You will find that whenever I talk about my boys the first thing I tell you is how different they are. If you have read my #MatExp post you will know that they entered the world in completely different ways. This theme continued with my feeding journeys.
Edward was born at home in February 2011 and his first feed was in our bed, with me lying down and him latched on lying next to me. I was totally on board with the idea of breastfeeding, I understood it was the “best” nutrition for him and as my Mum had breastfed me for 9 months I thought it would be a breeze. I had been given some great tips on the early days from my midwife, and had read The Baby Whisperer so thought I knew all about feeding routines and what to expect.
That first feed is a blur. I certainly didn’t get a rush of love, or hormones, or bonding or anything. I was exhausted and didn’t know then how important that first colostrum is for baby (some people refer to it as baby’s first immunisation). So I was pleased he was feeding but it wasn’t a momentous occasion. Fortunately for me Edward knew exactly what he was doing, so off we went.
Having swallowed The Baby Whisperer hook, line and sinker it was lucky for me that Edward was a textbook baby. He was happy to feed to a 3 hourly schedule once the first crazy days/weeks were behind us. In fact he was so punctual you could set your watch by him! I had some nipple pain initially and well remember the “toe curling” feeling when he first latched on, especially on my right breast, but I didn’t suffer too much and my nipples soon toughened up. I was proud to be breastfeeding but it still didn’t really “mean” anything to me – I was just glad to be doing something “right”.
Looking back, I made it as hard as possible for myself. I fed him sitting up at night because I thought if I lay down I’d fall asleep and then what would that do for his routine and ability to self settle?! I tried to feed discreetly whilst in public, which meant faffing round with scarves and muslins. I was adamant I wasn’t going to feed him to sleep or use breastfeeding as a comfort (thank you baby books) so many long evenings were spent settling him with songs and patting. Fortunately though he was a “good” sleeper.
I have no fond memories of breastfeeding Edward. It was just part of the job. And then it became overwhelming. I know now that I was struggling with postnatal anxiety and low mood, and I was obsessed with sleep. I couldn’t cope with the broken sleep at all, and found it so hard that I was the only one who could feed Edward – no matter how many times he woke in the night. Phil was fantastic, doing nappies, winding, settling – everything except feeding – but I found it so hard to cope. At 6 weeks in we started giving Edward a bottle of formula in the evenings so I could get some rest but I didn’t know anything about combi feeding so believed this was as much formula as he could have without messing up my supply.
When Edward was 10 weeks old I sat in the GP’s surgery in tears because I was struggling so much with being a mum. The GP offered me anti depressants and I said I felt it would be ridiculous to start medication when all I needed was a night’s SLEEP! After much soul searching I decided that day to stop breastfeeding and move Edward on to formula. Most people were supportive (with the exception of my Mum who was disappointed) and I remember one friend texting “It’s a bloody relief isn’t it?” It really was! That night I slept over the road in a neighbour’s house, expressing for comfort before bed. After that Phil did a lot of the night’s until I was back on my feet, and fortunately Edward slept through from 18 weeks apart from a dream feed at 11pm.
By the time I started my Facebook group when Edward was 8 months old I was firmly of the opinion that breastfeeding wasn’t all it was cracked up to be and that no one could be expected to cope with a newborn if they were exclusively breastfeeding. How much I was about to learn……
David was born by c-section in September 2013 and as you know he has a severe congenital heart defect. He spent his first 3½ weeks in hospital, which included open heart surgery. I didn’t hold him until he was two days old and he couldn’t feed orally until he was 2½ weeks. So already a completely different newborn experience, but where feeding was concerned the difference is particularly marked.
Nearly 3 years on Facebook with some fabulous peer supporters had taught me what breastfeeding is really all about. Not just nutrition – it is comfort, infection control, pain relief and the best tool to settle a baby to sleep. Despite knowing all of this, and having learned that most newborns don’t feed to a schedule or have a routine, I was terrified of breastfeeding again. As soon as I fell pregnant I started panicking about how I would cope. Fortunately, I was by now good friends with peer supporter Laura Moore, and between us we hatched a plan for me to combi feed. I was to try to breastfeed exclusively for 6 weeks until my supply was established and I would then introduce bottles so Phil and I could share the nights, which would hopefully mean I would cope better and breastfeed for longer.
