My body is not like most. The internet tells me my odd deformity will not shorten my lifespan, but it makes me different. It affected my breastfeeding experience, but what was truly unexpected was the way breastfeeding affected my most peculiar body.
Why should you care? And why should I reveal now my unusual quirks in such a public way? While this account may be too much information for some, my story may give hope to women struggling with milk production. So here goes.
My Peculiar Body
I appeared normal at birth. My mother told me she first noticed my defect when I was about 3 years old. My breastbone, or sternum, began to indent, creating a cavity in the middle of my chest. My mother said she couldn’t find anyone on either side of our family who had this or knew of anyone else who did. Our doctor told her not to worry.
When puberty hit, I noticed breast buds growing in my left breast but not in my right. As my teen years passed, my left breast developed normally but my right side stayed completely flat.
At age 21, my parents offered to pay for cosmetic surgery, and I decided to do it. By this time, my sternum was deeply indented and my heart was pushed to one side. (Let’s hope I never need CPR!) The plastic surgeon inserted a silicone breast implant through an incision below where my right breast should have been, and he positioned the implant sideways, so that I now had a right breast and my chest indentation was filled in. I didn’t look 100% normal—my chest was still a little sunken below my collarbone—but it was better, and I didn’t feel nearly as self-conscious.
From age 29 to 35, I gave birth to my 3 boys, and I spent a total of 12 years breastfeeding them, nursing on both sides. When I was 5 months pregnant with my first, I learned at my first La Leche League meeting that women could exclusively breastfeed twins and triplets, so I deduced correctly that one working breast was all I needed.
I loved breastfeeding and became a La Leche League leader so that I could help others meet their goals. I also served as a resource for La Leche League International for those with questions about nursing with breast implants. When controversy erupted, I even appeared on CNN to weigh in on whether breastfeeding with implants could cause later health problems in children. (Time and science found that it didn’t.)
A Stunning Discovery
In my 50s, during a routine mammogram, I received shocking news. As the technician took picture after picture, I finally said, “You do know that I have a breast implant, don’t you?” She said yes and added, “But I can’t find it.”
Eventually she found my implant on images taken in my cleavage area. She told me my implant’s location had shifted. By this time, my sternum had become so deeply indented that it nearly reached my spine. (Yes, that grosses me out, too.) Over the years, as the indentation deepened, my breast implant fully migrated into the middle of my chest. Yet even without any implant remaining in my right breast, it now appeared to be fully developed.
I was stunned to realize that my formerly “bionic” right breast was now a real breast.
How did this happen? Science tells us that a woman’s milk-making glands grow and develop during pregnancy, and after birth this milk-making tissue continues to grow (study HERE). We also know that with breast stimulation, women who have never been pregnant can grow functioning breast tissue and produce milk for adopted babies (article HERE). I was aware of all of this when my mammogram tech gave me the news, and I knew immediately that my 12 years of nursing had gradually grown a real right breast where none had grown before.
Using My Story to Help Others
How can my strange story help others? Some women plan to breastfeed only to learn that their breasts didn’t develop normally. Called “breast hypoplasia” or” insufficient glandular tissue,” in this situation, there are not enough milk-making glands to produce 100% of the milk a baby needs. (See a wonderful book about this HERE.) This might also happen in a woman with a history of breast reduction surgery (see a another wonderful book HERE) or a transgender man who has had top surgery to remove breast tissue and later delivers a baby.
It can be devastating when someone highly motivated to exclusively breastfeed cannot. Breastfeeding is a part of our sexuality, and when a woman discovers she can’t do what others seem to do so naturally, it is a genuine loss—like infertility—that deserves to be acknowledged and mourned. In my private lactation practice, I sometimes sat and grieved with a mother who had to face this heartbreak.
Part of my job in that situation was also to discuss her remaining options. Most assume that giving up on breastfeeding is the only choice, but that is not actually true. Today, when I meet women who are struggling with low milk production, I always share my story. My long-term perspective gives them a glimpse not only of their options today, but how their choices now may affect their breastfeeding future.
Mothers who produce less than 100% of the milk their babies need can continue to breastfeed while giving supplements of donor human milk or formula. And they can give these supplements in a number of different ways, including something called an at-breast supplementer, pictured here. These devices allow baby to receive any needed milk through its thin tube while baby nurses at the breast.
These at-breast supplementers can be tricky and irritating to use (study HERE). But for a woman with little functioning breast tissue, while using these devices, baby continues to stimulate breast growth. If she nurses for months or years, over time this will grow more breast tissue and increase her milk production for this baby and future babies. These devices also give women who value the closeness of breastfeeding a way to nurse 100% of the time whether they make milk or not. Many adoptive mothers and mothers of babies born via surrogate use these devices so that they can fully experience the intimacy of breastfeeding.
An at-breast supplementer is usually used no longer than one year and sometimes for a much shorter time. After a baby starts eating solid foods at around 6 months, baby’s need for milk steadily decreases. At some point--8 months, 10 months, 12 months--the mother’s breasts alone meet baby’s need for milk. At that point, mother and child can nurse for as long as they like without the need for supplements.
Of course, using an at-breast supplementer is not necessary. Some supplement their babies in other ways—feeding bottles, cups, spoons--and breastfeed to give comfort and whatever milk they produce. For both mother and baby, from a health standpoint, some breastfeeding is always better than none. But many mothers value the bonding of breastfeeding most.
As my story shows, women dealt a low-supply card have choices. And some of these choices have the potential to change their breasts and increase their milk production in the months and years ahead. They deserve to know that they can stack the deck in their favor both for their current baby and for babies to come. If my story gives these women hope and a new perspective, I don't mind sharing my peculiarities with the world.