The Frog Pyjamas

Two mums, one blog, two takes on parenting


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Can’t sleep, won’t sleep: Surviving postnatal insomnia

“Sleep when your baby sleeps.” Yeah, right.

Everyone warns you about disrupted nights, though nothing prepares you for being woken, some nights, every 45 minutes. From two to seven months, two hours was a long sleep for my younger daughter. Even her big sister – no perfect sleeper – had left me totally unready for that.

Nobody warns you that you mightn’t be able to sleep even between those imperious alarm calls. That, as if this amazing, impossible motherhood lark wasn’t challenge enough already, you can be let down by your own body.

Nobody tells you about lying next to a sleeping baby, zombie-tired but irredeemably awake. About the time sliding by as your thoughts run in unproductive but unstoppable circles. Exhausted frustration to near-resignation. Then another cycle of almost-but-not-quite-dropping-off. Finally, sobbing panic at the thought of the long, fast-approaching day. A day with two infinitely valuable, infinitely demanding little persons to be kept alive and fed and happy.

No-one tells you about listening for your baby’s slightest movement. One moment hearing her stir and deciding it’s pointless trying to sleep when she could wake any second. The next panicking because you can’t hear her, and waking her yourself to ascertain that, yes, she is still breathing. About how sometimes you will end up waking her to feed, hoping the ensuing sleep will be a chance to sleep yourself. (It wasn’t, usually.) Or how you will tell yourself what a terrible mother you are to have disturbed her. (Those are not the hours for rationality.)

At least, nobody told me. I hadn’t heard of postnatal insomnia until I had Little L. Then, frantically Googling (usually at 2am), I found only brief mentions on the official websites, usually as a codicil to postnatal depression. It was only by trawling through the message boards that I found other new mothers grappling with it as a standalone problem. (Or perhaps not entirely standalone. Looking back, I can see how easily that tear-drenched middle-of-the-night panic could have spiralled into PND.) But, because it is a very real problem, and in the hope of helping someone else, here is how I got through my months of sleep deprivation.

Co-sleeping. I never planned to do it: it rang all the alarm bells in my risk-averse head. But when I only had to wriggle across to feed L. to sleep, then back to my side of the bed, I didn’t ever have to wake up all that much. And – an unexpected benefit – I loved it so much that I wished I’d done it first time round. (Tip for the similarly cautious: under-the-sheet bed guards. They stopped her rolling into me and under the duvet, but I could lie across them to breastfeed.)

Talking books. I tried some of the standard insomnia tips. Prescription and even over-the-counter drugs are, alas, incompatible with breastfeeding. So I was left with camomile tea (For weeks, I kept it by the bed.) With not staring at a screen before or in bed. (The 2am Googling: bad idea.) A hot bath. (Like, when exactly?) I even tried downloading what claimed to be a self-hypnosis insomnia cure. (I ended up more awake than ever, but distracted by planning methods of torture for the deeply annoying narrator.) Talking books actually blocked out that unproductive escalation of worry. Books I loved, but knew inside out already. They tricked me into sleep because I wasn’t thinking about it. It didn’t always work, but it did more often than anything else.

Early nights. For the insomniac, it’s a case not of sleeping when the baby lets you but finding out when you can sleep, and moving heaven and earth to make space for it. For me, that meant going to bed almost as soon as my toddler did. Then, I could grab a few straight hours while L. was carted round the house in the sling on her dad, or cuddled by whichever aunt or grandparent was to hand.

Friends. Girls I could text after a bad night, begging them to come round, warning them I was liable to burst into tears at any moment. Friends who showed up in twos or threes, loaded with cake and their own toddlers to entertain mine, who carried Little L. around when she cried, picked up A. when she tumbled over, and barely let me get out of my chair. Those expensive antenatal classes we did the first time round? Totally, totally worth it: they brought these indispensable ladies into my life.

Acceptance. The single most useful piece of advice I found in all my obsessive online research was that there is no miracle cure. Two friends saying of the two hourly wake-ups: “That’s just what it’s like when you are exclusively breastfeeding” was about the most helpful thing I could hear. After that, I wasn’t constantly thinking: “Oh I can’t wait to crack the sleeping so I can enjoy parenting again.” I was relishing her already. And it means so much, looking back, that I didn’t let the sleep crap undermine that.

