Thursday, May 31, 2012

From Full-Time Formula To Exclusively Breastfed

When Jesse was four days old I begrudgingly entered the emergency room, after suffering with difficult breathing since being discharged from their maternity ward. I had already seen two GP's and been to another hospitals casualty, desperate to try and find someone to put me on a course of antibiotics for my presumed chest infection and send me home. Both GP's took one listen to my heart, looked at my blood pressure and recommended urgent hospitalisation. But I had a newborn, and I wanted to go home and nurse him to sleep in my comfortable bed. I did not want to go to hospital.

I argued with the doctor, saying I felt fine I just had difficulty breathing. I was the epitome of an ungrateful patient. After eventually being talked into staying, with much insistence from my mother, I managed to con them into allowing me to keep Jesse with me. They immediately started me on a diuretic to drain my lungs which were filled with fluid. This was a mistake, I suffer from asthma and the shock of the fluid leaving the lung tissue sent me into the worst asthma attack I have ever experienced. I was convinced I was dying, went into panic and after what felt like an eternity of gasping for breath (they were watching my oxygen levels, but the feeling that I was suffocating was so strong) they administered a sedative... boom... I couldn't nurse after that. My heart stopped twice that night.

Jesse, having a bottle of formula whilst I was in hospital. 

I should mention that I had a completely normal birth, in a hospital and experienced no complications. I was discharged with a clean bill of health. But, unbeknownst to me, I had a very unhealthy pregnancy. In my second trimester, when I was still working as a teacher, I picked up a virus which presented itself as a sore throat. Its was Myocarditis which attacked the lining of my heart. As my heart became more sluggish, fluid started to collect on my lungs. I was out of breath but merely thought it was due to being heavily pregnant. I was extremely tired but thats normal right? Wrong. My gynaecologist did not pick up a thing. The exertion of labour turned the fluid in my lungs septic. I had full-blown pneumonia when I was discharged form the maternity ward.

My husband stayed the night with myself and Jesse, although he may as well have taken him home for all that I do, I was so drugged up. For Jesse's very next feed after I was given the sedative the nurses gave him formula via the cup method so as to avoid nipple confusion in the hope that I could start nursing again the next day, but by the next day we realised that I was critically ill. Jesse was a big baby (3.87kg's at birth) and his hunger was not satiated via this method, he spent the entire evening bawling, and I felt terrible, and absolutely helpless. The very next morning I asked my mother to buy a bottle and formula, she chatted to a few nurses in the maternity ward to fond out which ones were best - because we were clueless, she had only breastfed, and I had only intended to breastfeed. Donor milk is virtually unheard of in South Africa and very difficult to get hold of. Jesse went home with my mother that morning, and four days into our nursing relationship (my milk had just come in) he started on formula.

I spent another six nights in the cardiac section of intensive care whilst my lungs slowly drained and I grappled to get my blood pressure under control. I even needed a blood transfusion because my blood count was so low. I had never battled with blood pressure before, in fact its normally on the lower side. It was directly related to my emotions, and being an emotional new mother newly separated from her tiny baby I battled to keep from breaking down. It was pure torture.

I tried to maintain my milk the entire time with the hope that I could go back to nursing Jesse. I pumped a couple of times a day, most times only producing a couple of milliliters due to all the diuretics I was taking. With a hand pump and hands that looked like pin cushions from all the IV's (my veins kept collapsing)

Eventually my lungs did drain, my pressure leveled out and they moved me into a general ward for another four days. I was allowed more than one visitor at a time. My sister even brought Jesse to visit me although we had to sit outside in the reception area as he was so susceptible to catching airborne diseases in the ward.
Me, feeding Jess formula a few days after being discharged from hospital
I eventually got home after being separated from my son for eleven days, and after him being on formula this whole time. I immediately tried nursing him. The doctor assured me that the antibiotics I was on were safe for my baby (as safe as antibiotics can be) and I was off all other medication. He was a great nurser, but wasn't getting much milk and so still got all of his milk quota from formula. I didn't notice any preference for the bottle, or nipple confusion and he was happy to suck on either, although appreciated the formula to fill him up. After being separated from Jesse for eleven days I swore I would never put him down again, and I hadn't even heard of attachment parenting then but he slept in my bed, nursed all night and had bottles of formula when his cries became hungry. I was on mega doses of vitamins and minerals as I was severely deficient after my terrible pregnancy.

Jesse continued to enjoy nursing for comfort if not milk and I let him nurse as much as he wanted. Eventually it became incredibly difficult to gauge how much breastmilk he was getting and therefore how much formula he should have. He became rather chubby as we continued to feed on demand.

My self-confidence in my ability to provide nourishment was shot. I managed to convince myself that the formula was better for him than my breastmilk because I was so deficient in so many vitamins. (I realise now that it was not) Jesse was a strong nurser and had built my supply up quickly. We were probably ready to drop the formula after a month, yet I continued to offer him bottles until he was three months old.

Then one day he just refused the bottle. I cried with relief. I once again had an exclusively breastfed son. We continued to breastfeed exclusively until he was eight months old, where I gave him his first taste of solid foods. In a true baby-led eating fashion he would play and explore solid foods but only really started eating at eleven months. I was (and am still) very particular about what he eats and he is in glowing health. Eighteen months later our nursing relationship is still going strong and I have no inclination to stop it any time soon, and neither does he seem to either.

To re-cap and in order to help other moms who may battle with supply or want to go back to exclusive breastfeeding, here is how I did it:

  • I continued to express milk whilst in hospital, even though I was only producing a few milliliters a day. 
  • Once out of hospital, I allowed Jesse to nurse constantly - I remained in bed for the next few days allowing him to nurse without limits, still feeding him formula when he was hungry. 
  • I always offered the breast first, allowing him to nurse both sides until my milk was finished, and then for a little longer if he allowed until finally offering formula. 
  • Ideally, I would pump (to even further increase supply) after Jesse had completed nursing whilst his father fed him his bottle. This did not always work out though. 
  • Even though Jesse was mainly formula fed, he still did not sleep for more than 3 hours at a time, and so I nursed through the night too. 
  • I fed on demand and didn't try to keep to any sort of feeding schedule. 

Further reading:
When Nursing Is Not Enough: Supplementing With Care
Making More Milk: Tips For Boosting Low Milk Supply (Supply and Demand)
Making More Milk: Tips For Boosting Low Milk Supply (Galactagogues)
A Little Bit of All of It Preparing for Birth Series

This post was written for inclusion in the Preparing for Birth Series at A Little Bit of All of It. 


  1. What a heart-wrenching story! I'm glad it had a happy ending — what a lot you all went through. Thanks for sharing your experience, so other people might know what's possible.

    1. Thanks Lauren, I sure do hope it inspires others to keep trying when it comes to breastfeeding :)

  2. This is such an inspiration! I hate that you had to go through such a difficult time, but your story will certainly give others the courage to keep trying to breastfeed. Thank you for linking up with the Tuesday Baby Link Up. I hope we'll see you back there again tomorrow!

    1. Thanks Shannon! This post always gives me a lump in my throat when I read it, but two years on Jesse is a healthy, strong little boy - who is still nursing! :)

  3. Those early days must have been so stressful! Your story is such an inspiration, there is no doubt your diligence with pumping in those early days and gradual transition allowed you to move back towards EBF. I'm so happy for you and Jesse :)


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