Breast of Burden

The pump. The poop. The panic. A dispatch from the nursing wars.

In our dedication to "breast is best" we hadn't laid in any formula. But we did have lots and lots of nursing literature, all of it sporting pictures of cuddly cherubs nestled up to the perfectly spherical breasts of long-haired, ethereal women in gauzy white nightgowns. The key to successful breastfeeding, we had been told again and again, was commitment.

We were committed all right. But none of that natural, perfect, bonding magic was happening at our house that morning. And the arrival of the home-care nurse only compounded our ambivalence. Sent by the hospital to monitor Baby's jaundice, she gave each of us a brief checkup while she was at it. She watched us nurse, placing her ear close to Baby's throat to try to hear him swallow.

At last, she turned to me. "The baby has lost too much weight since he was born," she said as gently as possible. "It's time to start supplementing his feedings with formula." She showed us how to mix up an ounce of Similac with Iron and use an eyedropper to dribble it into Baby's mouth. We were to do this each time he finished nursing--about every 90 minutes--and I was to get a breast pump and use it for 15 minutes after each feeding to build up my milk production. If perchance I actually collected any milk, I could feed it to him via the dropper instead of formula.

Craig La Rotonda

From the reaction we got when we started calling local lactation consultants to inquire about a breast pump, you'd have thought we were looking for free samples of morphine. None of them agreed with the home-care nurse's prescription. Instead of using formula, they suggested, I should pump the milk that hadn't yet seemed to come in, and feed it to Baby through a tiny tube I could tape to one of my nipples. This would teach him to suck and give my breasts the stimulation they needed to become a full-fledged milk bar. If I wanted a pump, they said, they would prefer I first come in for a session with a consultant.

We couldn't, I countered. Baby was under doctor's orders to stay in his little toaster oven in our living room. I was too wobbly and tired to get dressed and make the trek. Plus it was late on a Friday, and the center was getting ready to lock up for a long holiday weekend.

Here we were with very good insurance, two decent salaries, and an extended, supportive family in the neighborhood. And yet we were very much alone in trying, quite literally, to keep this tiny human alive. Panicked beyond belief, we each took a deep breath and I lied to the lactation consultants. If they'd give us the pump, now, we'd come get counseled as soon as the holiday was over.

I'm sure this strikes most of you as a no-brainer. But for us, right then, it seemed as if we could very well be making a choice between a bright, well-adjusted little boy and a frustrated loser unable to form lasting bonds. Our living room simply wasn't big enough to accommodate all of the medical, social, political, philosophical, and economic baggage that attended the moment.

Like all pregnant women, I'd nearly ruined my ankles shopping to prepare for the day we'd come home with Baby. A breast pump had been on my list; after considering the $250-and-up price tag for new electric pumps, I had turned to searching the classifieds for used ones. But I hadn't gotten around to buying one, and I wasn't sure why until that awful moment when the home-care nurse left.

Something that had been rumbling around in my subconscious burst to the surface as the door closed behind her. The last line of agate type in virtually every ad said the same thing: "Only used once."


Fast-forward six weeks. The pump-and-dropper system had worked. I'd mastered the football hold and, in exchange, Baby had developed a pretty decent latch. I was producing enough milk to wake up drenched in it. Indeed, if Baby let go of a nipple too suddenly I sent streams of milk across the room. But nursing was still pretty much all we did, 24-7.

Because breast milk is much more easily digested than formula, Baby got hungry every hour and a half. It took about 45 minutes for him to drain both breasts. Throw in another 10 minutes to change his diaper, (inevitably extra poopy because of said superior digestibility), and maybe 10 more to take myself to the restroom and to drink a couple of tall glasses of water to replace those fluids.

You can't sleep for more than an hour at a time if you do this the prescribed eight to twelve times in every 24-hour period. And while nursing duos in the mommy manuals were surrounded by misty halos of light, Baby and I spent most of that time in the blue glow of the television, learning the A&E and TV Land overnight schedules by heart.

I tried to venture out of the house a couple of times, but it was much harder than anyone had led me to believe: Feed baby, shower while he snoozed in his car seat in the bathroom, change his diaper, dress myself, and gather the 264,789 accessories that must go with us. When all that was ready, chances were Baby would need to be nursed again, since by then he'd have woken up.

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