The truth is, we can deal with it. Even a double whammy of insomnia and a six-feeds-a-night-baby. Once I found I could cope even with only an hour’s sleep, I was spared that 5am how-will-I-get-through-the-day panic. Yes, there was more Peppa Pig than I ever thought I would countenance, and I felt – and still feel – terrible at how much snappier the tiredness made me with my adorable A. But I knew I could keep both girls fed and cleanish and mostly cheerful, even if I was on reserve battery myself. Armed with the swat team of friends and cake, I even laughed my way through some of those zombie afternoons.

And while insomnia has nothing going for it, there is something to be said for the baby-led night-time wake ups. With a toddler and a houseful of chores, quality time with a second baby is thin on the ground. From that first besotted night in hospital, thinking how crazy I was to worry I couldn’t love a second baby as much, the night feeds have been just for me and Little L. For all the tears (mine and hers), there are memories that I will treasure. That moment when she stops raging and begins her trusting, shut-eyed questing. Her happy, snuffling noises. That warm, cuddly intimacy, even through the haze of exhaustion.

L. is nine months old now and at least starts the night in the cot. Her dad handles some wake ups, she’s down to two or three a night, and I (mostly) sleep better. I wouldn’t say I’ll be sad when she eventually sleeps through, but there will be some things I’ll miss, after all.


The Big C: one mother’s journey through breast cancer

We might not find it particularly easy or even joyful, but we all know the benefits of breastfeeding. Immune support. It’s there on tap with no need to sterilise bottles. It can help provide protection from breast cancer… The list goes on.  Although not particularly blessed in the breast department, I managed to (just about) feed each of my boys for at least five months, and encouraged other mums to do the same through my role as chair of a local NCT group. I was an exercise fanatic, I didn’t smoke, didn’t drink that much (although I’m not a saint), I wasn’t overweigh… I was not expecting to be told, at the age of 33 and barely a year after my second son was born, that I had breast cancer.

Early detection is absolutely critical and I thank my lucky stars that I decided to go and tell my GP, on that wet morning in late August 2010, that I had found a small lump, no bigger than a frozen pea, in my left breast. Some months down the line, my GP confessed that she nearly didn’t refer me to the screening clinic as she was convinced it was nothing, given I had only just weaned my youngest son off breast milk. It was only because I had burst into tears on her that she decided to make an appointment for me.

At the clinic, I wasn’t too concerned. The consultant did an ultrasound and then her demeanour changed from chatty to businesslike and she said she wanted to do a biopsy and a mammogram. Still I wasn’t worried! It didn’t occur to me that women my age who have followed all (well, nearly all) the rules for healthy living, should get cancer. She said that there was something there but it was highly likely to be benign and we would know more in a week.

The day of the results was a bright autumn day in September 2010 (I can remember the date, the time, what I was wearing). My husband P and I were taken into a side room at the clinic and the consultant said: “Your results have come back and I’m afraid to say that it is breast cancer. But it is early stage so there is a lot we can do about it.” At this point she paused. I remember just sitting there, numb to the core. Cancer? Really?? That word meant surgery, hair loss, death. Still I felt numb – no words came to me. The consultant carried on talking through the treatment plan, and she wanted to perform another biopsy as they thought there was another tumour alongside the first. I wasn’t really taking it all in. I remember turning to P and seeing his face absolutely blanch. All I could think was that I wouldn’t see my little boys grow up, in fact would I even see Christmas? Did early stage mean I had months, rather than weeks or days to live? The consultant was, by this stage, beckoning me over to another room for the biopsy. I asked P to call my mum – I knew I couldn’t tell her, she had lost her sister to breast cancer five years ago, was she about to lose her daughter too?

I still wasn’t able to speak or even feel anything, even through the ordeal of an x-ray biopsy (being sandwiched in a mammogram machine for over 40 minutes whilst the doctor periodically took images and then samples). In fact it wasn’t until the consultant led me back into the waiting room to see P that I fell apart. The room was full of ladies over 60. I suddenly realised the enormity of this and how young I was and I collapsed on the floor, sobbing. A kind nurse appeared and she and P got me to a side room and sat with me, holding my hand, hugging me and passing me tissues until I had cried it all out. I have never cried that much in my life, it just wouldn’t stop.

