My Breastfeeding Nightmare
Updated: Apr 18, 2021
This is a deeply sensitive topic for me. Please be kind. Please do not comment with suggestions of what I should have done differently or better. The fact that I feel the need to write this speaks volumes about the mum shaming culture around infant feeding, doesn't it?
One day, while I was pregnant, I was speaking to my mum. She asked if I was going to breastfeed. I replied confidently that I would definitely be breastfeeding. She told me that was great, but not to put pressure on myself to do it. I politely agreed, but deep down was thinking to myself that, of course, I would breastfeed. Breastmilk has so many benefits - the antenatal classes had dedicated so much time to explaining why breastmilk was best. Scientifically, it is a fact that breastmilk is best. And I always try my best, as long as I tried hard it would work. I now roll my eyes thinking back to my naivety.
I have already mentioned in previous posts the fact that baby's birth was extremely traumatic. If we cut to after the birth, baby latched on to me well. I was shell shocked by the birth, but outwardly fine. The following day I was asked if my milk had come in. It had not. I was given these tiny syringes to express colostrum into.
I do not exaggerate when I say I spent hours of my day sitting expressing tiny drops of colostrum and sucking them up into the syringe. At first I was able to get 0.1ml. By the evening of the same day I was up to 0.3ml. The next day a lovely midwife praised me, told me "well done", she could tell I'd been working hard. I was chuffed with myself. The next day I woke with fuller feeling breasts. Baby latched on well and I was doing it, milk was coming!
Before I could be discharged they wanted to see baby feed. I was told to just call when feeding and someone would pop in. My entire hospital experience was various people telling me to just call if I needed, and subsequently no one answering these calls. So as soon as baby latched on, I rushed to press my call bell while he fed. I wanted out of that place and I needed someone to see me feed to make that happen. In the end, again with no one answering the bell, I was able to quietly flag down a midwife who was happy to observe my feed. She saw a brief time and said the latch was great, and asked if baby was taking gulps. I honestly couldn't tell, but I had read the books and his cheeks looked full, so I timidly said I thought so.
Unfortunately, the day we were discharged we ended up back in hospital several hours later. Baby was readmitted with an infection. I was quite distressed about this - I already had guilt that it was because of the traumatic birth, which I blamed on my body not doing it's job. I somehow made it all my fault in my own head.
While in hospital, baby was weighed. Baby had lost 4% of body weight. The nurse saw that I was upset and assured me it can be up to 10% so I was doing well. I needed to hear that, but ultimately this was the start of an extremely distressing period of worrying about baby's weight.
When we finally went home, baby was feeding every 2-3 hours. The latch was always great, my nipples didn't hurt, he had a good wide mouth; it was textbook. I had bought breast pads, but found I didn't need them. No milk was spilling out.
The day of my first home visit, my antenatal midwife came to the door to start my postnatal care. She instantly told me she'd seen my notes and what an awful time I'd had. It always felt comforting hearing this, that what I'd been through was particularly awful. It made me feel I was doing well to cope, which in hindsight I really was.
She weighed baby and I asked her anxiously if it was enough. She explained it was a bit less than they'd like and she would be back in a couple of days to reweigh. She saw baby latch on and, like everyone who'd seen so far, commented on how well baby did this.
Over the next 3 weeks I had regular repeat visits every few days. It took several days to realise this was a supply issue. People kept asking if baby was swallowing, taking long sucks. Baby was latching on and sucking, so I was telling them yes, as to me that seemed true. It was only a couple of days later I realised baby wasn't really gulping. This was more guilt that I hadn't instantly realised this. I should have known. My poor baby had been hungry and it was my fault. I was given advice on increasing my supply and boy did I try EVERYTHING. I was told to express between feeds. These were every 2-3 hours, so as you may guess there was next to no time for sleep. I took used heat, massaged my breasts, ate and drank more, drank special teas and more.
As the visits continued baby's weight was not improving, and I began receiving more and more conflicting and insensitive advice from health visitors and midwives who came. One health visitor spent 10 minutes going on at me about baby latching, despite me repeatedly explaining baby was latching well, this wasn't the problem. As mentioned in a previous blog post, one health visitor told me in a strict tone that I needed to make sure baby was taking long gulps. How exactly could I do that? A stern word with baby wasn't effective at 3 weeks old. I had no control over baby's sucks. This was again just insensitive. Another Abruptly asked on our first meeting, 2 weeks into my ordeal, if I had tried drinking more water. I was sat there looking like an absolute zombie, reaching near exhaustion from this, my mental health hanging by a thread. Funnily enough, I had tried drinking water.
