In light of it being International Breastfeeding Week next week, I thought it might be a good time to discuss our short-lived breastfeeding journey.
This isn’t an easy post for me to write. There’s a whole lot of Mummy guilt and heartbreak tied up in the details, and I fear sometimes that it’ll never be an easy topic for me. But being honest is important, and stories like mine should be used to help my sort of situation never happening again, or perhaps help to work towards a support system for people who’ve experienced similar problems.
Our breastfeeding journey was very short – just one week. I desperately wish it had been longer, or more enjoyable, but I guess with hindsight, it was what it was.
I am an advocate for feeding your baby. Whether that be by exclusively breastfeeding, expressed breast milk, donor milk, combination feeding with formula or exclusively formula. I’m not a fan of the “breast is best” motto for many, many reasons, but that’s a debate for another day.
From the moment I knew I was pregnant, I planned to breastfeed. I can’t say I obsessed over it, but I did do a lot of reading and discussed it at length with my community midwife. I imagined it being a bit tough going to start with, anticipated sore nipples and sleepless nights – we felt like we were being prepared for the pain by ordering some nipple cream and packing it in my hospital bag. From the off, I knew that exclusive breast feeding wasn’t going to be a route I could stick to for too long – I am a loner at heart, and figured that I was going to need some time away from the baby, plus it would be nice for Hubby to be able to feed them – so we also purchased a breast pump, with the intention to express once baby’s latch and my milk supply were established.
The reality of feeding after I gave birth was dramatically different than I expected. I had a pretty traumatic birth, with a significant blood loss, and I was way too “out of it” to properly experience my first feed – I vaguely remember the midwife chucking X at my breast about an hour after he was born – it was our real first skin to skin experience too. After that, X didn’t seem too keen on latching – the birth had been traumatic for him too, and I’d had pethidine so he was a bit dopey as well.
When X was 24 hours old I was hand expressing colostrum into a syringe because he would not stay at my breast for more than a few seconds. My birth notes suggest he had a small tongue tie but this wasn’t explained to me at all – in fact the first I knew of that was when my ordered copy of my notes arrived 8 months later.
The midwives on the ward hadn’t shown me a particularly efficient means of hand expressing, which meant I couldn’t do it on my own, so I could only do it when Hubby was around or there was a midwife free. It also made my nipples incredibly sore, so when X did try to latch I’d be in agony – and then he’d give the nipple a few licks and give up anyway to continue screaming.
Despite him getting a syringe full of colostrum every time he showed any hunger signs, the Doctors decided he needed to be topped up with formula. I declined.
They then strapped me up to a huge breast pump despite my milk having not come in yet, and my breasts not even being remotely engorged. Due to the traumatic birth, the dehydration I’d suffered with during labour and the amount of blood loss, chances were my milk would take longer to come in, but was this explained to me?! Never – Dr Google helped me out with that one, but not until we got home. The pump did nothing, I got nothing; all it did was make my nipples bleed.
By this point, X was unhappy, I was too sore to pump or hand express much, and the Doctors warned me that he was becoming dangerously jaundiced (which later proved to be false, I have the blood test results with my birth notes) so they basically told me to give him formula. Or else.
I have never been anti-formula – I was formula fed myself, and I seem to have turned out all right – I just wanted extra assistance from the hospital staff. I begged for a lactation specialist (they sent the “midwife who’s good at it”). So in light of everything they told me, I consented to give him a bottle. But then of course, to avoid being seen as “promoting formula over breastfeeding” they couldn’t give me any advice on what milk to choose (a stupid, ridiculous system, I’m sure you’ll agree). I hadn’t really researched formula, I was so sure that we’d breastfeed. I lumped for Cow and Gate because I knew the name. I was told to give him 38ml of formula every 3 hours – most of which he’d puke back up again when I burped him because his tummy couldn’t hold 38ml. I stopped giving him all of it, and hid the bottles from the midwives, and lied when they asked me.