The days that followed blurred into one. My mother, although utterly shocked, rallied and came down to help with the boys. H, my eldest, had just turned four and had started reception. S, aged one, was in nursery. Appointments at the hospital merged together, meetings with consultants, oncologists, breast care nurses, leaflets, leaflets, leaflets. It was decided that radical surgery and immediate reconstruction would be the best plan and so, just ten days after that initial diagnosis, I was in the Royal Surrey County Hospital, Guildford.

The surgery itself was an epic seven-hour ordeal followed by a two-week recovery in hospital, surrounded by elderly ladies who all looked at me pityingly, their heads tilted sideways. And then I met Helen – a bubbly, wonderful mum of two (slightly older than mine) who was in the bed across from me. Helen was recovering from an infection in one of her reconstructed breasts, following a double mastectomy (she had the BRCA 1 gene and had found a lump that was quite advanced and aggressive).

She would perch on my bed as I lay there in a morphine-induced fog, surrounded by drips and machines, chattering away and really making me laugh. The night we ordered take away pizza because the food was so vile and watched x-factor curled up on my bed was the night I knew I was going to get through this.

At this point just thinking about my little boys threw me into a state of complete panic and fear. My only experience with cancer had been losing my aunt and so that was my frame of reference. Whilst in hospital and then recovering at home it was obviously impossible for me to function normally as a mother, although we kept everything as low key as possible in front of them. I never wanted them to visit me in hospital because it would have been too traumatic for them. For the first few operations, I was on the ladies cancer ward which is a very difficult place for a child to comprehend and anyway, the risk of them bringing in infection would have been too great. Plus, as a survival instinct, I had mentally detached myself from Anna – the Mother, although I kept photos of them next to my bed and welcomed their cards, pictures and paper flowers.

The other mothers at H’s school and our local friends were incredible. We had meals cooked and delivered for us and one lovely friend even washed H’s PE kit each Friday night so I didn’t have to worry about it. My parents and in-laws were fantastic too and took turns to come and stay so that I could really rest and recover. After leaving hospital, I was initially in so much pain that I couldn’t do anything apart from move very slowly and carefully around the house. Not being able to drive for eight weeks was tough as well. H knew something wasn’t right but we kept the atmosphere as happy and ‘normal’ as possible. He could see the dressings on my back quite clearly and we told him I had had an operation on my back which seemed to satisfy him. The most important thing was to keep up the charade that everything was ok – that helped P and I keep our heads together.

It wasn’t really until about three months later that I found the boys helped me to focus on getting better and feeling positive. I would often lie awake at night thinking about the ‘what if’ and then I would creep into their rooms and watch them sleep.

Because of the extensive surgery and the removal of most of my lymph nodes, the consultant and oncologist were satisfied that the cancer hadn’t spread and thus ruled out any chemo or radiotherapy. I would have to go on hormone therapy for at least five years as the tumours were triple positive (which meant they were fed mostly by oestrogen so it was imperative to remove this hormone from my system to prevent future recurrence). Those first few months post surgery and diagnosis were hard and both P and I were tired, stressed and irritable. I had to go through more operations to fix the reconstruction and I have chronic nerve damage to my back as a result of the reconstruction. The hormone therapy drug, Tamoxifen, caused my body to react so badly that I ended up having a hysterectomy (hilariously, just a week after P had put himself through a vasectomy).

The hardest phase was actually about six months after my official diagnosis, when all the hospital visits started to peter out. I became anxious and fearful and wouldn’t leave the house. Friends still came over to jolly me along but I was terrified and the enormity of it all hit me like a truck. I ended up having counselling and was put on anti depressants. Looking back, I think it was really to be expected – I had spent too long pretending to be fine and never really got to grips with how I actually felt. I bottled it all up and eventually the lid blew off.

It was terrifying to have a taste of my own mortality at a time when P and I had only really just got our heads around being parents. We tried desperately to be upbeat in front of the boys but it didn’t always work out that way. Talking to H now (aged eight), I asked him if he remembered those months when he had started school and his view was that he knew something was up but that he is glad he didn’t know the full extent as it didn’t upset him. I have since told him what happened and we talked through what cancer is and how, given the right and also timely treatment, it can be 100 per cent curable. It is more poignant now as there have been other mums in his school who have been diagnosed and so he is able to offer kind words and support to those boys who are upset – it’s not something I ask him to do, he just wants to. I am very proud of the way in which he has dealt with everything and he is now a remarkably sensitive and kind little boy. S is still too young to understand, but I will tell him when he’s old enough.

