While pregnant and confined to bed rest, I had read several books, from pregnancy to parenting, baby-proofing to breastfeeding.
On my list was the La Leche League’s hefty tome, “The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding,” which I read along with several articles online. I watched how-to videos. I wanted to be as prepared as I could for when I would nurse my son Jack.
In reality, it was so much harder than I thought. When you’re pregnant, for all the unsolicited advice you get, no one tells you how painful and isolating nursing can be. Or maybe they did, and I just didn’t absorb it. I envisioned a new mother serenely nursing her calm and contented newborn. I romanticized having my baby in a sling, feeding whenever, wherever, bottle-free.
My body had other ideas, and so did Jack. He had a wail that would put a banshee to shame. He wildly tried to latch on to my breast; he would bite me so hard, I would cry each time. The nurses at the hospital advised me to wear a nipple shield, since my nipples had gone flat and my son couldn’t get any milk.
I finally agreed, breastfeeding Nazis be damned; I was tired, recovering from a Caesarean, having to nurse my fiercely hungry, loud and squirmy son every two hours in pain, while trying to channel confidence and soothe him.
The nurses also lent me a manual breastpump. The pitiful trickle I was prepared for, I had read about that—how it shouldn’t be upsetting, that milk flow will increase in time. So I kept at it.
The shocking reality set in upon getting home: There’s no more nursery to deposit your kid to for you to recharge. Zombie-like, I persisted with breastfeeding, even getting a lactation massage at the hospital spa days later to relieve my uncomfortable engorgement.
My breasts became hard as rocks but nothing would come out. The massage left me teary eyed from the pain but later relieved, smelling like peppermint, breasts shockingly limp. Admittedly, I was happy to be away for some personal quiet time, with no one making demands on me.
A friend recommended a lactation consultant. She went to our house, observed how I was doing it first, and then she stepped in—and yanked my nipple out. I howled in pain, and almost hit her! But she kept tugging at me, this way and that.
All that handle-with-care business goes out the window when breastfeeding. If you’ve seen how a cow is milked on TV, that was pretty much how it felt. That’s when the obvious hit me: That’s what breasts are for. I am a mammal.
In her hands, my chest became ketchup bottles. She said that being well-endowed meant my baby needed additional support from me, by lifting my breasts for him. But Jack would not be tamed, and I could not stand his piercing cries while I sobbed along with him.
I felt sorry for Jack, his little arms flailing madly while shaking his head furiously at my breast. He was red with anger, frustrated, and I’m pretty sure the whole neighborhood knew about it. With my hormones adjusting to my new non-pregnant state, I was enduring the baby blues, and my husband had to adjust to his weepy wife.
The lactation consultant said I should’ve contacted her while I was still in the hospital because I shouldn’t have used a nipple shield; I should’ve gotten a nipple puller instead (I couldn’t believe there was such a device!).
But my goal was to feed my son breastmilk, so for me, the end justified the means. She gave me a killer massage after, but the sting from her torture remained. The experience was brutal for both me and my son; I felt it shouldn’t have to hurt. I didn’t call her back.
I decided to do what worked for me and Jack. Armed with a Medela Swing breastpump lent by my friend Pinky Calupe, I became an exclusive pumper. Since Jack had already gotten used to the feel of silicone from the nipple shield, he had no problem transitioning to the bottle. I was also able to pump peacefully, even if it still meant pumping for 30 minutes on each breast, resting for an hour, then pumping again.
I made peace with my new role in life—occupation: Milk machine. For three weeks, I was able to exclusively feed Jack breastmilk. But my immature supply could not cope with his hunger, and so I reluctantly fed him formula for two out of his eight daily feedings.
I tried to manage the feelings of guilt; after all, I was formula-fed myself and I suppose I turned out okay. My mother was vehemently against breastfeeding, having suffered a bout of mastitis, and so she kept trying to convince me to take a pill that stops milk from flowing right after I gave birth.
She comes from a different generation, when formula was in vogue and women were establishing themselves in the workplace, so I don’t judge her for that. We all do what we gotta do.
The window of two formula feedings allowed me four hours’ sleep. I kept at this stringent pumping schedule (about 10 hours a day) because skipping a session meant decreasing your supply; pumping often, in line with your baby’s feeding schedule, conditions your body into supplying what you need.
And then, just when I was gaining some self-confidence and control, I had to undergo a gallstone and gall-bladder removal. That week of back-to-back surgery, recovery and antibiotics meant the return of engorgement.
When I was well enough to pump, I was only able to produce half an ounce for a whole day’s work having to pump and dump the milk tainted with antibiotics was crushing, too. I also read that when your milk dries up, it’s very difficult to get it back again.
My stubbornness came in handy as I pumped every two hours anyway. My days were spent tied to the pump, books, the TV and the laptop. I wasn’t fun to visit, and I couldn’t really go out.
To boost milk production, some people swear by hot broths or buko juice, but I wasn’t fond of either. My husband even concocted a mango, malunggay and basil smoothie for me.
Jack’s pediatrician Dr. Jose Clemente prescribed Natalac malunggay capsules. I also drank Organika malunggay juice. Three weeks after I dried up, my milk returned to close to its original output! By Jack’s third month, I was able to provide for 100 percent of his breastmilk requirements again!
Fortunately, I am able to work part time from home, enabling me to persist in nursing my son. But being an exclusive pumper can be isolating and restrictive. On days when I don’t know how much longer I can sustain this lifestyle, I am grateful for the support I receive online from my new mom friends.
What it takes
These days I pump every four hours instead of every two. Not everyone understands the commitment it requires to be an exclusive pumper; I still can’t be spontaneous, unlike if Jack were able to feed on me direct or if we just toted formula around. I have to manage my pumping schedule along with his feeding, naps, bath and bedtime.
Leaving the house with Jack entails detailed planning, especially on long road trips. If you’ve decided to give exclusive pumping a try, here is what you’ll need to do (on top of packing his diaper bag):
Pack the pump and adaptor, with fully charged batteries, should there be traffic.
Wear a nursing cover; I’ve had a guy on a bus stare at the strange contraption on my chest while at a traffic stop.
Ready your masking tape and permanent markers for labeling each bottle with the amount, date and time.
Bring a cooler for bottles of expressed milk.
Have a bottle warmer (unless your baby has no problem drinking cold milk) or ensure your destination has an electric kettle to boil water to pour into a bowl to warm the bottle
If staying overnight, don’t forget his bottle-cleaning paraphernalia.
When the going gets tough, make this your mantra: You only fail when you stop trying. And, keep in mind that this is only a small chunk of time compared to your entire life; the effort will be worth it!