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Pumping Probably Isn't as Good for Babies as Breastfeeding, But I'm Still Glad I Did It

The results of one of the largest studies ever conducted on mothers’ milk were released on Feb. 13. The analysis of nearly 400 sets of moms and babies, published in the journal Cell, led to a major finding: Milk straight from the breast and into a baby’s mouth is different than pumped breast milk that's served from a bottle. The former is associated with richer, more diverse bacteria—good stuff. The latter is linked with potential pathogens, which carry a risk of causing respiratory infection—bad stuff.

"Contrary or in addition to the hypothesis that milk bacteria come from the mother's gut, our results suggest that the infant's oral bacteria are important in shaping the milk microbiota,” said senior study author Meghan Azad, a researcher at Children's Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba and a Canada Research Chair in Developmental Origins of Chronic Disease at the University of Manitoba.

Translation: There’s something about babies’ mouths that likely changes milk for the better. Something about pumps and bottles might change milk for the worse.

Although that’s big news, way more research needs to be done to understand how those differences affect kids’ short-term and long-term health. So scientists aren’t urging moms to change their feeding methods—especially since exclusive breastfeeding is next to impossible in the U.S., thanks to short maternity leaves and stigma around and low accommodation for nursing in public.

As my second-born (and last-born, if birth control doesn’t fail us) turns 1 this President’s Day, I’m wrapping up my long, often-difficult pumping journey. It was filled with awkwardly asking squatters to leave the wellness room because my boobs were about to burst and pumping in all sorts of weird locations when I wasn’t at the office. (If you haven’t disrobed in a giant dining room set with fine china and decorated with portraits of white, male Yale University presidents staring at you, are you even female?) But I’m glad I pumped. Here’s why:

I couldn’t breastfeed and work without pumping.

There are a lot of good, science-backed reasons to breastfeed. And I wanted to, which could be the best reason for any mom to give it a shot. But I also knew I didn’t want to stay home for the first year of either child’s life, and bringing them to work every day wasn’t an option. Pumping let me nurse my baby when we were together and provide food for him when we weren’t.

Formula is expensive.

I should know: I used formula from the get-go with my firstborn because even a Fenugreek IV couldn’t have boosted my milk supply enough. And with my littler guy, I supplemented with formula after pumping for a couple of months, when his appetite grew but my supply didn’t. Aside from a few accessories for my Affordable Care Act-provided pump (thanks, Obama), I didn’t have to spend much to make my own milk.

Pumping made me feel connected to my baby when we were apart.

Of course it’s not the only way to feel connected to your infant while you’re working. But I liked how, even though I would work throughout the 25ish minutes I was hooked up to the machine, I couldn’t help but think of my baby as I expressed milk. When letdown was a letdown, I’d watch videos of him laughing and cooing. Tricking my body into thinking he was there was a weird-yet-satisfying power.

I could see how much milk I was making.

With baby No. 1, this sight was often depressing, a paltry 3 ounces in a half hour. Those first months back at work with baby No. 2? Wow! The day I pumped 9 ounces in one sitting was a proud one.

I was setting an example.

A past manager of mine made working motherhood—and pumping through the first year of it—seem possible. She patiently entertained my questions about it before I became a mom. With both of my kids, I worked with women who didn’t yet have children. I was always open about where I was going when I’d disappear three times a day. As much as I was pumping for my baby and myself, I hope seeing me do it made it seem manageable and possible for those young women.

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