Disclaimer: this article is not intended to stand as a criticism of other mothers or as health advice. I’m not a medical professional. I’m only commenting on my own experience.
I know I will not be alone in admitting that breast-feeding was a lot harder than I had ever imagined or than I had heard from other people.
The journey started for me with a caesarean section. This is commonly known to be something of a disadvantage for breastfeeding. There was no immediate skin to skin contact, no startled newborn comforted by his mother’s smell and breath crawling instinctively towards the nipple for that first nurturing latch…in short, not the start I had imagined.
Baby B did not latch that first evening. Many midwives and lactation consultants saw me in my hospital room and all I wanted was to be able to feed my helpless little newborn but each nurse was telling me to do something different. B only successfully latched once that first night but I was told not to worry.
The next day we set to work on feeding again. I was becoming more and more confused by the hour. After another day of no progress with latching, not only was I starting to worry but my nipples were raw and blistering. Every time he latched a different way the nurses would ask me if it hurt and if I said yes they would get me to unlatch him and try again. The problem was it always hurt and trying again only made it worse!
By the end of the second day I was pumping and syringe feeding colostrum to B and wondering how the heck I was going to make this work.
A few days later my midwife came to visit me at home and brought me a nipple shield. Initially this was a saviour. I still pumped to try and bring more milk in and increase my supply. This also gave me a very small reprieve as it meant that the Husband or my mum could feed B from time to time. One thing is for sure, I’m very glad I invested in a hospital-grade double pump.
A very clear memory for me was attending my first mothers group meeting at the local community health clinic. There were maybe 12 of us and B and I had gotten into this group because someone had pulled out so he was a lot younger than the other babies. He was only 2 weeks old and the nearest in age to him was 8 weeks old. I sat there looking around at all these squirming smiling babies with mums that just seemed to know what they were doing. At one or another point in the meeting each one of them breast fed their babies. They all looked so comfortable and successful at feeding and I hoped against hope that in a few weeks I would be where they were.
Several weeks later (and several lactation consultants) things were still pretty rough. I was still using the shield as B wouldn’t latch without it and the feeds felt like they were constant and around the clock. He would stay on sucking for hours and come off unsettled and showing hunger signs. I felt jibbed. Everyone said that after 6 weeks it would be easier but I wasn’t feeling that at all.
Now to make matters worse I was suffering quite badly throughout this whole time with post-natal depression. My misery was very much compounded with the fact that feeding was such an arduous and often painful experience and it just didn’t seem to be working. My mum who is extremely nutrition-conscious reassured me that if I needed to use formula it was ok, and coming from her that was a pretty big deal for me. However, it wasn’t enough to allay the feeling that formula feeding would make things worse for me.
I leant on the notion of breastfeeding my baby as a big crutch. I was convinced that if I could just achieve this one thing it would make everything easier. I also promised myself that if I could only reach 6 months I would wean him onto formula and I would finally be free.
When my repeated pleas for help with feeding were combined with a slightly sub-par weight measurement for B, the health nurse referred us for a residential stay at the QEII hospital in Canberra for some intensive feeding help. I won’t detail that experience here but I was very relieved at the idea of having someone to support me at every feed around the clock for 5 days.
When I got there I was put onto a regimen of 3 hourly feeds during the day and 4 hourly at night. Feeding consisted of breastfeeds (sitting up, not lying down like I was used to and NO nipple shield), pumping and topping up with expressed milk. This was crippling. B had been sleeping for 5 and 6 hour stretches overnight and having to wake him for feeds was heartbreaking. The pumping was awful and I felt like a cow, a very unsuccessful cow as sometimes I got nothing at all. They put me on Motilium to increase my supply and when I ran out of my small supply of frozen milk we began supplementing with formula.
This was essentially the situation when I left the hospital. I can’t say that the experience helped directly but I certainly needed the support at the time. I was desperate by now. I flew my mum back from Melbourne to Canberra to help me when the Husband returned to work the next week and tried to keep up the routine.
It was hard to remember to take the medication and it was awful to be hooked up to a pump and not be the one settling my baby after each feed. It was deflating giving my baby formula when all I wanted was to breastfeed him and it was awful feeling bad about feeling guilty for doing it. I couldn’t last like this.
The next week I flew to Melbourne with the Husband and baby B to spend some time with my family, including my new little nephew who arrived only 4 weeks after B. B and I stayed for the next month and basically spent our days at my sister’s house where she and I worked on getting feeding right while mum brought us food and played baby whisperer in between.
I brought the formula tin and the pump with me but after a few days I made a decision. No more pumping. I was going to feed him as much as he wanted and give him the formula as a top up and either the breastfeeding would work or it wouldn’t. Around this time I also got netflix on my phone so when there was a 2-hour feed I just watched movies or TV shows. It might seem trivial but it turned an arduous task into an opportunity to relax. By the end of that month in Melbourne I was still breastfeeding but B was no longer interested in the formula.
When he was 3 months old I was still determined that when 6 months came I’d be done with breastfeeding altogether. I couldn’t see how it could be sustainable. I was only comfortable feeding lying down in bed or with a feeding pillow and although I was making this work it wasn’t desirable. When I went out I took the pillow with me. I even used it at the Husbands graduation ceremony! Mostly though, I just fed lying down and went on short small outings in between.
Gradually this became less and less painful. It began to occur to me that this wasn’t the ‘new normal’ it was only the current situation. B is growing and eventually one way or another breastfeeding will end.
One day I went into the Canberra CBD and had lunch with the Husband. Afterwards baby B fell asleep so I went for a walk around the shops – such luxury – then when he woke I decided that instead of going home straight away and feeding him there, I would try something different. I made my way tentatively to the parent’s room…and…it wasn’t so bad. He fed ok. Not like at home, but ok. He fed well enough to buy me a bit more time for some more browsing through the shops and I went home feeling like I had just come back from the moon.
So here we are. B’s latch has never looked like all of the pamphlets said it should but he’s shot up to the 70th percentile so he’s certainly getting something. I still do 99% of feeds lying down at home but now at least I know that if I’m out and about I can feed him a bit if I need to. At least enough to tide him over. Best of all, after a few more months I started pumping again. B was being fussy at the boob in the mornings and I was always full at that time. So rather than waste it, I got the pump out and started doing little 10 minute jobs here and there. I couldn’t believe it though, in 10 minutes I now generally get 160-200mls. Before long I had a good supply built up in the freezer which finally afforded me enough freedom to leave B with one of his devoted grandmas for a few hours or with his dad while I had some ‘me time’ or did some study.
So here we are 7 months on breastfeeding is still happening and I have no intention of stopping any time soon. B boobs to bed every night and although some would say I’ve created a bad habit, it works for us. I’m still 6 months away from returning to work so I don’t have to thing about dealing with that right now but really I think I might keep going for a while.
Funnily enough, it wasn’t all the ‘breast is best’ mantras that kept me going at all. Rather it was all the formula and mixed feeding mums who said to me, ‘do what you have to do’. They gave me the support I needed to feel like if I switched to formula it was OK. Once I knew that I could switch I had room to breathe. I just kept saying to myself, ‘one more day, one more week’ and before I knew it I became one of those mums at the mother’s group, the ones who could just do it.