Disclaimer: The following is all information from my own experience and online readings. I am by no means, an expert. I'm sharing in the hopes that my journey might help someone else in their own pumping experiences.
Why I Chose to Pump Exclusively
As some might know from following me on social media or from reading my post, Bowen's Birth Story, you'll know that bringing my son into the world was a bit rocky. He came early, he was small and then when he was 2 days old, he became jaundiced. He required phototherapy for two days before we went home the first time, and then he had to be re-admitted for more phototherapy two days later.
While he was in the hospital, receiving the phototherapy he had to lay on the light mat for 23 hours a day. We were only allowed to take him off the lights to feed/change him for a max of 30 minutes, so we barely got any skin-to-skin time in his first week earth-side.
He was so small, weak and tired, that he struggled with latching and staying awake to eat enough, so we topped up with bottles because it was both easier and faster for him to get the nourishment he needed to help his body flush out the bilirubin causing the jaundice.
Even after his bilirubin levels came down enough to bring him home the second time, he was jaundice for the following 12 weeks. He was very lethargic for his first month. He didn't even have the energy to wake up to eat. We would have to wake him up with cold wash cloths and holding his little limp body up in front of our A/C unit to keep him awake to feed, and then as soon as he got snuggled up against my breast to eat, he would fall asleep with in a couple of minutes. We continued having to feed him by bottle to make sure he could gain weight.
Up until he was 2 months old I pumped and kept trying to get him to breast feed. As he got bigger and stronger, he did master the latch and was able to breast feed, but he was so used to drinking from a bottle that he didn't have the patience to wait for a let-down of milk. If you breastfeed, you know that the sucking that baby does, it was triggers your milk to sort of release down into the breast. So the baby has to actually do a little bit of work for the reward of that liquid gold. Bowen did not want to do the work. When he was hungry, he wanted to be fed and he knew that a bottle would get him milk easier and faster.
So he would feed at my breast for 5 minutes, get tired of waiting for the let down and then scream at me until I gave him a bottle. It went on like this for weeks. I felt so defeated, because all I wanted to do was what I thought was "natural", I thought this should be easy, so I beat myself up for not getting it right.
There was one particularly hard day, where Bowen and I were both in tears while I tried to encourage him to latch and he was having none of it. I was sleep-deprived and exhausted and I realized that this was not the bonding experience that I had imagined that breastfeeding would be for us. I noticed that we actually connected more while I was bottle feeding him, because he would keep eye-contact with me the whole time and that's when we were both happy. Trying to nurse at the breast was not making either of us happy, and it's not what he wanted.
So when he was 2 months old, I decided to continue providing my breastmilk through exclusive pumping.
What Does Exclusive Pumping Look Like?
In the early months, you're basically trying to pump as often as you would be nursing, so think about 10-12 pump sessions in a day. You do this to create that supply and demand, and increase your milk supply to the amount that your baby needs to eat in a day. So every time Bowen needed to eat in that first 2 months (every 2-3 hours), I would nurse him for 10 minutes, or however long he would tolerate it, and then I would pass him off to someone while I pumped.
I would not have been able to do that without the incredible amount of help that I had. My husband was in medical school and just happened to have a month off right when Bowen was born, so he was home to look after Bowen while I would sit in my rocking chair and pump. My in-laws were also over often and we were also at their house a lot. My mom came out to help as well. So for the first month of Bowen's life, I had people who could hold/change/feed him while I was in my pump chair, plugged into the wall.
My pump sessions started out as 20 minutes each while I was pumping 10-12 times a day. This is what I read was normal and how long you should pump for. But as time passed and I didn't need to pump as often, I found that this wasn't long enough for my breasts to fully empty, and I began to experience clogged ducts.
I did some more Googling, and found that some women need to pump for more like 25-30 minutes. Once I stretched my time, I found that my breasts were more empty and I had less clogs.
