This week is World Breastfeeding Week and social media is filled with beautiful photographs of breastfeeding mums. As someone who has managed to breastfeed for almost 10 months I feel so much love for these photos that show the wonderful bond that breastfeeding brings. But I also know that many will find this week overwhelming as a result of feelings of sadness and guilt about not being able to breastfeed or having to stop breastfeeding much earlier than they would have liked.
Feeding your newborn child seems to be lose-lose for a lot of mums. If you breastfeed then you feel self-conscious, fearing that someone might say something negative, trying to cover yourself and your baby every time you feed outside your home (and even in your home when you have visitors). But if you aren’t able to breastfeed or choose formula you’re made to feel like you are harming your baby or putting your needs before theirs. It’s an impossible situation.
A common theme I see in posts about breastfeeding is how hard it is. Again I can’t argue – we have had our struggles. I suffered from D-MER and R was slow to gain weight. But even without those factors there’s no denying that being the sole source of food for your child for the first six months of their life (and longer if you choose to take a relaxed baby-led approach to solids) is hard. You feel like you can’t leave your baby for too long. You have broken sleep, breast engorgement if you go too long without a feed and unpredictable leaks.
Despite those things I know that I am one of the lucky ones. I’ve been able to feed my baby and to enjoy that unique experience. For many women that’s not possible. There are so many reasons why women stop breastfeeding and I don’t believe that any mother who has wanted to breastfeed has taken that decision lightly. Often it’s to protect their own mental health.
Which is why I don’t ever like to describe my breastfeeding experience as hard. No matter what difficulties we have had, I have had an easy ride, one that has allowed me to continue for much longer than many of my peers. I think that often we want to say that we have found breastfeeding hard in solidarity with women who have had to stop breastfeeding earlier than they would like. But aren’t we doing them a disservice by doing that? If breastfeeding is hard for everyone then we are creating a culture where those women who stop breastfeeding are seen as failures: “I found it hard and struggled but I’m still going so why can’t you?”
It’s this constant narrative that we create that breastfeeding is hard that makes it almost taboo to admit to finding breastfeeding easy. I worry that if I openly say I haven’t had any real problems that it seems like I am gloating or demeaning the experience of other mums who have found it difficult to breastfeed.
Being prepared or setting ourselves up to fail?
Over the last few months I’ve seen posts on Facebook groups from expectant mothers asking what problems with breastfeeding they need to be aware of so they can prepare themselves. I remember when I was pregnant I worried too. I knew about tongue tie and that it could potentially cause problems (although I feel like we’re way too obsessed with trying to spot tongue and lip tie). During antenatal classes I made mental notes to check the shape of my nipple after a feed to make sure my baby’s latch was correct. I bought nipple cream in anticipation of needing to soothe soreness and cracks.
In the end I needn’t have worried about any of it. R was born via a c-section and placed on my chest almost immediately. I tried to get her to latch in theatre but I can’t really remember whether we managed it or not. She was certainly near my breast but didn’t seem overly eager to latch on. When we moved to the recovery suite the midwife help me to angle myself onto my side (I was still numb from the spinal block) with R laying next to me and she had her first proper feed.
The days that followed were a bit of a blur. All those stories of breastfeeding being difficult had left their mark: even though I had no pain (other than the contractions which are completely normal when breastfeeding after birth) I was still convinced that R’s latch wasn’t right. I knew it was important to be confident feeding R before we left hospital and I kept asking the midwives to check my latch but they were all happy with it. In the cubicle opposite me on the ward was a mum who desperately wanted to feed her little girl but her nipples were just too sore. The midwives were helping her to express her milk and improve her latch. I remember feeling so guilty that I seemed to be getting on fine – we’re all meant to find this hard aren’t we?
On my second day in hospital I was seen by a midwife who was also a lactation specialist. I refer to her as “scary midwife” as even though she was probably quite kind, her to the point questions combined with those crazy postpartum hormones meant I burst into tears every time she spoke to me (she was also the only person who 1) told me I should be wearing compression socks and 2) ensured I was prescribed lactulose). But in what my husband describes as a moment akin to “that scene from Ghost”, she positioned R on my breast and told me to hand express to get my milk flowing. R was able to feed, she was just a bit lazy and wouldn’t suck unless she could taste milk.
When we got home I continued to offer R the breast at every opportunity. And she fed really really well and had gained quite a bit of weight when the midwife visited us. I had no shortage of milk either. I used a Haakaa pump to collect let-down while I fed from the other breast and would collect anything from 30ml – 120ml in a single feed. It all went in the freezer (not that we were able to get R to take a bottle). That nipple cream I bought I used once, maybe twice, not because I needed it but because everyone had told me to. The reality was I didn’t have any nipple soreness at all.
