When my daughter was six weeks old, my husband and I decided to give her a breastmilk bottle for the first time. Nights were sleepless—my body was still mending itself after childbirth. My husband wanted to share the experience of feeding our daughter and, truthfully, I was grateful. So, I started pumping. And he started feeding. We both watched in amazement as our infant chugged the bottle without protesting.
My letdown reflex was so strong, it felt like she was drowning every time she breastfed. At the same time, I was drowning in guilt. Breastfeeding still didn’t feel natural and yet I didn’t have the words to explain to my pediatrician what exactly I thought was wrong. As my daughter breastfed, it was like watching someone trying to drink from a fire hose as it unkinked and sprayed their face. The idea of bottle feeding her on occasion would give her a break. I would have one, too. My maternity leave was ending in 30 days. She would need to accept a bottle.
Most babies can’t switch back and forth between the bottle and nipple—we learned that the hard way after I developed mastitis. One sunny October afternoon, I cradled my daughter in my lap and pleaded with her to latch. My breasts felt like heavy weights, so incredibly painful that I began to cry. She rocked her head back and forth in refusal, avoiding my nipples until I surrendered and fed her a bottle.
I had purchased more than ten different bottles and that only made the nipple confusion worse. What I needed was a preemie nipple—the slowest nipple of them all—but I didn’t discover that secret until after returning to work. The slower the nipple, the more naturally an infant can drink.
None of the bottles or nipple shields worked and my daughter started losing weight. I grew depressed and feverish from the mastitis. I called our pediatrician, ready to give up on breastfeeding completely. A referral to a lactation consultant saved us. She taught me about the importance of the right bottle. I packed the bottles in a box and hid them on a shelf in the garage behind my husband’s dust-covered trombone.
I didn’t want to stop breastfeeding but my maternity leave was over. I opened the box, said a silent prayer, warmed milk in a bottle and tried to feed her. She wouldn’t take a bottle. How was it that only weeks earlier we were having the opposite problem? I tried leaving the house for hours so my husband could feed her. I tried a bait-and-switch, withdrawing my breast when she opened her mouth and sticking the bottle in its place. Nothing worked, and it nearly cost me my job.
Finally, I confided in my boss and we arrived at a compromise that allowed me to work part-time to accommodate my husband’s work schedule and my daughter’s breastfeeding schedule. When I was in the office, my husband would drive our daughter to me every three hours so I could breastfeed her in the car. My husband was an emergency medical technician at the time and his days were already long. Sometimes my mother-in-law would pitch in and transport my daughter for feedings.
I felt stressed and uncomfortable during this time, heavy with worries about leaving my daughter. My husband and I kept trying to get her to take a bottle though, and our persistence paid off. By the time she was five months old, she had conquered nipple confusion and I was able to return to work full-time.
If you’re in despair because your baby is struggling with nipple confusion, take encouragement from my story. Ask your pediatrician for a referral to a lactation specialist. Don’t second-guess yourself or spiral into self-criticism. Keep going. It will get better.