The Impact of Infertility on Breastfeeding Hopes

There is much I hold sacred in this relatively short time of my motherhood: the first sight of my son’s peaceful, newly born face after grinding back labor and two hours of pushing; the smell of his freshly bathed skin; the cozy warmth of wearing his body close to my full heart; the dreaminess of a mid-night waking to find his arms delicately encircling my neck. But the most hallowed experience for me, hands down (bra flaps down?), has been breastfeeding.

I’ve written before about the reverence I have for my breastfeeding relationship with my 16 month old son. I love when he falls asleep contented by my breast. When the corner of his mouth cheekily upturns in a grin  as he suckles, I turn to goo. I can think of nothing more pure and wholly perfect than the act of sustaining him with milk from my own body. I hope to nurse him until he no longer desires to nurse, and I hope his eventual weaning is a gentle one.

I have come to understand that extended breastfeeding, though, is a luxury for some of us. Saying farewell to this tender, nourishing act is particularly painful when it’s prompted by infertility. Infertility can hijack a breastfeeding relationship and a nursing mama’s goals in heart-aching ways. Even when she deeply feels that the breast is best, she may not be in the place to fully honor this objective.

Some breastfeeding mothers contending with infertility find themselves staring down an impossibly heavy ultimatum: Should I reach for my extended breastfeeding goal or my family building goal? These mothers grapple with bringing their breastfeeding relationship to heavy-hearted closure in order to induce the return of their menstrual cycles and/or so they may pursue necessary fertility treatments.  When your journey to motherhood was a gauntlet of repeated failed cycles, invasive and expensive and painful medical procedures and/or recurrent pregnancy loss, you do not take for granted your ability to provide a sibling for your nursling.  Mothers confronted with diminished ovarian reserve or advanced maternal age can feel especially intense pressure to resume trying to conceive another baby as soon as possible.

For other infertile nursing mamas, it has everything to do with supply. No matter how committed you are to breastfeeding, no matter how much you treasure that bond with your baby, nursing is simply done when the milk is gone.

I talked this week with an infertile mama, Courtney, who described with dread her plan to wean her son by his first birthday in June in order to resume fertility treatments. She had considered resuming treatments sooner, but felt compelled to continue nursing until her son’s first birthday. She relates, “I NEVER planned to nurse this long, but I really enjoy it, and just the thought of stopping can put me in tears at times.” She has about 2-3 months worth of frozen expressed breast milk for him, but adds, “… it’s still going to be very hard for me to wean my little guy.  It breaks my heart, but we really want him to have a sibling ASAP, so this is one sacrifice we’re willing to make to make that happen for him.”

Infertile mama Becky is weaning her 19 month old son, too, but not because she’s trying to further build her family. She’s running out of milk. Becky and her husband pursued adoption to grow their family.  She induced lactation with Domperidone and has been supplementing with donated milk delivered via SNS. The milk she is making is decreasing in supply, and though she’s requested additional donor milk, she doesn’t feel hopeful that it will be filled.  Becky, an attachment parenter and baby-lead weaner, is very committed to breastfeeding, and this circumstantially forced weaning has been intensely emotional  for her. It reminds her, she says, that infertility is always there, and that this is just another way her body has let her down.

Mama’s milk is precious stuff, y’all–precious to our babies, and it’s precious to our fellow breastfeeding mamas who have to make these unenviable, difficult choices for their families. In this week that we recognize infertility as a medical condition that disrupts and derails the dreams of parenthood for 1 in 8 couples, let us also honor the meaningful breastfeeding relationships that have reached a tearful conclusion because of this disease.

This post was written in recognition of National Infertility Awareness Week, an event created by Resolve, the national infertility association. Over 100 other bloggers have written touching and insightful posts about infertility as part of this event. You can read them all here.

Rhianna typed portions of this post while nursing her wiggly toddler to sleep. Last April she visited Capitol Hill with Resolve and met with members of Congress and their aides to advocate for increased accessibility to vital medical treatments and increased federally appropriated research aimed at preventing and treating infertility.

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10 thoughts on “The Impact of Infertility on Breastfeeding Hopes”

  1. Wow…..this post brought tears to my eyes. I don’t know what else to say except for thank you for writing this, Rhianna. You’re shedding light on a topic that not only affects so many women, but their families and dreams as well.

  2. Thanks, Kate. 🙂 There is this misconception out there that infertility is over once you get pregnant and have a baby (by both those who struggled or didn’t alike), and I think this illustrates that infertility’s reverb is stronger than we may have originally thought.

    1. Yeah, huge misconception about secondary infertility. We’ve been working on having a second for almost 1 1/2 years. We had 2 miscarriages prior to having our son, now 3. And we’ve had 2 miscarriages since trying for this one also. Hoping we don’t have to go too far with fertility treatments and that it won’t be much longer!!

      1. I’m sorry for your losses, Ashley. It really is incomprehensible what some mamas endure in their struggles to conceive, have a healthy pregnancy, and deliver a real live baby into this world. I, too, hope it won’t be much longer for your family. Sending peace…

  3. this is close to my heart. Thank you for publicising it more widely. We tried for 3 years to get pregnant with DD. She’s now an amazing 12 month old but I’m at that dilemma stage whether to wean or not. We want to start trying again but my periods still haven’t returned, We’ve been cutting down but I really don’t want to stop feeding her and she doesn’t want to stop yet either. I’m 35 though so don’t want to wait a long time to try again.

  4. This is an important facet of infertility’s far-reaching grasp. Thank you for this. For me, PCOS continues to be the weeds I cannot keep out of my garden. It impacted me getting pregnant, then staying pregnant, and now it screws with my milk supply. I am determined to breastfeed as long as possible, but it means taking supplements 6 times a day, drinking a ridiculous amount of fluids and pumping like a dairy farm. At first I was in total bliss that BFing was the *one* thing I could do properly, but PCOS enjoys laughing my face. Blerg.

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