My breastfeeding journey
I have wanted to write and share my personal story of breastfeeding for a long while now in the hope of helping other mothers that find themselves in the position I did – where ‘breast is not best’ and we need to let go. But now, as I sit at the keys, given the space to share, I am hesitant. Why? Because I must revisit a time that is loaded with regret. A time where the words ‘if only’ and ‘I wish’ make my heart ache. Of course there were times of great fulfillment, which I will write about it, but those became morphed among the drive to breastfeed and the failure to do so. I was meant to know how, right. I’d help so many other women successfully breastfeed it should have been a smooth ride.
I’ll begin with my first ever, amazingly special breastfeed…
After a posterior delivery on our lounge floor in a planned homebirth, I was about to have THE moment with my son at an hour old! After all these years of latching on baby’s for other mother’s, and letting go of my dream of ever doing it with my own, the moment was here. MY BABY, which was surreal enough, was about to latch on and feed. Throughout the thousands of hours I had spent caring for newborns this was the one thing I hadn’t done, thus breastfeeding made me feel more like my son’s mother and not his Maternity Nurse. That may sound odd given I had just carried and birthed him but it was how I felt.
So there I was, on our couch with the love of my life, wide mouthed asking for his milk for the first time, and gosh did I cry. I balled my eyes out and kept doing so for quite a few feeds after that too. It was a ginormous dream come true and the feeling of providing for him was overwhelming and extraordinary. I was in heaven! Never this full-filled in my entire life - this was it. This was what being a Mum was about.
Over the next four days my boobs flourished and I seriously did admire the miracle of biology. I loved Elijah sucking even though it caused pain. I even loved wearing my maternity bra and breast pads because these were aspects of motherhood I never thought I would experience, thus I felt hugely blessed – words will never describe it really.
Within the first seven days Elijah had reached his birth weight, but by the middle of the second week he had regressed back to his birth weight. This worried me of course but with the arsenal of knowledge behind me, I took it in my stride, made some adjustments and asked one of the trusted lactation consultants that I knew to confirm what I thought – that Elijah had a tongue tie. Sure enough he did so a few days later, with weight still slowly dropping, he had his tongue tie snipped. Knowing the effects this can have on supply I thought right, onward and upward with weight and breastfeeding. Phew!
On weighing him a couple of days later, on his second week birthday, he had increased but it was still well under what we would have liked to see and by now I was noticing my breasts weren’t feeling that full. So I did what I would advise a mother to do in this situation, I gauged my supply. After expressing for half an hour with a unit that was almost hospital grade I got 30mls! He required around double that amount. And there it was, the crushing answer, I was the problem. I was failing my son. By the third express that day I wrote this…
Every time I get this pump out, and it’s only my third time, but every time I feel it pull and suck at my nipple, giving little for its effort while I watch my partner fed Elijah the bottle, I feel inadequate. A breastfeeding failure. I miss my son hugely during these times and even though my partner is fab with him, I fight hard inside not to discard the plastic reminder and hold Eli. This isn’t how it was meant to be. I hear him cry as my partner changes his nappy but cannot go to him. I was meant to be a breastfeeding mother and now I’ve had a taste of the intimacy and hugely satisfying feeling with my son, I so long to be there again! I know this plastic is the part of the road to getting there and, as my partner says, this is an opportunity to make it happen now we know the problem but, as I’m sure many mothers know, it is not an easy one. As Eli finishes his last sups of goat’s formula I turn off the machine – 30mls again. Over the past two days, since the last weigh, I’ve been starving my wee boy!
After the full 24 hours express I wrote this…
What a day of emotions! Tears flowed today, but now, at the end of the day half asleep on my way to bed with my aching back and throbbing feet, I realise I am fortunate. At least I have some milk. At least I have the possibility of feeding my gorgeous wee boy a portion of liquid gold. I am better off than some. Right, an hour-and-a-half sleep before I get to hold Elijah again. I just can’t get enough!
With a little more resolve the next day I started on the highest combinations of supplements I knew for increasing supply. Along with drinking two tablespoons of brewers yeast twice daily, my partner made me some breastfeeding biscuits with yeast in, and while the research on it is a little anecdotal, I was willing to try almost anything. I had decided to breastfeed Elijah fully for a few more days because his weight had gone up slightly since the tongue tie and the express unit is only a guide so perhaps he just needed a little more time to demand supply – but looking back now, I was probably a little in denial. I decided to express after each feed for fifteen minutes in the hope of demanding more milk.
It’s the big weigh in today. I believe I’m feeling more in my breasts, but I’m not getting that much off when I express. Elijah is sleeping more soundly though now and is a lot more settled which is great.
The weigh in didn’t give us confidence – the midwives scales gave us three readings! But leaning toward the positive we took the best result, a 20 gram increase! Not much over two days again but at least he was going up. My gut instinct though by now was that the increase was from the formula on the day of gauging, that he wasn’t getting enough from me and I may have actually gone down in supply. But on the other hand my wishful thinking and denial was saying, just another day, everything will turn around. The supplements will kick in.
