Below is Hannah’s story about her experience exclusively pumping for her son, who was a “reluctant feeder.” A huge thank you to Hannah for sharing her story! You can read more exclusive pumping stories here.
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Why did you decide to exclusively pump?
Charlie was born on his due date after I was induced because of lack of movement. I ended up with the full catalogue of pain relief to deal with 24 hours of contractions coming every 45 seconds to a minute, which floored me and left Charlie quite docile when he was born. We then had markers for infection, which took priority over the next few hours and when midwives tried to get him to latch on, it just wasn’t happening.
He was labelled a ‘reluctant feeder’ and we were confined to the postnatal ward until we had been given the all clear and could demonstrate independent feeds. Charlie would go from 0 to meltdown in such a short amount of time, he was always too hysterical to latch on. Instead I was instructed to collect colostrum in a 1ml syringe to feed him.
Eventually the only way we could get out of hospital was to use a nipple shield. Although it gave him something to aim for, I quickly realised Charlie wasn’t actually getting much milk, which resulted in short and very frequent and painful nursing sessions. I was so sleep deprived I thought I was going insane.
In the hospital, after seeing me collect colostrum in the tiny syringes, which I now see was like using a teaspoon to dig out a garden pond, a midwife suggested using a pump. Of course it was heaven sent – nowhere near as painful as Charlie – and back home with all the problems we were having it was too tempting not to buy one, sadly not quite as industrial as the hospital’s.
It was hard work, there’s no denying it. In those early days I pumped every three to four hours for about 20 minutes on each side, and there was then the additional time decanting, cleaning and sterilising, and the time actually feeding him – though it was great that my partner could help with this from very early on, and other family members too later. It often felt like as soon as one session was over, the next was about to begin. Very quickly though Charlie was settling into longer sleep spells, giving me a chance to rest and slow my racing mind.
How did you make exclusive pumping work for you?
After just a few days it was obvious exclusive pumping would only be sustainable if I could upgrade to a double pump, and since then I’ve never looked back. It got progressively easier as I dropped sessions – I found I could do this while maintaining supply (I used fenugreek for about a month around month three to boost supply and think it helped), and was able to freeze around 180ml extra a day on many days. Dropping from four pumps to three when Charlie was around eight or nine months old did hit my supply, and it was around this time I got my period back. I then worked out a plan (my partner and I have a spreadsheet for everything!) from then until 12 months to wean from the pump in time for his birthday, and have enough frozen milk to supplement the little I would be producing by the end.
I am writing this on the eve of his birthday and I’ve bagged up the hard pump parts, triumphantly cut up the tubing which was starting to look a little worse for wear, and I’ve got enough frozen milk to last another few weeks of bedtime bottles.
What were your biggest challenges with exclusive pumping?
The biggest challenge by far is just the amount of time it takes to both pump and feed, especially when it is so frequent in the beginning. I found night feeds / pumps the hardest, but after Charlie started to sleep through I dropped the night pump straight away. Baby screams have me leaping out of bed in a flash but an alarm does not cut through the fog at all.
I suffered from repeat blockages in the early months but found massaging really helped to get the milk out. However, by about six months, this basically caused a repetitive strain injury and I was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome. This eased considerably after physio and wearing wrist splints, and in me thinking much more about posture. It’s easy to focus on what you’re doing for the baby but self-care is just as, if not more, important. I’ve also had some pain in my fingers and back, which seem to be linked to pumping but I’m hopeful all my ailments will disappear fairly quickly now I’ve finished.
What have been the benefits of exclusive pumping?
I can’t go back and run an experiment with a second version of Charlie who breastfed successfully and know for sure, but I am fairly convinced that he has slept better and longer from having breast milk from a bottle. I have always known exactly how much he has had, been able to encourage him when he’s had less than usual and I instinctively know he does want it, and been able to get it into him more easily than him working away at the breast and falling asleep on the boob.
My partner has enjoyed being part of Charlie’s feeding from the very early days, something he would not have been able to experience had I exclusively breastfed. I had always planned to express some milk so I could have a break from nursing but there was no guarantee of this – I have friends whose babies just never wanted a bottle and they didn’t have the option.
Being able to feed Charlie wherever whenever, without having to stop what I’m doing, for example in his car seat while someone else was driving, has been brilliant. I’ve also not had the prep of making up a formula bottle while out and about, just using cooler bags in warmer weather.
What have you done to make exclusive pumping easier?
Although I only had one set of flanges, I had two of everything else for the pump, which meant I was able to sterilise just once every 24 hours by the end, or twice when I was still pumping a fair few times a day. Anything which can cut down those precious minutes stood at the sink is a winner. Between sterilising I would run boiling water through the parts and store them in the fridge.
I fashioned my own pumping bra as I didn’t think it would be much different than paying for one. Although I never progressed to waltzing around the house doing housework with the pump hooked on and hands free, I found it really helpful if I did need to move around during pumping and particularly in company where I wasn’t as comfortable being on show, as I was mostly covered up and could just wear a loose top over it.
Thinking about pumping for a whole year, even though that was always my goal, would have been too overwhelming. Charlie being six months old just after New Year gave me a really tangible first goal to aim for, and I gave myself permission to stop then if I couldn’t face it any longer. Once I’d made it to six months I knew I just had to do the same once again, which didn’t seem so bad. There were many times when I felt completely fed up with it all, but I lived by the motto of not quitting on a bad day. After regretting breastfeeding not working out, I think my determination to not have regrets about pumping won through.
Although it was tough pumping when I was looking after Charlie alone – at best he loved to pull on the tubes and press buttons, at worst I had to listen to escalating crying while feeling powerless to help – I did make good use of the time when someone else was around to watch him. Those 20-minute slots several times a day were a sort of imposed break that nobody could mess with. In hindsight I could have done something useful like learn a language or write a novel in that time, whereas what I actually did was get through a lot of Netflix and social media.
Once I decided I wanted to EP I got as much information about it online as I could, including signing up to the Exclusive Pumping newsletter. I haven’t met anyone in ‘real mum life’ who has done the same as me, so it’s brilliant to know there are lots of mums in the same boat out there.