To Pump Or Not To Pump, That's The Question

It might seem like a pretty easy question, but actually pumping, that's the hard part

When you’re breastfeeding a young baby, one of the biggest life changes you have to come to terms with is how physically attached you are to your child. If breastfeeding is going well and your babe is fairly predictable in terms of feeding frequency, then this might not feel so challenging. If, on the other hand, you’re having to work hard at nursing and every feed feels like a huge undertaking, you might be more than acutely aware of your presence being required 24 hours a day.

But let’s face it. Regardless of how well things are going, when you're nursing a baby around the clock, sometimes you'd just like a short break, a little reprieve from this tiny, demanding person—just a few hours out on your own, a chance to feel like your own person for a while, to catch your breath and get some “me time”.

I hate to use the expression “tied down” to describe the relationship a nursing mom has to her baby, because I think in our culture, breastfeeding has a mixed reputation, and a certain (temporary) loss of freedom and autonomy are often seen as reasons breastfeeding is too hard, or undesirable. But the truth is that you ARE attached to your baby, and it really can be hard to get a true break.

When I had my first baby and was dealing with a lot of physical and emotional challenges, there was almost nothing I wanted more than to get out for a few hours on my own (except for maybe a full-time live-in cook, housecleaner and massage therapist!). If fact, what I would have loved, what I fantasized about, was that pre-baby freedom that used to allow me to head out for an entire afternoon or evening with no curfew for getting back home at a certain time.

It’s not like I never left the house once I became a mother, but my sans-baby outings were carefully planned around feedings and predicted naptimes. I’d hurry to wherever I was going and then watch the clock the whole time I was out. Sometimes I would say to a friend or family member, “Things are going okay, but I really wish I could just go out for a while and catch my breath and not worry about my baby getting hungry.” The response was almost always this:

“Can't you just pump?"

That question would drive me up the wall. Until I had a baby of my own I probably would have made the exact same suggestion. But once I had a baby and understood how milk production works, what I wanted to say in reply was:

“No, I can’t ‘just pump’. Because breasts are not faucets.”

There’s definitely a misconception out there that breasts are full of milk at all times. Why not just hook up a pump and fill a few bottles? It SO does not work that way! Milk production is a delicate and well-designed system of supply and demand, and I personally found it very challenging to express and store extra breast milk on a casual basis. (By saying this I don’t wish to minimize the efforts of moms who exclusively pump—now THAT is hard work. Those moms are incredible!)

I was exclusively breastfeeding, so obviously, I would nurse my baby first, then pump afterwards to try to build up a small supply to keep in the freezer. But collecting a feeding’s worth of expressed milk would take several days of pumping after feeds, an ounce at a time if I was lucky. I worked so hard at collecting that milk that I always second-guessed my decision to actually use it—I wanted to make sure the occasion for using it was really worth it!

Even if I did manage to have a bottle’s worth of pumped milk so that I could be out for more than a couple hours, inevitably, as we approached a typical feeding time, and my full breasts would let me know I needed to get myself to a pump—stat! So, I’d be hiding out in a spare room somewhere, now attached to my pump instead of my baby, fearing an eventual drop in supply (or mastitis—yikes) if I neglected to empty them.

Back then, I wondered what I was doing wrong. I had heard “just pump” suggested so casually, so many times that I thought it would be a piece of cake. Since then, I've talked to lots of women who find it really challenging to express milk on an occasional basis, and I know I’m not the only one. 

After a while, I eventually realized it was easier to just accept and work feedings into my life, for the most part, rather than desperately try to squeeze in pumping sessions that might only yield an ounce or two, then drag the pump around with me on a “night off”. For me, it just wasn’t worth it. And I came to understand that it wouldn’t be forever. By seven or eight months, my baby wasn’t nursing during the first part of the night, and then I could spend an entire evening out!

With my second child I did manage to pump a little more and freeze it for those "just in case" times. As a more confident and experienced mama, I knew that a certain amount of “me time” was critical for my overall wellness, and I wanted to be proactive in making that self-care possible. A more relaxed baby and better milk supply made the whole pumping a little process easier too. But here’s the funny part. That baby (now toddler) weaned well over a year ago, yet most of that milk is still in the freezer. I never used it most of it, and never will now, but I just can't bear to dump that hard-earned "liquid gold" down the drain!

Celebrities talk about pumping so cavalierly, but in my experience it's not nearly as straightforward a process as we’re led to believe. When it works, expressing milk on a casual basis can be a great way for moms to get a little breather—but there are lots of other ways to give them a break. Empathy and support can go a long way too.

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