Mom Talk: Losing My Supply

Written by

Katie Bowes

9:00 am

We’re back with another round of “Mom Talk”, where we invite some incredible mothers, from all walks of life, to share their personal experiences and journeys through motherhood, whether it be struggles, triumphs, or anything in-between—nothing’s off limits when it comes to topics. This week, Katie Bowes discusses how she stopped being able to breastfeed her son, and the lessons she learned during such a difficult time. -JKM

They said I was one of the lucky ones because breastfeeding came naturally to me and to my son. I loved and embraced the act. In fact, it was this time that I dedicated to us. A time to study this tiny human—to connect—and to nourish him. So, when my supply took a significant dip as my son entered his sixth month of life, I was crushed. There is a crucial component to this I have failed to mention, however: my return to full-time work.

I went back to work three months postpartum, and, in retrospect, it was way too soon. Neither my son nor I was ready, and I do blame myself for this. I had not prepared us well. He took almost all his naps on me (usually in the Ergo on long walks) and he was not yet taking a bottle. I was so painfully aware of our impending separation that I almost never left his side during the first twelve weeks of his life. My fourth trimester came to an abrupt end on Halloween Day.

In the initial days and weeks back at the office, I felt okay, largely due to an abbreviated schedule. I was working three days in the office, one day from home, and had Fridays off. My mom had come to help with the transition, and stayed almost the entire first month I went back to work. Between her and my husband, I had an excellent support system at home. And, the novelty of being back was exciting. It felt good to have a reason to get dressed in the morning, and to socialize with my work friends. It also felt great to use my brain in a different way, to delve back into projects and collaborate with my team.

That first month of shortened schedules and flexibility went quickly, however, and before I knew it, I was back in the office full-time. Over the course of the next three months, I saw a significant decline in my health and wellbeing. My mom would always tell me how important self-care is when raising children—the old “put your oxygen mask on first” analogy. Well, I was terrible at it. One thousand percent of my energy and focus went to my son, with another big percentage dedicated to my performance at work in order to appear on top of it all. What scant energy I had left I tried, with limited success, to funnel into my marriage. I started feeling intense guilt over being away from my infant son. I felt a pang of jealousy when I would receive texts of pictures from my wonderful nanny showing my son curled up and sleeping in her arms, or smiling ear-to-ear at her.

After six weeks back at work, my face erupted into a breakout rivaling a thirteen-year-old boy, and never left. My hair started falling out at such an alarming rate, I became worried I was going bald. Self-care felt impossible. I was desperate for any time with my son after being gone fifty or more hours a week. So much so, that I jumped out of bed at 4:30 a.m. every morning to “enjoy” playtime with him. I also raced home as soon as humanely possible each evening, rigid as a board and fingers gripping the steering wheel so tight I’m surprised it didn’t crumble, to catch him before bath and bedtime. I refused to leave his side for even an hour on the weekends, so seeing friends was about as rare as was an exercise class, pedicure, massage, or any one of the thousand other things that would have been beneficial to my health. I was falling apart, but was wound so tightly that I had zero self-awareness. I was awful to my partner; I was short-tempered at work. I was an emotional wreck.

That’s when my nanny ran out of breastmilk. At 2:00 p.m. on a Wednesday, while I was stuck in back-to-back meetings. I called my husband and bawled helplessly. I felt like a complete failure. How could I run out of milk? Why was I not producing the same yield from five pumping sessions a day? This was not the plan! The plan was to breastfeed for at least a year, maybe longer. How could I fail my son? How could my body fail me? I chastised myself for skipping any pumping session due to a meeting shift, for not consistently waking up in the middle of the night to pump, and for not starting to pump and store milk from day one. I beat myself up for not being the perfect mother who can work a demanding, full-time job, while also being a supportive, loving wife, too. So, we frantically googled formula options, and my husband was home with a canister within the hour.

After the day we ran out of milk, I recommitted myself to pumping as much as humanly possible. I started taking a new regimen of supplements and ensured I was eating properly. I picked up a few boxes of mother’s milk tea and started taking fenugreek. I also religiously drank a beer each day after work. To be honest, that part wasn’t too bad. The point is, however, that I put in all of this extra effort, but my supply didn’t come back. For a few months, I could get enough to supplement the formula with a half an ounce to an ounce of breastmilk. But, that was it. And, I realized that it’s a truly humbling experience when your intentions and your physiology are at odds.

It was an extremely hard reality to face, but here’s the thing: my son is healthy and growing and hitting all the “milestones”. He also seems sincerely happy. He laughs a lot; he likes to explore. He loves to dance when music comes on. He’s also eating a ton of solid foods. So, I guess what I really want to share are the lessons I learned throughout this experience, because I have a feeling I’m going to keep learning them throughout the years of raising my boy. In the simplest terms, the lessons are these: You cannot control everything; be grateful for what you have; take care of yourself; and let yourself off the hook.

Being a mom is literally both the hardest, and simultaneously, the most natural thing I have ever done. I am just getting started and have already been blown apart and put back together several times. I am still figuring out what kind of mom I am want to be, but losing my supply and reaching the brink of a complete mental breakdown forced me to take the advice my mom had always given me—to put the damn oxygen mask on first. I still haven’t exactly mastered this art, but I now allow myself to sneak out during my son’s morning nap on the weekend. I’ve realized that this is important bonding time for my boy and my husband.

