Below is CJ’s story about exclusively pumping after her baby was in the NICU. You can read more exclusive pumping stories here. Thanks so much CJ!
Why did you decide to exclusively pump?
I didn’t decide; it just happened! My baby came six weeks early after a C-section and spent the first month of her life in the NICU. The NICU staff hooked me up to a pump and told me to pump eight times a day so that I’d have a good enough supply to breastfeed my baby when she was strong enough. In the meantime, they gave her my milk through a feeding tube.
After all of her other medical issues were resolved, it was only learning to feed by mouth that was keeping her at the hospital. When she would breastfeed, they would weigh her before and after to see how much she took. Sometimes she nursed for twenty minutes and would maybe get a quarter of an ounce. But at night when the nurses fed her by bottle, she took the whole thing.
I contacted two friends who previously had babies in the NICU and asked them about nursing versus pumping and bottles (I had no idea about the term “exclusive pumping” at this point) and one of them told me that if she had waited for her baby to breastfeed, they would probably still be in the NICU now (her daughter just graduated from high school!). She ended up exclusively pumping. The other said she did a combination of breastfeeding and bottles when she took the baby home and later transitioned to breastfeeding.
My husband and I talked with the NICU doctors about if the benefits of breastfeeding would transfer over to getting breast milk by bottle and they all seemed to think that they would, and they emphasized that I could bond with the baby in other ways (skin-to-skin “kangaroo” time).
So on a Monday we told the doctors that I wasn’t going to nurse her at all that day; we wanted her to take all of her milk by bottle. From that moment on, she never needed her feeding tube again. On Tuesday, they told us we might take her home the next day. On Wednesday when I asked the doctor how he was doing, he said, “Not as good as you, because you get to go home at 11AM and I have to stay here all day.”
I thought I would transition her to nursing at some point, but it didn’t happen for a variety of reasons: she was eating so well by bottle and we liked knowing how much she ate (she was born small and needed to gain weight), I didn’t have time to both nurse and pump and give bottles (the recommended way to transition to breastfeeding) and take care of a baby, and she just wasn’t taking that much by breast, so we would have needed to weigh her every few days at a clinic, and it seemed like a logistical and anxiety-inducing nightmare. Exclusive Pumping it was.
How did you make exclusive pumping working for you?
I’m a very disciplined person (probably a bit too rigid at times), so I had consistency and dedication to my advantage. I stuck to my schedule and didn’t make plans that would conflict with my pumping times. After the NICU, where I pumped next to my baby’s crib, back home I almost always pumped at home or at work – I can count the number of times I pumped out-and-about (on holidays, on vacations, and at a wedding).
I also had different pumping areas over time. I started in my baby’s room in the recliner; when that no longer worked, I did my early morning pump (quietly!) at the kitchen counter before she woke up – I had a set-up that made it almost fun. The night before, I would fill the teapot with water for my coffee, fill my water bottle, and set up my computer. In the morning, as I pumped, I would drink my coffee and catch up on whatever computer tasks I needed to do. I won’t lie; there was sometimes online shopping involved!
In the evenings after she went to bed, I pumped on the couch in the TV room – my husband would sit next to me. I often just looked at my phone or we watched something on TV together. It was an end-of-the-day almost-relaxation. Then we cleaned up the kitchen and the pump parts, bottles, etc., before bed.
I had a Spectra pump (using these attachments) that my husband researched and got on Amazon. It is hospital grade but only cost $150 and can be reused by other people because it’s a closed pump. It was quieter and hurt less than my Medela pump, which I kept at work.
What was your biggest challenge with exclusive pumping?
Oh, there are so many…
Trying to manage pumping eight times a day while also trying to hold my baby in the NICU and schedule visits from family and friends who wanted to meet the baby but who I didn’t want to see me pumping (by the time I had finished one pumping session, it was just 90 minutes until I needed to start the next one).
Being at home alone with my baby when I had to pump; not being sure if she was going to wake up in the middle of my pumping.
When my baby refused the frozen milk that was about to expire and so I had to throw it out. Pouring it down the toilet, looking at the dates and times. 6AM, 2:30AM, 8:30AM, 8:30PM, 4PM, 10:30AM… There went my plan of getting ahead by freezing milk. I wasn’t able to donate it because I’d been drinking Mother’s Milk Tea. (Happy ending: when I tried giving her frozen milk again a few months later, she didn’t mind it anymore! Whew).
Milk spills on the floor, on clothes, in the closet at work, etc.
Being sick and wanting more than anything to lay down but having to peel myself up off the bathroom floor to sit in a chair and pump.
I had sciatica from about month three on… being in pain when I woke up and having to sit/stand still for half an hour first thing to pump.
Middle of the night pumping.
The relief of finishing a pumping session only to realize that it was time to prepare bottles, freeze milk, and wash pump parts. Again.
Being isolated and cooped up because my entire schedule revolved around all things baby – pumping, feeding and naps.
Knowing that I had to get up at the same time to pump every day even if my baby slept later.
Explaining the situation to just about anyone who wasn’t familiar with this kind of thing.
How long did you exclusively pump?
10 ½ months.
I went down to 7 sessions a few weeks in, then eventually 6, 5… you know how to count backwards. When I went back to work when my daughter was five months old, I dropped to three sessions, and that’s what I stayed at until I started weaning from the pump. I was fortunate that I could maintain my supply at that level.
My last regularly scheduled pump was on Mother’s Day, with a couple maintenance pumps after that. According to the spreadsheet I created to keep track of the milk I have in freezers all over town, I have enough frozen milk to get her to her one year adjusted birthday (barring any power outages that ruin the frozen milk!).
What advice would you give a new exclusive pumper?
Buy enough bottles for pumping and feeding your baby that you can put them in the dishwasher and let them air dry (it takes about 24 hours!).
You’re burning a lot of calories. Eat whatever you want – anything to make pumping more fun.
If you have an over-supply, start weaning pumping sessions.
Most of the burden of pumping will fall on you, but there are things that your partner or others can do to help. The best way to get help with bottles, cleaning pump parts, etc., is to ask for it. This is best done in a kind tone at a time you’re feeling okay and not in a moment of being completely overwhelmed.
Use the app Baby Manager to track how much you pump and how much your baby eats.
If your baby won’t take your frozen milk, try again later. Their taste might get less picky.
Are there any other thoughts about exclusive pumping that you’d like to share?
I wasn’t someone who had my heart set on breastfeeding my baby, and I wasn’t even sure that I would pump this long. Around six months, which was going to be my quit date, I decided to keep going and see what I could manage. What I didn’t expect is that as I finished pumping, I’d have a sense of pride about my pumping.
I feel proud that my hard work produced enough milk to feed my baby for her first year. I also feel proud (and relieved) that my baby has grown from being born with a “growth restriction” to being in the 50th percentile for weight. When she was in the NICU, there was a lot that we couldn’t control; her diet at home was something we could control. We’re both extremely happy with her progress and know that it was a sacrifice to keep the pumping operation going for this long. We are both elated that the pumping is over and that I/we/our family can get a little bit of freedom back.
Lastly, thanks to everyone who stored frilk (frozen milk) in their freezer!!! It takes a village!