They say breastfeeding is one of the most natural and magical things you can do, which it is, but for some mothers, it can also be the hardest thing you will ever try to do.
I was not prepared for breastfeeding! I was adamant I wanted to do it over bottle feeding, and despite doing all the reading and the NCT breastfeeding class, I had no idea of the struggle coming my way. Don’t get me wrong, I learnt a lot of valuable information from these classes, but I never knew how hard it was actually going to be, how can you until you experience something yourself?
Up to this point you know your body has done amazing things, so you expect it to all fall into place and your natural instincts to take over and for breastfeeding to be exactly that, natural. But this is not always the case, and I believe most women would say they found it awkward and stressful. We feel a lot of pressure to breastfeed, because as we are all very well aware, breast is best. So, if you struggle to provide this for your baby, you can feel like your body is failing you and therefore you are failing as a Mother. You think it’s all about getting the right position for you and your baby but forget all the emotions and hormones that go with it, as well as all the struggles our little ones can have.
Everyone’s breastfeeding journey is different, and when I look back, ours was not an easy one so I can very easily see why it didn’t work for us. My son was born 5 weeks premature, this meant I never got skin to skin contact with him and he spent the first 3 weeks of his life in an incubator in the NICU ward. Whilst I had nurses painfully squeezing my boobs trying to hand express small amounts of colostrum into syringes, my son was getting these delivered to him to be fed through a tube. I was then soon sent home to figure out what the hell to do with a pump and start the milk man deliveries back and forth to the hospital several times a day. There is nothing natural about this experience, I felt zero bond with my son, and as a result my milk supply suffered.
The fact he was premature, meant he was not ready to be in the world yet, he was not strong enough. I remember him being so weak and fragile and as I went to the hospital every day desperate to breastfeed so he could get stronger and come home, I was already stressed and pressuring myself. He didn’t have the strength to latch on and I was left disheartened thinking they were never going to let me take him home unless he fed from me. I felt like I was failing him, or perhaps he was rejecting me.
The environment you imagine to start breastfeeding is in the comfort of your own home, with lots of those lovely pillows you have been nesting with. However, for us it was in a very public ward with other parents and babies, nurses, doctors and beeping machines, which created a stressful and uncomfortable environment. Plus, we were having to rush back and forth trying to time our visits to the hospital correctly so I could try to feed him before the nurses got to him with the tube, with his schedule changing every day. These were all extra factors working against us. A Mother needs to be close to her baby in order to produce the right hormones to produce milk, I didn’t have that. I was just sat at home without my baby or sat in a hospital room with other Mum’s, trying to pump as I watched them all produce more milk than me. It was awful and disheartening.
I tried different pumps, nipple shields, supplements to help my milk supply, the lot. As the days went by and I still got nowhere I felt defeated and like there was something wrong with me. One of the nurses suggested I tried bottle feeding and I was devasted. Despite it being amazing to be able to feed my baby through something that wasn’t a tube, it wasn’t what I wanted, and I felt like I had failed. However, this is a big part of what got him to a point where he was ready to come home with us, which is what I wanted more than anything.
Once we got him home, he was still very tiny and almost too sleepy to make the effort to feed from me. He should have still been in my tummy at this point and what we forget is they have to work at breastfeeding, it’s a journey and learning curve for them too and one he wasn’t ready for. I tried breastfeeding cafes and the breastfeeding counsellors came to my home to support me, sometimes he would get it, but more times than not he wouldn’t and I was sure I wasn’t producing nearly enough milk for him. It was a viscous cycle of trying to breastfeed, leaking and then pumping. It was hard, emotional and draining for very little success for either of us.
Just to make things that bit harder I got mastitis…several times. I know a lot of Mum’s get this and again, it is something we learnt in the classes but nothing prepared me for how painful it was. My breasts were lumpy and red, my nipples bleeding and I couldn’t sleep or relax, anything that touched my boobs would leave me screaming out in pain. Plus, the best way to get rid of it is to keep feeding or expressing, so overall pretty much torture yourself through it.
By the third time of getting mastitis, my son still not latching on and my milk supply getting lower and lower I decided I needed to stop. This decision didn’t come lightly, every time I gave him a bottle of formula I would feel guilty and cry. I thought I would struggle to form that bond with him without breastfeeding and there would be something missing from our relationship. I remember crying for a good few weeks and even tried to go back to pumping and considered trying to get my milk supply back up, but it just wasn’t meant to be.
Even when I look back now, I beat myself up thinking I should have tried harder because I hear of other Mum’s persevering and becoming successful at breastfeeding. But we can’t do this to ourselves. Every Mum’s situation is different, and we know what is best for us at the time. My son went from strength to strength on formula and finally got those baby rolls I was so happy to see! There is nothing wrong with formula if you need it.
If I could talk to other Mum’s now, myself back then or the future me with another baby I would say to take the pressure off yourself and your baby. As cliché as it is, happy Mummy equals a happy baby. It is a journey, and some only make it a couple of weeks and some go on to breastfeed for months and that’s all ok. When you do stop, it may not even be your decision, it may be your babies. Whenever that is, tears are almost guaranteed as your hormones go through yet another change, so just know you’ve done your part, you’ve done your best and it’s perfectly normal to go through a range of emotions. It is not selfish to want to stop breastfeeding, some will feel relieved and others will feel like they have lost a part of them. The most important thing to remember is you are not a failure, and your bond with your baby will still be as strong as ever.