I just read this story about a mother, Jillian Johnson, losing her days-old son due to starvation and dehydration caused by exclusive breastfeeding. It is a heartbreaking and devastating account of one family's tragedy. Her son Landon should have lived. According to Jillian, Landon was born at 7lbs 7oz, a healthy birth weight, his Apgars were 8 and 9 and he was stabilized. By 53 hours of life, he had lost 9.72% of his birth weight. Despite the weight loss, Jillian was encouraged to exclusively breastfeed and she faithfully complied ("...there were these doctors and nurses who kept telling me, ‘Just keep feeding him. Just keep him on the breast. You’ve got a great latch. You’re doing fine.’ ”). Her son Landon was crying non-stop and she was unable to console him. To pacify her son, Jillian fed him constantly but with no relief. It turns out that nothing was coming out of her breast because she wasn't producing milk. Landon went into cardiac arrest within hours of going home. Landon died in the hospital of starvation and dehydration.
This story makes me so angry. My anger is NOT directed at the parents but at the medical establishment and our broader culture. Have we gotten so rigid in our thinking and dogmatic in our ways ("breast is best") that we cannot even recognize a hungry newborn!? The fact that Jillian didn't have the support of the nurses, lactation experts, and doctors to properly diagnose her child and tell her to feed a bottle of formula to him or that this first-time mother felt so ashamed of even trying to reach for formula means that there is something inherently wrong with our current culture and expectations. While I gratefully did not go through the heartbreak of losing a son, I can relate to Jillian's story of the difficulties of breastfeeding and the enormous pressures to keep trying.
When Kabir was born, he was born 3-weeks early (due to some weird circumstances- a story for another day). He was born at 6 lbs, 6oz. Like Jillian, I read all of the baby books and did my research. I was going to exclusively breastfeed my child because "breast was best". However, Kabir was not properly latching on and my milk had still not come in creating a perfect storm of an unsatisfied and hungry baby. His birth weight dropped below 6 lbs by day 2. The lactation consultants made their rounds, spent extra time with Kabir and me, but we just never were able to make it work properly. I was steadfast in my commitment to breastfeeding much to the chagrin of both my husband and my mom. We tried and tried, spending hours trying to make it work. I was encouraged to keep trying, to use herbal supplements to increase my milk production and we were sent home. We dutifully recorded Kabir's wet and poopy diapers and feeding times as well as duration on each breast. Day 3 we returned to the hospital because Kabir had developed jaundice.
Kabir was visibly yellow by this point and required to spend hours under a UV light. It was so difficult to see my baby so vulnerable; he was very small (his weight had dropped to 5 lbs, 3oz), naked save for a diaper and alone under a light. I would feed him every few hours. By the second feeding, the doctor came in to discuss Kabir's prognosis. The fastest way to overcome jaundice is to "pee it out". To maximize Kabir's time under the UV light, I was asked to pump so that our feedings would be quicker. Because of that, I could see how much milk I was producing (not that much) and we were measuring and feeding Kabir what little milk I produced. Simply put, it was not enough and I could visibly see that Kabir needed more.
Thankfully, we had the guidance of a very thoughtful but stern male doctor who insisted that we supplement with formula. I cried. I had read about the horrors of supplementing and that once done, it was a course that was very hard to reverse. I argued with the doctor. In my post-partum state, I felt like a complete and utter failure. Another blessing was having Kishore by my side. I thank my lucky stars that he did not grow up in this crazy American culture and thus, is not susceptible to its pressures. He gave me a pep talk, assured me Kabir would be fine, and helped give Kabir his first bottle of formula. Kabir guzzled down that bottle; he was super hungry. Over the course of the following day, the formula helped him rid his body of jaundice and we were discharged from the hospital. Thankfully, with the proper nourishment from the formula, Kabir started gaining weight.
The following few months were rough. I was still trying to breastfeed my son but it was becoming increasingly difficult. Kabir being the smart boy that he was realized that he could satiate his hunger much faster via a bottle than my breast. By the third month, he had rejected my breasts completely. I was devastated. Still believing that "breast is best", I then proceeded to pump my breasts for the next 5 months. I was diligent and pumped every few hours for fear my supply would go down. I pumped when I went back to work. I felt connected to machines all the time. I felt like a cow.
While I tried to help my son by giving him my milk, I was suffering because of these efforts. Coupled with the feeding woes, or perhaps because of it, I had post-partum depression. I was angry that I was not able to feed my son "properly". I was so worried that him receiving formula would mean that he wouldn't be as smart, healthy or vibrant as other children who received exclusive breast milk. I was scared that I was harming him for life by not feeding him the best for his little body.
“I want people to stop shaming each other,” Johnson told The Washington Post. “Regardless of how you feed your baby, just make sure they’re fed. It’s plain and simple."
Why do we do this to new mothers in our culture? Why must we shame one another and make one another feel "less" for things that may be out of our control? This needs to stop. Not being able to breastfeed does not mean that one is not a good mother. And it's ludicrous and illogical to even come to that conclusion. I wish I had listened to my mother during this time. I discounted her thinking (and years and years of wisdom by doing so) all for this notion that I read in a book, was peddled by lactation "experts" and backed by "science". My mom kept telling me that my brother and I were products of formula as were so many of my peers and we all turned out healthy and fine.
At a newborn's age, the only things that matter are being well-fed, well-rested and loved. I wish I had not put so much pressure on myself and focused on the beauty and miracle that was my son. I wish that I had not been so focused on what I couldn't provide and indulged in what I could give Kabir, my love, attention and complete adoration. I am so grateful that Kabir did not meet the same fate as Landon. My heart goes out to Jillian, her family and to all the mothers out there that feel "less" for not being able to breastfeed. Sometimes, breast is NOT best and the more we can spread the notion that was it is best is a well-fed, well-rested and loved baby, the better off we all will be. RIP Landon.