When we found out we were expecting my darling little girl, I didn’t spend any time at all deliberating over whether or not I would choose to breastfeed, or worrying about if I would be able to. It’s not that I felt particularly strongly about it, I just assumed that I would breastfeed, and that was that. It was free, it was convenient, people are always going on about how great it is…why wouldn’t I?
I enrolled on a particular antenatal class, and there was a HUGE emphasis on breastfeeding. When we first received an email with the class schedule and I saw that there was an entire session dedicated solely to breastfeeding, my first reaction was ‘UGHH’ (that’s the sound of an almost 360-degree eye roll, to clarify). My second, was that I couldn’t quite figure out how there could possibly be that much to it, to fill out almost three.whole.hours. My community midwife had also plugged a separately run local breastfeeding workshop to me on more than one occasion during my routine appointments. Not really understanding what all the fuss was about, and being the furthest thing on this planet away from ‘Earth-Mama’, this all seemed a bit bonkers to me at the time.
I was incredibly fortunate that the expectations and preconceptions I’d had about breastfeeding mostly turned out to be true, and with relative ease, my daughter and I took to it well from the beginning. Don’t get me wrong though, it was no walk in the park.
My boobs looked like a couple of blue-streaked plasma balls with soggy, cracked liquorice torpedo nipples. It was a MASSIVE ball-ache finding time to express after feeds, plus clean and sterilise all the pump attachments ready for the next time, all the while looking after a newborn baby (famously not too keen on being put down or letting you get on with anything at all…who knew?!). I did not enjoy waking up in the night like a chance contestant in a most disconcerting version of a wet t-shirt contest, because my soggy breast pads had torn in half and were wringing themselves out all over me. Having to agonise over every one of my outfits based on the density of the print, absorbency of fabric, or how dark the colour was in case of ‘boob leakage’, was the fastest way to send me into a wardrobe-induced, postpartum meltdown, forcing me into choices that made me feel like a drab old peahen.
Such minor gripes are aside from the more obvious issues; the incredible soreness, the fact that the pressure was on me alone to come up with my baby’s nourishment (and 99% of the time, be the one to deliver it too!). I actually managed to get mastitis three times, which is seriously painful and makes you feel like utter crap, I definitely do not recommend it. In spite of all this, I carried on. Even though lots of people were encouraging me to give up. My daughter was healthy and gaining weight beautifully, and I felt it was my motherly duty to continue.
When my little girl reached about 4 months of age, we ran into bigger problems. It seemed like my supply had slowed down, and/or she wasn’t able to stay still long enough for a full feed anymore. She was insanely grumpy. If she was awake (so that’d be ALL the time, then!) she was whinging or screaming and wouldn’t be put down. Not our finest hour.
I tried everything I possibly could to try and increase my supply. I was pumping up to 6 times a day, drinking my weight in water, taking fancy Fenugreek supplements which made me smell like curry (they try and tell you the smell is maple syrup – do not believe the lies…it’s straight up curry). I was overdosing on oats and all other kinds of magic ‘lactation foods’, trying weird boob massages, meditation…you name it. I was absolutely determined to try every trick out there so I could continue, but none of it seemed to be making enough of a difference. My baby was still miserable, I was still stressed out to the max, and I could only pump a pitiful half ounce in 20 mins from both sides at best, unable to get a single let-down.
This went on for about a month, when after a desperate series of texts to my Mum at 6am basically telling her I was losing the plot, she appeared on my doorstop a few hours later to rescue/relieve me. She gently suggested we try a bottle (not wine for us, sadly. Though that probably would have done wonders for my cortisol levels…). Defeated but desperate, I made up a 4oz bottle of Hipp Organic, and my hungry baby glugged down the lot. Instantly (and when I say instantly, I mean INSTANTLY) she became a different child. Even though it was towards the end of the day when young babies are notorious for getting a grump on, she was smiling and playing and just such a pleasure to be around. It was a bittersweet breakthrough, and from there on it was a natural progression from exclusive breastfeeding, to combined feeding, to formula feeding.
Why, even though it was at worst, making me physically ill with a recurrent infection, unable to function and look after my baby, and at best giving my baby a measly morsel of what is considered first rate nourishment, was I so determined to carry on breastfeeding? Why did I put us both at such a disadvantage, all for the sake of doing things a certain way?
It’s rammed down every expectant and new mother’s throat that ‘breast is best’. Well, I have to disagree. It’s not always best. Mothers and their infants can run into all kinds of problems when breastfeeding, and whilst we are incredibly fortunate that there is a great deal of support to assist and guide us through our journey, some breastfeeding relationships never really take off, or like in our case, become increasingly impractical for whatever reason.
What happens if you can’t, or choose not to breastfeed? No one teaches you how to bottle-feed. Where are the bottle-feeding classes?! I had to fly by the seat of my pants after nearly 5 months of exclusive breastfeeding, basing what I was doing purely on reading the back of the formula box and by watching/listening to other formula-feeding Mums. Why is there such a reluctance to accept the alternative to breastfeeding, and provide information and support with this too?
Even at the clinic when getting the baby weighed, I was asked by health visitors ‘are you still breastfeeding?’. Not ‘how is she fed?’ or something less shaming for those of us who have to answer ‘no’. Little things like this only added to the immense pressure I was already experiencing. I felt as though I was failing my daughter, and as a mother, if I wasn’t giving her the widely-publicised and highly-commended ‘best’.
From my experience, a fed child is best. A healthy and happy child is best. A mother who is physically and mentally able to function is best. So what? We didn’t make it to the end of the first year as recommended. My daughter’s weight has never dropped below the centile she’s followed since birth. She’s hit every one of her milestones early, or on time. She is healthy, happy, gregarious, bright and strong… Despite being fed by, that dirty word…BOTTLE. It wasn’t by choice, but it’s worked out just fine. It could have saved us both a lot of tears had I felt supported enough to have made the decision sooner.
I just want to let other Mums out there who may be going through something similar know that it’s ok to deviate from your original plan, or what others tell you that you should be doing for your baby. If your baby is fed, you haven’t failed. If you need help, ask for it. You do what is best for YOU and YOUR baby, and whatever that is, be it breastfed or bottle, don’t ever feel that you need to apologise for it.
What struggles did you encounter on your breastfeeding journey? Was it cut short prematurely? Maybe you decided early on that you would formula feed, did you feel any kind of backlash for that? I know it’s a deeply personal and emotionally loaded subject, but if you feel able to, I would love for you to share your own breastfeeding stories, views and experiences.