The Frog Pyjamas

Two mums, one blog, two takes on parenting

Time to be honest about breastfeeding

14 Comments

My baby daughter has turned one, and I’ve stopped breastfeeding her. I can safely say that this is the only thing about our nursing experience that has gone as planned.

This is what I imagined. Newborn squirming instinctively to the breast, preferably still in the birthing pool, and latching instantly, successfully, and painlessly. (That’s what we saw in the video in our antenatal class, right?) Me radiant and energised. Milk surging in after a couple of days and remaining abundant. Baby immediately thriving. Me the earth mother, effortlessly drifting with baby and boob from café to home to park. We might introduce a bottle of expressed milk after a while, but only so that my partner could get involved and I could get out and exercise of an evening.

This is what it was actually like. The baby latched pretty well (when we finally got the skin to skin, and that’s another story but let’s just say no water and whale music was involved). However, that turned out to be a mixed blessing, since it was the start of five days in which midwife after midwife glanced at us, proclaimed all to look great, and brushed off the fact that little A. was soon crying all night and most of the day. We thought we had a “difficult baby”. We didn’t: we had a sunny little poppet, only she wasn’t getting any milk.

Cue a lot of tears. Hers. Mine. Both. Bad advice at a crucial time, when an inexperienced midwife was unconcerned by a lack of wet nappies. Then two fraught, horrible days back in hospital when the problem was finally picked up. Formula. Lots of it. (I didn’t even know about donor milk then, and I’m not sure I could have got any in time if I did.) Lots of expressing. Blood tests – hers. Hysteria – mine – and more blood tests to check kidney function as we waited a desperate 24 hours for her to pee. (I never thought one of my all-time best moments would involve urine, but that’s what motherhood does to you.)

By this stage, A. was six days old and I had never felt so much love for anyone in my life. But I had barely slept since two days before she was born and I had also never felt so much guilt. I cried helplessly, unstoppably, wishing I could go back a week and do better by her when she came out this time. (By which I mean supplementing before she lost 13 per cent of her birth weight, and was borderline dangerously dehydrated.)

She emerged from the neonatal unit a transformed, happy baby, with parents a world more experienced: more besotted with her than ever, but also painfully aware of just how frightening this business of keeping a child alive can be. Then came the long, slow process of trying to sort out the milk supply. The exhausting routine of breast, bottle, expressing, made possible (i.e. reduced to only an hour every three hours) only because I had first her dad, then my mum, then my mother-in law, to do the bottle bit. Visit after visit to the breastfeeding clinic. Bleeding nipples, cured by the truly brilliant biological nurturing position. Oral thrush, cured – eventually – by time. (Turns out £40 silver nipple cups were a waste of money. Who knew?)

And still the guilt. A double whammy of it, since I managed simultaneously to feel terrible for not realising she was getting dehydrated (for six months I couldn’t bear look at her early baby pictures, because I would just think of how we were starving her, and not realising), and more mildly bad that I was giving her formula.

I tried trick after trick to get more milk. Cereal bars and water at every feed. Cup after cup of breastfeeding tea. (I think it helped.) Breastfeeding cookies. (No discernible difference. They tasted nice, though.) And, slowly, things improved. From three to six months she was, at last, an exclusively breast milk baby, and I loved it even though I was expressing at least twice a day to keep up with demand. (If that sounds in any way heroic, it’s not: try my friend who exclusively pumped for 21 months to feed a baby who couldn’t latch.) From six months, as the amount I was having to express went on going up, I figured I’d given it a good go, and supplemented again with formula. So all in all, the closest I’d been to an earth mother was when I was eight-months pregnant and my brother-in-law said I looked like I’d swallowed a planet.

Why am I saying all this? Certainly not to put anyone off breastfeeding. Despite everything – perhaps in a weird way because of it – I’m very glad I persevered. I don’t need to go over the health benefits because they are now, fortunately, so well-documented. But there’s also the bonding: when you get it cracked, it really is uniquely wonderful. More prosaically, it can also be a whole lot more convenient. Just ask anyone who’s done the never-ending round of sterilising, warming the milk, throwing it away if the baby turns out not to be hungry, carrying sterile bottles around, carrying milk around, and generally having to be far more organised than is feasible on four hours sleep a night.

