When I was 18, I chose to have breast reduction surgery.
I developed early, and always hated my breasts. They were too big for my body, caused back problems, and brought attention that I never wanted.
I knew that I wanted to be a mother, and that I would want to breastfeed my babies. It was important to me, so I shared that with my surgeon. She assured me that she would be sure not to remove too many milk ducts and promised to do the type of surgery that would be best for future breastfeeding.
So I had the surgery. I went from a size 36DD to a size 32C, and for the first time ever I was happy with my breasts.
After a couple years of marriage, my husband and I decided to start a family of our own. I was so excited to be a mother, and thought breastfeeding would be a wonderful experience. Despite a lack of change in my breasts during my pregnancy, I truly believed my body would come through for me. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
After giving birth to our beautiful daughter, I immediately began breastfeeding her. She was eating well, and everything seemed to be going great. Supply and breastfeeding issues didn’t cross my mind.
Two days later, when we went in for our check-up, she had lost some weight. It wasn’t anything too concerning to the midwives. At that percentage, it was considered normal and safe.
The next several days changed everything. Suddenly our baby was extremely fussy, almost all day and night. She was inconsolable and we didn’t know what to do. She wouldn’t latch at times, or would for a moment and then start screaming again. I didn’t know how to help her, and neither did my husband. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong and felt like I was failing motherhood.
I went in to see my midwife for the next check-up a week after she was born. Our baby had lost 10% of her birth weight, and our midwife told us that if she lost any more, they would want to give her a feeding tube. I was mortified. Shocked. But most of all, I was so upset with myself.
I couldn’t believe that I didn’t know this was going on, and felt like I had been starving my newborn baby. My midwife explained to me that breastfeeding after reduction is really hit and miss. That I couldn't blame myself, or my body. It was the surgery, she said.
She told me how uncommon it was for women who have had major breast surgeries to be able to breastfeed exclusively. It alters the milk ducts too much, and harms the way the breast works.
She had brought this up a few times during my pregnancy, but I never listened, processed, or accepted it as a possibility. Until that moment, when I had no choice, but it wasn't easy to swallow. I have never felt more broken down.
My midwife helped me get set up with a supplemental nursing system (SNS) and feed my baby that way. An SNS is a bag of milk with small tubes attached to it. The tubes are taped to the breast and go into the baby's mouth when she breastfeeds, so she is getting milk from the tube like a straw while also stimulating the breast to make more milk. It was hard.
It hurt, and it was a lot for both my daughter and myself to handle. I needed three hands to hold her and keep the tube in her mouth comfortably. I stayed with my midwife for hours, bawling. I blamed myself entirely, and regretted ever having the surgery.
I wanted nothing more than to be able to take it back, to wait until I had already had children. I was also feeling incredibly misled by my surgeon, and stupid for trusting her with something that was more important to me than having breasts I would be happy with. I wanted breasts that actually worked properly to do the one job they were supposed to do.
I started researching more about breastfeeding after reduction, and what I found surprised me. There were a lot of women out there struggling just like I was. There was even a support group on Facebook that I immediately joined.
I received advice on how to increase my supply, which then led to me purchasing every herb and supplement, eating oats and drinking beer that I hated in hopes that it would give me the supply I needed to feed my baby.
I cried all day, all night, and fell into a depression. I blamed myself for having elective surgery that was now hurting my child. I felt like the worst mother in the world. I was no longer myself. I would stare at my scars and cry uncontrollably, filled with more regret than I could handle, and more sorrow than I could process.
I was taking a liquid herb blend that was made for breastfeeding mothers who had past breast surgeries that caused low milk supply, along with four other supplements. My midwife had held onto my placenta in case I needed it for milk supply for postpartum depression, so I took an encapsulated version. I massaged fennel oil into my breast after every single feeding. Making milk had become my life, and it was all-consuming.
I was using the SNS each feeding, as well, with donor milk we were blessed to receive. At first, I was able to get milk from a relative I trusted who was nursing her daughter as well. After that, I joined Facebook groups (Eats on Feets and Human Milk for Human Babies) where you could find safe donor milk in your area. I was able to get milk from two mothers who were healthy and had an oversupply.
We were both still struggling using the SNS. It was a pain, and made breastfeeding so much harder. It was already hard enough.
After several weeks of trying to make the SNS work for us, I gave up. My baby would spit it out of her mouth every time, and cry when my breast gave her no milk. I couldn’t use it on my own, and was so exhausted from trying.
My breasts were sore from pumping and the uncomfortable latch the SNS had caused. We were also running out of donor milk, and I knew we would need to start using formula. That devastated me even more.
I cannot even begin to describe to you the shame I felt in having to give my daughter formula. I was so ashamed that my body wasn’t functioning properly, and that it couldn’t do something that seemed so basic and simple. I knew my body was made to feed my children, and although I knew that it wasn’t able to because of the breast reduction, I still felt so betrayed by it.
I continued to bottle-feed my daughter from then on. I didn’t like it and neither did she, which only made me feel worse. We had to do skin to skin contact while she took a bottle for her to even accept the fake nipple.
My heart broke every time I needed to feed her, and I hated that I cried so much in front of her. I couldn’t let go of breastfeeding. I refused to accept that breastfeeding after reduction just was not going to happen for me. I dry nursed, until finally, with the love and help of my husband, I was able to begin moving past it. I quite dry nursing and taking supplements after eight months.
I did more research about breastfeeding after reduction, and as it turned out, I had the worst possible type of surgery for breastfeeding. My surgeon had performed the most invasive style of surgery, which had likely caused my low milk supply. I learned that having my nipples completely removed destroyed my chances of being able to exclusively breastfeed.
The support group was helping. Seeing that I wasn’t alone in the struggle made it easier. No one else around me understood what I was going through, or why I was taking it so hard. No one could completely understand what it was like to have a part of your body not function the way you thought it would or thought that it should.
I hear women talking about birth trauma all the time, and I compare my breastfeeding experience to that. Trauma. It left me emotionally scarred, and I wish so badly I had known what to expect before it happened.