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Navigating the Unexpected: My Journey through Postpartum Depression, Breastfeeding & Healing

I was that pregnant woman who wanted to be OVER-prepared. I voraciously read books like Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth and The First Forty Days. I formed a vision of a beautiful home birth, laboring in a birth pool, followed by cuddling my new baby in my own bed. Then a vision of the first six weeks: nourishing foods fueling breastfeeding and lots of cuddles in our family bubble. I knew there’d be plenty of recovery for me, but I also knew I’d have support from my partner, our doula and our kraamzorg.

But things don’t always go as planned. Even though I had the beautiful at-home labor I wanted, my contractions slowed after I got fully dilated, and I had to transfer to the hospital for an oxytocin injection to help with the pushing phase. Once my daughter was born, both my uterus and I were too tired to expel the placenta, and I had to have it manually removed in the OR about an hour or two after giving birth. Through all of this, I lost 2.4L of blood. Afterwards, my body redirected all breast milk production energy towards my own healing, meaning we had to start my daughter on formula initially.

After all my reading and preparing, here was a scenario I hadn’t prepared for. In my assumption of adhering to the supposed gold standard of exclusively breastfeeding, I didn’t learn about the possibility that my body wouldn’t be able to comply. (As my partner pointed out when reading this reflection, we hadn’t even bothered buying a breast pump – it was somewhat random that we had bought bottles ahead of time!)

I spent nearly a month triple feeding to increase my supply – first breastfeeding, followed by pumping as my partner bottlefed with formula, and then finally bottlefeeding with whatever I had pumped. It was a grueling and time-consuming process – at times feeding took over an hour and a half, so by the time a feeding was over, there was only a short reprieve before another started. Meanwhile, even with help from my kraamzorg and a lactation consultant, with each passing day, I didn’t feel any closer to my goal of exclusively breastfeeding — instead I felt like all the cuddles I dreamed about had been replaced by an attachment to a breast pump.

I started spiraling into mild postpartum depression. I found myself crying uncontrollably basically every evening as I tried to process how not being successful at exclusively breastfeeding made me feel. It didn’t help that newborns don’t do much other than eat, so there was little to take my mind off of feeding. I started fearing the day my partner went back to work (at week 6) and I was left to fend for myself. I started worrying that I would never feel good enough to start my new job at week 12 and would need to resign before I even started.

When my daughter started screaming into my boob one day around week 4, I completely broke. What was I doing this for if we both were so unhappy and our bonding time was decreasing by the day? We decided to make the switch to all formula. It was the correct choice for us given the situation — my daughter was more satisfied and growing, my partner and I were getting solid stretches of sleep because we could take shifts during the nights, and I got to spend more time just cuddling my kid.

The choice also came with its own emotions — I cried when my body ignored my month-long weaning plan and stopped making milk in just one week of pumping less, plus I couldn’t help but feel like a failure anytime I read “the WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months” or anything to the effect of “breastmilk is the best nutrition for your baby.” However, when every medical professional we talked to during our month 2 checkups supported our choice, assured us that formula is just as good as breastfeeding when you have access to clean water like we do in the Netherlands, and marveled at my daughter’s growth and development, I started feeling a bit less guilty.

However, postpartum depression didn’t disappear with the elimination of triple feeding. I still was grieving the loss of my cuddly first 40 days vision and ended up on an emotional rollercoaster through week 10 or so. I hadn’t been emotionally prepared for how soul-crushing it can be to pour so much energy into a tiny human who then gives you no validation, just starts crying about their next need. The day my daughter smiled for the first time (not until week 7!) was the first time I felt like, okay maybe I didn’t make a terrible mistake having a baby.

Things that helped:

  • Therapy: I got a referral from my GP to see a therapist covered by insurance, but the wait times were long (6-8+ weeks). I ended up paying privately to see Naomi (who I met through Prepped to Parent) both individually, as well as doing her Group Therapy for New Mums that she offers at the Labour Dept.

  • Honesty: My GP’s first question for me was, “Have you talked about your experience with friends or family and given the real story, not the rosy one?” She was right about how helpful being honest and not sugarcoating my experience would be. Sharing my story in and of itself was cathartic, but it also helped me find other actual people with similar stories, which made me feel less alone, and even brought me closer to some of my friends from home who I’d lost touch with. (Group therapy also helped serve this purpose!)

  • Part-Time Nanny: My partner was the one who realized that spending 100% of my time with my daughter was unhelpfully reminding me of my grief. He suggested we hire a nanny a few hours a week once he went back to work, so I could have some baby-free hours out of the house to go to therapy or just generally have a break. We ended up being able to rehire our doula for newborn care hours.

  • Getting Out of the House: At my 6wk follow-up appointment, after crying to my midwife about my postpartum depression, she encouraged me to do two things daily: laugh and leave the house. When depressed, I struggle to motivate myself to get out of the house, so I relied on making plans to hang out with a mom friend daily until I went back to work, so I wouldn’t be alone with my own sad thoughts.

  • Sleep: Formula feeding meant that my partner and I could take shifts at night. The schedule adjusted over time, but in the early weeks, I would go to bed at 10 after pumping a bottle for my partner. He would stay up for the first middle-of-the-night feed and then come to bed (usually around 2/3am). I’d do the next feeding (usually ~5am) and deal with the first daytime feed so he could sleep in. Getting actual sleep ended up being key to both my physical and emotional recovery.

  • Lastly, time: As the newborn phase ended, my daughter became so much more interactive and fun to be around, which subsequently made being a new parent more fun. She now giggles and coos; she actually plays with her toys instead of just staring at them; and she’s super curious and is learning new things so quickly. With things other than feeding to think about and focus on, it’s made moving on from the formula decision much easier.

By the time I went back to work at week 12, I was feeling much better, finally enjoying being a mom and spending time with my kid, and feeling excited about the next phase of work and daycare.

Now my daughter is 4 months old and thriving, and the dark days of postpartum depression feel a million miles away!

Bridgit Donnelly is an American living in Amsterdam with her Daughter and Husband.


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