This is my third BWF post about breastfeeding. Previously, I wrote about an ad campaign depicting it as sexy and about how my husband supported me through nursing our son; today I’m sharing the things I learned from having an oversupply of milk. I wrote this story in December 2012 and have since birthed our second sweet little one. Once again, I make far too much milk – but this time I’ve found a family who can make use of it. If you have experience with oversupply and donating or receiving milk, please consider sharing it in the comments. I would love to hear other women’s experiences in giving this beautiful (and sticky, and somehow-always-spills-a-little-on-your-bra) gift.
I gave birth to my first child in a Québecois birthing centre. As soon as that slippery mass of a baby (otherwise known as a ‘bony octopus‘) fell onto the bed before me, I tugged down my bra so that I could hold him against my bare breast. I had watched breastfeeding videos and taken two prenatal classes. I had read books and I had the assistance of my midwives nearby. And I had an unshakable (unreasonable!) confidence that things would go right.
Sweet Baby James latched on within the first fifteen minutes of his life and after 22 months it feels like he hasn’t let go since.
We had some early trouble with “the nursing relationship” as they call it. Only a day after the birth, my milk came in with a vengeance, inflating my breasts to painful proportions and scaring my husband. I asked my mother – who had come to visit to help out in the early weeks – if breasts such engorged would eventually shrink back to a normal size, or if I was destined to look like Pamela Anderson for the foreseeable future. “I don’t think they do, no…” she said.
Fortunately, she was wrong.
I needed the relief of cold cabbage leaves in my bra (a highly effective old wives’ remedy which made me smell like a slavic peasant’s kitchen) for only a few days.
I got a few small blisters on my nipples. In order to nurse without causing pain to the mother, infants must manage to get the nipple into the very backs of their mouths. This is often a problem for newborn and preterm babies, whose suckling is not powerful enough to pull the nipple back. Sweet Baby James was a big baby (almost nine pounds at birth) but I still had trouble getting him to latch on correctly. I tried the tactics I had learned: tickling his cheek and chin to get him to open his mouth wide, squeezing my breast, “like a hamburger” to make it easier for him… But it still hurt.
One day, I just gave up. I let him latch on like he wanted to, without any assistance from me.
To my great surprise, it didn’t hurt. He had latched on perfectly and was sucking contentedly.
I learned an important lesson in parenting: your baby is smarter than you.
I was fortunate to never have to worry that I had enough milk. Because my milk came in so soon and so strong, our baby gained back his birth weight within a few days. He nursed almost constantly and I, despite the admonishments of some older women, was happy to let him. I didn’t mind being a “human pacifier” because it felt right to me. And it gave some relief to my engorged breasts, full of milk.
So much milk. So, so, so much milk.
Milk. Milkity milk-milk… milk!
My ‘let down’ reflex came when I was nursing Sweet Baby James, when I was about to nurse Sweet Baby James, or when I was even just thinking about nursing Sweet Baby James. My milk let down when I heard other babies cry or saw other babies nurse. It let down when I was walking down the street minding my own business, or eating yoghourt in the kitchen. It let down when I cried, when I exercised, when I had sex, when I took a bath, and as soon as my nipple touched the breast pump.
I had never done so much laundry.
I can’t quite put into words the humbling experience of having an oversupply of milk. My body was marching to the beat of its own drummer, leaking as it went. The let-down hurt; spending money on nursing pads was annoying; and the whole thing was slightly embarrassing. There is something obscene about leaning over a sidewalk gutter so that the milk spraying out of you in seven strong jets, arcing three feet into the air, will flow onto the street and not your t-shirt. People look at you funny. There is something strange about having your bath water turn white before your eyes. And while my husband was game about it, the presence of ‘the spray’ during sex was far from a turn-on.
But our baby was healthy and gaining well. In fact, he was huge – he was busting out of his 6-month clothes by four weeks (he hearts NY because that’s where his parents met).
By three months he was the size of a one year-old: pounds of chub exclusively composed of calories derived from my body. It felt good to know that I could nourish my child in this way. I didn’t take it for granted anymore: most of my new-mama friends wanted to breastfeed but had complications during birth and were having trouble.
Anna had received an emergency C-section and, despite taking Domperidone (which, I learned, is nothing like Dom Perignon) to increase her production, began to formula-feed within a week or two. Jenny, despite having successfully nursed two previous infants, had trouble keeping up her milk supply for an unknown reason. And Tamara was not able to take her baby home from the hospital for weeks after he was born. She was so beautifully committed to nursing him that she “slept” in the hospital, waking up every few hours to nurse and hold him before the nurses would put him back under the heat lamp.
