One interaction nearly ended my breastfeeding journey. I found my way back, but it shouldn’t have been that way.

It was 2 a.m., and I was struggling to nurse my not-even-48-hour-old son. I was exhausted because I hadn’t slept more than a couple hours in a row since he’d arrived.

My cesarean incision was throbbing. And my new baby wouldn’t latch for more than a minute or two. When he did, it hurt a lot. He also kept falling back asleep. When I’d wake him, he’d cry, which only made me to do the same.

So I rang for a nurse.

I told her how long we’d been trying but that in all that time, he’d only actually nursed for 5 to 7 minutes total. Gesturing to my sleeping newborn, I said that he seemed more interested in snoozing.

I asked if we might try again after both of us had napped a little. I was worried that I’d fall asleep feeding him and accidentally drop or suffocate him.

But instead of helping me, she simply said “No.”

Holding up one of my new son’s tiny arms, she called him “scrawny.” She poked his skin and declared that he was getting jaundice (something no one had mentioned before), implying it was all my fault. Her tone was cold, and she appeared to have no sympathy for how tired I was.

She told me that if he lost any more weight, we’d have to feed him formula, but made it clear that in her opinion, that would equal failure. Then she added, “Hopefully I won’t need to keep you up all night trying if you put in a little effort.”

I did stay up all night after that, trying to get him to nurse every 20 minutes. By the time a kinder nurse on the morning shift came in to check on me, I couldn’t stop crying.

This new nurse tried to reassure me that it wasn’t my fault we were struggling. She explained that preterm babies, like my son who was born at 36 weeks, can tire easily. The good news, she said encouragingly, was that my milk was coming in and I appeared to have plenty of it.

She stayed with me for an hour after that, trying to help me find ways to gently wake him up and latch. She wheeled a pump into my room and told me we could always try that too. Then she scheduled a meeting with the hospital’s lactation nurse and arranged for a home lactation nurse to visit me after I was discharged.

But even though all of these people tried to help, the damage was done.

So I started pumping. At first, it was just to keep my milk supply up while trying to breastfeed, but within a few days of being home, I gave up and started exclusively pumping and bottle feeding my son. It made me feel like I had a little control: I could track how many ounces he took in and know he was getting enough.

But pumping still felt like I was failing as a mom. Since I was bottle feeding him before he was 4 weeks old, I thought I was guaranteeing that he’d never latch because he’d have nipple confusion, so I stopped even trying to nurse.

I lied to family and friends who asked me how breastfeeding was going, making it seem like we were only bottle feeding him pumped milk when we were “on the go” and that we were still nursing. The stress and anxiety around feeding my son never went away, but I was afraid to supplement with formula because I couldn’t forget that nurse’s judgmental words.

I probably would never have tried nursing my son again had I not accidentally run out of milk while running errands. We were at least 20 to 30 minutes away from home — too far to go with a hungry, crying baby in the backseat.

In my desperation, I had to give breastfeeding another shot. And there, in the backseat of my car, it somehow worked. I was so surprised, I actually laughed out loud when my son latched and started happily feeding.

Perhaps it was that my son was older. He was also really, really hungry that day. I was also feeling more confident as a new mom. Still, I can’t pretend that I know the answer. I might have needed to go back to bottle feeding after that day. I know other moms who had to.

What I do know is that after that day, my approach and outlook on breastfeeding changed. I never tried to nurse him when I was feeling stressed, overly tired, or angry because I think he could sense when I wasn’t comfortable.

Instead, I focused on making sure I was calm, and I found new positions for feeding him. It also helped knowing that I had pumped milk in the fridge — there was less pressure and fear.

Breastfeeding is made even harder by how emotional the whole birthing experience can be and how tiring early parenthood is. Looking back at the days following my son’s birth, it’s no wonder I was overwhelmed. I was sleep deprived, I was scared, and I was recovering from major surgery.

My son had also arrived 4 weeks early and I wasn’t really prepared to give birth yet. So when that nurse made me feel like I was just not trying hard enough to do what was best for him, it deeply affected my confidence.

Breastfeeding isn’t for everyone. Some people don’t produce enough milk; others can’t breastfeed because they have a certain illnesses, are taking specific medications, or are undergoing chemotherapy. Some, such as women who have been sexually assaulted or sexually abused, find the experience triggering. Other parents simply choose not to — and that’s perfectly okay.

Now that my son is 6 months old, I know that I did what was best for him by pumping and bottle feeding when the process felt overwhelming. Trying to force him awake was turning feeding time into a stressful experience for both of us. It was affecting my mental health, as well as my bond with him. I also know now that if I had needed to supplement with or switch to formula, that would have been okay too.

At the end of the day, if you feel that breastfeeding is inhibiting you from truly bonding with your baby, you shouldn’t feel bad about making a decision that’s best for both of you. Whether or not you breastfeed shouldn’t be decided because you feel judged or forced. The important thing, in those early days, is to surround your little one with as much comfort, love, and safety as possible.


Simone M. Scully is new mom and journalist who writes about health, science, and parenting. Find her at simonescully.com or on Facebook and Twitter.