The IBD Parenthood Project: The Love-Hate Relationship of Breastfeeding

This post is sponsored by the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA). I am a paid program Brand Influencer; this post is sponsored and includes my own personal experiences.

Breastfeeding is a labor of love. Like many women, it doesn’t come easy for me. As an IBD mom who already fears passing my disease down to my kids, there’s added pressure and stress. In the United States, an estimated 1.6 million people have Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. Of those, roughly half are women, and most will carry the diagnosis during childbearing years, throughout all phases of family planning: trying to conceive, pregnancy and postpartum. As an IBD mom of three going through postpartum right now, one of my biggest stresses and focuses revolves around breastfeeding.

-What if I take this pain medicine for my Crohn’s? Will I need to supplement? 

-What if I have a postpartum flare, will my milk supply go away?

-What will happen if I’m hospitalized?

-Will I flare once I stop breastfeeding and my hormones regulate?

-If I stop too soon, will my child end up having an increased risk of IBD?

…the list goes on…

The journey to motherhood for women with IBD requires several complex decisions and coordination among specialty care teams from the stage of family planning until postpartum and beyond. The IBD Parenthood Project aims to address common misperceptions and fears women with IBD and their providers experience throughout all phases of family planning (conception, pregnancy and after delivery). By eliminating the gray area and serving as the gold-standard for navigating pregnancy and motherhood with IBD, our patient community can rely on this support that helps uncomplicate the journey.

This beneficial and much-needed initiative was created by gastroenterologists (GIs), maternal-fetal medicine (MFM) subspecialists, and patients and is led by the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) with support from the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, and patient support network, Girls With Guts. The IBD Parenthood Project launched in January 2019, just as I delivered my second child. To this day, I feel so grateful to have this information and confidence in my choice to become a mom even though I’ve lived with Crohn’s disease for more than 16 years. It’s empowering to know despite the unpredictability of IBD, this initiative allowed me to feel like I’m in the driver’s seat when it came to creating my family and knowing the choices I’ve made were and are supported by science and medical facts.

To the random lady in the church elevator who asked me if I was breastfeeding my son Reid when he was a month old, and I was a first-time mom.

To the lactation consultant after I delivered my daughter Sophia, who told me since I have Crohn’s, it’s imperative her gut only be lined with breastmilk.

To the nurse coaching me nonchalantly about breastfeeding my son Connor and underestimating the challenges it can present…who I later found out “only” breastfed one of her children for 2 weeks…

To anyone who is struggling with the physical, emotional, and mental stress of something that sounds “easy” and “natural” — simply feeding your baby — I get how complex and taxing it is. I’m in the thick of it now with my son who was born July 14. So far, he’s only had breastmilk…both from nursing and by a bottle. But it’s not pretty for me. The engorgement, the round the clock pumping, the soaked t-shirts, the night sweats, the discomfort to even wear a bra or sleep on my side. It weighs on me. There’s the outside pressure and the pressure I put on myself to keep going, even though I don’t enjoy it. It’s super rewarding to see Connor thriving and making gains all because of me. But there’s also a lot of stress to be a child’s only source of food, especially as an IBD mom.

Different feeding approaches with all my babies

With my firstborn in 2017, I wasn’t well-versed on the benefits of breastfeeding and feared not only further exposure to my biologic, but also flaring, so I only breastfed my son for 3 days in the hospital so he could get colostrum. By 2019, I was well-versed on the positive impact and the safety profile associated with breastfeeding while on a biologic, so I breastfed my daughter until she was 6 months old. I had hopes of making it a full year, but unfortunately my milk supply disappeared once my menstrual cycle started back up. This time around, I felt the anxiety about having to breastfeed creep up when I was only a few months pregnant. Between research showing that breastfed babies have a lower risk of IBD, coupled with antibodies from the COVID-19 vaccine, I feel the need to do all I can to protect my son from the what if, even if it feels mentally, physically, and emotionally taxing each day.

The Fourth Trimester has several challenges for women that often go undiscussed. However you choose to feed your child is your business and should be based on what is best for you and your family. This is a judgement free zone. I’ve fed my three babies differently. But the pressure mounts when you yourself have an illness with no cure and feel as though breastfeeding can help improve your odds of not passing it on to your offspring. In my mind, down the road, I don’t want to ever think I coulda, shoulda, woulda done anything differently when it comes to protecting my offspring from IBD.

The IBD Parenthood Project tackles some of the common questions related to breastfeeding as an IBD mom. There’s a downloadable toolkit that features patient-friendly information and easy-to-digest lists of key questions to ask your doctor as you’re thinking of becoming pregnant and beyond.

What I Want Fellow IBD Moms to Know

Navigating motherhood while taking on IBD is overwhelming. With proper planning, care and coordination among treating healthcare providers, women with IBD can have healthy pregnancies and healthy babies—and breastfeed if they choose to do so. For me, breastfeeding provides a sense of normalcy and gives me a renewed sense of love for what my body is capable of, despite having Crohn’s disease. Give yourself credit for going through pregnancy with IBD, delivering a baby, and continuing to nourish your little one with your body when they are in the real world. The blood, sweat, and tears are inevitable.

Just this week I experienced awful abdominal pain. The kind of pain where you can barely breathe, your hands start to tingle, and you go back and forth about whether a trip to the emergency room is imminent. As I rocked myself on the toilet and heard my newborn crying in the bassinet my mind raced. My 4-year-old stood before me. I could see the fear in his eyes. My immediate thought was—what can I take to get this pain under control—will it affect my ability to breastfeed? In that moment, the pressure to think outside of myself and manage my disease felt suffocating.

There comes a point when the mental health and wellbeing of the mother must come first so she is able to be the best version of herself for her kids. If breastfeeding is taking away from the joy you could be experiencing or the connection you are longing for with your child, don’t feel guilty. Whether your child is exclusively breastfed, or formula fed, or receives a little of both, they will thrive. I’m personally all about flexible feeding. A little nursing, some pumping, and some formula has worked best for me. When the time comes, and I need a break or feel too consumed by being the sole provider of nourishment for Connor, I’ll feel confident in supplementing with formula. There’s no shame in my game and there shouldn’t be in yours, either. Take advantage of invaluable resources like the IBD Parenthood Project and be confident in each of your personal health decisions when it comes to whether or not you want a family and how you choose to feed your baby.

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