So I’m still very much pro-boob. I just I think it’s time we were more realistic – and a great deal more open – about how tough it can be. We’re not Victorians now, and pregnant women are told the grisly truth about labour. (Although some birth preparation methods are more truthful than others. Sensations? Like hell they are!) So why aren’t we warned that breastfeeding, rewarding though it can and probably will be, can be an emotional and physical nightmare to get off the ground?

Because it’s not just me, although it wasn’t until I was floundering myself that I realised quite how un-unusual I was. With a social circle packed with newish mums, and the lack of reserve that comes with going through birth (almost) together, I can now honestly say I know more women who have seriously struggled with breastfeeding – supply problems, latching problems, both – than have found it completely straightforward. I can’t think, offhand, of anyone who didn’t give it a try, but I do know some mothers who decided – contrary to their own hopes – to stop altogether, and many who ended up combination feeding. (Yes, breast milk is wonderful. But so is having a mother who isn’t attached to the expresser every three hours, who has had a bit of sleep, and who can focus 24:7 on being a mother.)

Two things stick in my memory about the breastfeeding “expert” who came to one of our antenatal classes. One is that she spent a lot of the time talking to the dads. (Why, exactly? I still don’t get it.) The other is when we asked about women who couldn’t breastfeed. She said that could only happen if you didn’t have the mammary glands. Not wildly helpful. So here, with the benefit of hindsight, is the answer I wish we’d been given.

Yes, some women do have supply problems: a long or difficult labour can delay your milk coming in, as can stress. (And, quelle surprise, if you are tired from an epic labour and worried to death that you aren’t feeding your baby enough, you’ll be more stressed than ever.) Don’t despair, though, because even if you do have to supplement initially, you can still breastfeed. Breast-bottle confusion is nothing like as prevalent as it’s made out to be (it’s a myth, according to our neonatal doctor) and expressing really can boost supply. That said, for some women it’s a long old haul. If that’s you – and you’re not superhuman – you’ll need help.

It’s not as though there’s no support out there for mothers when they are struggling. For us, there was plenty: breastfeeding counselling in the excellent neonatal unit, then a free breastfeeding clinic. But the fact that the probability of problems is built into the system for after the event just makes it all the more puzzling that there’s so little acknowledgement of it beforehand. (Very possibly, moreover, there still isn’t enough support: based on anecdotal evidence from elsewhere in the UK, there may be a postcode lottery here.)

Of course, they (by which I mean the major providers of antenatal classes) have their reasons. They don’t want to put people off. They flag up all the advantages, and rightly so. I can see that some women wouldn’t even try breastfeeding if they were told too much up front about supply delays, tongue tie, cracked nipples, and babies screaming with hunger and frustration because they just can’t get the milk. But if the aim is to get mums not only to try but actually to carry on breastfeeding, surely it would be better to have them fully armed not only with all the many good reasons for doing it but also with the likely problems and some realistic advice on how long, and how much extra support, it takes to overcome them.

My other reason for writing this is that it’s all too easy to judge women who have switched to bottles. I should be clear here. We should be glad and proud that we are an increasingly breastfeeding-friendly society. All credit to the campaigners who have worked – and continue to work – towards that. The conduct of regressive companies or individuals is appalling. (Sports Direct, shame on you.) The conduct of certain big-name formula manufacturers, pushing their wares indiscriminately in the developing world, is of course, unspeakably awful.

But being breast-friendly doesn’t mean making bottle-feeding mothers feel as though they’ve failed. In almost a year of breastfeeding, I was only once made to feel awkward: on a busy commuter train from London to Reading. But in yummy mummy cafes, I found myself constantly – stupidly, irrationally – wanting to justify myself for not exclusively breastfeeding. Especially if I happened to be the only bottle among an ocean of breasts, I wanted to print a T-shirt saying “I have tried to breastfeed”, or “She gets my milk as well”, or even (later) “This is expressed milk.”