So I wasn’t sure what was normal. Most of my friends didn’t have kids yet and my oversupply problem seemed like little to complain about to those who did. After Anna politely rebuffed my offer to donate milk, I stopped talking about my hot mess of an issue with other mothers. I turned to my own mother for help, but she remembered little from that time of her/my life. And the advice I got from midwives and lactation consultants’ websites was not tailored to me: to nurse from both sides during a feeding, to use a breast-pump for the first half of a let-down so that I could toss that milk and give my baby more of the fat-rich hindmilk he needed, and to nurse throughout the night. All of this is great advice – if you want to increase your milk production.
If you don’t, this advice sucks. Literally.
I decided to go guerrilla and follow my own instinct. Since I had read that the action of suckling (and not the emptying of the breast) is what brings on milk production, I decided to “block feed” intensively. For up to fifteen hours at a time, I would nurse only from one breast. The other would be sore, hot and swollen (I do not recommend this kind of extreme block feeding – I’m lucky I didn’t get mastitis), and when I did switch to it, I would usually have to hold Sweet Baby James at bay for the first three minutes of the let-down. It was so forceful that if I let him nurse immediately he would splutter and gag, regurgitating the milk soon after feeding.
But I always nursed him when he asked for it. We breastfed everywhere: in the bath, in the sling (even when he was dressed up as Winston Churchill for Hallowe’en – I went as… Winston Churchill’s mother), in the car.
It took one year for my milk supply to “regulate” and eighteen months before I no longer needed to wear disposable (high-absorbency, high-cost) nursing pads in my bra at all times. I started to menstruate and feel “like a woman” – and of course, I was soon pregnant again. Now five months into this pregnancy, I have watched my milk supply slowly dry up. I am only a little sad about it. My breasts feel a bit useless now, but my son finally seems interested in consuming high-protein solid foods. He still nurses daily, but mostly for comfort.
I learned so many things from becoming a mother; from this experience I learned about the emotions tied to breastfeeding in our culture. The shame that cloaks women’s bodies in all their reproductive functions was present in my shock and horror at the amount of milk my body was forcing out of me, and how unfeminine(!) it felt. The fear of not being a good mother was present in my friends’ upset at not producing enough milk to exclusively nurse their babies, and my eventual decision to stop discussing breastfeeding with them. And I learned about some of the little-discussed technical details of breastfeeding: how to increase milk supply and how to decrease it, some of the cues that can spark the let-down reflex, and the value of infant-initiated nursing.
It was a radicalizing experience, one that eventually led me to writing overwrought posts for Birth Without Fear. I began to grow concerned about the lack of knowledge about breastfeeding in our culture. Sure, everybody knows “breast is best” but obviously we don’t really know how to do it. I started to wonder why so many of my friends were having trouble nursing their little ones. They were healthy, well-nourished, and deeply committed to breastfeeding. I have since discovered that Insufficient Milk Syndrome is a predominantly Western phenomenon (in middle-class Swedish women, Sjölin, Hofvander, Hillervik, 1977; low-income European-American, African-American and Hispanic women in the United States, McCan, Baydar, & Williams, 2007). The jury is out as to why this is, but probable causes include insufficient (or nonexistent) maternity leave, poverty and its accompanying stress and pour nourishment, lack of education about and exposure to breastfeeding, infant care practices that keep mother and baby separate, scheduled feeding, high rates of birth interventions, the aggressive marketing of infant formula, exposure to pesticides and endocrine disruptors, and cultural beliefs that tell mothers they can’t do it.
My experience with hyper-lactation was annoying and painful, but the experience of not having enough milk can be devastating. We need to think seriously about the practices that have brought widespread lactation failure – and occasional hyper-lactation – upon us.
Breast milk is a fantastic tool. We just need to learn how to use it.
McCann, M.F., Baydar, N., & Williams, R.L. (2007). Breastfeeding attitudes and reported problems in a national sample of WIC participants. Journal of Human Lactation, 23, 4, 314–324.
Sjölin, S., Hofvander, Y., & Hillervik, C. (1977). Factors related to early termination of breast feeding: A retrospective study in Sweden. Acta Paediatrica Scandinavica, 66, 4, 505-511.