So World Breastfeeding Week has been and gone for another year, amid its usual storm of social media posts, news reports on the UK’s low, low feeding rates, frayed nerves, narky comments, judgement, perceived judgement, mums speaking out, others afraid to say what they want or mean, women wanting to support each other and in doing so offending others.
Whatever you say on the matter, you won’t please everyone. I have been thinking all week whether to wade in with my two cents’ worth. Sometimes I am all fired up about it and wish more people used their boobs as nature intended and sometimes I wonder if it all matters in the grand scheme of things.
So I am just going to tell my story. Make of it what you will.
I have two children, and two completely different feeding experiences. My almost five year old is still formula fed and my almost two year old is still boobing.
My firstborn was starved of oxygen at birth. The result is that his cerebral palsy affects every muscle in his body. He struggles to coordinate himself and swallow effectively.
It was a hell of journey even getting him to take a bottle – I’m talking six months to be really comfortable with drinking – so even though we tried breastfeeding, it wasn’t to be. I had high hopes of expressing for him for a year or more. In reality, once we were home from hospital, he screamed all day. It could take an hour to persuade him to drink a 70ml bottle. There was a constant stream of visitors, nurses and therapists through our home and it wasn’t long before I was stressed to the max, had no time to be pumping eight or more times in a day, and all I wanted was a glass of wine and to be let off the hook to deal with all the rest of the shitstorm that was going down.
That didn’t stop the guilt of course. I probably felt even more guilty, because, if there’s one thing a brain-injured baby needs, it’s to heal his brain with the liquid gold that is human milk. At least, that’s the message I received from one or two well-meaning pro-breastfeeding friends who were trying to be helpful, but actually just made me feel like the worst mother in the world. T also needed to be able to drink enough to grow and recover, which he never would have done from the breast – we realised later he had a tongue tie to add to his issues – and yet I felt like I was poisoning him with formula and adding to his traumatic start.
All the health warnings on the formula tins and the lack of advice online for bottle-feeding mums really added to that guilt, although I admit now my headspace was making feel even worse about everything. Fourth trimester hormones, uncertain futures, everything that goes with first-time motherhood (and more due to the medical complications) meant I was regularly in tears about feeding for a good year or so after T’s birth.
When my daughter was born, I was determined to breastfeed. It makes sense to me. I know that human milk is exactly the right milk for my child. I pass on my antibodies through it, I can give exactly the right nutrition, I can help a sick or thirsty baby. I can do more than just feed with my breasts. I can bond and comfort and send her to sleep. It’s natural, it’s free (more on that later) and it’s what I wanted to do.
I knew it would be tough. My nipples don’t stick out that much, my mum and sisters all had trouble feeding to various degrees, I knew about the pain and the effort and the cluster feeding and the endless night feeds. But with the right support I knew I would get there and hey, it’s easy! And it’s free!
Easy it was not. She had a tongue tie (detected and snipped early but the damage was already done). It was AGONY. I struggled. She lost a little too much weight. I struggled some more. It was red-raw, cracked nipple central. For the first week I mixed fed, I syringe fed and bottle fed and expressed and added a bit of formula to take the the pressure off but I know how BF goes and it’s supply and demand. Every time I formula fed, I needed to pump (also excruiating at that point!) to keep up my supply. Eventually I didn’t bother. She was rubbish with a bottle anyway, it would pour out of the sides of her mouth so I just gritted my teeth and pushed on through.
Neither was it free. I spent a fortune on Lansinoh, the only cream worth having and £10 a tube, breast pads, trips to various hospitals for several tongue tie appointments and weigh-ins, three sessions of cranial osteopathy, a home visit from a lactation consultant, a trip to London for lip-tie lasering to improve her shallow latch, the petrol it took to drive to breastfeeding support groups near and far – not helped when I left my change bag and wallet in the furthest flung one so had to go back that afternoon to retrieve it. It cost me HUNDREDS of pounds (maybe even touching the thousand pound mark – shudder) in those first weeks.
It took FOUR MONTHS to be pain free. That was four months of dreading every feed, sobbing on my husband, sisters, parents, bf peer supporters, midwives, HV. I wondered how I could make it to the next feed, let alone a reasonable duration of feeding like six months. I was like a zombie at times and I definitely scared a younger family friend who wasn’t quite sure why I was so hollow-eyed and distraught after the joyful event of having a second healthy baby. Sadly, I was almost as traumatised as when Ted was born. I was that low.
Even I am eye-rolling at this tale of woe. Why the hell did I carry on? If you are still reading this, you MUST be wondering that. Hey, I still wonder that! Well, I am stubborn. It helps, if you are going get breastfeeding established. I missed out on the experience of feeding Ted and I wanted it so badly. I knew once I cracked it (the feeding, not the other fragile nipple), it was easier, more convenient, on tap etc etc. But she also wouldn’t take a bottle very well, so I was kind of trapped. That was my saving grace and forced me to carry on.
I had brilliant support – a husband who helped me keep going even though it was pretty hellish for him too and he was left to care for T alone for many months. An amazing health visitor came to visit loads and let me cry on her and who actually knew her stuff on positioning, latch etc (you get so much conflicting and outdated advice). A lovely peer supporter came to my house (not usually the done thing) and she made a real difference.
I had a ton of reading under my belt so I knew about the supply and demand, the cluster feeding and the way it all works and the importance of demand feeding. I knew that when it seemed like she was feeding so much, she couldn’t possibly be getting enough from me, it was because she was prepping for a growth spurt. I’m sure these growth spurt moments at 2 weeks, 3 weeks, 6 weeks are key points for giving up. So many of friends tell me that they weren’t making enough milk for their hungry baby. What if they were just not told about supply and demand and growth spurts? What if they didn’t care and chose formula because it made them happy?
Breastfeeding was right for me. It (eventually) made me happy. Formula feeding would have been easier. I could have shared the load with my husband and we could have both bottle-fed our son and newborn baby. But on a biological level I believe breastfeeding is really important. It was important to me and I am glad that I persevered.
I am not a better mother for doing it. I am not more worthy for doing it. I don’t want applause for being pig-headed enough to ride out the awfulness. I don’t want to make formula feeders feel bad for their choice (even if there wasn’t much choice in it, like my first experience). I just want to say that I made the right choice for my family and it wasn’t easy. So if you are struggling but want to continue, know that it IS possible to succeed.
Through my struggles, I understand why people give up. I get why they question their milk supply and feel like they aren’t satisfying their baby. Hours of being pinned under a suckling child who can’t be put down without screaming have shown me why mums want a break. Those months of intense nipple pain and the weight of responsibility of being the sole feeder have given me empathy for the mums who want someone to take the baby away for a decent stretch so they can shower and sleep and just have a bit of personal space. I understand how hard it is to be so tied to your child. Even since the early days I have had moments of just feeling so claustrophobic because my child is on me all the time. When teething she basically sleeps with a boob in her mouth. It can be exhausting and all-consuming and I have had one night away and a mere handful of nights out since autumn 2015.
Sincerely without judgement, I am a bit sad for those mums who don’t feed or can’t feed as I know they are missing out on an experience like no other. It is the best, quietest, cuddliest time I get with my little tearaway. No one else can give her what I can. I know it’s not forever and I am proud to have been able to grow her into the strong, healthy toddler she is now. That’s how it is for me. It’s the happiest part of my day.