As I mentioned, in the first couple of months, I didn't really have a set schedule, because I was pumping every time Bowen wanted to eat, which was every 2-3 hours. But as he got older and was eating less frequently, and I was pumping less frequently, I struggled to pump on time while caring for a newborn. My husband also went back to school and had to travel for his electives, and we went with him to Courtenay, BC. It was the first time as a new mom that I was home, looking after baby on my own during the day, while also trying to get my pump sessions in. During this time, Bowen was extremely needy and cried often. He needed lots of rocking to sleep and would only sleep for short amounts of time. I was often late to pump, or forgot to pump until my breasts became so engorged and sore and I started getting clogged ducts again.
I was making enough milk now, where I was freezing about half of what I was pumping, so I knew I didn't have to pump as many times in a day as I had been.
I decided that I could probably pump for 30 minutes every 4 hours instead of every 3 hours like I had been doing. This meant I could cut out 2 sessions and pump only 6 times per day.
This was my pump schedule from when Bowen was 3 months old to 9 months old:
It was still rough, having to get up at 1am and again at 5am, but I was grateful that my husband was able to do Bowen's night feeds, so that if I wasn't pumping I could sleep.
Around the 6 month mark, I probably could have cut it down to 4 sessions per day, since I had such an oversupply of milk, thanks to the prescription medication that I was on to help with my milk production. I continued with the 6 sessions to take advantage of my oversupply and began to build a freezer stash, so that I could hopefully just stop pumping earlier and have frozen milk to get me to Bowen's first birthday.
Dealing with Mastitis
If you don't know what mastitis is, let me just tell you, that it's the worst and I don't wish the pain of it on anyone, ever.
I had been back home in Kelowna for almost 2 weeks. My husband had to continue travelling for school, so I was on my own with the baby and I was struggling. Bowen was barely sleeping at night, so I was also barely sleeping. I was exhausted, stressed and my anxiety was at an all-time high. I lost my appetite and would often forget to eat. Most days I lived off of cold Itchiban and the odd apple that I forced down. I lost an extra 15lbs off my pre-pregnancy weight. People would see me and say "Wow, you look amazing, did you really just have a baby?" or "Whoa, you really bounced back, good for you!"
But the truth was I was malnourished and struggling to take care of myself.
On top of all that, I got a bad bout of mastitis.
Mastitis is an infection in the breast. It's usually caused by a clogged duct that doesn't get cleared, and it turns into an infection. So, I must have had a clogged duct that I didn't notice, because my mastitis was really bad, according to my family doctor who looked at it when I took Bowen to his 3-month check up.
She put me on antibiotics and told me to pump every 2 hours to help clear my breast of any clogs there might be. She also told me to frequently massage the breast, take hot showers, hand express, take hot baths, etc.
I was already having trouble remembering to meet my basic needs, and now I had this to worry about, while caring for my infant?
I knew I needed to ask for help.
My mother-in-law came out and stayed the night with me that night and my mom drove up from Lethbridge, Alberta to take Bowen and I back to her house for a two-week visit. This was so that I could pump, get back to eating 3 meals a day, get more sleep and just have extra sets of hands to take the baby so I could get some much needed rest and relaxation.
Pumping every two hours in the car, while on a 2-day road trip was not easy, but I did it, we made it and with the help of my antibiotics and family, my infection cleared up within a week.
After that, I was very diligent about sticking to my pump schedule, at all costs, clearing out any clogs that surfaced and I invested in a really handy device that I'll chat more about below!
Tips & Tricks to Make Pumping More Bearable
I've said it multiple times, but I'll say it again: STICK TO A SCHEDULE
Put pump parts in the fridge between sessions to reduce time spent cleaning. I would wash/sanitize my pump parts first thing in the morning and again right before bed. You don't want to go longer than 12 hours without washing the parts. I kept the parts in a tupperware container in the fridge, so that they didn't come in contact with anything else. I read that you don't want to start doing this until baby is a bit older. You want to wash/sanitize after every use until babe is at least 3 months old, due to their lack of an immune system. But seriously this saved me SO much time.