Quite possibly the disapproving looks were a figment of my paranoid imagination, but the fact I was paranoid is a product of what I was taught to expect of myself. As with the sought-after intervention-free labour, we are presented with an ideal but not as an ideal: rather, as something we can all live up to, if we only push ourselves hard enough. This completely ignores the fact that it’s not a one-size-fits-all option. If we had only “natural births”, we’d have a lot more naturally dead mothers and babies. If all babies had only their own mothers’ milk, some wouldn’t make it through the early weeks. And while some women are very open about their drug-and-intervention-filled labours, there’s a lot less said about the decision either to combination feed, or to stop breastfeeding altogether. In my experience, that’s never a decision lightly made, never a selfish one. It’s certainly not something for which a new mother – already juggling with a morass of challenges – should be judged.

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14 thoughts on “Time to be honest about breastfeeding

  1. Anything is possible…I am one of the lucky mums, I’ve been able to breastfeed my 5 weeks premature twins, they are 15 months now. Good luck to all new mums out there.

  2. my daughter decided at 11 weeks to refuse the breast, I’ve pumped ever since, no formula, I had stickers made saying ‘breast milk’ for her bottles…

  3. Baby 1: Never slept, cried all the time, didn’t latch on properly – I was so sore the midwife said anywhere else on my body and I’d have stitches! Would only feed with me standing up. Got mastitis. I would have died rather than give up but understand that awful feeling. Fed ’til she was 1. Baby 2: He had a brain haemorrhage at 2 weeks – hospitalised, operation, drama, trauma, stupid hospital nurses. Expressed milk. Fed ’til he was 14 months. Baby 3: An absolute treasure – just like they are ‘supposed’ to be. Fed til she was 2.5 years. All born at home so good birth experiences which does make a different.

  4. I could have written that! Thanks so much for sharing, it makes me feel so much better. xxx

    • Me too. It is perfectly written. The guilt, the feeling of failure, the perhaps imagined judgement of others. I feel a lot more prepared for baby 2 and have more realistic ideals and goals. What shocked me most was that at no point in the antenatal bf classes did they mention tongue- ties. Not our only problem but knowing to look for one or have it checked would have been a useful forewarning!

      Thank you for validating my combi-feeding experience. I was a judger before now I just want to raise awareness and acceptance for all feeding methods.

  5. One comment for thought:
    ?tongue tie

  6. This article is excellent and says a lot of what I’ve been thinking along my own journey. A little honesty in the antenatal classes (I’m looking at you, NCT) would help people to breastfeed for longer. I believe that 100%. If someone is put off by the notion that it may be painful initially or they may have to artificially increase their supply I doubt they would stick with it anyway so what’s the harm in telling people these common problems and how to overcome them rather than denying that they exist?

    Sadly I do not know one woman who has not had problems with latch/supply/pain and has been able to breastfeed trouble free from the get go and those people that can aren’t any better than mothers who have to or want to turn to the bottle; they’re just lucky it worked out for them. The key message needs to be that yes, it can, like anything, take a while to get into the swing of it; it’s a skill that needs to be acquired. BUT once you’re past the initial stages (when hormones are to blame for a lot anyway!) it becomes so easy, convenient and you will be glad you stuck with it.

    And there’s no harm in combination feeding so you get a break, we are lucky to live in a time where specialist baby milk is available and there is no shame in using it if you’re stressed, tired, or baby is not happy or gaining weight just on breast milk. Pumping for hours does not make you a better mother. Spend that time with your child. Don’t feel guilty, your baby will still love you however he or she is fed for those first six months, and unless they go on to have children and have a breast v bottle dilemma themselves, they won’t know nor care. Having a baby is so much more than just providing nutrition yet we can lose sight of that when we feel we have failed.

    Breast is best, but not at all costs.

  7. Oops – double posted. Please remove my first comment!

  8. Great article…I have been meaning to get pen to paper to write some thing similar but have not quite got there yet.

    We are 10 months in on breastfeeding here and I agree that more honesty needs to be given pre pregnancy. The breast feeding adviser told us repeatedly that it doesn’t or “shouldn’t” hurt. Because of this, in the early days – I felt we were doing some thing wrong because it hurt so much. I now see that it just does hurt some times even if you have got “a good latch”. I think it would be much more accurate to say that it will some times hurt but it gets easier… I also think more information should be given re the length and frequency of feeds. I know this can vary between babies but our little boy fed hourly or two hourly each night for weeks and weeks. It would have been good to be prepared for this.

