During pregnancy I had assumed that I would breastfeed. The mantra is always ‘Breast is best’ and you are bombarded with this as a mother to be. Of course I wanted to do what was perceived as best for my child.
My beautiful son decided to make an unexpectedly early arrival; nearly 5 weeks in fact and from the moment he came out he was not interested in breastfeeding at all. After 3 days of on and off labour I was tired and emotional and, as a first time mum, had no idea what I was meant to be doing either. I had midwives trying to shove my nipple into his mouth, trying again and again but no, he did not want to feed. Out of necessity we gave him a bottle and I hand expressed into a syringe to give him those precious drops of colostrum. We kept trying and he kept refusing and I kept hand expressing. I cried and he refused and I cried some more. Why didn’t he want to feed? I stayed in hospital for another 3 days trying to get him to feed but I was stressed and my milk wouldn’t come in and still I kept thinking ‘But breast is best, that’s what I should be doing.’ Eventually with a promise that we would carefully monitor his formula intake and keep trying the breast, I was allowed to go home.
When we finally arrived home and I relaxed, my milk did come in and gradually we got a bit of latching, combined with me expressing and bottle feeding. After a few weeks though I felt that feeding was becoming increasingly uncomfortable, rather than easier. So, teary and tired I went to see a breastfeeding counsellor. She gave me some good advice and we carried on trying at home. Feeding became painful: I avoided going out because I didn’t want to feed in public and my husband would arrive home every day and find me in tears. One day my son vomited blood after a feed. After a nervous dash to the GP and then the hospital it turned out the blood was actually from me, from the trauma he was causing to my nipples. But still I kept thinking ‘But breast is best, that’s what I should be doing.’
Finally after 9 weeks of pain, misery and 3 trips to a breastfeeding counsellor, she suggested he might have a tongue tie. A few days later this was confirmed and his tongue was snipped. So surely now it would be easier, right? Well, no, because he had to completely relearn to latch. Finally about another 4 weeks later the feeding did get easier; the pain stopped, I relaxed and finally, finally I was able to enjoy life with my baby.
3 months. That’s how long it took for us to get to grips with breastfeeding. 3 months of anguish, stress and pain. I am a pretty strong willed person and in the end I was glad to have persevered, but it was a very hard journey that I’m not sure many people would have managed. Subsequently we made it to a year with combination feeding and I was at least able to have looked back on the latter part of the experience in a positive way.
19 months after my first son was born, I gave birth to my second son, on Christmas Day. During the pregnancy I had, of course, had the usual nerves about labour and, because of my first experience, I also worried about the feeding situation, but I told myself that this time round, if it didn’t work, I wouldn’t put myself through the same hell again. After a slightly more complicated labour I was relieved when, after a short time, the baby latched and fed. Yippee, I thought, I am not going to have feeding problems again; I will not have to endure that hell! But due to some complications, I had to undergo emergency surgery that night and so out of necessity, a bottle had to be given. When I came around the next morning I panicked that maybe there would be breast refusal after a night on the bottle but, it turned out, he really didn’t care where he was getting his milk from and he latched straight back on again.
However, having been pumped full of antibiotics and after rather an ordeal, my body was rundown and after a few days I noticed feeding getting more and more painful. It soon became unbearable so, off we went to the same tongue tie professional who, once again, diagnosed a tie and snipped. My son was only 3 weeks old so he re-learnt how to latch quickly but feeding was still painful. After several trips to the GP we got a diagnosis of thrush. I was treated, he wasn’t, so the thrush passed back and forth between us for another few weeks. I remember feeding my baby, crying with pain, whilst my toddler patted my arm and asked me what was wrong. I could not believe that this was happening again, how could I be so unlucky twice? But in spite of my promises that I wouldn’t put myself through the stress again, I just could not bring myself to give up. The weight of that mantra ‘Breast is best’, lay heavily on me and I wanted to do for my second son what I had managed to eventually do for my first.
The struggle was not as prolonged. The thrush was finally treated properly, the pain subsided and the feeding became easy and enjoyable. Once again I fed my son through until about a year, with one feed a day being either a formula or expressed feed and, in spite of the rocky beginnings, I felt proud of what I had achieved.
I will always be fervently pro breastfeeding and this post is not meant to put anyone off what can be an amazing experience; but I am also pro a healthy and happy mother – both mentally and physically. Undoubtedly breastmilk is nutritionally perfect for a baby, it is free and when it works well, it can be easy and enjoyable. But is breastfeeding always best for Mum? If I had not had the mantra ‘Breast is best’ going round and round in my head, would I have relaxed, bottle fed my first baby and maybe enjoyed those first 3 months with him? I am extremely proud of breastfeeding both my children, but I am more than happy to say that this wasn’t exclusive and that my babies also had formula milk.
The breastfeeding debate will always divide people, but I believe that debate is healthy and opens up communication, allowing people to be more well-informed and make better decisions. Women need to be aware of all their feeding options and the pros, cons and potential emotional rollercoasters of any feeding journey. Yes, we should encourage women to breastfeed, but we should also ensure that there are ample support services in place and that primary importance is placed on the mental health and well-being of mothers. At the end of the day, whether bottle or breast, we’re all doing a kick-ass job at raising these tiny little humans and that’s what ought to be celebrated.
Part of the Yes Bebe breast feeding series for World Breastfeeding Week 2018: <<read more>>
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