I’m now something of an expert in the art of pumping. I’ve done it everywhere. On planes and trains, in airports and restaurants, at dinner parties, and even once in an electrical closet surrounded by rat traps. My favorite has to be when I was traveling to Pennsylvania by train and a delay, plus broken outlets in the bathrooms meant I had no choice but to pump in the concourse of Philadelphia station. I discreetly set up the pump on the ground when a young man came over and asked me if I was on dialysis. I explained that I was pumping for my infant and he asked if he could share the outlet as his iPhone needed charging.
Photography: Emily Burley
I never imagined it would be this way. I’d always assumed that breastfeeding would be pretty simple. But one week after my daughter’s blissfully straight forward birth (I arrived at the hospital 8cm dilated and labored in the comfort of a jacuzzi), I was told by our pediatrician that my daughter Cecilia had dropped 10% from her birth weight. I wasn’t alarmed; I had heard that it is normal for babies to lose weight in the first week of their life. However, her agonizing crying and my breasts resembling the moons of Jupiter made us forget the calm of the birth center, and the peace of bringing her home with us just a few days earlier.
We rushed to schedule an in-home visit with one of NY’s saintliest breastfeeding gurus, Susan Burger who weighed Cecilia and quizzed me about the circumstances of the birth – apparently many issues with feeding stem from traumatic birth experiences. Then came the shock: she was extracting virtually nothing from my breasts. She had the urge to suck, but not the ability Susan told us. She was crying because she was hungry and my breasts were aching because they were engorged.
Photography clockwise from left: Courtney Tight; Courtney Tight, Eliza Lamb
Susan instructed us to hire a hospital grade breast pump. And in front of her, my husband and my newborn, I pumped for the first time. My nipples were being manipulated in ways I didn’t think possible, but I was overcome that it didn’t hurt at all, and felt immediate relief as soon as my breasts began to drain. After 12 minutes of pumping my husband fed Cecilia my milk through a thin tube taped to his pinky. She sucked down the milk, her eyes closed, and her heart stopped pounding. She was in ecstasy – it was as if she had never eaten before!
Photography clockwise from left: Eliza Lamb; Catherine McElhone; Helena McCarthy; Helena McCarthy
Our pediatrician said to feed every other hour until she reached her birth weight. That meant pumping every other hour too, as I had no milk in reserve. We stayed awake for four entire days straight, doing nothing else but pumping, feeding, pumping, feeding, and finishing two seasons of Downton Abbey.
But it paid off and she hit her birth weight. We were told to feed on demand going forward. My lactation consultant said to pump every three hours, eight times a day (at least) and to try breastfeeding every day, which sadly Cecilia never got the hang of.
For the next four months I pumped eight or nine times a day. My supply steadily increased and eventually stabilized. I didn’t let pumping stop me from getting out of the apartment. I just took my trusty hospital grade pump (a not so stylish yellow Medela Symphony 2.0) with me wherever I went. By the fifth month, I had stopped pumping through the night and reduced how many times I pumped down to six times a day. Then by six months I had reduced it to five times a day and by eleven months I was down to twice a day. In all ended up pumping everyday for 53 weeks, followed by hand-expressing for a further seven weeks. It is a ton of work but I kept at it as Cecilia didn’t get sick once in the time I was pumping.
Photography: Sylvia Schmalhofer
If you are about to give birth or are deciding whether or not to breastfeed, here are my top tips:
Get prepped! I come from a long line of very successful breastfeeders so I assumed I’d have no trouble at all. So I was stunned when I had problems. Find a lactation group in your last trimester and go along and meet and watch breastfeeding mammas. Studies have shown that just being around lactating women helps with your supply and correlates with how long you breastfeed for.
Don’t scrimp on a good pump. Pumps are a major investment, so consider borrowing or renting a pump at first. Familiarize yourself with how it all works – learning a new device is a challenge in the postpartum haze. A hospital grade pump (at least for the first month) saves time as it extracts milk faster than regular pumps. A friend described the difference between a hospital grade one and a manual one as akin to the difference between moving home with a huge van versus wheel barrow. So you get the idea!
The right bra will change your life. Buy a pumping bra. Sounds obvious, right? We were so focused on feeding and first-time baby challenges that I didn’t use a pump bra for a few long days. Going hands-free was like being given an extra set of arms!
Have a lactation guru on speed dial. I deeply regret not connecting with a lactation expert before I gave birth. Instead, at day six, whilst in agony at the size of my breasts and having a child scream constantly I was trying to surf the web to find someone who was available to see me immediately. We paid more to have the consultant do an in-home visit, which was well worth the money as she was able to set me up in optimal feeding positions on my bed, couch etc. After things calmed down, I attended more affordably priced group breastfeeding sessions at her office for additional help and support.
Look outside the box. It has been proven that babies with difficult latches respond positively to gentle bodywork. Don’t worry! I don’t mean any cracking or twisting, but more like a gentle massage. We saw a pediatric chiropractor and osteopath (for craniosacral therapy) for Cecilia. She was certainly calmer after every visit, however for us (sadly) it didn’t change her intake at the breast. We also had her tongue checked at an otolaryngologist (infant ENT) as she had a short frenulum, which we had clipped in a short in-chair procedure.
Get hands on. Always pump for a minute longer than you see the milk dripping followed by hand expressing any extra milk the pump might have missed. Hand expression is simple – cup your hand in a u-shape around the areola and gentling squeeze and push inwards to release the milk. It is amazing how much you can yield from hand expressing. I became so savvy at this that I ended up exclusively hand expressing as I was weaning.
Be a bit lazy. Cleaning pump parts is such a poor use of your limited time. So skip it, and instead put your parts in a Ziplock bag in the fridge between feeds, and just run warm water through them before you pump again. Since breast milk is such incredible stuff, it doesn’t go sour for 6+ hours! You can get away with just washing them once a day.
Say yes. If you have a kind and generous friend who is happy to share her liquid gold, ACCEPT THE OFFER! Don’t think twice! Your baby will benefit from the extra immunities. If you’re in a position to share your milk with another mother, please don’t be shy about offering it. Your friend may be too embarrassed or frustrated to ask for help.
Remember: formula is not pure, concentrated evil. I had to supplement about 10% with formula because my supply wasn’t always meeting her ravenous demand. Just remember that not all formulas are created equal. I had family members in Australia send me Holle formula, and we picked up some other great options on a vacation in Italy, but in the US, we used Baby’s Only and Earth’s Best. Consider mixing it with (cooled) chamomile tea instead of filtered water – so soothing for your babe.
Look after yourself. If you are lumbered with nipple damage, place a homemade saline solution on a breast pad between feeds. This will stop the spread of any infection, as well as speed up the healing. Before each pump, dap a little olive or coconut oil on your nipples to protect them from any friction damage.
Don’t take it personally. As a new mother, I had initially blamed myself for her breastfeeding troubles, but since my supply was good, I eventually realised that pumping was bringing us closer as I was giving her everything I could. This realization relieved some stress and gave me more energy to be present with my daughter – and to realize Madonna’s “Express Yourself” spoke to me in an entirely new way.
Get the right kit. Using a contact nipple shield can be a major help in those first few weeks if you are experiencing sore nipples or your baby has problems latching-on. If you are looking to increase your milk supply, fenugreek can be really effective and is all natural so completely safe for you and baby (Motherlove “More Milk Plus” is wonderful and readily available). Ensure your bottles are the slowest flow possible, so that it eases transition between breast and bottle. Playtex, with the drop-ins were great for us.
Helena McCarthy is a New York-based Sydney gal. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and 14-month-old daughter.