    I am a doctor myself and used to be a nurse. Breast feeding (apart from duct and breast tissue structure!!) was not covered any where in either of my degrees or work teaching…professionals too need educating. Can’t wait to give more sensitive, realistic practical advice to my patients who are mums in General Practice now.

  9. I think research says lack of partners support is a number one reason why women quit breast feeding, hence perhaps she directed the info to them? Just a thought.

  10. I don’t agree that breast is always best.

    It’s not best for a Mum who can barely cope, let alone breast feed, and it leads to her hating her child and not bonding.

    It’s not best if you child can’t suck well and starves.

    Its not best for women who want to go back to work and feel guilty. Or Mums that can’t express (I never could)

    My second born child had a condition called Laryngomalacia which meant my son had a floppy larynx. His weight actually went down as he went into semi starvation mode at one month as all his energy was used in sucking and breathing alone. Having fought to breast feed I was advised to give him bottled milk as it contained more fat and delivery was easier for him. Breast was not in fact best for my child at that time.

    It’s bad enough being a new Mum, without the pressure on to breast feed at all costs. I was born in an era where Mum’s were told to bottle feed as best anyway! The time has change too, it was 4 months when I had mine, now its 6. My advice is do what’s right for you, and that’s what’s best for your baby.

  11. Fantastic post. I had a completely different but similarly emotional experience trying to get my 6 weeks prem twins to latch on just so that I could get them out of the NNU and home with me. Poor lads would have loved to latch on, but didn’t have the reflexes yet. I’ll never forget my elation, after hours of agonising hand-expressing, at taking my tiny sterile bottle of about 20ml of breast milk from the maternity ward to the NNU in my dressing gown at 4am. My elation was short-lived as the nurse, rather than being impressed at my perseverance, told me they’d have to have it tested because there was too much of my own blood in it, then asked if I was sure I hadn’t topped it up with water or tea as it was such a funny colour. I remember thinking that if nurses were saying things like that to emotionally wrecked new mums, no wonder those less stubborn than I were giving in without a fight…

    I am entirely convinced of the benefits of breast, but I do believe that the key is to support mums in finding what works best for them. When my boys hit their 7 month growth spurt, after 4 days of feeding 24/7, I gave in to combi-feeding with a couple of bottles a day. At first I used my supply of frozen expressed milk, but once that dwindled I had to move onto formula. The guilt I felt was indescribable. I think at the end of the day, though, what matters is that mum has the energy to bond with baby, and for some, formula is the only option.

    I saw a fantastic campaign on facebook not long ago, which was basically summed up as “whatever you’re doing to feed your baby, breast or bottle, I support YOU”. I think the key for new mums is simply support, whatever choices we make. If we can all share our stories as openly as you have, and in a non-judgemental way (which again, I feel you have here) we might slowly begin to realise that, as mums we’re flaming fantastic at what we do, however we do it!

  12. This is a great post. I had a difficult labour which resulted in my milk being delayed and my little girl becoming jaundiced. I felt so much angst giving her formula and had to battle with my partner who had been NCT’d as well as the midwives all helpfully telling me that i’d never get her on the breast…the next two months were horrid – I demand fed and then expressed to get my milk supply up but having delivered a 10lb-er it was never enough so always had to top up (except for 3 blissful weeks between growth spurts when it all came together). I found the whole experience painful and emotionally charged. I found I have flat nipples so had to use nipple shields to get a latch (which the HV’s also disapproved of – give me a break, I’m feeding her!). The sense of failure was ever-present and everyone had an opinion. I used to engineer conversations with strangers to explain the bottle was a top up to prove I was breast feeding…as another postee says, what is important is that Mum and baby are happy and healthy.

  13. Pingback: Daddy-time: Why we all loved paternity leave | The Frog Pyjamas

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