Before I was pregnant I was fairly judgemental when it came to feeding. Breast is obviously best, so why do anything else? When I became pregnant I read various articles about breastfeeding and my former judgy self was stopped in her tracks. Stories about low supply, poor latch, tongue tie and PAIN seemed to dominate my pregnancy. I felt I was totally prepared for the birth but I didn’t feel ready for keeping the baby alive. In hindsight it’s absolutely bonkers that I invested so much time and effort in preparing for birth; something the female body is totally capable of doing with very little help, yet I never felt the need to prepare for actually looking after a newborn.
My husband and I attended a hypnobirthing course and so I was feeling a bit “Mother Earth” about the whole birth / baby / parenting malarkey. Luckily, the hypnobirthing prep paid off and our daughter’s birth was incredible. She started life off as the most chilled baby you’d ever met, with a “lovely skin colour”. Hilarious – the reason for her great colouring was jaundice and looking back she was so yellow! No wonder she was chilled! No wonder also that she couldn’t be arsed with feeding. She was lethargic from the jaundice and so we took to waking her for feeds.
NCT classes had provided us with a bit of a background in what to look for with feeding and Indi seemed to be a natural… her latch was good and on day 4 when my milk finally came in she was cluster feeding like a total pro. Only she wasn’t a pro. She was a newborn baby who had never had to feed before. She was on my boob pretty much constantly that day but by day 5 she had lost 9% of birth weight. Hormones took over and I was SO upset to be told this. The midwife assured me it was normal for breastfed babies and we set about making it our mission over the next few days to feed Indi as much as possible. She seemed to be getting the hang of it, but by day 7 still hadn’t put on any weight. By this point I’d done some more research and felt more ok about the weight gain (or lack of!)… she was weeing and pooping and seemed pretty happy. We had been told again that we had a good latch and reassured that the weight loss was fine. Day 10 was the next weigh-in and by this point we felt confident we’d cracked it. Indi seemed to be feeding really well, I had no nipple pain and she seemed content. Time for the weigh-in to screw things over for us again – this time she was down more, a total of 12% loss of birthweight. At this point we were told to top Indi up with 40ml of expressed milk after every feed.
LESSON NUMBER 1 LEARNT
By day 10, if you haven’t already expressed it’s nigh on impossible to top up after every feed, especially if there are problems with supply which evidently there were given Indi’s weight loss. If I’m lucky enough to give birth to and feed another baby I’ll begin expressing as soon as my milk comes in, just in case. That way my supply will be boosted and if I need to do any topping up I shouldn’t struggle.
Needless to say, we topped her up with formula. I was distraught that my body wasn’t doing what I thought it should do, and that I’d essentially failed at the first hurdle – feeding our daughter. The formula did the trick and Indi started putting on weight at her daily(!) weigh-in. We saw an NCT breastfeeding consultant on day 14 who took one look at Indi and told us she was tongue tied. I felt such a sense of relief – THAT was why she wasn’t feeding properly! The tongue tie clinic agreed and she had her tie snipped on day 17. She fed like a dream immediately afterwards, according to the tongue tie ladies (it looked and felt the same as before to me).
LESSON NUMBER 2 LEARNT
Ask for a thorough check of tongue tie as soon as the baby is born. If the person checking can’t be sure, get a second opinion. After over two weeks of feeding incorrectly, Indi had to try and re-learn how to breastfeed from her mum who definitely wasn’t producing the right amount of milk.
LESSON NUMBER 3 LEARNT
Breastmilk is produced on a supply and demand basis… or rather a demand and supply basis. Given Indi hadn’t been “demanding” enough milk, ie she wasn’t removing much at each feed, my body wasn’t making enough to satisfy her. And so the vicious cycle had begun.
The tongue tie clinic recommended some “galactagogues” – supplements to help increase my supply. You name it, I tried it. Fennel tea (definitely add sugar), fenugreek capsules (take as many as you need for your skin to smell like maple syrup – 12 a day was my limit and I never smelt maple syrup!), shatavari capsules (I know right – wtf?!), blessed milk thistle, oats (great excuse for hobnobs and chocolate oat milk), pints and pints and pints of water, an electric breast pump, a manual breast pump, hand expressing, a hospital grade pump and a whole lot of stress, tears, worry… none of them seemed to make any damn difference. After another couple of weeks the formula top-ups were verging on full feeds. If I could have given birth again in order to feed our daughter then I would, I felt so fed up with it. I knew the sensible thing to do would be to stop breastfeeding for my own sanity, but I was caught in a hormonal smog and just kept thinking it would improve. And anyway, it didn’t seem to be doing Indi any harm, even if her breastfeeding was purely for comfort.
We thought we had made a breakthrough – the formula top-ups were reducing and it seemed like this was Indi’s doing rather than ours… then she went a couple of weeks with no weight gain. It seemed like one hurdle after another. After her first round of injections everything changed again when our previously greedy girl turned into a back-arching fan of a painfully slow, sad and small meal. She was grumpy and spitting up fairly often so I guessed it was reflux. The doctor didn’t have any suggestions as she was putting on weight so I took matters into my own hands and it was on that day, when our daughter was 10 weeks and 2 days old, that I decided to give up on breastfeeding.
We had no idea what she’d been getting from me for the first 10 weeks of her life and I knew it was an inevitable decision that I’d been putting off. I really didn’t want to make the decision on a miserable, tearful day so I was pleased in that sense that I’d made a sensible choice. The first day of cold turkey was kind to me – Indi didn’t try to feed from me, she had more formula than she’d ever had, the back arching and fussing stopped and she seemed content.
I had some pain for a few days but given my low milk supply I escaped mastitis. When I stopped feeding I recalled feeling the achy boobs I’d felt for the first week of Indi’s life.
LESSON NUMBER 4 LEARNT
Painful boobs are normal when they’re full. If they’re achey all of the time at the beginning that might suggest your baby isn’t emptying them to relieve the pain… I only realised this when I stopped feeding, but I repeatedly told the midwives I felt like I’d run a marathon with no bra on at the beginning. Nobody suggested the reason for this could be the poor milk transfer.
Fast forward a week or two and the problems don’t seem to be completely sorted, but perhaps Indi will always be a fussy eater. Who knows, but at least I know for sure how much she’s eating now.
I really enjoyed breastfeeding and the feeling of doing something for your child that nobody else can do is like nothing else. But it’s safe to say it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Harder than giving birth and harder than any exam I’ve ever taken. I know not everyone’s experience is like this but I was so unprepared for our breastfeeding journey to be so bumpy. Still, I’m so glad we were lucky enough to have 10 weeks of feeding together – not every mum and baby are able to do even a few days.
I’ve realised since Indi was born that although breastfeeding is a totally unique bonding experience, there are so many other things you can do for your baby that will make a huge difference. A loving home and family, the ability to keep her safe, warm and her tummy full are all that really matter. Enjoy breastfeeding if you can, but more importantly, enjoy your perfect, unique baby.