the bus to crazyville.

      • Rye contains gluten! I know this because my dad is a wheat farmer with Celiac disease.

        • everything has gluten! except, judging from their labels, hummus & nyquil. i love that the bottle of nyquil i bought the other day (jared & i both had colds) said “gluten-free” on it. like maybe it was a new recipe that no longer had a slice of bread stuffed inside the bottle.

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