Long before I gave birth I knew I would breastfeed. I do believe ‘breast is best’ (even though that is the most annoying phrase ever) and I had decided that I would try it and hope it worked for me and my baby. I figured it would be the most natural thing in the world. My baby would be born, he would search out my breast, instantly ‘latch on’ (another annoying phrase) and nature would take it course. Women have been feeding this way since time began and I thought it would be easy.
Oh how wrong I was. Not only is it one of the hardest things I have ever done, but also the pressure to do it and the guilt that surrounds it, is something I never anticipated.
From the moment my son was born I felt that I had no other option. “Is mum ready to feed now”? “Mum should really think about feeding now”. Err, mum has just pushed a 7lb 2oz human out of her vagina. Do you think she could have a minute?
Terrified that my baby would be starving, I managed to sit up in bed and start the feeding process. You would have thought, given how adamant the midwife was for me to begin feeding, that she might have given me some help or shown me the best way for the baby to latch. Nope. It was just my baby, my nipple and me. Better get on with it then.
My one piece of advice to any preggers ladies who plan to breastfeed – do as much research as possible beforehand and get a breastfeeding specialist to show you how to get the baby to latch on properly. It saves a lot of time and pain. I hadn’t really over-thought the whole process (I tend to over-think most things, so this was a rarity), but I’ve since realised that the reason I over-think things is because they’re then easier to deal with when they happen.
So, having not ‘over-thunk’ it, I hadn’t realised how much of a science breastfeeding was. I hadn’t really thought about what ‘your milk coming in’ would actually mean, or how it regulates depending on how much your baby needs. I also thought that demand feeding meant feeding every time my baby made a noise.
About two days after giving birth my milk ‘came in’. My boobs suddenly turned into painful rock hard solid lumps that I had no idea what to do with. The health visitor came to visit and declared that I had ‘a lot of milk’ and that my baby needed to drain it by feeding. No shit Sherlock. Unfortunately my baby wasn’t ‘draining it’ quickly enough and my boobs became engorged.
My baby also wasn’t ‘latched on properly’ meaning my nipples were red, cracked, bleeding and so sore I couldn’t even wrap a towel around my chest after a shower. I cried in pain every time he fed. I wanted to give up and was dreaming of bottles, but the guilt was too strong. I thought this was simply something that I had to suffer and according to everything I read online, ‘it would get easier’. When? When would it get easier? When my child was five and my nipples had fallen off?
Luckily for me I was granted a visit by the breastfeeding angel, Patricia, who arrived at my house and set about sorting out my boobs. She taught me how to get my son to latch on properly. She also explained why they felt like they did and showed me how to get rid of the engorgement. Cue the rather amusing sight of my mum, my hubby and me taking it in turns to ‘milk’ my boobs by hand whilst holding hot flannels on them to encourage the milk to flow. Any sense of dignity had by this stage completely gone. I had turned into a cow.
Everyone was right, the pain did ease and once my milk was properly established the hard boulders disappeared. Amazingly my nipples also recovered. Patricia told me that the skin on your nipples is like paper, which is why they can hurt so much, but that this paper-thin skin also heals very quickly. Although it didn’t feel quick. Believe me.
Next came my baby wanting to feed all the time. In fact, for the first four weeks he fed almost all day. Every day. One day he fed for what must have been ten hours non-stop. I didn’t know what to do. Surely this couldn’t go on? Surely he wouldn’t carry on like this for the next 6 months? The thought that he might, made me want to stop. When I thought about this, however, the guilt yet again kicked in. I banished the idea from my mind for fear I would be struck by lightning or attacked by a giant, rampaging and revengeful breast. And again I was told that him feeding so often ‘would become easier’. When? When?!
Around this time the sickness started. After every feed there was vomit. Sometimes during a feed there was vomit. I was told I was overfeeding him and that perhaps I should start trying to spread out the feeds. I did this. That he didn’t like it was made clear by the screaming. I felt guilty in case he was hungry, so I then fed him. And sure enough, he was sick again. He was then diagnosed with reflux. I asked if it was because I had so much milk, that perhaps I should try bottle-feeding him (I asked this because I had at this stage introduced one bottle of expressed breast milk a day so hubby could take over one feed and baby was less sick from a bottle). The doctor looked like she was about to have an aneurism before insisting in no uncertain terms that I should continue to breastfeed.
For me, the eternal dilemma with regards to breastfeeding is whether the baby is getting enough. Not knowing how much he was eating was my biggest challenge. Could I simply let go of the control and go with the flow?
In the first few weeks he was gaining a lot of weight. Once the reflux started, however, he began to gain a lot less. In fact at the week five weigh-in he dropped down from the 25th to the 9th percentile. I nearly had a panic attack.
At this stage I once again considered formula feeding, but was again advised against it. In actual fact I didn’t really want to stop breastfeeding, but I had started to wonder who I was breastfeeding for. Would he be better off for me being able to see exactly what he was having compared to what he brought up? Apparently not according to my doctor. And so the internal battle continued.
Oh and I also got mastitis. It wasn’t pleasant. The answer? Keep on feeding.
On reflection though, however difficult I’ve found breastfeeding over the past four months, it’s also been incredibly rewarding and conducive to establishing a routine which both baby and I are comfortable with. I also love the feeling I get when I’m feeding him. I love looking at his little face as he concentrates on his meal. I love it when he finishes feeding and looks up at me with his big blue eyes, happy and content. And I love how natural it feels. Plus when they go well the feeds are pretty quick, painless and a million times easier than having to sterilise a bottle before every feed.
It is also the most powerful weapon I have with regards to every testing aspect of motherhood and I’m not sure what I’ll do without it. Hungry? Fretful? Teething? Bored? Tired? Can’t sleep? Hysterically crying for no reason? Whip out the old boob and Bob’s your uncle, the crying stops.
In fact, the boob now gets whipped out here, there and everywhere. In the beginning I was much more self conscious about where I fed and who I fed in front of. Now I don’t care. Half of North London has seen my nipples. The other day I fed him in the hairdressers between my colour and blow dry.
Yet the eternal breastfeeding question still rages on in my mind. How much is he getting? Is it enough? Should he be bigger? Would he be bigger if I formula-fed him?
He now seems firmly set on the 9th percentile, but I’m finally ok with that. He’s healthy, bright, forever smiling and very alert. He’s amazing. I could do without the constant vomiting, but I’m assured once solids start that will resolve its’ self.
When I got pregnant I wasn’t sure for how long I would breastfeed. Six months felt like a lifetime. Now, as six months gets nearer, I’m not sure I want to stop and this surprises me. I honestly never thought I would carry on for this long and given the battle I’ve had with it, I’m shocked I’m still going. But I’m glad I have. I feel lucky I can do it. I’ve got friends who had to stop for various reasons despite huge effort and sacrifices on their part.
Hubby will often get in from work to find baby crying as he’s seemingly struggling to feed, while I’m shedding tears of frustration. He’s therefore keen for me to stop at the sixth month point. Seeing how stressful the whole thing has been for me has not been easy for him to witness either But I wonder if he’ll still think like that when he’s preparing a bottle at 3am!
I partly want to stop, but again the old guilt raises it head. Am I a bad mother for stopping at six months when I could carry on? The main reason for stopping would be for me to have my body back. But even writing this, I feel a huge sense of guilt. And so the dilemma continues.
At this rate I’ll be feeding him when he’s starting school and I really don’t want to be ‘that’ mum.