You’ve been through the birth, got your bundle of joy home and are looking forward to getting to know each other. But, for many women, the ‘bubble’ of newborn bliss isn’t quite the glowy fantasy they had imagined with feeding challenges consuming the whole experience. Struggling with both the physical, hormonal and emotional fallout from failing to establish breastfeeding has been shown to be at the heart of many new mother’s post natal depression and yet education and support around nursing is woefully lacking. Here is my account of our feeding experience—a journey which was far away from what I’d been prepared for….
Best Laid Plans
Before I gave birth I was very relaxed about breastfeeding—my philosophy was if it works great, if not, ‘ah well’. For someone who was anxious about nearly everything, it was a blip of easygoing attitude. I paid for and attended the NCT breastfeeding class and watched some You Tube videos on how to stuff your nipple into the baby’s mouth so I thought I was set. Little did I know… Following all the advice, immediately after my delivery, my fresh newborn was put on my chest for skin to to skin contact and he appeared to latch and start feeding. However, while we were in the hospital (for 24 hours after his birth) at no point was his latch checked—instead, the Drs/ nurses just asked if I had fed him to which I said yes. But the truth is, I had no fricking idea what it felt like/ looked like when a baby breastfeeds. Did he ever actually consume that magic golden colostrum which our mammaries produce post birth? To be honest, who the hell knows?
What I do know is after less than 24 hours back home, my baby completely stopped even trying to latch or feed. I did everything I could to cajole him—I watched the You Tube videos again, enlisted the help of my mum and my partner and tried every different position in the book. But he just wouldn’t suck when presented with the nipple. Because of a balls up with our discharge from the hospital, we weren’t assigned a health visitor—they’re meant to be with you within a day or so of leaving the hospital—and we didn’t end up getting a home visit for five days. The number I was given to call by the hospital rang off the hook and the foot deep of snow outside as well as pretty dodgy post natal experience I’d had meant I was desperate not to readmit myself. Even though I’d done the NCT class and gone to a session at my hospital on feeding, at no point had there been any conversation that this might happen and I had literally zero idea how the hell to deal with it.
Luckily, a girlfriend had passed on a pack of mini newborn long-life formula bottles—just in case. Beforehand I’d factored a possibility that I would have a post birth issue, like a haemorrhage, but it hadn’t occurred to me that once we’d left the hospital, the baby would. When he stopped feeding, the advice online was that it was super important not to introduce a teat to a baby so early and that I should keep persevering to make him take the nipple. But after 11 hours of starving screams and horrible, horrible stress pushing his face to my nipple, I decided enough was enough, considering newborns are meant to eat every three hours minimum. I still feel so guilty that I didn’t know what to do and I let my tiny baby go without food for nearly a whole day and definitely feel that my lack of actual strategies for coping with the situation is pretty lamentable.
Next Steps On the Journey Back to Breastfeeding
As my milk hadn’t come in yet (it came in the morning of day 4), I couldn’t initially pump and though I tried to hand express the colostrum, I couldn’t collect anything—it’s much harder than it looks on the videos. So I started feeding the baby the emergency milk—Aptimel Newborn Ready-to-Feed. Now I’ve become an amateur expert on the process, I now know the best thing would have been to syringe feed him the formula, squeezing the plunger only when he sucked rather than basically pouring milk into his mouth with the easy flow newborn bottles that come off the shelves. As far as advice goes, I would definitely recommend that every new mum should have a syringe and emergency formula at home in case of similar problems. Over the weeks I’ve tried to work out why this isn’t communicated and all I can surmise is that the NHS/ NCT is so committed to the breast is best message, that they’d prefer you to be readmitted into hospital, rather than give you any advice which might reduce your chances of continuing on the natural nursing journey.
Emotionally, the whole thing completely ripped me apart. Within 72 hours I’d already fed my baby formula and I felt that I’d completely and utterly fucked the whole thing up. Suddenly that relaxed attitude to how I was going to feed my baby evaporated and I became obsessed—I certainly hadn’t factored in how the hormones and maternal instinct would change my approach. Over the next few days I went to several breastfeeding drop in clinics and would continue to do so for nearly two months. I was advised to start aggressively pumping, so was on my pump 8-10 times every day. Between each pump, also as advised, I cleaned and sterilized the many parts which make up the world’s least sexy breast accessory so during my ‘bubble’ I was either attached to the pump or cleaning the pump, all day and all night. Those first weeks I was pumping at least once every two hours while still trying several times a day to help the baby to latch. It was just the worst—but it did help me establish my supply even though the baby wasn’t taking it directly from the nipple. By day 6 we were back on exclusive breastmilk and the pressure of pumping in time and providing enough milk came to define my days.
“Emotionally, the whole thing completely ripped me apart. Within 72 hours I’d already fed my baby formula and I felt that I’d completely and utterly fucked the whole thing up.”