With my sons best interests in mind, my midwife told me she wasn’t happy with the chosen feeding pattern I was feeding Elijah on and that I should just feed him whenever he cried, or was awake, and express until I turned into a 'plastic thing'. This was familiar advice to my ears and contrary to what I’d suggest to a mother, but with the cocktail of worry, hormones, and my partner saying it’s worth ago, along with the midwife basically saying that it was my form of care that was the problem, I felt pressured to follow her advice - even as I write that it still feels strange that I did. Anyway, that lasted for around 7 hours. Every moment of it felt foreign and totally went against my motherly instinct and professional knowing. I returned to what I was doing with another weigh in scheduled for three days, and I’d decided I would gauge my supply the day before. As it turned out neither of those things happened.
The next day Elijah had a funny turn. Nothing like I’d seen in my whole career. It was over as quick as it began but I took him to the doctors, explained what had happened and not getting my normal doctor, got treated like an over-reactive new mum. Told to go home and monitor him as everything was fine, and he did seem fine. The next day though he had another one so I rung the ambulance.
After a night in hospital with many tests from brain, to heart, to lungs he came back with the all clear, but the pediatricians were of course concerned about his weight and they wanted me to see a dietitian. Well, I already knew what advice would be coming but I agreed because it was the easier path to take. Gosh this is becoming a long story!
Anyway, the next morning the dietitian comes in, and with all her well-meaning numbers, graphs and training told me I had to put my son on Neocate straight away because he was in the ‘failure to thrive’ category. She didn’t ask one question about my son, how I was feeding him, nothing. Or explain the side effects of Neocate. Extremely annoyed that someone whom had been in my room for five minutes and didn’t know anything about us felt she could tell me how to look after my son, and then think I was just going to say, ‘Yes, of course, how high.’ I took a deep breath and politely told her that I wasn’t going to do that. Instead I would go home and begin feeding Elijah Goats formula for all of his feeds. She didn’t like it, but in the end she let me go but I had to agree to put him on Neocate if he hadn’t gained good weight in three days. Neocate was something I would never give him but I agreed because I just wanted to get home with my boy.
Once home Elijah went onto Goats formula and I gauged my supply one more time for twenty-four hours. As you can probably guess by now, the gauge didn’t go so well. 30mls after 30 minutes. Nothing had changed, my gut feeling was right. I couldn’t produce milk.
So my partner and I talked about it. Well actually, I cried about it as he tried to convince me that it was time to let go of breastfeeding and fully formula feed. That it would be less stressful for all of us. But in my heart of hearts I was trying to convince myself that I could keep all this up, express a little and give Elijah top ups on my own while Nigel returned to work. Then out of the blue one of my sisters called and she said this about it, ‘There are a lot of things that make a great Mum, not just breastfeeding’ (gosh big lump in my throat when I write that, there goes the wounds opening) and that’s when I realised, that because of my career I had created a huge, deep rooted belief that breastfeeding was what made me a Mum. And there I go, the tears are now flowing - not for the loss of breastfeeding but for all the stress and heartache that that belief created for my son, myself and my partner. If only I’d known earlier what I was still to find out.
Thankfully, while simple and obvious, my sister’s words got me looking past my desperate need to breastfeed. They were the catalyst to me moving on – to letting go. She made me focus on all the other aspects that made being a mother wonderful, and it wasn’t that I hadn’t seen them and didn’t already love them, it was just breastfeeding had taken over our lives. On formula Elijah began to grow again and although it took a while, I began to enjoy my life with him without breastfeeding.
A few weeks later my other sister rung, she had been away through all of this. After telling her everything she said, ‘Oh Philippa, did you not know? We have all struggled to breastfeed, we just can’t. Mum couldn’t either. It’s hereditary.’ And there’s the tears flowing full throttle now – if I’d only known that at the start we could have avoided all our anguish and my son wouldn't have gone through that physical ride!
One day I will forgive myself for holding on so long. I will forgive myself for listening to the years of pressure that is placed on women about breastfeeding. Don’t get me wrong, I am still an advocate for breast is best, of course, but I add these words – Breast is best if it is best for the whole family and in some cases the mother needs help to see that it isn’t always the best option. They also need to be able to move to formula without judgement from others that often have no idea what their breastfeeding journey was, or why they made THEIR decision. Informed education around formula and bottle feeding would also great - I look forward to the day when this is treated as equally as breastfeeding for the sake of our newborns health.
Around 5% of women are like me, they can’t supply milk or can only do so for a short time. If you find yourself struggling with supply you can go to your doctor and ask them to test your hormone levels. Sometimes women have an imbalance with their thyroid hormone that can effect milk production. This is something I found out about well and truly after my problems. In my whole career I had never heard this test mentioned as an option by lactation consultants, midwives or GP’s. Even when my supply was failing the midwife, pediatrician and dietitian didn’t mention this to me. Yet I know that if I had been given the option to have a test early on I would have, and then we could have saved ourselves A LOT of heartache because there are just some problems in breastfeeding that know lactation consultant or amount of pumping will change.
I'd also like to take this opportunity to say - it is actually rare for mothers to have no problems with breastfeeding, despite the way it is largely projected in Western Society that it is natural and therefore will come easy. I personally believe that if we spoke more about the realities of breastfeeding, that issues are 'normal' and these are the solutions before bubs arrived, we may see breastfeeding rates increase because the emotional 'failure' aspect would diminish. This is something I am endeavoring to do in my piloting non-profit organisation, The Pudding Club.
If you know of someone that may benefit from hearing my experience please, of course feel free to share this blog.