I also realise I was lucky. I use that word carefully, because I clearly wasn’t lucky to get cancer in the first place but I was lucky to have found it early and for it to have been treatable. I was also lucky to have the support of an amazing group of doctors, nurses, family and friends who helped P, me and our two little boys through those really dark times.

Guest blogger: Anna

To mark the end of her five year remission, Anna will be running the Virgin London Marathon in April 2015 for Breast Cancer Care – a charity that gave her so much support through their helplines, young women support groups and publications. Every penny goes towards helping another person through the fear and uncertainty of a cancer diagnosis. If you would like to sponsor her, please go to: www.justgiving.com/Annalisa-Alexander1


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Never say never: notes to my pre-motherhood self

Pre-motherhood it was easy to make confident decisions, to plan what, as a parent, I would and would not do. Now, as I enter the final furlong of my first year as a mother, I have adapted to my ‘new normal’ and many of my old certainties just make me laugh. Here are a few things I have realised over the last all-consuming, confusing, sometimes painful but ultimately joyous nine months.

The things I swore I’d never do versus what actually happened:

I was not going to shout at my husband. It’s a clichéd trap that I was not going to fall into. We have a great marriage, right? Of course we would carry this into parenthood and always ‘be on the same page’…

Hahahahahahahahaha. Whilst I pick myself up from the floor laughing, read on. The first disagreement we had was in the hospital over whether to give our baby girl formula as my milk was delayed in coming in due to a rather interesting labour. My husband had been NCT’d (that’s a whole other blog) and felt that administering Aptamil was tantamount to poisoning her. I, on the other hand, whilst remaining determined to breastfeed, had survived being bottle-fed as a child and just wanted to get some fluid into our girl.

And so it began. Over the next few months we disagreed over many, many things – driven, in the main, by sheer eyeball-weeping tiredness, but also by fear. Fear that our smallest parenting choices would somehow harm this sacred thing we’d been allowed to carry home. Our disagreements usually played out in hushed passive-aggressive hissing over the sleeping infant and in my sleep-deprived, cranky, sore and hormonal state, I thought only I had the capacity to understand and soothe my child.  If I found that circling the crib three times, throwing salt over my shoulder and chanting got our girl to sleep then why the hell couldn’t he do it too?  Although I have found that a mother’s instinct is to be trusted, my “it’s me or no one” mentality was clearly insane (but I regret to say that sometimes it reappears).

If I had this time again, I would try to listen to my husband more, to let him do more and to not try and conquer this thing alone as he too needed time to evolve his unique and special role in our daughter’s world.

I was not going to give my child a dummy. Why would I need one? Surely they are for mothers who don’t understand their children? Or worse still…are lazy?

Hahahahaha… Sorry, I will stop this. Newborns like to suck and, contrary to popular belief, they aren’t always hungry. After a few weeks, following a suggestion from my Health Visitor, I tried giving E. a dummy. It immediately soothed my crying bundle and gave me (or rather my nipples) much-needed time away from breastfeeding and even the chance to have the odd shower. Dummies may also have a further positive – scientific research suggests that babies who go to sleep with one are potentially less likely to suffer from SIDS. Certainly that made me feel better about my decision, but to use one obviously has to be your own parenting decision. The dummy disappeared from our lives as quickly as it appeared – I realised around four months that it had become a sleep aid so went cold turkey and hey presto, a better sleeping baby! But I’d like to thank the dummy fairy in any case for preventing early insanity. Mothers who don’t resort to one or have babies that don’t need one – I salute you.

I was not going to buy loud, obnoxious, plastic toys. My child would have traditional, educational wooden toys and learn from me and from nature…

I was told by other mum friends I should get a specific all-singing, all-dancing bouncer. I turned my nose up at these helpful people and bought instead a sleek Scandinavian-designed bouncer with a traditional wooden toy bar. My little girl would go to sleep in it if she was tired, but would start to shout quite quickly if not ready for sleepy time. At dinner one night at a fellow new mum’s house, she went into another early-stage inexplicable meltdown and other mum offered her son’s shiny plastic bouncing chair. Little E. was mesmerised and remained so for most of the evening. Suffice to say, Amazon received a ‘buy with one click’ visit that very evening and I’ve subsequently turned my nose back to its usual position on this one.

