Dear Distraught and Desperate Mama,
It’s not your fault that you’re weaning unexpectedly, or that your daughter is fighting the transition to formula. Months have passed as I write these words — a little note from your future self to say: It’s going to be all right.
You had good intentions, pumping long ahead of that planned vacation without your baby. Week by week, you stashed away your precious milk, convinced she would take her bottles without incident. You left plenty of yourself behind to sustain her more than the few days you’d be gone. But in the chaos of an unexpected move into a new home shortly before your departure, you forgot to practice with the bottle. A caring aunt ensured the baby was fed and hydrated despite her distaste for the bottle.
Fast-forward to your return from vacation (and daily pumping ritual), and you soon began to suspect something was not right. Although your baby enjoyed a variety of table foods, she fussed at the end of every nursing session. She seemed eager, only unable, to continue. Your once happy champion sleeper began consistently waking, crying at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m.
You fretted and read. And you decided to supplement daily nursing with a few ounces from your frozen stash. When she didn’t take to the bottle, you tried variations. Keeping the lights turned off, you offered a bottle early in the morning. Some feedings started at the breast before you sneaked in the bottle. You bought — and returned — different nipples, sippy cups, soft straws. Formula arrived when your freezer was empty. Several gasping, messy gulps from an open cup gave you both a temporary reprieve.
This struggle lasted weeks. You tried to remain firm, insisting on bottles despite the tears and tantrums (not all from your daughter). Each time you gave in and nursed, you feared you had both had lost ground in this battle. Amid the messy and unproductive bottle feedings and the dread and worry in between, you neglected to pump.
Here you are today at your lowest point, slumped at the kitchen table with mingled feelings of isolation and helplessness. You pumped for the first time in several days: a meager half ounce — barely an appetizer for your hungry baby.
In this moment, you know. Your supply is disappearing. You weaned without intending it.
Losing that nursing bond feels strangely like mourning, like you’re giving up being her Mommy as your lactation shuts down. You feel betrayed by your breasts, and guilty for taking the vacation, for leaving your daughter behind, and for getting so wrapped up in the move across town. You feel ashamed for not having better prepared her for this.
And now you are stuck in transition between breast and bottle — desperate to move forward because there is no going back.
I wish I could send a postcard back in time to this moment, to tell you it’s going to be all right. There will come a time, very soon, when feeding will not consume your thoughts. No longer will you fiercely envy the mothers you see out and about, casually popping full bottles of formula into tiny, willing mouths.
You will again lift your daughter under her arms without feeling keenly aware of her fragility, her smallness, her lean little belly. Soft fat will once more pad those tiny ribs. Her narrow face will fill, and the dark circles fade from under her eyes. Those skinny arms will round with strength and, before long, pull up on all furniture within reach. Her frustrated whines and crying spells will be replaced with playful shrieks of delight that warm your soul.
My advice to you — and to any unexpectedly weaning mother — would be first to consult with your pediatrician over any concern that your daughter might not be thriving. Sadly, in your case the prescription will be to continue offering table foods and bottles regularly. Eventually, so the pediatrician says, your daughter will get thirsty (and take closer to the recommended 24 ounces of formula daily instead of her current four).
By all means, call your sister, mother, friend, Bible study leader. You may discover no one in your social circle had a similar experience or resulting wisdom to share. You will probably find no practical help. Their words of comfort might miss the mark, but their prayers are powerful.
Try, Try, Try Again
Somehow, you and baby will successfully bottle-feed. I wish I could encourage you in your efforts. Try watered-down formula. Keep varying the temperature. Give it to her before she’s truly hungry — or after she’s too hungry to refuse. You will test so many methods.
And one day, by chance you will recall offering her a sip of your coconut water while jogging at the park, and you will remember the way she couldn’t seem to get enough. Mix formula with diluted coconut water and watch with joy as she takes three ounces in one sitting, six the next. Then rest easily as she sleeps through the night again.
Things will get better after then. You’ll tell your husband that you might manage one more comfort nursing. By an act of divine grace, you will be able to choose that moment, early on the day before Thanksgiving. Your last nursing memory with your 9.5 month-old daughter will be a peaceful, beautiful one.
Don’t despair, desperate mama. This isn’t the end.