Once thing that hadn’t come up was the issue of oversupply. As I’d been so diligent about pumping and my milk came on really strong and within a fortnight I had a brutal case of mastitis. It starts exactly how they say—tiny marble sized bumps under the skin of your boobs then progresses into large red, rashy patches. If you’re breastfeeding, you’re advised to keep feeding so the baby can relieve it, but when you’re pumping, additional pumping only exacerbates the issue, so you have to be really careful with trying to balance the supply without going bonkers (I had become so focused on developing my supply that I was pumping about 3 times the amount that the baby was actually drinking at that point).
Around the same time, Grey was diagnosed with a tongue tie which we had cut, something which sounds much worse than it is. I also started using nipple shields to try and coax him back on to the nipple. I’d never heard of these before (they weren’t mentioned in the breastfeeding course) but they’re ultra thin plastic teats which you attach to your nipple and they can help the baby feed from the breast. The cons are that the plastic interferes with the flow and I found I had to feed forever (like 45 mins plus) Grey to be satisfied. For the next three weeks we continued with a mix of expressed pumped milk via newborn bottles and breastfeeding with the nipple shields. And slowly, slowly I managed to whip off the shields and get him to feed directly from the nipple.
Breast & Beyond
I finally felt like we’d got there and was so proud of him for everything he’d been through, it was just the best feeling and I really hoped that would be it. However, Grey then started dropping weight and screaming all the livelong day. There’s no doubt, my little boy is a screamer and he has cried passionately his entire short life. He still goes ballistic a couple of times a day, but this was something else. Complicating the whole thing was the fact that he’s had terrible reflux pretty much from day one. I almost forget now, because the sickness is such a normal part of our day, but at the beginning he would vomit so aggressively that it was frightening. It would come through his nose, hit the wall and spark choking fits that lasted long enough for me to be scared. When he missed your clothes and puked over your shoulder, there would be a dinner plate sized splat on the floor. Sometimes he would be sick for a full hour after a feed. Sometimes, he would would still be being sick four hours after a feed. He was sick every single time we fed him. The stress and frustration of pumping or very slowly feeding a baby with nipple shields and then seeing him throw a good part of it up is just difficult to describe. And for whatever reason as soon as we properly established breastfeeding, the sickness got even worse. I tried to feed him sitting up at all times, but nearly everything seemed to come straight back up.
Reluctantly, I went back to pumping and bottle feeding expressed milk, which I continued through to four months. Everyday I’d still try to breastfeed, but it was almost comical how hard it was for us both. The one positive thing was that I knew exactly how much food he was getting every feed and the sickness while still full on, became much more manageable.
Pumping & EBF Bites The Dust
Over the next couple of months, slowly at first, then pretty dramatically, my supply started to falter. I was still pumping 4/5 times a day and at my peak I was getting 6-7oz. a pump. But then, it started dropping off. I increased the amount of times I was pumping, but by three months I wasn’t making enough to cover all of his feeds. From having too much milk, I now had too little. One of the biggest problems with expressing is that it can be really hard to work out exactly how much the baby needs and with the added sickness issues, I found it pretty impossible to get it right. Also my boobs never really calmed down like the books say they will when you establish breastfeeding—by eight weeks mine were still painful balloons and my pregnancy B cups were up to a G. They felt constantly engorged, from about 30 minutes after pumping, but then even though I was pumping just as much, they started to shrink and sometimes I was only getting 2oz from a pump. At the same time, Grey started to really up his ounces and was taking more and more each bottle. Formula, once more, was the only resort.
I was crushed to not be able to maintain exclusive breastfeeding. You’d think that the harder it gets, the kinder you’d be on yourself, but I found personally the opposite was true. Reading it all back now, I sound unstable and obsessive and I definitely lost grip for a while. Maternal instinct is a really strange thing and the drive to self-sacrifice, to do anything for your little love can cloud your rationality. The guilt that comes from even considering your own welfare is something I wasn’t prepared for and even though I hadn’t had any expectations for how I was going to feed my baby, I became a woman on a mission to make it work. Almost the harder it was the less guilt I felt about failing him.
Now six month down the line, Im not going to pretend that I don’t still care. I definitely do and it can definitely make me well up when I think about it too much. But in general, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I did my very best, sought out expert advice and researched as extensively as the internet would allow. Three months in, one of my health visitors said to me, ‘it’s not you, it’s him,’ something which sounds so simple, but had such a big impact on how I felt about everything. My baby had massive issues latching and had it not been for my electric pump and formula, he would not be thriving. I’ve stopped blaming myself so much and now see it more as a circumstance. At six months I have a bouncing, bonny baby boy who drinks over a litre of milk a day and three good sized meals and mixed feeding has got him here. Instead of feeling like the formula was some kind of poison, I see it as an amazing, incredible invention which stepped in where we couldn’t make it work.
