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'I thought it would be easy': When breastfeeding is the hardest thing ever

Here's why some moms bristle when they hear formula feeding described as “supplementing.”
/ Source: TODAY

Like millions of new moms around the world, Sandra Chance figured she’d have no problem breastfeeding her baby girl.

“I thought it would be easy — that it was natural and it would just happen,” Chance, 39, of Hoboken, New Jersey, told TODAY Parents. “But it didn’t ‘just happen.’ It didn’t.”

It’s not that Chance wasn’t trying — hard — to make it work. She met with lactation consultants and watched YouTube videos and pumped breast milk every two hours. But no matter how many calories she devoted to her efforts, the exhausted mom couldn’t get enough calories into her infant daughter, Charlotte. She finally realized that she needed to combine breast-milk feedings with formula feedings in order to give Charlotte enough nutrition to thrive.

Sandra Chance with her baby girl, Charlotte
Mom Sandra Chance pumps as much breast milk as she can each day and also feeds her baby formula.TODAY

“A lot of people call what I’m doing ‘supplementing’ — that I’m breastfeeding her through my pump milk and then I’m supplementing her with formula — and I really hate the word ‘supplementing,’” Chance said. “Like, with all the fiery passions of my being I hate that word, because it means that I’m not enough. It means that what I’m doing for my daughter by pumping seven times a day for 15 or 30 minutes at a pop is not enough.

“I can’t accept that. I don’t accept that. I’m not going to supplement what I’m doing. I’m just feeding my daughter.”

‘You’re doing an amazing job’

Chance’s experience highlights a thorny phenomenon among many new mothers who want to breastfeed their babies. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization advise exclusive breastfeeding for babies during the first six months of their lives to help them achieve optimal growth and development. That’s an ideal path for women who produce enough breast milk — but what about mothers who, for any number of reasons, cannot?

Lactation difficulties plague all sorts of moms. Women who have diabetes, high blood pressure, high body mass indexes, polycystic ovarian syndrome, thyroid problems, other hormonal disorders or a history of cancer — particularly cancer that led to breast surgeries — can have trouble producing enough breast milk. Sometimes babies have health issues of their own that make latching and feeding challenging; in Chance’s case, her daughter Charlotte was born with a heart defect that made everything more complicated.

Even when moms and babies are perfectly healthy, breastfeeding can be surprisingly, shockingly, confoundingly hard. Many women wouldn’t be able to do it without the support of the right mom friends, the right lactation consultants and the right gear, including a strong breast pump — hospital-grade if possible.

“For women who have low-income jobs ... that baby comes out and you’ve got one or two weeks and you have to go back to work,” said Tamara Hawkins, a family nurse practitioner and lactation consultant in New York. “Who can afford to spend all this cash money to get a lactation consultant to come to your house to just help you while you sit on your couch?”

Hawkins leads a free breastfeeding support group in East Harlem for that very reason. (Similar groups exist across the United States.) Moms can drop in, get help and connect with other mothers who might be dealing with similar struggles. Hawkins knows firsthand that the right kind of support can make all the difference for a new mom who’s trying to breastfeed. She also knows how much reassurance a mother might need if her exclusive breastfeeding dream doesn’t become a reality.

“(There) can be a lot of sadness, a lot of guilt from grieving from a loss of the experience, and anxiety,” Hawkins said. “It’s important to understand that if a mother has to give the baby formula, she’s not ‘less than.’ She’s not doing something that’s harming the baby. She is nurturing and still caring for her baby, just like a mom who is able to exclusively breastfeed.”

Elisa Gomera breastfeeds her baby girl, Emme.
Elisa Gomera breastfeeds her baby girl, Emme. Gomera got the breastfeeding support she needed from a lactation consultant and also from fellow moms at a support group.TODAY

Dr. Tanya Altmann, a pediatrician who founded the Calabasas Pediatrics Wellness Center in California, encourages breastfeeding whenever possible while also recognizing that breastfeeding isn’t always possible.

“I see plenty of situations where babies are adopted,” Altmann said. “And nowadays, with different types of family units, sometimes there isn’t a mom in a family. That baby still needs to eat....

“I would say that if your baby is growing well and reaching milestones and is happy, then you’re doing an amazing job. There’s a whole constellation of things that are just as important as nutrition that need to come together to raise a happy, healthy child: spending time every day talking to your baby, reading to your baby, singing to your baby. Try not to be so hyper-focused on one thing that you’re too exhausted to play on the floor with your child and you hand your child a screen instead.”

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‘I’m taking care of my baby’

Dr. Christie del Castillo-Hegyi is an emergency physician in Little Rock, Arkansas, and co-founder of the Fed Is Best Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for safe infant feeding with breast milk, formula or a combination of the two.

“Moms are being given the message that the only way to provide ideal health and brain development for a child is exclusive breastfeeding from birth to six months,” del Castillo-Hegyi said. “But if a mom does not have enough breast milk to do that safely, that by definition is not true.”

She said she understands why Chance, the mom in New Jersey, bristles at the word “supplementing.”

“This is a mother who is doing everything she can to make sure her family survives — including herself and her mental health,” del Castillo-Hegyi said.

Chance still shudders when she recalls what happened after she brought Charlotte home from the hospital.

Mom Sandra Chance feeds her baby girl Charlotte a combination of pumped breast milk and formula.
Mom Sandra Chance feeds her baby girl Charlotte a combination of pumped breast milk and formula. "Having a happy, sane mother matters," Chance said. "A mom's mental health needs to be a priority."TODAY

“I was breastfeeding Charlotte, and I thought breastfeeding was going well,” Chance said. “One day she was screaming from about 3 p.m. until probably 11 p.m. at night — inconsolably, like I’ve never heard her scream before. And it’s not until retrospect that I realize ... she was only getting a few ounces all day long.”

Ten months and countless doctors’ appointments later, Chance is still pumping every two hours so she can measure precisely how much breast milk she’s providing for her daughter. Charlotte needs a total of 32 ounces a day; Chance produces 14 ounces.

“No matter what — if I produce 4 ounces of milk a day or 40 ounces — that’s OK,” Chance said. “I’m taking care of my baby any way I can, and I know I am enough for my daughter.”

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