I was sleep deprived and back at work after twelve weeks at home with my son, Jack. He was up every three hours like clockwork each night. He breastfed and went back to sleep like the books say a baby should. But the books didn’t talk about what to do if I couldn’t go back to sleep. Which I didn’t. I was a zombie. But there I was back at work, taking care of other people’s children while someone else took care of mine. Mom guilt set in.
I was determined to exclusively breastfeed Jack. My supply had been reasonable, and the mechanics of feeding had generally gone well. Then I went back to work. During my twenty-minute pumping blocks several times a day, I would quickly change into my nursing bra, a lactating superhero of sorts, strap on my industrial strength pump and pump away. At first things went well, and I’d take my bags of five, six, seven ounces of free-flowing breast milk to the break room freezer to store. I was oozing with Mom pride at how I could grow, birth and feed a tiny human all on my own. But then slowly the bags became less and less full. I was lucky if I got two, three, or four ounces some days. I was despondent.
So, I hopped online, called lactation support and did all the things. I started eating more calories, drinking more water, taking all the mother’s milk and blessed thistle tea and fenugreek supplements I could get my hands on. I would have ingested snake oil if that was on the list of things to do. Then I started bringing pictures of Jack to my office. Sitting in an exam room filled with germs, I strapped on my superhero bra, connected the milking machine, squeezed the last drops of milk from my breasts, all the while staring at my four-month-old son’s photo. I wanted to scream.
I thought things had reached a steady state. I was managing to avoid formula with the frozen milk I had accrued from late night pumping sessions and starting Jack on solid foods. One day we were at home, finished with feeding time and on to play time when Jack had a massive projectile emesis (doctor word for vomit). I freaked out. I had just given him a bottle of stored breast milk. I went to the bottle and smelled it. It smelled like rancid wet metal.
After I thought I’d poisoned my child, I did some searching and calling. Turned out, I had an elevated level of lipase in my milk, an enzyme that digests fat as soon as it is expressed, giving the milk a sour smell. Luckily it does not affect the quality of the milk and is not dangerous. The lactation experts told me that the only way to rid my milk of this scent was to “flash boil” it right after pumping. Flash boil it after pumping. So that’s what I did. After staring at my son’s picture, strapped in my lactating superhero bra, squeezing the last drop of milk out of my breasts, I ran to the break room, got out my hot pad and pot and FLASH BOILED, cooled and then stored all two precious ounces of my milk.
Looking back now I wish I could have shown myself some grace. I wish I had realized I was not a failure if I gave my son formula. Many moms share similar stories with us in our offices, and as pediatricians, we have to find a balance between freeing them from the shackles of guilt and encouraging their breastfeeding journey for the health of their baby. It is never an easy conversation, but many times moms have cried with relief in my office when I have placed a hand on their shoulder and said, “It is okay if you need a break.”