So, the question now was, which formula? I mean, who even knows what the hell to look for?! Are they all the same? Why are they all different prices? In retrospect, I wish I had asked the breastfeeding experts about this, because in all the endless pamphlets you’re given over your pregnancy and post-birth I couldn’t find a single mention of how to tell them apart or know what’s good and what’s not. I’m certainly no authority, but I have done a fair amount of research and really there doesn’t seems to be a huge difference. Some of them have more vitamins and minerals than others and the iron content varies between brands, but they seem much of a muchness. We tried Aptimel and found it quite ‘frothy’, which had a really negative impact on Grey’s reflux, then moved on to HIPP Organic, but it didn’t seem to satiate Grey – it’s markedly ‘thinner’. In the end I was recommended Bioland’s Anfängsmilch—a German formula which has flawless organic credentials. It’s expensive but not markedly so from other organic formulas you can get here in the U.K. So much of the whole thing is all in your head, and for me, finding what I felt to be the very ‘best’ formula was one thing I used psychologically to make it ok that I wasn’t able to exclusively breastfeed. I’m in no way suggesting that anyone else should use the same formula or that you have to go organic or one is good and one is crap. But if you end up using a crutch to make yourself feel better, I do think it’s entirely understandable.
“I was crushed to not be able to maintain exclusive breastfeeding. You’d think that the harder it gets, the kinder you’d be on yourself, but I found personally the opposite was true.”
The day my milk stopped, I sat pumping for nearly 40 minutes and didn’t manage to get half an ounce from both boobs and just sobbed. But after a strict chat from my mum (thank God there was a voice of reason somewhere in this story) I packed up the pump and promised myself that this was going to the end of the guilt and being so hard on myself. I did my very best for my baby and I didn’t fail—no matter what the statistics might suggest. That promise I made to myself hasn’t remained completely unshaken over the past couple of months, but generally I’ve come to terms with the experience.
Somewhat helping the transition to be completely honest, has been the fact that stopping breastfeeding has felt incredible. My boobs have gone back from a G to a modest B, I can wear my clothes again and not pumping has been so liberating. For months, everything was clouded by the constant, constant worry about whether or not I’d managed to express enough to cover the feeds and that has changed my whole experience of motherhood. I guess the million dollar question is whether I’d do anything different if I got a do-over? The answer is probably not, but if I’m ever in the same position again, I’d definitely want to be in a very different headspace. Instead of chiding myself for failing, I’d praise myself for succeeding against the odds.
What I do feel massively passionate about is helping other women be more prepared for what’s ahead. Birth is obviously mind-blowingly tough, but so many of my peers agree with me that it was feeding that’s the real zinger. The outpouring of love and support from other women that I received on my motherhood focused Instagram account @mamalovesgrey was so incredibly touching and just speaks to how prevalent these issues are. The only thing I was prepared for by my NHS/ NCT preparation was sore nipples. And while that pain is real, it’s hardly all-encompassing. So here’s my two pence worth on what you really should know before you start:
- Buy a pump. If your baby doesn’t latch, without one you wont be able to maintain/ build your supply. If it’s a weekend, snowing, you’re too overwhelmed to leave the house yet or you haven’t set up Amazon Prime, you could easily end up missing your window. Regardless, if you don’t want to be attached to your baby every 3 hours for the next 9 months you will need one at some point. My midwife suggested waiting to buy a pump to see if you actually need one, but I would totally disagree and suggest investing in an electric double pump as well as a manual (much cheaper) hand held. Here in the U.K. we seem to be very pump hesitant, while our US sisters are all pumping pros (often bc they have to go back to work so quickly). Not all babies will take a bottle after bf has been established, but if you can try it earlier rather than later with expressed milk, you’ll have more of a chance.
- Make a formula bottle. When I eventually had to make a bottle up, I was so intimidated and overwhelmed by it that I ended up pouring three mixtures down the sink with an increasingly loud screaming baby in the background. It is not rocket science, but you will be astounded at how emotionally loaded such a simple thing can be. Plus anything new and potentially harmful to your baby can feel like an insane hurdle. Buy a newborn bottle, a pack of formula which you feel comfortable with and just boil a kettle before you baby comes. It’s a small thing for your peace of mind, but so worth it.
- Put together and emergency feeding kit. All you need are some newborn ready-made bottles or formula, a couple of newborn bottles and a syringe. A microwave sterilizer – they’re not expensive is also worth having as if you use it, you’ll need to clean it all.
- If it goes wrong at the beginning all is not lost. Having a newborn enhanced my tendency to catastrophise. It’s easy to see why, because the message is so stark: if you give your baby a bottle, you’ve basically failed. While that’s bonkers anyway – fed is best and the only failure would be starving a baby—with perseverance you can establish breastfeeding even after it’s all gone sideways. It might not be perfect and you might not make it to six months, but it’s not as black and white as the messaging suggests.
- Don’t feel embarrassed if you lose your mind. It’s entirely natural to misplace your bearings when you have a newborn, especially when it comes to breastfeeding. You are not alone. Hiding the way you feel is more likely to lead to PND and there a massive correlation between feeding issues and post birth depression. If you want to cry, cry. It is FUCKING HARD. It’s RELENTLESS. It’s NOT THE WAY IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE. But just no you are SO FAR from being alone. I cannot even count the number of women who have contacted me to say they have gone through similar experiences.
- Formula is not McDonalds. Or heroin. It is actually incredible when you think about it. What would have happened to Grey if there hadn’t been any formula? Or the millions of other babies that formula has helped to thrive? It may not be breastmilk, which is obviously liquid gold. But it’s not poison, and we need to remember that.