Below is Karen’s story about making the choice to exclusively pump. You can read more exclusive pumping stories here. Thanks so much, Karen!
When I was pregnant, people would ask “are you going to nurse?” – among other extremely personal questions. I always answered with, “I’m going to try.” I had a friend who nursed, a friend who used formula, and a sister-in-law who exclusively pumped. I planned on nursing, but I ultimately believed that fed was best. Also, I knew I was going back to work full time after 12 weeks and would have to learn how to use a breast pump before then.
I was not expecting to go into labor at 35 weeks + 6 days, but when my water broke at 4am that morning I knew my daughter had other plans. After laboring for 17 hours, I welcomed my beautiful 6 pound, 18 inch daughter into the world. We did skin to skin immediately and tried to nurse. The NICU team evaluated her because she was “late pre-term” and determined she had low blood sugar, so my husband fed her a bottle of donor milk.
The next morning, the hospital lactation consultant came by and gave me tips about nursing. A different one stopped by in the afternoon with different advice. I was already confused on whom to listen to, and I was quickly losing count of how many doctors and nurses had massaged, squeezed, and handled my breasts. I just wanted the best for my daughter.
My nurse brought me a breast pump that evening to help stimulate my milk production, marking the beginning of my pumping journey. I would try to nurse on one side, then the other. Then pump on one side, then the other. While I was pumping, my husband would feed our daughter a bottle from my last pumping session. I was feeling overwhelmed with how to establish a nursing relationship, while ensuring my daughter was getting enough to eat.
We were discharged after three nights in the hospital. Bringing my daughter home felt wonderful, but it was intense. My husband was assembling baby gear, my mother-in-law was washing baby clothes and cooking meals, and I was attempting to feed my daughter. She cried the entire the first night we were home; it was heartbreaking and exhausting.
The next morning at my daughter’s first appointment with her pediatrician, she had a low body temperature and had lost weight. We were sent to the emergency room. After we got my daughter settled under the warmer in the exam room, I hooked up my pump and hands free bra and pumped almost three ounces on each side! My daughter was admitted overnight for observation and the nurses were very supportive about me pumping; they brought a ton of bottles and extra supplies for me. They were impressed with my milk supply, reminded me that I was working hard for it, and applauded my efforts. This was the positive support I needed.
Back at home, my husband and I had to keep our daughter warm, but also wake her to feed so she would gain weight. I would attempt to nurse, and then pump, and then bottle feed every two hours around the clock. It was stressful and we were all exhausted. I quickly decided to not attempt nursing in the middle of the night so we could all get back to sleep faster; the extra little bit of rest was much needed.
At six days postpartum, we were still having limited success with nursing. I had painful, forceful let downs that felt like needles piercing my nipples. My daughter tried to control the flow by clamping down with her shallow latch, causing me extreme pain. I had already received many pumping tips from my sister in law, and I was ready to exclusively pump. It didn’t feel worth it to continue with nursing because it was so frustrating for my daughter, and tiring and time consuming for me. With the pump, I knew what to expect and I could monitor my daughter’s intake. At her weight check that day, she still wasn’t gaining. I told her pediatrician I was thinking about exclusively pumping and she was supportive. However, I agreed to meet with another lactation consultant a few days later so I could say that I explored all of my options.
That evening I shared a picture of me bottle feeding my daughter. I thought it captured a sweet moment and was not expecting the response I received. “Is this out of the ordinary? I thought you were nursing.” I explained we were having trouble nursing and that I was also pumping. I heard, “Well, hopefully she’ll learn to eat the right way.” I was in tears after hearing such an insensitive and unsupportive comment.
I talked to my sister-in-law about her decision to exclusively pump. She shared her experience and advised not to make the decision lightly. After we hung up the phone, I sent her a photo of my milk bottles in the fridge and she texted back, “Oh my gosh! I can’t believe how much you have! Start freezing!” With her tips on how to fill freezer bags (using the flange as a funnel and getting all the air out), I began my freezer stash with 17 ounces at six days postpartum.
At nine days postpartum, we met with the lactation consultant the pediatrician recommended. We tried the nipple shield, but my daughter still struggled to latch on and stay latched on. My daughter and I were also diagnosed with thrush that day, amplifying my discomfort and stress. The lactation consultant wanted me to try nursing every hour that day; by mid-afternoon, I was at my breaking point. It took 45 minutes to go through the routine and that left just 15 minutes until the start of the next session. That wasn’t even enough time to wash my pump parts or have a snack, let alone sleep. I had no idea how I was going to continue. I was in so much pain and was so scared that my daughter wasn’t gaining weight.
We were then referred to a doctor of breastfeeding medicine. During our first session a few days later, she was able to help with my daughter’s latch and I had a renewed sense of optimism. However, I wasn’t able to replicate that success at home. I was pumping and bottle feeding, while still attempting to nurse about once a day because I thought I should. And that attempt ended with a bottle every single time. The doctor advised, “Pumping might seem easier now, but nursing is easier once established. You would nurse at a restaurant, but you wouldn’t pump in one.” I felt so much pressure to nurse, but it was not a positive experience for me or my daughter. I was struggling.