Get a wireless pump. I had the Medela Pump In Style, which was an electric double pump that needed to be plugged into a wall. It was around $350, which was a lot of money, but for an extra $100 or so I could have got the Medela Freestyle instead, which would have allowed me to get up and walk around, aka do dishes, wash bottles, tidy, make myself food, during my 30-minute session instead of being stuck in my chair.
Get a strapless pump bra so that you can be hands-free! Even though I couldn't be mobile while I pumped, I could still eat food (when people made me food), text, read a book, etc. to pass the time. It's also tiring to hold the flanges on your boobs for 30 minutes. Just get the bra.
Make sure you're using the correct flange size. The standard flange size that comes with the pumps is usually a 24, but sometimes it can be the wrong size for you. I had to try a couple of different sizes until I found the one that worked well for me, aka, didn't cause any pinching/pain while pumping. There is a nipple measurement tool that a company called Legendairy Milk has on their website that you can order to help you find out what your flange size is.
If you're like me, and you're prone to clogged ducts, I would highly recommend purchasing the Lactation Warmers by La Vie. I saw these on Instagram and I bought them right after I had mastitis and I honestly think I avoided getting mastitis again because I used these warmers. They are $100, look them up. Get them if you get clogs. They are so worth it.
Follow exclusive pumping accounts. This was huge for me. When I started pumping, I felt very alone in my journey and left out of the "Breastfeeding Moms" club. When I found accounts of other exclusive pumpers, I felt like I was part of a group, and found comfort in other's experiences. My favourites were @bemybreastfriend and @baremotherhood_
Set small goals for yourself and always put your health and mental health FIRST.
Deciding When to Stop
It was around the 9 month mark that I started to consider weaning from pumping, for several reasons.
The first, being that I was tired of doing the work.
I wanted to sleep through the night.
I wanted to leave the house and not have to be home by a certain time.
I wanted to have a drink without calculating when I had to pump next.
I wanted to spend more time playing with Bowen and less time stuck to the wall.
Basically, I wanted some of my freedom back.
Plus by then, I had filled my entire freezer and my in-laws freezer with frozen milk, so I knew I had enough to make it to at least 11 months.
It just felt like it was time.
I started out by slowly dropping my 1am session. This took me a couple of weeks because I had to push it by 15 minutes every few days and allow time for my breasts to adjust and produce less milk. After I was able to skip my middle-of-the-night pump, I began shortening my other sessions by 2 minutes every few days.
28 minutes for a few days....
26 minutes for a few days...
24 minutes for a few days...
and so forth.
This process basically took 3 weeks. As I expected, I had many clogs and I would have to pump a little extra, or wait a few extra days before dropping more minutes. A tip that I read online said to use cabbage leaves to clear clogs and help with reducing milk supply while weaning.
I did try this! I would sit with cabbage leaves in my bra for 20-30 minutes whenever I felt a clog forming and I found that it actually helped to keep them at bay! Go figure!
Around the end of April, I was down to pumping for 10 minutes per session, so I started to skip sessions to see how my breasts would react. I was down to 3 sessions, then 2 and then I went a full day without pumping. I started to feel a bit of a clog, so I pumped one last time for 8 minutes, and after that, I WAS DONE.
I loved being able to feed Bowen my breast milk. Because I didn't get the breastfeeding experience that I always imagined, it just felt good knowing that I was contributing to his growth in some way. Every ounce he gained was a direct result of my hard work and effort and I did feel proud of myself for that.
With that said, I will not make this choice with any future children I might have.
I plan to breastfeed my next born, and knowing what I know now, I will be more pro-active in making that happen (i.e more skin-to-skin time, circumstances permitting and using my pump right away to help get my milk supply going when babe arrives). But, if my next baby does not nurse at the breast, I will happily be choosing formula over pumping exclusively again.
It took away too much of my time and freedom, as well as significantly affecting my mental health and overall wellbeing. In the end, it just wasn't worth all the fuss when there is another option that will still result in a happy and healthy child.