Breastfeeding My Surrogate Baby

Lili Vardi, Haifa, Israel

Originally published March 2016, republished with the express permission of the author.
Photo: Dan Vardi

My mother enjoyed breastfeeding me at La Leche League meetings. I grew up listening to her talk about nursing and baby rearing. I couldn’t wait to become a mother myself. All along, I knew that breastfeeding was a part of mothering and that support and camaraderie were a part of that ever-changing experience.

When I got married, I had no idea that becoming the mother I dreamed of being would be so difficult.

After a year of marriage, I was finally pregnant with our first baby, a girl: but that pregnancy was not to last. We endured several miscarriages and years of devastating and unsuccessful fertility treatments. We saw dozens of doctors and suffered complications. Ultimately, mechanical damage to the uterine lining left much scar tissue and little space, despite many surgeries to try to fix this. The doctors said that my chances of carrying a pregnancy were slim.

I was devastated. Losing my babies was awful, but never bearing another seemed even worse. After six terrible years, we had to move forward. Still trying to realize my lifelong dream, we finally turned to surrogacy: a new, unknown, and complex journey.

Miraculously, towards the end of my surrogate’s pregnancy, I became pregnant myself. We were overjoyed. Sadly, my pregnancy only lasted 15 weeks. Our little girl, born from the surrogate in the middle of this turmoil, was one month old.

This first month of her life was filled with love and joy, but also with tension and pain. I was left broken and confused; desperately wanting to enjoy my baby and motherhood with this little survivor. Although bottle-feeding was all we knew for an entire month, I decided to try to nurse her. I had researched my options and knew that breastfeeding is possible even with an adopted child.

After a short-lived pregnancy, I knew my breasts had begun preparing for nursing, and I knew I would have a little bit of milk, but I had no idea how far it could go. I had to give it a try. This was a chance. A chance to maybe breastfeed my little girl, who I couldn’t give birth to. A small ray of what should have been.

Breastfeeding my surrogate baby

My mother was a huge help and constant supporter. She showed me how to hold my baby and how to help her latch on. But the baby was used to bottles and my milk supply was insufficient. We endeavored to increase my supply and teach her to nurse at the breast, all the while continuing to feed her with bottles. She was already over a month old and weighed nearly five kilograms.

Every feeding time, I would try to nurse her, to the point of frustration for all involved. Then, my husband or mother would give her the bottle, while I went to use my new best friend—the electric pump. We knew the breast had to be stimulated and emptied to increase my supply. At first, pumping was frustrating and produced little milk, barely coating the bottom of the bottle (which looked as though it was just finished, not just filled!). But slowly and surely my baby began to get my milk in her bottles. Every single drop I could give her was a gift.

Trying to get her to latch on and breastfeed wasn’t easy. We tried dripping some milk onto the nipple, to stimulate her sucking. After all, tasting the milk is what gives a baby the motivation to nurse. I’ll always remember the first time she latched on properly and gave several good sucks:

“Look, Mom, she’s nursing just like a real baby!” I cried, and my mother just laughed,

“Well, of course she’s a real baby, but now she’s also really nursing!” she said. All at once, how this perfect little creature came to be born was insignificant. She was mine now, and forever.

The process was long and painful. We got help from several lactation consultants, each having different but important input. We researched supply and demand, and technique. We struggled with engorgement, inefficient suck, and falling asleep frequently at the breast. We mastered the art of hand expression and pumping and cried over every drop of spilled milk.

I began going to La Leche League meetings, not quite sure how I would fit in, but found a loving home and warm hugs to help me continue.

Slowly things began to get better (thanks, Mom, for pointing out the evidence along the way!). Certain nursing positions or times of day gave a boost of optimism; others brought back the frustration and questions.

After about six weeks, all my baby was drinking was my breast milk. Granted, some of it from a bottle I’d pumped earlier. This was a huge milestone for us, the turning point. I now viewed the experience as a positive one, a well earned accomplishment. I would proudly tell people, “I’m nursing my baby.” I would proudly watch the scale at her monthly checkups show a steady weight gain. I would squeeze her chubby legs with satisfaction—all this came from within me. And, I could enjoy the experience with other mothers.

Finally, I became the mother I always dreamed of being. I had to shift my way of thinking from bottle-feeding and schedules, and be in tune with my baby and her needs. At LLL we talk about mothering through breastfeeding, and I finally understood what that meant.

Our bonding and our lives were healed by this ultimate mothering tool.

I could not have done it without the best partner—my precious baby girl—who put in the effort and cooperation; the support of my family, especially my mother, for her skills and friendship, and my husband, for his understanding and support (even when he didn’t quite understand). It is important to surround yourself with support and information.

We pushed a little further, and continued to eliminate bottles. Two months after starting to breastfeed, my baby was breastfeeding fully. Now I can tell anyone who might wonder: yes, it is possible to fully breastfeed your baby, even with difficult beginnings.