Self-care looks differently with a baby than it did before; it’s on his schedule now. And, oftentimes, he’s either in tow or thoughts of him are running through my mind the entire time we’re apart. But, I’m getting there. Each day is different, and I’m learning to be more patient with myself. I’ve realized that if I keep trying to keep all the balls in the air, I’m going to miss out on this precious time. So, yes, some of the balls had to drop, or had to be lowered in priority. It’s a constant evolution and balancing act. I still get pangs every time I see a friend breastfeeding her child, or an Instagram post with the hashtag #BreastIsBest. I want to scream from the rooftops, “Fed is best!” But, once again, I’ve had to realize that my personal mantra of “to each their own” truly resonates in every corner of life, especially motherhood. With that, I’ve come to see losing my supply not as defeat, but as one of my life’s great lessons. I do believe I am more self-accepting and stronger having gone through this. And, in the scheme of things, I am absolutely still one of the lucky ones, breastmilk or none. As my son nears his first birthday, I feel proud of where I am and of where we’re going together.

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This happened to me with my second child. I had so much oversupply with my first that I couldn’t understand what was happening when my milk supply dried up after only 3 months with my second. I tried everything. I would pump for 20 min on the highest setting and only yield an ounce or two. I tried to nurse constantly but my daughter would just break away crying because nothing was coming out. I felt terrible, like I failed at something I use to excel at. Two months later I went to the doctor for a possible kidney infection and found out I was FOUR MONTHS PREGNANT!?? I had no clue! Apparently I got pregnant a few weeks after my second child was born despite being on birth control (low dose) and nursing full time. When my third child was born (10 months 8 days after my daughter) my milk supply was back to normal, which was a huge relief.


What frustrates me so much about this story, and about many others, is that in the end the moral always ends up being about being okay with formula feeding and recognizing that fed is best. I 100% agree with that, and would never want moms to feel less than or a failure just because they weren’t able to breastfeed. But can we just focus on your experience going back to work? The systems we have in place in almost every industry do a terrible job of supporting nursing mothers, and it sounds like your experience was no different. We deserve better, and so do our babies. The story you wrote isn’t about self-care, it’s about a work culture that is completely failing moms and families.


    Yep this. This isn’t a story about doing self-care wrong – this is a story about a culture that doesn’t value mothers. I’m in Canada and we get one years of paid leave – the fact that 1/4 women in the US have to go back to work two weeks after giving birth is truly shocking. Lack of paid leave is the issue here, and this story shows that even if you have the financial resources to hire a nanny and a good support system, you still can’t win. It would be great if Mother magazine used this platform to talk about the need for collective, political change to ensure all women can access decent paid leave, rather than perpetuating the idea that if women can just do self-care better (more pedicures!) then we can somehow succeed in a system entirely set up to make “doing it all” impossible.


    Kirsten, I agree – to be one of the only countries in the world not to offer paid leave policies that are appropriate for the needs of infants and their parents is one of the great failures of our country as far as I’m concerned. When I returned to work I quickly picked up a copy of Family Business by Malinda Chouinard & Jennifer Ridgeway of Patagonia and started educating myself about what progressive American companies have offered to their employees both in generous family leave policies as well as on site childcare and the results of employee retention, job satisfaction, and more women in higher up positions are staggering – and inspiring. Together with several other motivated new moms at my company, we created a task force and put together a proposal for our company to adopt (or at least consider) some of these more “progressive” packages. We met with our head of HR and I’ve heard that in recent months the company rolled out some improvements in their leave policies. I think (well, i HOPE) it’s going to be hard for companies to stay competitive without offering more generous leave policies for mothers AND fathers and hopefully on site childcare. Had i had my son in the building with me and been able to nurse him and visit with him throughout my work day, there is no doubt my adjustment would have been easier and i likely would still be with that company today. Thank you for your comment!


    I totally agree with Kirsten. Our US society doesn’t value long-term investments, including the ones parents should be making by taking the first years of a child’s life to bond, nurture and support this new tiny life/lives they have brought into the world. Not having a more substantial nationwide maternity/paternity leave reflects how little we see (as a society) the worth in investing in the next generation.


I’m sorry you went through all this. It was awful, tormenting. Lots could be said about the workplace and it’s non-support. But the workplace is not the only one to blame. Take it from a working mother of a lovely boy that was breastfed for only a month; that’s how long my milk supply lasted. He is in excellent health now at 8, and well-connected with me. I went through hell because I thought I was not good enough, at least by magazine and latest research standards. And I now know that women do their best to provide the best to their children. But they also become very competitive and judjemental of other women only to feel better about themselves. It is not a competition and we do not have to conform to every breakthrough. It is not a crime to not breastfeed if you cannot or even do not want to. Why breastfeed for a year? Have we ran out of food? Why are we putting ourselves under such stress? Who are others to judge? I’ve thought long and very hard. Loving, caring and giving are enough. And there is a very long distance between suggesting that breastfeeding is good for mother and child and making women believe that if they don’t do it, they are committing a crime. This is what you probably succumbed to. I’m very sure your child has an amazing mom no matter how long you breastfed him.