This isn’t a debate or a discussion. It’s not a judgement or an argument or an example that you should follow or learn by. It’s not a Jamie Oliver Campaign. It is just my experience. Experience should be shared because motherhood is difficult and confusing and is it only through sharing that it can feel just a little less daunting.
When I was pregnant for the first time, I was sure that I was going to breastfeed. Six months later, when I learned I had gestational diabetes, my resolve was further strengthened; it was better for the baby, it was better for my health.
When my son first entered this world, his little body was placed on mine, skin to skin, and we stayed that way for what seemed like hours and he fed, as we might have hoped he would. Things went as I expected – at first.
But his blood sugar dropped.
By that night, the very first night of my son’s life, his blood sugar was dangerously low. I sought to rouse him, to make him feed, but he was lethargic with the sleepiness of being newly born and I could not make him suckle enough. The nurse said he would have to go to intensive care if we could not get his blood sugar up – but I was barely producing colostrum. And so, feeling confused and angry, I fed my baby son formula from a cup. His blood sugar began to climb, but it was not enough. Just as they were about to take him away, take him to the ICU to be fed by a tube, the consultant came and gave him sugar syrup through a syringe. The next time they pricked his tiny foot, already covered in blood and bruises from so many blood sugar tests, his levels were in the normal range.
The next day, we went home. There were no bottles, no formula in the house when we arrived, a new family of three, so strong was my resolve. I went home anxious and worried about making sure my son was nourished. I went home feeling like I had failed, almost before I had begun.
I continued to breastfeed. I knew the first few weeks would be key to building my supply and that I would need to feed a lot. And so I did, as much as I could. My milk came in – things seemed to be back on track.
The first day the midwife came to weigh my son, he had lost 8% of his body weight. My anxiety bloomed afresh. The second day that the midwife came to weigh my son, he had lost 10% of his birth weight. Don’t panic, she told me, it was quite normal. Things usually picked up within the next few days. I tried not to panic. She checked his latch, checked his tongue. She watched me feed and all seemed like it was proceeding as it should.
On the third day that the midwife came to weigh my son, he had lost 11% of his birth weight and was clearly jaundiced. The midwife was concerned enough to test him to see if he needed to go back to hospital. My anxiety was now raging. I was a new mother – overwhelmed with emotions and so desperate to protect the little life that was now ours, mine to care for. My son was still lethargic, it was difficult to make him feed for long periods but I persevered, stripped him when he got sleepy, ticked his feet, stroked his throat, made him latch again.
On the fourth time the midwife came to weigh my son, when he was one week old, he had lost nearly 14% of his body weight and his jaundice had worsened.
She said I could give him some formula, now, or he could go to hospital. There was a single bottle of ready-made formula in the cupboard. I had sent my husband to buy it, and some bottles, after the last weigh-in.
We opened it and gave my son a bottle. And he drank. He drank like he had been in the desert for a week. He drank like he had been thirsty for his whole life – I suppose he had. He drank and he drank – 70mls straight off. And I have rarely felt satisfaction like I did in that moment, knowing he was no longer hungry. I have rarely felt unadulterated relief like I did two days later, when the scales said he had regained some of what he had lost.
We began to top up after every breastfeed and started a regime of building my supply. I hoped I would still be able to exclusively breastfeed. I alternated feeding on demand and pumping with an electric pump. After I breastfed, I offered the expressed milk, then a formula top up if he seemed hungry still, then I pumped again. It was a painfully gruelling schedule. There was little time for sleep, little time to enjoy my new baby. I tried to feed more, reduce pumping, reduce formula – but it just wouldn’t happen. My nipples were cracked and bleeding, my spirits at their lowest.
I pumped and I fed and I pumped and I fed. For seven weeks. It didn’t seem like I was any further along than I had been six weeks before. For whatever reason – low supply, poor technique – my son wasn’t satisfied by my milk alone. I could have sought more support – gone to a breastfeeding group, requested a counsellor, phoned La Leche League. But I was broken. Exhausted. Desperate just to feed my baby and feel at peace.
And so I stopped pumping, phased out feeding, increased formula. By the time he was 8 weeks old, my son was exclusively formula fed. The weight piled on – jumped to the 90th centile to match his height. And that was that.
Just over a year later, I was pregnant again. This time, I would learn from my mistakes. This time, I would be successful. I would not be so quick to use formula, I would not be so reluctant to get extra help. This time I would breastfeed for six months, a year, longer if I could.
The details of my second breastfeeding journey are almost identical to the first and so I shall not go over them in detail again.
There was one big difference.
When my son was hungry, tired of suckling for so long without being satiated, he would give up and sleep.
My daughter was – is – a very different child.
When my daughter was hungry, she refused to latch and screamed. For a week, I persevered. For a week, I sobbed while she latched, sucked frantically for a minute or two, pulled away and screamed and screamed and screamed. On her second weigh-in, she had lost 10.5% of her body weight. I gave her a formula top up – and she drank like she was starving. I tried to pump and build supply. I called the breastfeeding counsellor, but my heart was not in it. I just did not feel emotionally prepared to lay all this, all these raw feelings, before strangers. I did not call La Leche or go to breastfeeding groups.
The midwife agreed that my issues may have been related to low supply and offered to help me get Domperidone to boost my milk. But I was too wary of using drugs while breastfeeding, too overwhelmed to think straight or know what was the right thing to do.
I also had a toddler, a toddler who would, in eight months, be diagnosed as autistic. He struggled terribly with his sister’s arrival, screamed when she screamed, sobbed when I was sofa-bound and unable to comfort him, with his sister latched – or screaming – permanently. Seeing him like that was the deciding factor that finally broke me again. It was too hard.
I only reached a month, second time around.
I cherished breastfeeding. I have never experienced a feeling like it, as long as I have lived. Through the pain, tiredness, fear and confusion – it is perfect peace. It is as though time stops, there is only you and your baby. It did feel like the most natural thing in the world – I had those little lives, growing inside me for so many months. My body made them. It seemed perfect that I would continue to nourish them, that my body would give the resources they needed to grow, become strong, and learn. When my babies were latched, suckling, satisfied, I was as content as I ever have been in this life, I think. It is a simple feeling.
I have felt that way since, felt something almost the same while bottle feeding, while watching them sleep– it is not restricted to breastfeeding. But, for me, there is some unknowable element added when breastfeeding my child. I cannot explain it. I will always miss it. I will always feel guilty. It is a huge regret of mine that I took no pictures of my son feeding. I made sure I had some of my daughter.
I tell you this not because I think others should do what I did, not because I think I should have persevered or because I want others to learn from my mistakes. There are those who will have found breastfeeding much easier. There are those who will have overcome struggles different, greater than mine and still breastfed successfully.
I’m not waxing lyrical about how I felt about breastfeeding because I think all mothers should try or because I think that all mothers do – or should – feel that way. I don’t suggest what is right or wrong for you or your family. I don’t have an agenda about promoting breastfeeding, advocating formula, or for doing anything other than what you want to do when caring for your baby.
I simply want to share my experience for this reason and this reason only – breastfeeding is hard; Motherhood can be so, so hard. Know this and know that you are not alone, whatever you face, whatever you decide, whatever you regret, whatever you have to let go, whatever aspect of parenting comes easily, whatever aspect is so, so difficult to overcome – You’re not alone.
You are not alone.