Letting Go of the Guilt When Pumping Doesn’t Work

August 7, 2013

I remember meeting with the lactation consultant when I was on hospitalized bed rest, pregnant with James. Of course I would pump. James was going to come early. How early we didn’t know, but definitely early. It was the first time I heard breast milk referred to as “liquid gold,” and the first time I realized how important it would be for James, especially now.

Liquid gold. I cringed a little bit every time I heard that term. Yes, breast milk was more important than ever for James, but that term carried a weight with it that felt almost impossibly heavy. I had always planned to breastfeed James, but I had my doubts as to whether or not it would be successful even before James was delivered prematurely. I made up my mind to give it my best shot when the neonatologist told me that pumping was one of the most important things I could do for James. I knew I had to do whatever it took to get him the “liquid gold” he needed.

James was delivered by emergency c-section at 5:26 PM on a Monday. I began pumping Tuesday morning. I pumped every two to three hours at first. I started keeping a journal when I was admitted to the hospital, and in the back of the journal are pages of dates and times that I pumped. I even made a notation the first time it was successful – Friday evening at 6:45. Just a few drops but I was so excited, it was a start. James was going to have the breast milk he needed.

James receiving 2 cc's of breast milk through his NG tube.

James receiving 2 cc’s of breast milk through his NG tube.

In the weeks and months that followed I did my best to pump every three to four hours. It wasn’t easy. It’s hard to leave your critically ill baby and walk down the hall to the pump room, but I reminded myself how important it was for James to have breast milk, and carried on. Every few hours through the day and night I pumped. I pumped for weeks and was only producing enough to fill syringes, so I pumped more frequently. When I still wasn’t producing much I took fenugreek, did warm compresses, and massage. I tried to relax. I thought about James and even looked at pictures of him while I pumped. I met with lactation consultants, trying to figure out what I could do to increase my supply. Nothing I did made it better.

Four months later, following two bouts of mastitis, after taking multiple supplements, and trying every trick I could find online to increase my supply, I still wasn’t producing enough for James.  I cried as I watched other moms leave the pump room with multiple full bottles, and there I was with my syringes. I was pumping for an hour at a time to get an ounce of breast milk. I couldn’t believe my body was failing me yet again. I felt an enormous amount of guilt and disappointment; I was letting James down. I remember commiserating with another mom in the pump room. She was struggling as well and told me she was going to stop pumping, and suggested we stop together. Stop pumping? Could we do that? Was it OK to stop?  I truly wasn’t sure so I talked with one of James’ primary nurses about it. I trusted her opinion completely and knew when she told me to stop, it was the right thing to do.

I cried as I turned in my pump, but what I didn’t know was the amazing sense of relief I was about to feel. Deciding to turn in my pump was one of the best decisions I made. I didn’t realize the extent of the stress, guilt, and failure I was feeling until I could let it go. Having to leave my baby every three hours; waiting for a spot to open up in the pump room; the immense disappointment I felt each time I saw the tiny bit I produced, knowing it was much less than even one feeding for James. It all took a toll on me and made me feel like less of a mom.

Please understand, I’m not advocating for anyone to stop pumping.  If you’re pumping and producing breast milk, I encourage you to keep going. You are doing something so amazing for your baby. But if you’re pumping and it’s breaking your heart because it’s just not working, it’s OK to stop. Talk to your lactation consultant to be sure you’ve exhausted all options. Ask if your NICU provides the option of using donor breast milk if you aren’t able to produce enough for your baby. Try to find a way to let go of the guilt because it isn’t your fault. Pumping doesn’t work for every mom, and pumping is one of the most difficult things you can do through the stress of the NICU. You are to be commended for trying. Your baby will benefit from every drop of breast milk you were able to produce, and now they will benefit from a less stressed, less guilt-ridden mom. Hang in there Mom and take a moment to exhale, you’re doing awesome!