When I was pregnant there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that I would breastfeed my baby. I knew that breastmilk contained all the vitamins and minerals that baby would need and understood that research suggested that breastfed babies were more intelligent, were less likely to suffer from obesity and less likely to suffer from illnesses such as asthma.
I joined a breastfeeding support Facebook group and my desire to breastfeed only got stronger. I started to believe that formula was evil and would poison and hurt my baby and that breastfeeding was the only option -people who didn’t do it didn’t try hard enough or were bad mothers. I got completely and utterly brainwashed by this group of women who believe that formula should only be available on prescription and even small amounts of formula will harm your baby.
I decided that my labour would be completely natural without the help of pain relief. I read that epidurals and diamorphine could make the baby sleepy and less likely to be able to latch naturally after birth. I wanted my baby to be placed on my chest after birth where he would do the breast crawl up to my nipple and latch on as nature intended. Did it work like this in reality? In a word: no.
If you’ve read my birth story you will know that I did manage to give birth to Dexter without the help of pain relief. I was in the pushing phase for around two hours before I needed assistance from the doctor in the form of a ventouse delivery. This form of delivery can distress the baby a little and also the fact that I was in labour for a very long time (23 hours from start to finish) meant Dexter was extremely sleepy when he arrived into my arms.
During the first few hours after Dexter was born we enjoyed skin to skin and I waited for him to make his way to the nipple. However, the babe just wanted to sleep. Midwives would pop in every ten minutes or so and ask, ‘Has he fed yet?’ and I started to feel completely on edge like I was starving my baby. A health care assistant was sent in to help get Dexter to latch. I can still smell the bleach on her fingers now as I remember her trying to force his mouth on to my nipple by applying pressure on his neck. I lay there helpless watching her grotty fingers manipulate my nipple and push on his head. She had no success in getting him to latch.
I was transferred to the ward and continued with skin to skin. I’d had no sleep and it was now 10am, Dexter had been with us for seven hours and had still not fed. A breastfeeding support volunteer was sent in to see us; she brought with her a knitted breast and showed me how to hand express. I was sleep deprived and couldn’t understand what I needed to do so she did it for me and captured some colostrum in a syringe and fed it to him. She had a look at our feeding position and said ‘Oh yes he doesn’t want to latch does he?’ She also remarked that the fact I had been in a birthing pool can mean baby becomes too sleepy to latch. I felt like the worst mum ever for choosing the pool to help with my pain. She made some notes and left.
Later, another health care assistant was sent in to help me. She asked me to massage my breasts to get the colostrum flowing which I did and she laughed at me. I asked her if I was doing it wrong and she said yes. I had to stop myself from crying. She tried to express some colostrum and I will admit I was wincing in pain as it’s not the most comfortable of things. She declared that she didn’t want to hurt me and left. While she had been in the room she had spent more time on her phone than talking to me.
That evening there was a shift change and the ward sister came in to see me and saw how much we were struggling. Again, another health care assistant was brought in and finally I was treated with some dignity and respect. She expressed two syringes full of colostrum from my breasts and helped me to feed my baby. At 3am she returned to do it again and said in the morning I would need to do it myself and left me a cup.
The next day, I tried to get Dexter to latch multiple times. He did succeed once but it wasn’t for long and I was so unsure of how much milk he had actually got. I expressed into a cup and got a good amount and a midwife came in to give it to him. I was starting to climb the walls, I just wanted to go home and be with my family but I wasn’t allowed to leave until breastfeeding was established. That evening I started to lie. Whenever somebody came in to check on me I would say he had fed from me but in reality I had got him to latch maybe once and it wasn’t for long at all.
Finally, on the third day we were discharged. When we got home I pumped with a manual pump and was able to get 4-5oz at a time. A breastfeeding support volunteer came to the house and saw that I’d fed him through a bottle with my expressed milk and declared no wonder he wouldn’t latch, he was nipple confused. My midwife came round and said she would help me then asked me to show her what I was doing. She looked at him screaming and said, ‘I would just give him the bottle now, he’s too hungry.’
After a couple of days of expressing, I was no longer able to give Dexter what he needed. I started to top up with readymade formula. During this time I was feeding Dexter every three hours then pumping for half an hour before sterilising and cleaning the instruments and bottles, it left no time for sleep at any point during the day. Another midwife came to see me and when I told her I was exclusively pumping she said that it was not a long term option. Then, my manual breast pump broke so I duly ordered a new electric one off the Internet but it meant 24 hours of using mainly formula. By the end of the week I had sent Neil out to the supermarket to buy a big tub of formula and decided to stop pumping.
I struggled massively to deal with the fact that I had failed as a breast feeder and as a mum. The words of the women from the group swam around my head. I worried I was poisoning my poor baby. I feared he would be obese. I couldn’t believe I had given up so easily, I had let everybody down.
My health visitor came the following week and I explained what had happened, breaking down in tears. Her immediate reaction was amazing. She told me that Dexter had drunk all of my colostrum and had been fed for a week on my milk and now that he was on formula: that was that. I was not to let it get me down, I had done the best for my son and he was clearly happy and thriving. The same was said to me by my doctor at my six week check-up. After having really bad support at the hospital, I couldn’t have asked for better support from my HV and GP. I cannot thank these two women enough because they saved me from being on the edge of depression. I cannot explain how awful it was to feel the guilt every time I had to give Dexter a bottle and quite often I would try and give him to somebody else to feed so I wouldn’t have to do it.
I am still upset that I couldn’t breast feed but not to the extent I was in the first few weeks after birth. I understand now that I did not fail as a mum. I have a lot of friends who breastfeed and I am often jealous of the lovely bond they have with their babies and the fact that they can feed wherever and whenever without having to worry about sterilising and making up bottles. However on the other hand I know I have an amazing bond with my son without the help of breastfeeding and I have never had to worry about mastitis or cracked nipples. It has been great that my husband has been able to help with night feeds and I’ve been able to get some sleep. I would try and breast feed if I have another baby but would also be open to the fact that it is not as easy as it is made out to be. I understand that the NHS doesn’t want to tell us that breastfeeding is hard because it will put women off before they’ve even started, but the one thing I wish for is that I had known from the start how difficult it would be. Perhaps then I wouldn’t have put myself under so much unnecessary pressure.