By the time my daughter was three weeks old, she had been to the doctor 10 times for weight checks and lactation appointments in addition to our multiple hospital stays. It was then that we received great news from the pediatrician; she had gained enough weight that she wouldn’t have to go back until her two month check up!
The daily nursing attempt became less frequent, yet continued to cause anxiety. I was still pumping and bottle feeding. I felt like the stars had to align to even attempt nursing. I couldn’t be too empty because my daughter wouldn’t get any milk; I couldn’t be too full because she couldn’t handle the forceful let downs. The last time I attempted nursing, we both ended up in tears and I knew I could not continue down that path. My daughter was four weeks old when I firmly decided to exclusively pump.
I chose to exclusively pump. I use that word deliberately. I did not quit. I did not give up a nursing relationship with my daughter. I made an informed decision that was best for me and my family, and I could focus on exclusively pumping like a rock star.
I had my sister in law as a resource, as well as a tribe of 4,000 amazing women in an online EP support group, and I was determined to succeed. I made a goal of pumping until my daughter’s first birthday. I learned to never quit on a bad day, to celebrate the little victories, and to ask for help when needed.
It was difficult at first to communicate that my pumping schedule was a priority. When I needed to pump at 3pm, I needed to pump at 3pm, not 15 or 30 minutes later. Everyone knew when my daughter was hungry because they could tell her signs. But I was the only one who could feel when it was time to pump. I learned to be more assertive with my pumping and began communicating when I needed to pump. I started pumping wherever I felt comfortable, no matter who else was around. I pumped at home, at work, in the car, at a restaurant while eating lunch, at a baby shower, at a tailgate, at a football game, and in a bathroom. I pumped alone, with my daughter, and in front of family, friends, and strangers. Pumping became part of my everyday life and I was unapologetic about it.
I bought supplies to make my life easier: extra pump parts, tons of bottles, a wet dry bag, a poncho, and my favorite lanolin cream. I began motivating myself to pump by finding TV programs I wanted to watch and only watching them while I pumped. I rewarded myself for meeting milestones (some milestones were making it one more day) with pedicures and massages.
I settled in to seven pumps per day, including one in the middle of the night. At six weeks postpartum, I needed more sleep so I decided to drop my middle of the night pump. I intended to slowly drop it over the course of a few days, but I slept through my alarm the first night and ended up dropping it cold turkey. I was engorged in the morning, but the extra sleep felt glorious.
I returned to work when I was 12 weeks postpartum and was pumping six times a day. A co-worker gave me a lot of advice about pumping at the office, so I felt prepared. Once I got settled in the mother’s room at my office and got used to the noises in the hallway, pumping at work was easy. I wasn’t trying to do a hundred things at the same time; it was just me and my pump. Pumping after work at 6pm was, by contrast, very difficult. My daughter was hungry, my husband was cooking dinner, our dog was barking, and I was pumping. I felt like being tied to my pump in the evening was causing me to miss out on family time, so I decided to drop to five pumps per day: one in the morning before my daughter woke up, three at work, and one after my daughter went to bed. I was pleased with my decision, as was the rest of my family.
I was producing more than what my daughter ate each day, and I continued building my freezer stash one bag a time. I was feeding my baby, not my freezer, but adding milk to the freezer gave me more peace of mind. I dropped to four pumps per day at six months postpartum and I felt so anxious about losing ounces. It took a few weeks for my body and mind to settle in to the new routine, but the freedom felt amazing (and I only lost about two ounces per day).
At seven months postpartum, I was asked, “Don’t you feel like you’re missing out on bonding time with your daughter because you aren’t nursing?” I was initially taken aback by the question, but realize that it was not asked in a malicious way. The short answer is no, I don’t feel like I’m missing out. I bond with my daughter while feeding her a bottle and in so many other ways; we definitely have a special bond. Nursing was not a positive experience for us. I like that I have my pumping schedule and my daughter has her feeding schedule; I can adjust my schedule independent of when she needs to eat.
My daughter is now nine months old and had a great check up at the doctor! I have over 2,000 ounces in the deep freezer. I will soon have enough in the freezer to feed my daughter until she turns one year old and I plan to pump until her birthday.
Looking back on my journey, I would tell my six day postpartum self to trust my instincts and to embrace the decision to exclusively pump. I was listening too much to the professionals when I should have been listening more to myself. I made the best choice for me; it just took me a little longer. In a way, going to all those doctor’s appointments during my daughter’s first three weeks was a blessing for my pumping journey; it forced me to pump in a lot of different places early on, increasing my assertiveness later in my journey.
Exclusively pumping is hard, but I am breastfeeding on my terms, and I am confident it is still the best choice for me and my family.