The only blip in those first few weeks came the day after N went back to work. I woke one morning and took R to the changing table and immediately had to sit down. I felt dizzy, hot and sick. My right breast was hard and red. I had a blocked duct. Cue Googling “signs of mastitis” and lots of hot flannels.
Weighing it up
And so we had a blissful few months, right up until Christmas. A friend of mine was regularly attending our local baby cafe as her little girl was struggling to gain weight (she did have tongue tie but getting it snipped didn’t improve her latch) and I agreed to meet her for a coffee before she went. I had been told that the baby cafe was a great place for meeting other breastfeeding mums so I decided to tag along. The reality was rather different. The baby cafe in my area is run by midwives and health visitors and operates as a community clinic. After waiting several hours I was seen by a health visitor. We chatted and she weighed R. I hadn’t brought our red book so we couldn’t check against R’s weight chart but the health visitor wasn’t overly concerned.
A couple days later we went to the GP for our 8 week check up. Again R was weighed and the GP seemed happy despite R dropping from the 25% line to the 9% line on her weight chart. Other than a prescription for infant Gaviscon to try and improve R’s reflux everything was fine.
The next day I met with some mummy friends for coffee. It was a Thursday so a couple of them were heading to the baby cafe again. I didn’t plan to go but after a walk around the shops R was getting restless and in need of a feed and nappy change so I decided to pop in just to sit and have a quiet feed.
I’d been worrying myself about overproduction of milk and whether that was adding to R’s reflux. I decided to speak to a health visitor again just for reassurance. This was in hindsight a bad idea. After waiting for about an hour I spoke to a health visitor who wanted to double check my latch. Enter scary midwife again. After assessing R’s latch she concluded that R was falling asleep on the boob and comfort sucking. As a result R was expending too much energy and not gaining enough weight.
Alongside the Gaviscon for reflux I was given a special cup to give R top up feeds and told to use breast compressions to keep my milk flowing. I was to unlatch R as soon as she fell asleep and express milk to give her further feeds when she woke up. Scary midwife instructed me to go to the baby cafe the following week for another weigh-in. As the following Thursday was Christmas Eve there was no baby cafe in Halifax so I was told to go along to the one in Huddersfield on a Monday afternoon instead.
“That’s fine, I can get to Huddersfield.” Except getting from my little village to Huddersfield when you don’t drive is no easy feat – I’d need to get several buses and it would take around two hours, plus a walk to the play centre where the baby cafe is held. I fretted for the rest of the afternoon. I was worried, was R not getting enough milk? How would I get to the baby cafe?
It took me about half a day to work out that R was not going to take milk from a cup. Trying to get the Gaviscon in was pretty impossible too. We tried a bottle, in fact we tried several different brands and R wouldn’t take any of them. In the end I bought some tubing in the hope I could set up a supplementary feeding system, but in the end we didn’t really try it.
I spent the run up to Christmas in a constant state of upset and worry but of all the things we tried the breast compressions seemed to be helping. Scary midwife recommended looking up Dr Jack Newman – this visual guide to breastfeeding is fantastic and I recommend watching it if you are breastfeeding.
Getting some perspective
It was my mum who helped me gain a bit of perspective on things. She pointed out that R is incredibly happy and content and I was clearly feeding her enough. R is also incredibly active so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that she’s not a super chunky baby.
In the end I decided trekking to Huddersfield a couple days before Christmas wouldn’t be a good idea. Instead I decided to take things slow, enjoy a quiet Christmas having lots of snuggles. We would go for a weigh in the week after Christmas when N was off work as well.
It was a plan that paid off, by the time R was weighed the following week she was continuing to track along the 9% line and I had learnt an important lesson – to trust my instincts and stop looking for problems.
I think it’s something we get so easily sucked into. When the whole narrative around breastfeeding is that it’s hard is it any surprise that we look for problems. We second guess ourselves about whether our babies are getting enough milk. Even when we’re supposed to be celebrating breastfeeding we repeat this mantra that it’s hard.
The truth is my breastfeeding journey has been blissfully easy and I’m so grateful for that. And perhaps if I’d trusted my instincts and stopped looking for ways to make it hard for myself it would have been even easier. I really believe that if I hadn’t been so convinced that breastfeeding was this impossible task where so many things could go wrong I wouldn’t have gone to the baby cafe asking for advise. Yes we need support when breastfeeding but that support doesn’t always need to be problem focused. What I needed as a new mum was a space to enjoy breastfeeding my baby alongside other mums.
So let’s celebrate when breastfeeding goes well, let’s start talking positively. Yes it’s hard, your body is essentially not your own. But having to stop breastfeeding early is a lot harder. We need to respect the experiences of those women for whom it hasn’t been easy, who have had to make the difficult decision to stop. And admitting that you’ve had it easy doesn’t invalidate that. Breastfeeding can be hard and it can be easy, each of us will have different experiences. But by acknowledging that it is possible to have a smooth ride perhaps we will increase the odds of that happening.