First and foremost, let me say that breast feeding is a wonderful force of nature. To be able to provide for your newborn by only using your body really is an incredible thing and one that I will always be astounded by, as I am by the ability of a woman’s body to give birth. But, like delivering a baby, breast feeding isn’t easy and – dare I say it – it’s not always nice. I admire those women who do it, and especially those who persevere though the pain and discomfort for their babies’ sakes. I gave my body over completely when giving birth, but breast feeding was a much more difficult challenge for me.
This is my truth about breast feeding, nothing more. I understand that “breast is best”, I really do, but my experience wasn’t perfect by any means, and I want to share my story in case it helps women who may have had a similar struggle.
I’ll start from the beginning. I completely understand if this doesn’t interest you or if it’s simply too much information, and hopefully I’ll see you for the next blog post. 🙂
I never felt any pressure from professionals to breast feed, even though all the literature and antenatal classes were focused around breast feeding (even so, feeding information of any kind was fairly limited). The midwives were all very honest. Yes, they stuck to their curriculum, but they also offered advice on formula feeding when asked, and admitted that every woman and every baby is different and that feeding your baby is all about finding the right result for you.
I never felt any pressure from my peers to breast feed. Yes, at times I felt like I was the only person in my circle not breast feeding, but not once did any other new mum (or mums of kids of any age) ever make me feel as though I should be breast feeding.
The pressure to breast feed came only from myself. Oddly enough, this was a bit of a shock to me. Before NCM arrived, I’d always been adamant that I’d give breast feeding my very best shot, but that I wouldn’t put any pressure on myself. I promised myself I would – as I do with everything – do my very best, and leave the rest up to fate.
As fate would have it, I lost a lot of blood during the birth. As far as I can recall, it took almost two hours to stop the bleeding (while I held onto my newborn squidgy mess before handing him over to Daddy so I could focus on more gas and air), followed by an iron transfusion and six hours of bed rest before the health professionals decided I didn’t need a blood transfusion. Naturally, this resulted in an incredibly worn out body, one that needed to fix itself before it started to look after someone else. My milk didn’t come in immediately. Usually, the colostrum (the yellow-y goodness) comes first (and mine did, slowly), while the milk comes in around three days later. My milk eventually came in about a week after the birth, and it took a lot to get it going – electronically pumping my breasts every three hours around the clock to mimic a newborn’s feeding habits in an effort to ‘trick’ my body into producing milk.
When my milk did come, it was in very small volumes and it wasn’t easy for NCM to latch on. I used a nipple guard mostly, after help from midwives both at the hospital and breast feeding specialists within the community. I expressed in order to tell how much he’d had, but after 45 minutes of pumping and only 60-100 mls later, I wasn’t able to generate much of a store. Before we left the hospital, seeing other mums with fridges full of expressed milk, and afterwards at home hearing of mums with freezers full, were some of the saddest feelings for me.
But exactly how did I feel when I was actually feeding? When it worked and it was seamless it felt lovely. I felt so close to my little baby boy and it certainly helped me bond with him – giving birth doesn’t instantly make you feel like a mother, it’s all the little things that mean you’re looking after your baby that make you feel like a mum (which is why, I suppose, we can all feel like mums, whether we are or not). Feeding is inevitably part of that and yes, breast feeding made me feel close to him. But, honestly, it was mostly uncomfortable. Some women experience really bad pain and sores on the nipples and, luckily, this wasn’t really the case for me. My discomfort came from the sensation inside, the backache because I couldn’t find a comfortable position to hold my baby, the strain of constantly trying to get him to latch on while he cried that newborn cry that makes your heart break, and all I wanted to do was fix it. And, for the life of me, I couldn’t get him on quickly enough – I mean that literally, not figuratively – to feed this tiny, screaming, hungry baby who never seem satiated by a feed. When I fed him a bottle (we did that twice throughout the night) I could see him relax, happy with his nice full tummy. Perhaps I’m over dramatising it. But perhaps not.
NCM was formula fed from the day he was born. He was born at 4.32am on Wednesday 25 January 2017 and, before midnight that same day he was taken away from me to the specialist baby unit. It was the most gut wrenching, heart breaking moment of my life and I can’t remember it without hot tears springing to my eyes. By the time I was allowed* to visit him in his incubator, he had already been given formula by a tube and I couldn’t have cared less – all I wanted was for him to be well and for us to be together again. Sleeping away from him for the first two nights of his life was indescribably horrible.
So giving NCM formula was never an issue. From day one, until five days later when we finally went home, he’d been living on formula. The volume of colostrum I produced was tiny and I had nothing more to give him. I’m sure that if I had felt strongly about it, there would have been other means. But I didn’t feel strongly, and I also felt a bit of a failure; selfishly, I didn’t want anyone else to be able to provide for him. Even watching the baby nurse feed him his first bottle made me annoyed and frustrated. I felt a failure and I felt useless and to have given him his first bottle might have helped me feel like a mother. (I’ve never said that out loud to anyone and it makes me feel like a shitty person, but I’m pretty sure it’s normal and I’d appreciate anyone else who has felt the same way reaching out.)
So we left the hospital as ‘combination feeding’ parents. The support I received with regards to breast feeding was amazing, and I am so grateful to the staff and the NHS for that, for not rushing us or putting pressure on us. However, if one of those nurses or doctors had just said ‘feed your baby formula’ I’d have felt so much better. The validation of a professional would have made things so much easier.
But we went home with formula and with a breast pump. And for two months we carried on like that. And still I told myself that I was being selfish, that the physical pain, the sore nipples, the engorged breasts, the backache, and the leaking was nothing to complain about, that I should just suck it up and get on with it. But for me, the hardest part was the emotional struggle that came with breast feeding. I knew I wasn’t happy – I questioned everything I was doing when feeding him, I cried, I worried, and I was anxious almost all of the time. But I carried on for NCM’s sake, to give him the best start in life (as it had been so well drummed into me). I think I even carried on to prove to my husband, my baby’s father, that I had truly tried my best for our baby. He couldn’t have been more supportive, he understood it was my body, and he didn’t pressure me ever, not once. Never. But I still wanted him to know that I had really tried and I suppose I needed his approval.
As the weeks passed I became more confident as a new mum. I got to know my baby and we settled into a bit of a routine. I became more self assured, more independent. It felt like the fierce mama inside me grew stronger and she started to feel like she could take on the world again. No one was telling me to keep going. No one was telling me to stop. I had to come to a decision by myself and, suddenly, I realised that I’d be much happier if I wasn’t breast feeding. I truly believe that anxiety is picked up by babies. Eventually I took on the ‘happy mum, happy baby’ mantra.
After two months I made the decision to stop breast feeding. I did it gradually, cutting down feeds over a number of days. In some ways I wish I’d kept going. In some ways I wish I’d never started. But you know what? I was and I am happy. After I decided to formula feed, I started to enjoy my baby more because I could focus on him as a whole, not on how his next feed would go. I’d kept my promise: I did my best. And there’s nothing more I could have asked of myself.
Image: Kris Miller
Location: Archerfield House
*Let me say here that nobody in the NHS said I wasn’t allowed to go with him. But the midwife looking after me advised that watching him being handled and settled into his incubator would not be pleasant and that I too needed the rest after a grueling delivery. So, being vulnerable and weak and with my catheter and my stockings and my bleeding, I took her advice until 1am, when I finally dragged myself and my catheter along the corridors to see my tiny new baby.