We always love hearing from moms and sharing their stories. We caught up with product manager, software engineer, and first time mom, Dina Levitan. Dina’s background is in computer science and she actually studied with Lilu co-founder, Adriana, at MIT.
One of the really interesting parts of Dina’s story is how she applied the skills she’s trained in and a whole lot of trial and error to solve many of the challenges she faced in her first few months postpartum.
Take it away, Dina!
The general approach I took
I really value efficiency and being able to scale my impact in the world. I had to do a lot of troubleshooting to figure out the best process for me and my family. Similar to how I operate at work, my pumping journey involved troubleshooting, experimentation and trial and error.
My angle on it is applying the principles that I have been trained with in my professional background to try to make pumping more of a scalable and sustainable operation. If the goal or guidance is breastmilk for first year, that overlaps with working hours and that’s a significant time commitment. If I wanted to do that, I had to figure out a sustainable plan.
The beginning of my pumping journey
A big challenge for me was finding the right flange size. During my first month postpartum, I discovered that I was using the wrong size flange and I didn’t understand how to size correctly. I was getting lumps and it was really painful. It was terrible, but I didn’t want to give up.
I scoured the internet to try to find different alternatives. There are so many options there, and I think I tried them all. I joke that the reason it’s called "postpartum" is that you’re buying pumping parts at 3am every night during the middle-of-the-night pumping session.
Eventually, I found my way into some of these Facebook groups for exclusive pumping and began learning what other moms were doing and what their systems looked like. Friends and other moms were one good resource. During the pandemic, that was extra hard because no one could come over and tell me that I was doing something wrong.
Why I decided to exclusively pump
My goal as a parent is to be an adequate parent. I think that’s a fine, upstanding goal. There’s so much pressure to be the ‘perfect’ mom and it can be really damaging. My philosophy is that you have to do what’s good for your whole family, not just the baby. The baby’s very important. The parents are also important.
I’m not one of those people that thinks ‘breast is best’ in all circumstances, but I do think that if a mother wants to provide breast milk to her child, that she should be empowered to do so.
The reason I exclusively pumped is because that's what worked for our family. Miriam (my daughter, now nine months) was born about a month early and her latch was not good. We went to 6-7 appointments with various lactation consultants. She was a very sleepy newborn and we couldn’t figure it out.
I did the triple feeding thing for a while: try to nurse, then pump, then feed from the bottle. It was a whole lot of work and very onerous. Eventually I realized it was more efficient for me to pump and then someone else (i.e. my spouse) could feed from the bottle. It made things a little easier on me.
Two or three months in, Miriam did manage to get a better latch and we were able to successfully nurse. We only did that for a little while because then she started to have issues with acid reflux. Anytime I would lay her horizontally, she would spit up whatever she just ate, so we could no longer nurse. All in all, pumping seemed the best option for us.
What my day looks like
When I went back to work, I tried to arrange it so that I’d have a minimal pumping schedule. I know that not every woman can do this and I feel very privileged that I can. I’m at a point now where I pump three times in 24 hours. I’m slightly underproducing for Miriam’s caloric needs, and am making use of my freezer stash.
During the day, my work days are just too crazy to pump more than once. So I pump when I wake up before work, then once during the work day—maybe during my lunch break—and then once before I go to sleep. It’s been working well.
I’m at the point where my supply is dipping, but she’s eating more solids, etc., and I’ve decided that once my freezer stash is done, I’m comfortable incorporating formula into the mix.
Pumping three times a day is something I worked towards. I started out pumping every three hours and it required so much physical and mental energy. That’s 6-8 times per day and we were constantly cleaning parts. Over time, I found that I was able to go longer between pumps and still have an adequate supply.
I’m very lucky: I can sit down and in 15 minutes I’ve pumped, cleaned up and am back to work. That’s not true for everybody. Part of the reason for this is that I optimized my setup so carefully.
The problem with pumps
What should be an intuitive process is anything but. It’s not the user’s fault when a product is badly designed or that it takes so much effort to figure out how to make it work.
As a new mom, there’s no way to know what is and isn’t normal and it’s the same with the pump. You get your pump in the mail and you try to set it up and it doesn’t work and you think "there must be something wrong with me." That’s not the case at all.
It takes work and time and energy to actually identify what flanges I needed, how to make it comfortable and efficient, how to best get the milk out using the pump. A lot of mothers don’t realize that. They think that there’s something wrong with them, such as that they have a "poor supply", and they often give up. I think that’s really sad.
One product I absolutely do love is the Pumpin’ Pal flanges. Their flanges are made out of silicone and they have a different angle than the flanges the mainstream pumps come with. One of the big problems with pumping is that you need to lean forward for the milk to flow downwards, which is a ridiculous design flaw. It’s so bad for the back.
These are designed better because they are angled downwards, so you kind of sit up with your back straight while pumping. It also helped because I have elastic nipples (when the areola gets sucked into the pump, which can be quite painful). I ended up going to a smaller flange size to avoid this.
Biggest advice I’d give moms
I had a crazy birth. After my birth, I felt horrible for ten days afterward. I could barely get out of bed and was in continuous pain. I thought that was normal - I had just gone through this really hard thing and I thought to myself, "I guess this is what postpartum recovery is like." What I learned from that experience is that it’s not normal for the suffering to last that long. Once the underlying problem was resolved, I started to truly recover and now I feel great.
My advice to new moms is that there’s no need to suffer for more than 2-3 days at a time. If the problem is persisting for more than 2-3 days, it’s time to ask for help and there are tons of people who can help, but resources must be called upon.
Why it’s especially important is that with pumping and feeding in general, everything is so time-sensitive. If you don’t get the latch going for breastfeeding, and feeding with breastmilk is a goal, you need to start pumping instead to start building up your supply. It’s tricky and complicated.
Pumping with ill-fitting flanges can be really damaging to the body. If it’s painful to pump and if you're suffering, you may unintentionally be doing damage to your tissue. My advice is to do whatever it takes to fix it. There is no need to suffer. When you are at your best, you can give the best for you, your family, and your baby.
This post was crafted in collaboration with Dina Levitan, a Seattle-based product and technical leader and public speaker who writes about topics related to tech culture and values at dinalevitan.com.
Dina received her B.S. and M.Eng. in Computer Science and Engineering from MIT, and is currently pursuing her MBA at the University of Washington. She loves learning about innovations that improve the lives of families. Feel free to be in touch!