Once we learned of David’s health problems breastfeeding became crucial to me. It was the one thing I could do to help my baby, and it was such an important part of his care. Once again, Laura was a key member of the team. She helped me to hand express 5ml of colostrum before my c-section so that it was ready for David on NICU no matter what state I was in post-op. She then encouraged me to keep hand expressing all through that first night when I was in pain and away from my baby. A good job too, because I would have to keep expressing breastmilk for a couple of weeks to come, although once we were at Alder Hey I had the fantastic Medela Symphony breast pumps to help me out. Laura even hired a pump so that I could double pump at home – I would have been lost without her.
Once David was cleared to feed orally the hospital started him on bottles of my expressed milk. They never suggested latching him on and I couldn’t be bothered to get into it with them (they weren’t that well up on breastfeeding information) – I knew my best chance of feeding at the breast would be to have a try once we were relaxed at home. David was discharged at 3½ weeks old, and it soon became clear that pumping, feeding and looking after both him and Edward was going to be too much to contend with once Phil went back to work. So I had words with my boy and told him that if he didn’t latch on by the weekend it would be formula for him.
That Friday Laura and I were at soft play and I let David have a snuffle around my breasts but he was having none of it. Ever the hero, Laura passed me a supplementary nursing system (SNS) which is a little tube that tapes to your nipple down which you can put formula or expressed milk, so it gets the child used to feeding at the nipple without them having to sort out their latch. Saturday arrived and I was all ready to put the SNS into action, but I thought I’d give David another go on his own. I was sat in the living room with the two boys, Phil was asleep upstairs, and I just held David skin to skin and let him have a root around – and HE LATCHED ON!!
I was so excited but had no one to tell – I tried pointing it out to Edward but at 2½ years old he really didn’t care. So being very careful not to disturb David, I managed to type out a message on Facebook – David was feeding at the breast!!
After that there was no stopping him. We went to bed together for that whole day and that was it. He was a breast fiend! He fed every 1½ to 2 hours, but I knew that was normal especially for a baby who had been through as much as he had – he needed the comfort. I was more than happy to accommodate him, as it meant he piled on the weight like a trooper. Due to his condition he was being weighed twice a week, and every little increase made the broken nights worth it.
As you can imagine, breastfeeding certainly meant something this time around. Yes I was still exhausted, but this time I was happy to feed lying down, bedshare (within the guidelines) and feed him anywhere and everywhere (bugger discretion!). The fact that he needed a second operation at around 5 months made me determined to keep going, as the comfort and pain relief it would offer to him were at the forefront of my mind. I knew this time to take it one day at a time though, and I knew that a bad day was a bad day – it didn’t mean my whole parenting journey was going to be a disaster.
We stuck to our original plan and started to combi feed at about 6 weeks. I knew that realistically this was the only way I was going to keep going – especially considering how often David fed. He was pretty bottle resistant and a few times I felt that his cries meant “what is this crap? Where’s Mummy?!” but Phil was very patient and more often than not he got a bottle down him in the end. It had to be that way – I knew from experience that exclusively breastfeeding would just mean I had a meltdown and stopped feeding altogether.
18 months in and we are still breastfeeding. David hasn’t had any formula for months because he is feeding less now, and past a year old he’s on cow’s milk now if he’s away from me. He still wakes in the night (he’s a high needs baby, that’s just his temperament) but we bedshare and I feed him whilst dozing beside him and it works. He will need another operation when he’s 3 or 4, and I now know that lots of mums breastfeed natural term, so if he is still feeding when it’s surgery time again I’ll be happy. I never thought I’d say this, but I will miss breastfeeding when it’s over.
So thank you to everyone who has taught me and supported me where breastfeeding is concerned. Please remember though that I have been on both sides of the infant feeding experience, and I don’t see anyone’s choices as “failures” or poor parenting. The early days with a baby are bloody hard. And mums have needs as much as babies do.