Melissa Suffield: “an exclusive pumper is also a breastfeeding mum”

Melissa Suffield pumping

by Melissa Suffield |

After suffering from mastitis and severe nipple trauma Melissa Suffield @the.confidentmama, mum of River and one of our Mum List 2022 turned to exclusively expressing her milk and feeding with a bottle. Here she shares her exclusive pumping (often called EP or EPing) journey, and busts some myths surrounding exclusively expressing.

After a 2 week nursing stint at the start of lockdown 1, mastitis got me. A lack of hands on care due to the pandemic meant that lactation consultants weren’t visiting, and zoom sessions just simply were not enough. I was at the end of my tether, but being the stubborn woman I am, I wasn’t going to let my breastfeeding journey end so soon. And so I accidentally fell into exclusively expressing - and kept it up for a full year.

I say accidentally, because you won’t find any advice on this from your midwife or health visitor. You won’t find a list of tips or tricks on the NHS website. Even the language around feeding eliminates pumping as a choice - you’re either breast or bottle fed. Even your lactation consultant will struggle to get you all the information you need. Because it is a lifestyle that is barely researched, woefully underrepresented, and lacking in support.

With all the uncertainty surrounding the EP community, it’s time to bust a few of the myths that we hear floating around.

5 myths about exclusively expressing

For the purpose of the following list, nursing covers feeding directly at the breast, pumping applies to pumped milk fed through a bottle, and breastfeeding covers both.

1 - You wont be able to maintain it

It’s true, it’s tricky in the early days. You need to be pumping every 2-3 hours around the clock until your supply regulates (around 8 weeks PP). This is a LOT. The middle of the night pumps are absolutely killer, having to make time to express as well as make time to feed and care for your baby can leave you feeling like there is simply no time for anything else. However, with the right support, you can totally manage. Set a schedule, stick to it, track your pumps and your output- you need to treat it a bit like a job. I had a great supply because I stuck to the rules, especially at the start.

2 - You won’t bond with your baby

It always upsets me when I hear this assumption, and I think it’s the main cause of regret and guilt in bottle feeding mums who grieve a nursing journey- that their child won’t love them as much, or that they didn’t try hard enough for them. And it’s just absolute nonsense. That breastfeeding grief is a very real one, not spoken about enough, and barely supported which breaks my heart. If this is you, I don’t want to dismiss, and everything you are feeling is completely valid, but please- just know that your child loves you no matter how you feed them. My son is 2 and has been absolutely obsessed with me since birth- nursing is not the only way to form a connection, and you can still make eye contact, give cuddles and stroke their little faces if they’re not at the breast.

3 - It’s the easy option

Oh how I wish this was true. While choosing the EP life has loads of pros, I found the cons were just as plentiful. I like to say it’s all the worst bits of both nursing AND formula feeding. You’ll deal with the cracked nipples, supply worries, engorgement and blocked ducts- but you’ll also be at your steriliser multiple times a day, googling pace feeding, and trying to find the perfect teat size. It can be really tough, and really lonely- I highly recommend seeking out the online community. It’s made up of mostly US based mums and they really know their stuff- from the best pumps, to how to measure for flanges, and tips for increasing supply, to the kind of support you’ll find yourself needing as you feel like you’ve hit a wall

4 - You pump because you failed at nursing

Firstly, we have to stop using the word fail when it comes to motherhood. Secondly, while many exclusive pumping journeys begin when a nursing journey ended, it isn’t always the case. Often it’s a choice made even before baby has been born. Perhaps a mother knows she’ll be returning to work early (as is often the case with those American mums I mentioned before), or she wants her partner involved in the feeding process. Or maybe she just WANTS to. We have to stop assuming that mothers make certain choices when they are ill informed. It’s patronising and infantilising. We tell mothers to trust their instincts. Well, let’s start trusting the ones that do.

5 - Your milk won’t be good enough

Our body adapts our milk to suit the needs of our baby-the theory goes that this is due to a saliva feedback loop - but they don’t *have* to be latched for your milk to adapt. When my son was hot in the summer, my milk became thinner to meet his hydration needs because I was hot too. Similarly, when he was ill, my milk adapted, as if he picked up a cold somewhere, I’d been exposed to it too. With my immune system being more developed than his, I’d escape the symptoms but my body would be making the correct milk to help him fight it off. There’s such a lack of breastfeeding studies, and almost none are about expressing, so it can be really tricky to sift through what is fact and what is theory. What we do know is that the longer you wait to feed breast milk, the less nutritious and tailored it will be. But don’t go throwing it out, it’s still a great source of nutrition, full of benefits whether its 1 minute old, 1 hour old, or 1 month old in the freezer stash

Things to remember...

  • You’re amazing whether you nurse, formula feed, express, combi feed, tube feed, or give donor milk.

  • Whether you breastfeed for 2 hours, 2 months or 2 years- you did that. Your kid is/was breastfed. There is no timeline, or set of requirements for qualification.

  • If you are an exclusive pumper, you’re also a breastfeeding mum. Congrats!

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