I was not going to let my personal appearance and standards drop. I remember visiting a new mum just before teatime one day only to find her un-showered and still in her PJs. This was not going to happen to me.

I think I managed to shower and dress most days. But make-up, deodorant and hair-brushing became unfamiliar in the first few months. On one memorable occasion, I managed one eye of make-up but completely forgot the other only to discover this in a mirror a few hours later in a coffee shop loo. I also frequently wore PJ bottoms as legitimate day clothing and continued to wear posset covered tops out after only ‘showing it’ the muslin. I’m better now but things like this don’t matter so much anymore anyway…

Not so much something I swore I’d never do, but rather something I thought I didn’t need…new mum friends. Why would I need new friends? I have friends, most of whom have children and some live near me.

I remember asking a friend with children whether it was worth attending the paid-for parenting classes recommended to all new parents, to which she replied: “not for the information but you need to buy friends”. How right she was. These women were going through exactly the same thing as me, at exactly the same time. I found I could be more honest with them than with some of my closest friends and have formed new and valuable friendships.

Over the last few months I have learned a lot, but there are many things that I now know and do that I wish I had learned much earlier. In no particular order:

As long as my baby is fed, clean and cuddled I am doing a great job. In the early weeks I strived for what I saw as perfection and constantly found myself wanting. I do what feels right for me and my baby but am willing to adapt – I no longer put unnecessary expectations on myself.

I wish I had been kinder to myself just after E. was born – I had just done a monumental thing and had earned the right to eat chocolate and wallow for a while without feeling guilty.

It took some time but physically I do now feel like “me” again.  At times, I never thought I would.

Bad times happen but they also pass – the baby will sleep and the phase will end.

Sometimes I felt alone, helpless and confused – sometimes I still do. I don’t know any new parent that hasn’t despite what front they may present. It helped enormously to share my fears.

It’s okay to cry – either through hormones, tiredness, frustration or joy. I let them come, they are cathartic.

I trust my instincts more – friends, midwives and well-meaning women from an older generation will give advice, but they are not bringing up my baby.

I should accept help when it is offered. There is an African proverb that says it takes a village to raise a child.  I thought that accepting help meant that I wasn’t doing a good enough job. With the power of hindsight I can now see that was really silly.

The intensity of love I feel for my child constantly surprises me and the mild-mannered and polite former me will quickly become a tiger to protect her.

It is perfectly acceptable to say no to visitors. I found there were two types – the ones who popped over unannounced to see baby and who sat and expected to be fed tea and cake whilst prodding my sleeping bundle in the hope she would perform like the proverbial monkey. I wish I had found a nice way to put them off, but I didn’t and sat with clenched teeth through many a well-intentioned visit, wishing they would leave us to sleep, panic or just stare into space. The second type of visitor were the ones who checked in advance, brought their own cake and did the dishes or a pile of laundry. They were always welcome.

I need lots of hand cream – I wash my hands so many times I frequently end up looking like the Skeksis from The Dark Crystal.

From even a few weeks in I encountered competitive parents. I have learnt to ignore them or better still, bin them. My child will develop at her own pace.

I find that I have hidden vats of energy and patience (although not with my husband) after days of little sleep.

I have experienced every type of emotion possible – sometimes within the space of an hour.

I really should sleep when baby sleeps – sod the hoovering and there really is no need ever to iron anything.

Buying stuff for my baby – even muslins and changing mats – is actually more fun than buying things for myself. Who knew?

All in all, my experience of motherhood so far is that it is one of the hardest, most demanding and least recognised jobs there is, but I wouldn’t change a thing. The only problem is, just when I think I’ve cracked it, something changes and I feel hopelessly confused and lost again. Anyone fancy writing me a guide to the next 18 years?

Guest blogger: Nicky

Currently taking time off from her career in Broadcast Media having had her first baby . Loves her friends, good food, cuddling her cat and annoying her husband.


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Time to be honest about breastfeeding

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.