They discharged me, because he’d fed so he was ok, and oddly enough his bilirubin levels for his jaundice didn’t suggest he needed UV treatment. We got home and persevered with getting him on my breast – I could spend my time as I’d wanted to in hospital with him skin to skin and letting him find the nipple. He’d attempt to latch, which would hurt like hell, then he’d pull back and scream.
I found a much easier method of hand expressing which meant that I could do it myself, so Hubby would sit and feed him while I filled a syringe by expressing onto a clean spoon then drawing it up. My milk was starting to come in, I could feel my breasts getting heavier. X kept trying to latch, and I’d sit there feeding for 10 minutes in sheer agony, then we’d have to top him up anyway as he was still hungry, and he wouldn’t latch on the other breast when he was upset.
My milk properly came in on day 5. My amazing, wonderful, patient community midwife assisted me with nipple shields and for the first time I heard him swallow while he was at my breast. I cried. We were getting there! We could do this! As my milk supply was getting stronger, I could express more, and by 1 week old he was either fed directly from me or expressed milk from a bottle.
Then I became unwell. I had horrific pains in my stomach; I could barely stand. I felt like I was being constantly stabbed. The first night X actually slept for more than an hour, and in his moses basket, I was stuck on the phone to NHS Direct trying to figure out what to do.
I headed to the GP the next day, and she insisted on putting me on non-breastfeeding friendly antibiotics as she was concerned I was developing Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (an overboard diagnosis I now realise, but after a week with no sleep I hadn’t got the sense to see that…). I cried, and begged her to give me something I could breastfeed on, but she refused, and I couldn’t continue in the amount of pain I was in.
For 7 days I pumped and dumped every time X fed. My supply wasn’t doing too badly, despite being affected by the drugs, but I hated not being able to feed my son, and the pump hurt. Then Hubby’s paternity leave ended. I found myself at home with a baby who needed feeding and changing, and holding almost constantly; pumping in between feeds meant I didn’t have time to wash the few bottles we had, or eat, or nap… it was impossible, not to mention the soul destroying feeling of pumping for half an hour to have to pour it all down the sink. I was still leaking significantly at the end of this 2nd week, so I figured I’d try him at the breast once I’d done with my course of antibiotics, and stopped pumping.
I tried him at my breast, and he point blank refused. Looking back now, I suppose I wish I’d tried harder, persevered that 3rd week and kept putting him to the breast, but I’d had enough. I’d run out of fight – after a long, hard labour and antibiotics that made me feel like crap, I hadn’t got any energy or fight left. Bottle feeding was working, X was happy, I wasn’t glued to my child and could have a rest if I needed it.
It was nice to see X being fed by his Pops, and by my Mum, and Hub…
So that’s our “breastfeeding journey”. My heart breaks reliving it, and the guilt is overwhelming. Could I have tried harder? What if I’d been stronger in hospital? What if I’d demanded a 2nd opinion at the GPs over my infection? What if I’d not been put off going to a breast feeding support group because someone said I wouldn’t be welcome as I was currently bottle feeding? I guess I’ll never know.
All that matters now is that I have a healthy, happy, intelligent, strong, amazing, funny, charming, beautiful little boy. I did the right thing to make sure he was well, and that’s the really important thing, but I have to remind myself of this every time I see a mother breastfeeding to stop myself from crying. The feeling is still pretty raw.
Not all breastfeeding journeys are beautiful. And while I agree that we should promote and celebrate it, it is a wonderful thing after all, perhaps we should be looking to those who struggled, who are heartbroken, who suffer PND, because their journey wasn’t what they hoped for.
Note: I didn’t realise until I came to finish this post that I don’t have any photos of me feeding X from a bottle. I don’t have any breastfeeding pictures either, but that’s understandable in the circumstances. That’s a whole experience of his early life I haven’t got any real evidence of, which isn’t something I did consciously.