In the news this weekend, a government report showed that the number of breastfeeding mums in England has fallen for the first time in a decade. Five-thousand fewer mums give it a try at all, and by their eight week check, over 325,000 women have stopped breastfeeding completely. The report also showed that the proportions of mothers choosing bottle over breast were highest in areas of social deprivation, and lowest in areas of affluence. So, those who (if salaries are anything to go by) have achieved higher levels of qualifications are choosing to breastfeed, and those that haven’t, aren’t. That means breast is best, right?
Throughout my entire pregnancy and in the maternity ward, the “breast is best/formula is evil” mantra was drummed in to me every step of the way. Thing is, with me there was really no need to try and convert me. I was 100% committed to breastfeeding, it is free, there’s nothing to sterilise, and it’s the reason that boobs exist. I diligently read the books, I bought the (nursing) shirt, in short, I was a fully paid up member to Team Booby. The concept of formula feeding seemed a bit wrong to me, and rather naively, I think I had some deep-seated opinions around people who choose the formula route being selfish, uneducated and lazy – opinions I was later forced to completely rethink.
When I started this post, it was meant to be a quick ramble about breastfeeding and guilt. Several thousand words later, I’ve realised it’s more of an epic saga. Warning: may contain boob-shots.
When Billy was born, I put him to the boob a few minutes after the birth, held my nerve through all the frantic boob-shoving from well meaning support workers on the ward and lathered on Lanisoh like it was going out of fashion. Twenty four hours after he was born, we went home with the steely determination to crack this breastfeeding thing within the comfort of our own home.
Thing is, despite all my research on breast milk boosting foods and how to get the perfect latch, I seemed to miss the bit where the book say: breastfeeding is really bloody hard. I count those first couple of weeks breastfeeding as the single hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I had no idea how physically, mentally and emotionally all-consuming it would be. Neither of us were very good at this whole breastfeeding thing, but everything I read said: if it hurts, you’re doing it wrong. Now, I’m not sure if I speak for everyone, or just me here, but I’d like to say for the record, in those first two weeks: IT ALL BLOODY HURTS. The books describe “latching on” pain as a few seconds of discomfort, and suggest that if it continues to hurt, to break the latch and start again. In my experience, that roughly translated to: toe-curling, f-bombing, bum-clenching searing pain for a couple of minutes every time I tried to get a good latch. Then, a couple of minutes later, repeating the entire process because Billy had moved/fallen asleep/I needed ANOTHER pint of water etc. My midwife told me to swap boobs after 40 minutes as all the milk would have been drained, so I stared at the clock with tears streaming down my face and counted down the minutes until I could give myself a five minute break and dutifully swap to the other side. And then swap back. And then swap again, for hours and hours on end. There was plenty of times where I had to sit and mentally talk myself in to doing the next feed, when every part of my body was exhausted by the process. Then, there was the cracked, blood blistered and mis-shapen nipples, the weird ridges of skin that formed on the ends of them, the engorgement pain (and there I was thinking that boob massage sounded fun!) and the deep pain all the way in to my armpits every time I fed him. I assumed that I was doing it wrong. I called the midwife out of hours team for advice at 3am, I saw maternity support workers, my midwife and went to breastfeeding support sessions to check my latch and for moral support. They all told me: my latch was good, and the pain is typical, but that it would all get easier soon. I should just keep doing what I was doing. Because breast is best.
But then, all of a sudden, breast wasn’t so great after all. I’d persevered through all the weird pains and emotional battles of the first few days, and between 10-14 days, things got a bit better every day. It hurt less and I was enjoying it more. I thought I was doing a great job, but the midwives scales sadly didn’t agree. Billy continued to lose weight each time he was weighed, until, at two weeks old and with Simpson-like levels of jaundice, we were told under no uncertain terms, that we needed to supplement my breastfeeding efforts with formula milk, as my breasts weren’t providing Billy with enough milk. Just like that, I was hit with a truckload of maternal guilt. I was starving my baby, my boobs weren’t doing a good enough job, and now I had to taint his virginal stomach with evil formula, and he would end up fat, diabetic and with ear infections – all because I didn’t have enough milk. It was very very hard not to feel like a complete failure.
Thing is, once I’d gotten over the guilt about tainting his poor stomach with evil chemicals etc, I began to see some real benefits to this whole supplemental feeding malarky. For one, it meant that I could pass the responsibility on to Neil every now and again, so I could get an hour’s sleep whilst he battled with 10ml syringes and a wriggly baby. It also meant that when I’d fed for hours on end and my nipples were bruised and blistered, I had another option. After a couple of weeks, we switched from a syringe and a cup to a bottle, and things improved again.
