When Breastfeeding Just Won’t Work

You’re an expectant mom, and you have it all planned out: the birth plan, breastfeeding, the joy of new motherhood. You know that breast milk is the ideal food for babies, and you’ve never considered giving yours anything else. But things don’t always work out the way we plan, and for some women, it turns out that breastfeeding just isn’t possible.

Elizabeth followed the directions of nurses and lactation consultants, spent long hours connected to pumps, and still watched her hungry baby lose weight. She felt inadequate and embarrassed having to feed her newborn formula instead of breast milk — but above everything else, her baby needed to eat.

Susan had a heart attack seven weeks after her second baby was born. She needed to go on medication to address her health condition, and the meds put an end to breastfeeding.

Heart attacks aren’t common among young, breastfeeding mothers. Neither is breast cancer — the reason I had to stop breastfeeding my daughter in her first year of life. Both heart disease and breast cancer are on the rise among younger women. In the United States alone, nearly 70,000 people between the ages of 15 and 39 are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. This age range encompasses the time of life when many women are thinking of having kids and breastfeeding.

Overcoming the Roadblocks

Like the rest of the body, each part of the breast has a function, and they all need to work together and correctly in order to do their job: to produce and express a sufficient amount of milk to nourish a child. Injury, illness, and genetic issues can impact the breast and its ability to function correctly, and some breasts simply won’t make enough milk — or any at all.

But it’s not always just about the breast. Immediately after delivering her baby, Diane was rushed into a surgery that lasted more than six hours. Meanwhile, her newborn developed respiratory issues and was intubated, and they were both sent by medivac to another city. They tried to breastfeed, but the stress, trauma, and exhaustion took their toll, and Diane’s baby kept losing weight. After she let go of the stress of breastfeeding — it can be hard work, after all — mother and child both got stronger.

All of these women felt sadness, guilt, and even shame about not being able to nurse, but there were much bigger issues at hand. Mom has to stay alive and healthy, and whether she has any milk or not, her baby has to eat.

Many mothers have something similar to say when asked about how they came to peace with not being able to breastfeed. Their babies went from losing weight to thriving. They learned to trust their own bodies and their own judgment, and how to stand up for themselves and their family. Sometimes, we have to let go of our plans and presuppositions in order to make the best of how things really are. These women did that, and their babies have grown into strong, smart, amazing young people.

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