Four months ago today two important things happened in my life.
First, I gave birth after a 25 hour labor (and without an epidural!) to Hannah.
Second, because she went into the nicu right away, I started pumping.
Hannah is now a happy, flirty, smiling baby who seems to be past the worst of her colic, and in four of the past eight nights she's had sleep stretches of longer than five hours.
And I'm still hooking myself up to a machine and pumping.
Baby Hannah hasn't had a drop of formula, except for the first three days when she was in the nicu and my milk hadn't come in yet. And I'm really proud of that. That's the upshot of pumping. I get to feed babygirl my good milk - the best food on the planet for her - even though she won't nurse from me.
The downside is that it sucks. You get none of the feel-good hormones of nursing, it often hurts, and it's hella inconvenient, especially if you're working.
But I've found that there are a ton of women like me who for whatever reasons (usually medical - not many people choose this) exclusively pump.
There are plenty of guides out there with information on the practicalities of exclusively pumping including how often (every 2-3 hours - yes, even at night - until your supply is established, around 12 weeks), and things that can help supply (oatmeal, fenugreek, blessed thistle, etc).
But what those guides don't tell you is how to actually get through pumping for 15-20 minutes at a time, 7-8 times a day, when you have a newborn and/or a job.
I realized when Hannah was about 4 days old that breastfeeding was going to be a challenge, and started doing research on pumping exclusively, and there wasn't a lot out there that told me how to do it with the least amount of suckage.
So here is my Guide to How To Exclusively Pump In the Most NonSucky Way:
First, you MUST get a hands free pumping bra. No joke, it's a necessity. It will allow you to read magazines, watch netflix on your ipad, massage your boobs to get more milk, or any number of things that make pumping less sucky. I have the one from Simple Wishes and it's ok. I also made one out of a sports bra to keep at work - just cut some holes where the shields go through. It's not as pretty, but it works just as well.
If you have a baby like mine, who needed to be held All The Time early on, it's hard to find time to pump on schedule. I clearly recall a time when she was about 3 weeks old when I was desperate to pump at about 2am, and she was crying any time I put her down. Finally she fell asleep in her bouncer, and I started pumping. Three minutes into it she started screaming again. There I was trying to hold her close to me and avoid banging her head with the bottles hanging from my boobs. Not a good time. Now I can put her in her swing and she can amuse herself, but those early days were rough. It's important to talk to your partner and stress the importance of breastmilk, and get their help in caring for the baby while you pump. The upshot is that you get a "break" every three hours to read.
You really need extra parts. Washing parts sucks. Washing parts at night sucks worse. A lot of people keep their parts in the fridge in between feedings to avoid having to wash. Overnight, though, I didn't even like to go out to the kitchen to grab parts if I don't have to. Before I went to sleep I would lay out three sets of parts, which would see me through till morning. When I was done and went out to the kitchen to put my milk in the fridge, I'd dump them in a bowl of soapy water, and then wash them all in the morning. I've since dropped my overnight pumps, and keep my parts in the fridge, but not having to make two trips out to the kitchen each pumping session (one to get parts, one to put milk away) was a big deal. It's the little stuff that helps you keep your sanity.
Speaking of stuff you need, you need a really good pump. I had the Medela Symphony while she was in the NICU, and then there was a wait until the one from my insurance company arrived, so I kept renting the Symphony. When you rent it by the month for three or more months at a time, the Symphony is only $40/month, so I kept it, and keep my insurance pump at the office. It's a nice luxury not having to lug my pump around, but it's luxuries like that which will keep you going.
Build up a freezer stash early on. When Hannah was only eating 2 ounces at a time, I froze almost half of what I made. That means that now, four months later, I can drop my overnight pumps and be ok with losing that supply, because I have a kickass freezer stash that I'm digging into. A lot of people don't think about the freezer stash until it's too late and you're struggling to keep up with the baby. Get a box of storage bags and fill those suckers up early on!
Figure out a rewards system. I read that formula costs, on average, about $300/month. So every week I put $75 into an account which is my Fun Account. I use it for massages, a new laptop, and will hopefully use it to fund a trip to New Zealand if I make it 6 months, which is my goal. Whenever I think about quitting, I look at pictures of Auckland, and it keeps me pumping.
Make a Comfortable Pumping Nook. I have a comfy chair with a wonderfully soft and warm blanket, a new robe and new warm slippers. Pumping at night is extra sucky - there's no way around that - but having a place that's warm and inviting to sit, with a night light, a book or magazines on your ipad really helps.
If you have an Awesome Partner, you can work out a system like J and I did for overnight pumps: we would both get up for each feeding. He would feed her, and I would pump, thus cutting down the time I needed to be awake by 15 minutes. Before he would feed her, he would set the kettle to boil water, and when I was getting ready to pump I'd have hot water for tea. This really helped around mid-October when I got a bad cold, and needed tea and honey around the clock. Pumping with Tea is actually a pleasant experience.
I focused this guide on pumping at night, because that's really the worst. During the day it's not so bad. If you have a hands free pump you can pump while you're doing your hair or putting on makeup, doing laundry, or even cooking and driving. But it's the 1 and 4am pumps that will cause you to want to quit the most; and sadly, they are the most important ones that you can't skip (your hormones are highest between 1 and 5 overnight).
Pumping is a miserable experience, pumping at night is just awful, but the key I've found is to do lots of extra things to nurture yourself, which you might not have otherwise done, seeing as how you have a newborn and all. I've actually read a lot of books over the past four months, which I wouldn't have read otherwise. I've read a lot of magazines, and watched the final season of Gossip Girl. None of which would have been done without pumping.
My goal is to make it for 6 months, but I'm not hung up on that date. I've made it this far, and I'm really proud of that. Baby Hannah is thriving and happy, and when I get cozy in my pumping nook, I'm pretty happy too.