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Exclusively Pumping

As breastfeeding week (August 1-7th) comes to a close, I have finally gathered up the courage to write about a topic been very personal to me: exclusively pumping.

Exclusive pumping in the realm of breastfeeding means I don’t nurse, but my baby does get breast milk. Instead of nursing, I sit down five times a day (down from 8-10 in the early weeks!) and express milk with a breast pump. He is then fed from a bottle. I’ve been doing it seven months now.

But let’s step back a bit.

When I thought about all the things that would be difficult about having a child, feeding my child didn’t factor largely into it. After a lifetime of “breast is best” encouragements, I knew I wanted to feed him breast milk. At the recommendation of a friend of mine, I dutifully ordered my insurance-covered breast pump before our baby was born so I’d have time to learn how to use it before I went back to work and would have to pump during the day and when I traveled for work. Otherwise, I simply assumed I’d be nursing, and didn’t spend much time thinking about it. It’s a thing mammals do, how hard could it be?

Turns out it’s incredibly hard for some women, including me.

While I was in the hospital recovering from the birth, lactation consultants came around to make sure babies were properly latching. We thought it was going OK, but after going home it seemed like my little one was never getting enough. Along with some other issues, we ended up returning to the hospital so he could spend a couple days in the NICU. I won’t get into the emotional roller-coaster that was, but it was during this period that I learned how to use my breast pump at home so we could bring breast milk to the hospital for him. I saw the lactation consultants again while I was there so they could once again examine our form before going home, but we were bottle feeding him breast milk and supplementing with formula while in the NICU.

When we finally brought our little one home for good, I had grown somewhat accustom to pumping, but I continued trying to get him to nurse. We then had family come into town for his bris and naming, so suddenly my house had gone from housing just my husband and me, to acting as home base to my mother, grandfather, aunt, and in-laws, close friend, plus a new baby! Even with the incredible support I got from my aunt who stayed with us for seven weeks, I found the fear of a return to the NICU, coupled with the stress of so many guests and not being able to get my little one to effectively latch to be too much. My husband would walk in to me in tears after another unsuccessful nursing attempt, and it was he who first suggested I stop trying to nurse and just pump. Pumping seemed to be working, and once the milk was expressed, it meant anyone could feed him!

It was a tough decision, and I felt like I was a failure, but my husband was right, pumping was working for me. I stopped trying to nurse and went the exclusively pumping route before I even knew it had a name.

Since then, I discovered the Exclusive Pumping website, along with the lifesaver of a Facebook group. I’ve also learned how difficult this first year is for a breastfeeding mother, regardless of how the breast milk gets in to your baby. Exclusively pumping has worked for me though, in addition to giving everyone the opportunity to feed him (and for me to get more sleep!), it’s allowed us to precisely track his intake (peace of mind after the NICU), caused minimal disruption when I go into the office or travel for work (milk is always from the bottle!), avoided expensive formula costs (though pumping supplies aren’t free), and allowed me to build up a healthy freezer stash so I may be able to provide him milk for longer than I’m actively supplying it (possible when nursing, but trickier to gauge how much to pump and store).

It’s not all great though. I’ve pumped in the back seat of our truck, on airplanes, at a half dozen airports, while I’m commuting, in my office, and in the lactation room of an office I was visiting.

Inside a Mamava pod at an aiport

Inside a particularly spacious lactation space at another airport

Five times a day I need to make time for it, and if I go more than six hours without pumping, I start getting pain that will last long after I finally am able to pump. I got mastitis once, which gave me piles of misery for days and a fever that lasted two days – all of which happened to land while my husband was on a business trip. I can’t take the birth control pill that best controls my migraines because it caused a drop in my supply so severe that I couldn’t keep up with demand and had to dip into the freezer supply. I still wake up in the middle of the night to pump, because dropping that session impacted my supply too much.

Knowing that a nursing mother has all the feeding equipment with her at all times, it’s incredibly frustrating when we’re out with the baby and we have to go home from a nice time out because I didn’t plan accordingly to bring my pumping supplies. It’s also made work travel challenging. I need to make plans ahead of time, from finding lactation space at a conference venue or office, to figuring out how I’ll keep the breast milk chilled until I can get it home (thankfully a perk from my employer is shipping it home each day!). I learned quickly not to be shy about it. I email conferences ahead of time about my needs when it’s unclear, and when I was visiting a remote office recently the co-worker who was hosting me helped me find the lactation room.

Pump parts cleaning while traveling, hotel bathrooms are not set up for this!

Then there is the cleaning of pump parts multiple times a day and the regular sterilization process. Some days I really wish I could take a pumping vacation, but that’s not how this works.

Fancy rack at home I have for drying parts

And did I mention that people were judgmental? Most days the comments of “why not just nurse?” and “you know, you could just use formula” cause an eye roll and quick brush off, because it’s none of their business, but other days it’s harder.

My little one is 7 months old today and I’m really proud of having made it this far. I’m aiming for a year of pumping, but there are days when I thinking about quitting and switching him to formula. Formula is a great way to feed your baby, and in spite of the prevailing breastfeeding mantra, the truth is, “Fed is best.” If I do need to stop my pumping journey earlier than I want, I’m going to remind myself that I’m a great mom for making it this far, and I’d be a great mom if I fed him formula from the start.