‘I am going to breastfeed my baby.’
This is the answer I always gave to ‘how do you plan to feed your baby?’, and I said that without much thought, just assuming that I would take to it like a duck to water. I never thought it would be easy, I just had no reason to expect it would be so overwhelmingly difficult.
To me, breastfeeding was simply a newborn medicine against so many illnesses or diseases he or she could get in the future. Lowering their risk of allergies, asthma, ear infections, respiratory illness, SIDS, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease. Of course there were pro’s for me too, lowered risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, osteoporosis, helping my uterus contract after she was born, but these were never my reasons for breastfeeding. It was always, only, about my baby.
The current guidelines advise to exclusively breastfeed for six months, and my goodness I was going to do everything in my power to reach this target.
As a first time mum I had a plain sailing pregnancy, even though it was the hottest British summer I have ever experienced. I worked (as a physio) until almost 37 weeks and a day before her due date, our beautiful baby girl Lily was born at 8lbs 1oz. I was fairly blessed with a smooth labour and birth, and she latched onto my breast beautifully in hospital and 5 hours after she was born we were discharged home. New parents, new baby, new life and a whole lot of cluelessness!
Over the first few days she started to not do as well feeding, we had a fairly long (3 hours and 3 minutes!) push phase of delivery, so she was a little ‘dazed’ after that. She slept a lot and I struggled to get her to latch. I also didn’t really know when she needed feeding. I expected it would all be the ‘motherly instinct’ they told us about, but I didn’t really feel like I had that knowledge in the early days. On her day three midwife check she had lost 9.8% of her body weight and we got the advised from the midwife to ‘feed, feed, feed’.
This is the part where I know I am incredibly lucky….my mum is a retired midwife, and only lives 20 minutes away. She came over and spent the whole day training Lily to latch. It was hands on beyond imagination, but Lily needed direction and so did I. Every three hours we sat in my feeding chair and practiced over and over again. Often she would last about 5 seconds and then detach herself. So we repeated until she was full, often taking up to an hour.
The obstacles I faced weren’t ones that are typically talked about. We did attend the NHS led antenatal classes, but the problems I encountered never came up in discussion, so I never knew they existed. I believe the difficulty is that in encouraging parents to breastfeed, and prepare them for the difficulties they may encounter, makes some people feel uncomfortable that they are ‘pushing’ breastfeeding exclusively. I whole heartedly believe fed is best, of course I do, however that may be, but if I didn’t think breastmilk was liquid gold and 100% worth it, I wouldn’t be writing this now.
Stick with me for this, there is a happy ending…
I had a huge issue with overproduction of milk. My milk ‘came in’ around day three, and my boobs were so uncomfortable, even with the most heavy duty bra they felt like ten tonne weights and ached all the time. Now try and get a teeny tiny newborn to feed off an engorged breast with a flat nipple and there was barely anything for her to latch onto. I had to express a bit off prior to each feed to give her something to hold, mega faff. My ‘let down’ was uncomfortable, it’s like a cramp mixed with pins and needles over my chest. I had to put a ‘shell’ on the non-feed side as I had leaked about 2oz per feed on the other side. When my milk got to her it came out with such force it could squirt about 1 metre and with such flow she could barely keep up. It would be everywhere and often she would choke, cough, and bring up the whole feed. I would have to start again. It was total chaos.
I had never thought anything of nipple shapes, mine were ‘normal’. For a breastfeeding baby, however, my right side was slightly to flat. The constant on/off latching and her, what I can only describe as, pulling my flat nipple out caused some fairly painful wounds to form. My nipples were raw, sore and no amounts of nipple cream would help them. They were so painful, the air stung them, Lily destroyed any chance of healing feeding so frequently, and I had to stick them back in my bra after feeds which was highly uncomfortable. I recommend reusable breast pads, as much softer material.
Lily cluster fed 6-11pm in the early months, again not something I’d heard of. I plonked myself in front of the TV and she fed from one breast to the other for hours and hours. I ate with one hand, got pee-ing in 60 second flat down to a fine art, and watched a whole lot fo rubbish TV. It was exhausting.
I dreaded the feeds, not only did I cry during them as it was so painful but I also cried in anticipation of them. My partner, Jake, would feel awful coming up to me and saying ‘I think she’s hungry’, as he knew how hard I was finding it, and that he couldn’t help. Im going to touch on that now, the fact Jake couldn’t help me. I know some people express and get people to help out. It was something I had considered, but in reality for me it was a complete nightmare. As I over produced milk the worst thing I could do for my demand/supply was express. I just ended up with more milk and I did not need ANY MORE MILK. It turns out Lily refused bottles anyway, so the hassle was not worth it. I was in it alone and just had to accept that, as dwelling on it wasn’t going to do me any favours. So although Jake couldn’t feed her, he did everything else. He did the nappies, the cooking, the ‘cleaning’ (used lightly with a newborn) and basically every other job that needed doing. I was just the dairy! Without Jake supporting me I would have struggled to function.
OH THE NIGHT FEEDS.
Apparently babies feed more at night due to the milk quality. Lily feed 2 hourly, after her cluster feed extravaganza until 11pm. The tricky part was that Lily did not settle well initially. When she woke I changed her, fed her (initially that would take 40+ minutes, think nipple shields, shell, positioning baby, manipulating nipple to babies mouth, holding it there, her sucking, her letting go, repeat), burp her, settle her. That would take about 90 minutes and then 30 minutes later we would start it all again.
Now thats tough when you’re well rested, but after a pregnancy, labour, sore nipples, leaky boobs, and no sleep its not just tough, it’s pretty horrific!
All. The. Time.
The joys of oversupply, she didn’t empty a breast initially, so I had blocked ducks regularly, I lost count. I had an emergency antibiotic stash in my cupboard that was issued by my GP just in case. Thankfully it was not needed, endless massaging of the duct (ouch), heat, feeding on all fours to drain the blockage (see, it gets more ridiculous!) and I managed to ward off mastitis.
I honestly said quite regularly, I can’t do this anymore, it hurts to much, I’m too tired, I’m just ‘done’. When I said it, it said it through tears, as I knew I wasn’t actually ready to stop. Even though I was in bits, Lily was thriving. She put on so much weight once she got it. She was turning into such a happy chunk of a baby and that meant everything to me, and I knew I would recover eventually. By week seven I was ‘comfortable’ and ditched the nipple shields, by week 15 (Christmas day) I had had my last blocked duct. Now at six months old, we did it, we crossed the finished line as a very happy mum and baby. This is, by far, my greatest achievement to date.
If you’re about to start your breastfeeding journey, or are at the beginning, I know it is not easy. Breastfeeding is bloody hard. You get no sleep, you hurt, you feel lonely and isolated at feed time (especially at night), you feel responsible, and you’re exhausted beyond imagination, but it is so worth it. All the goodness I have given her makes every tear explainable and acceptable.
I had the best support from family and friends during my journey, but I couldn’t honestly see the light at the end of the tunnel at times. Which is why writing this is so important to me. The light exists and it does get easier, I promise.
Give yourself a break, I didn’t leave the house for a long time, I really did ‘pull up the drawbridge’. Just get yourself established and find your rhythm. Everyone and everything else can wait.
You’ve got this Mama.