Feed The Baby: Building A Milk Supply


Originally published September 2015, republished here with the express permission of the author.

“The most important thing is to feed the baby,” she said. “You’re going to have to supplement.”

I sat on the uncomfortable couch, pulled my new nursing cami over my breasts, and tried not to cry. Lucille, the eight-day-old girl sleeping on my lap, had not regained her birthweight, and the lactation consultant had just told me I wasn’t making enough milk to feed her.

“The most important thing is to feed the baby,” she said. “You’re going to have to supplement.” I wanted to scoop up my daughter and run from the hospital. Lucille was my baby, and I was supposed to feed her from my body. I felt I was failing as a mother and maybe even as a woman.

Instead of running away, I lifted my daughter to my face, inhaled her newborn smell, and cried into her wispy hair.

“I’m sorry,” I told her. “I’m so, so sorry.” My husband, Chris, wrapped his arms around us. The lactation consultant recommended supplementing one ounce after every feeding. I stopped crying and reminded myself that the most important thing was to feed the baby. We left the lactation office with a hospital-grade rental pump, a cache of fenugreek, goat’s rue and other milk-inducing herbal supplements, and instructions to pump for 15 minutes after every nursing.

“These things have got to be more than a cancer risk,” I told Chris an hour later while he burped Lucille, and I dialed up the suction on the breast pump. Chris laughed sympathetically, as though he knew I was trying hard to make a joke. A few drops of milk from each breast trickled into the bottles. I pumped for 15 more minutes, but nothing more came. This was the beginning of the nursing-pumping, nursing-pumping routine I’d follow to teach my breasts to make more milk.

At first, I thought of those drops of my expressed milk as my pathetic contributions—I was that discouraged—but then I remembered my doula telling me that every time I had a negative thought, I should replace it with a positive one. After a few days, I looked at the drops puddling in the bottles and told myself that this milk from my breasts would feed the baby.

Soon enough, I found a routine. I stored the pump parts in the refrigerator, so I’d only have to wash them once a day. I dozed through pumping sessions in the middle of the night, and I figured out I could do other things while I nursed and pumped during the day. I nursed and pumped while I read, while I checked email, and even—yes—while I used the bathroom. More than once I cleaned spaghetti sauce or other meal remnants not only from Lucille’s head but also from the breast pump. Once, my husband came home and asked, “What are you doing?” My answer: “Three things at once.” I was holding my sleeping newborn, pumping, and reading proofs of an essay slated for publication.

But I also realized that sometimes I didn’t want to do three things at once. Sometimes, I wanted to focus on feeding Lucille, who opened her eyes more and more and was beginning to make little, appreciative sounds while she suckled. Despite our nursing struggles, Lucille and I enjoyed nursing too, and during most of our waking moments, we were inhaling each other’s smells, gazing at each other, and generally falling in love.

At some point during those exhausting, love-clenched days, I noticed those scant drops of milk had grown into half of an ounce, then an ounce, then more.

Lately, I have begun to wonder if a mom working through a supply issue now would believe me if I said I remember those days fondly, even wistfully. Those nursing-pumping, nursing-pumping weeks were the only time in my life when I was so singularly focused. No other facet of my life mattered as much as feeding Lucille. I let go of everything else I thought I should be doing and focused on making milk.

Each woman who works to build a milk supply meets her nursing goals in her own time. For Lucille and me, the process took about a month. Within two weeks, I was supplementing Lucille with my own pumped milk, and two weeks after that, we didn’t have to supplement at all. I went on to nurse Lucille through her toddlerhood and my second pregnancy. Nursing became—and has continued to be—not only a way to feed Lucille, but a way to mother her.

If I went back and lived those supply-building days again, I wouldn’t change a thing, except I’d lose the grief. While I was working so hard to make more milk, I wasn’t failing as a mother, I was throwing myself into one of a mother’s most important jobs: I was feeding my baby.