Worst was a health visitor coming and launching into the fact that she was there to keep mum and baby safe and if health visitors were concerned they could contact social services for support. This was clearly her regular spiel, and she showed absolutely no reaction to my horrified expression, not having any situational awareness. All I heard was bad mum, social services, baby getting taken away. I sat panicked, holding back tears, nodding, thinking what a terrible mum I was for not being able to feed my baby. This same midwife then handed me a leaflet listing the benefits of breastmilk and began reading through. I had just told her my difficulties. I was trying my best, this extra pressure was the last thing I needed. Where was the compassion? I should stress that most of the healthcare professionals that I met were lovely, and showed kindness well beyond what I would have expected. But I was shocked at those rare few who lacked such compassion.
In this time, my mum began suggesting I use formula. I too had hinted at this on the visits with my kind regular midwife. She hesitated and then told me that formula would strip the baby's stomach of all the protective lining from breastmilk. She said I should keep trying if I could. I felt I was in a battle to win breastfeeding, to use formula was to give in. Everyone was telling me so. My midwife also kept saying that I needed to get a stretch of 4 hours of sleep in a row. I remember thinking it was her who told me to express every feed, how was I meant to get 4 hours? Husband stepped in at this point and took an early morning feed with my expressed breastmilk, and getting this longer stretch did help me feel more human.
But as the weeks passed, I felt worse and worse. I'd sit crying when I was barely able to get milk when expressing. My midwife told me about fenugreek and I started taking the maximum amount. Shortly after this, I felt a hard lump on my breast and rapidly developed severe flu like symptoms. I was so ill and had no idea about mastitis, I called 111 and was told to expect a return call within two hours. Baby was asleep but a problem with my phone volume meant I sat (in precious time I could have slept) staring at my phone so as not to miss a call. Two hours past and I called back. They said sorry, someone would definitely call in the next hour, they were busy. I received a call NINE hours later at 6am. Once again I'd been let down. It was eventually decided I had mastitis and needed antibiotics.
When I next saw my midwife and told her I had mastitis, she's sighed and said "of course you have". By this point it seemed both of us were no longer shocked by the amount of difficulties I was having thrown at me. The irony was this was caused by a blocked duct of milk, which I think may be due to the sudden use of so much fenugreek increasing my supply. But this milk supply didn't last. When my baby was on antibiotics in hospital, it caused a stomach upset. My midwife warned me that because I was on antibiotics again, this may cause the same problem for baby. I felt awful. Once again I was a bad mum giving my baby an upset stomach. More guilt, just what I needed.
It was around 3 and a half weeks of this cycle of feed, express, feel guilty, repeat, when I reached breaking point. Both husband and my mum were telling me to forget the advice, give baby formula, it was no good if baby is underweight and I was running myself into the ground. When my midwife next visited, I instantly cried and began saying that I had formula in the cupboard and I had to use it. She was kind and understanding, telling me I had tried my best, but I needed to actually enjoy time with baby. She told me I had persevered more than most, and this was the right thing for me. Since then, I have breast-fed and then given formula top ups. Baby gained weight. I felt better. But the guilt around breastfeeding and baby's weight has never left me.
I had baby weighed again at 3 months, still anxious over it. The midwife pulled a face, saying baby had gone down a centile. This was so triggering for me and insensitive on her part. She asked how I was feeding baby. I replied I was combined feeding, and explained I had tried everything to increase my supply. She said "Well, I am a Breastfeeding Champion, so I don't like saying this, but if you really can't express more you'll have to increase the amount of formula". There is much wrong with that sentence and the way it was said.
Now almost 6 months in, I have experienced full feeling breasts just 3 times, when baby has had long stretches of sleep. I am told by mum friends they feel that fullness all the time. I clearly just haven't had enough milk, despite my continued expressing on top of feeds. I had a traumatic birth and problems with my placenta which they told me has most likely caused my lack of supply. I continue to feel guilty over the whole experience.
There is so much around infant feeding that needs to change. We need so much more compassion and empathy, especially from professionals. The term "Breastfeeding Champion" needs to go in the bin. Women should be warned that perseverance does not equal successful exclusive breastfeeding. Women should not be made to feel like failures for choosing not to breastfeed, whatever their reasoning. Mums shouldn't be pushed within an inch of their sanity to breastfeed. Maternal mental health should be considered against the benefits of breastmilk.
This won't be my last post on the issues around infant feeding, but I hope sharing my experience in this post will make any other struggling mums feel less alone. And I should add, it is not all doom and gloom. Now things have settled and I am combination feeding, I enjoy bonding with baby over breast or bottle. Feeding can be a wonderful experience, and I hope to help others achieve that. I will write more on the positives in future blog posts too.
Sending love to my fellow Learner Mums. We are in this together.