A few weeks after that, when Billy was a couple of months old, we were down to two supplemental bottles a day and his weight gain was back up in the 90th centile. I felt like we’d struck a happy medium. But, whereas everyone else I knew who was exclusively breastfeeding was down to 20 minute feeds every couple of hours, I was still spending hours at a time, glued to the chair, with a baby that had nothing even remotely resembling a routine and who never really seemed satisfied …unless he’d been given a bottle. Looking back on these weeks, I can see that I actually felt pretty resentful about breastfeeding. OK, so my nipples weren’t sore any more, but my wardrobe was limited to clothes that I could fit my ass in to, and tops that didn’t cling to my belly or my saggy nursing bra boobs (oh, underwiring, how I’ve missed you so), but that also gave easy access to my boobs without having to flop (bloody love that verb) my boob out completely, or expose my belly at the same time. This left me with the grand total of TWO outfits I could acceptably wear outside the house: my black maternity jeans, black vest and a baggy black and white stiped linen top, and… my maternity jeans, black vest and baggy grey print top. If you saw me in public in the first three months of Billy’s life, it is highly likely that I was wearing one of these two outfits. As well as my self-confidence about the way I looked being pretty rock bottom, I also found it quite difficult to go out and about without a lot of forward planning. Some people can breastfeed very discretely, they just pop out a boob and away they go. For me, having quite large and unruly boobs, nursing without a nursing chair and a boppy involved holding him in one arm (have you ever held a 15lb weight in one arm for hours on end? Not cool), and holding the boob I was feeding him with in the other – making doing ANYTHING else (drinking, eating, answering the phone) whilst feeding pretty difficult indeed.
At one point, when Billy was 10 weeks, I spent a lot of time seriously considering hanging up the nursing bra for good, but struggled with the guilt demons in a major way, that I was somehow letting him down by quitting, that I was prioritising convenience and feeling good about the way I looked over giving him the best start in life. Although quitting was a bloody attractive option, every time I considered doing it, my head swam with mental images of him looking up at me and grinning during a feed, or visions of ‘our LAST EVER feed’ and before I knew it, I would be in floods of tears. After several days of changing my mind every 5 minutes, I decided I clearly wasn’t ready to make a decision about it, and put the whole thing on the back burner. Dare I say it, I even started enjoying breastfeeding again.
Then, when Billy was 12 weeks old, we went on holiday with my family to Suffolk for a week, and Billy decided he was old enough to vote with his feet, or rather, his vocal chords. Every time I offered him the boob, he would arch his back, turn his head and wail. I was stubborn, trying every few minutes, trying distractions, taking myself away from distractions, doing skin-to-skin, offering more often, and none of it worked. At best, he would feed for a few minutes, then would get angry and frustrated and cry, until he was given a bottle. I was at my wits end trying to work out what had changed, or what I’d done wrong, but couldn’t come to a logical conclusion, other than that Billy seemed to have made his own mind up. Over the course of the week, Billy moved from having breastmilk as his main source of food, with supplemental bottles, to having bottles as his main source of food, with supplemental breastmilk. On the one hand, I was gutted that he had expressed a preference for boob over bottle, but in an odd way, relieved that he’d taken the decision making process in his own hands.
The couple of weeks after that, the feeds we had together have been carefully filed away in my mental memory box. Each morning and afternoon, me and Billy clamber on to the sofa or get in bed for a feed and a cuddle. There’s no pressure, I’m not worried about how many nappies he’s getting through, we just have a feed, have a chat and sing some songs, then carry on with our day as normal. I’ve got from distractedly breastfeeding whilst playing Candy Crush and watching Real Housewives of Atlanta, to putting my phone down, turning the telly off and making real time to savour every moment of our feeds together.
Since then? Well, I hoped to carry on our morning and afternoon feeds as long as Billy would let me, but in the last couple of days, our ten minute feeds have become five minute feeds, and happy smiley feeds have been replaced with turning his head away and crying. It might be a phase, but more than likely, he’s had enough of my dwindling milk supply, and would rather play with his Lamaze octopus than entertain the idea of having a feed when a bottle is a far more effective use of his time. He’s a happy, healthy, chubby baby boy, and he’s ready to move on from breastfeeding, I just wish I could do the same without bursting in to tears at the very thought. Can you imagine what I’ll be like when he goes to school? Oh no, I’m going to be *that* mum, aren’t I?
So, here I am at the end of our breastfeeding journey (I’m not going to pretend, I did stop to have a little sob when I wrote that). I’m not really the sort of person who says stuff like ‘breastfeeding journey’, because, well, it’s a bit weeby-feeby isn’t it? But I genuinely feel like it *has* been a journey. Feeding your child is an amazing privilege, and although I maintain it is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, it’s also one of the best things I’ve done. I’m going to make a concerted effort to take the fifteen different kinds of guilts I had around breastfeeding and formula, and just feel proud of myself for getting through the other side, with a beautiful baby boy to show for it.
And in the end, that’s all that matters, isn’t it?
Update 24th June 2013 – So, it turns out I just happened to post this blog at the start of #nationalbreastfeedingweek, who knew! As a result, lots of other blogs I follow have been sharing their thoughts on breastfeeding. Here’s a couple that I really enjoyed:
- Happy Baby Project “Breast is best?” – on the benefits of combination feeding
- Tealady Mumbles “Simply the breast”– on having a remarkably similiar experience, but a different outcome