Breastfeeding doesn't come naturally to all of us: One mum's story
If you've ever had a baby, you'll know you spend a good chunk of time carrying around your hospital chart while you wait for appointments.
I liked having a good nose in mine to see what they're really saying about me. Most of the stuff might as well be written in Greek but now and then you pick up some interesting bits and pieces. And for some reason, if you're caught reading your own chart you feel a weird need to apologise as if you've just been caught reading someone's diary. Oh sorry, you caught me reading about my own body...
After I had my son, Alex, one particular afternoon in the hospital after they kicked my partner out for mealtimes and Alex was asleep, I had nothing else to do so I decided to have a little read of the chart and see what was new. I happened to open it on a page that had been filled out post birth. Staring back at me were words that would stick in my brain for weeks to come:
"Failure to thrive."
At first, I wasn't sure whether it meant I was failing to thrive, or the baby. In my defense, reality and logic are very very hazy and foggy right after you grow and produce a human. Obviously, it referred to Alex in this case, but it actually described me pretty well at the time too.
Before I delve too much further into this topic, it is worth mentioning how divisive a topic it can be. People have their own opinions and experience in this matter, and these will shape what they think of it now, and it can shape what they think of other mothers who do or don't breastfeed too. I want to make it clear that primarily, my intention is not to judge or divide, but to celebrate the fact we all have choices – and importantly to recognise that sometimes we do not have the luxury of maintaining these choices. Similarly, I refuse to be judged any further than I have already judged myself on the matter. And that was a lot.
Before I even had my first hospital check-up with this pregnancy, I had decided I wanted to try breastfeeding again. Why? Because I believe it is the most natural thing to do. A privilege.
I call it a privilege because even though it's the most natural way to feed your child, it doesn't come naturally to all of us. For me, my breastfeeding attempts turned into two of the most stressful experiences I've had. Why? Well, for a couple of reasons I think.
On my first, I struggled for weeks. On paper, it should have looked perfect. He latched on perfectly, but he just wouldn't feed. Then he spent two days in the care unit being fed formula (not related to breastfeeding I should point out). In a haze of confusion, exhaustion, stress and based on varying pieces of advice from people who knew what they were talking about, I combination fed with formula and pumped around the clock for the first seven weeks of his life. At that point, I admitted defeat and moved solely on to formula.
How do you describe that to someone? It's hard. I wanted to do it so badly. I would sit with the pump – we even rented the big hospital grade pump - and watch while I produced minimal amounts of milk. I felt like a complete failure. Surely I could provide the most basic thing my child needs? His own mother's milk? Seemingly not. The more I topped up with formula, the less of my own milk I was able to produce and my confidence in my ability to feed him packed its bags and left.
On my second pregnancy, I thought I knew all the traps leading to my failure to breastfeed. This time I was sure it wouldn't happen again.
As before, the latch was called 'perfect' by the midwives. At first, it all seemed to be going perfectly. Great, I thought, we're ok. He was doing everything he should in the nappy department, a sign that all is well. And it was – yes, it was still very much a learning curve of latches and timings and positions, but I was feeling so confident that it was really working this time.
And then the midwife came in with her weighing scales.
Alex was born on a Friday. By the Sunday, he had lost ten per cent of his birth weight. This was the first kick.
Don't worry, I was told, this can be normal. Keep going. So I tried to keep going, but the stress was creeping in. An elevated version of it... the memories and stress of my first attempt kept coming back. What if, what if... what if it happens again. I don't think I can do it. And all the time I kept seeing those words, "failure to thrive."
On I went. I had no idea if he was getting anything from me. My milk had not come in yet, but I knew there was colostrum there from doing some hand expressing, so on I went. Requests to see a lactation consultant were almost laughed at – this is a bank holiday weekend, and the busiest time of year to give birth (people like getting pregnant around Christmastime it seems), there'll be no lactation consultant here until Tuesday.
The midwife was back with her scales and this time she also had a little kit to test his blood sugars. "If it's low, you'll really have to give him formula," she said.
No, I don't want that. I want to keep breastfeeding him... but she looked at me as if to say, well, I want to win the lotto, but that's not going to happen either, is it? She did the tests and weighed him again, and yes, he had lost more weight, and his blood sugars were too low. The second kick. She went off to get the formula, and I just sat there and cried. Failure to thrive.
At this point, I really started to question myself. Was I harming my baby by insisting on this need to breastfeed? Did I really know better than qualified medical nurses? My instinct was telling me to keep going, but my determination was really shaken, and I was just full of doubt that I could do it.
By the time I got home from the hospital when the public health nurse called to check him, he had lost more weight still. And that's where I started to fear for my own mental health. I spoke to her about my concerns – and they kind of watch you like a hawk those first few days anyway for signs of post-natal depression. I don't think I had that, but honestly, after you have a baby, regardless of how you had it or how you're feeding the baby, your head is just all over the place. You feel like you've been run over by a truck, you can't move without pain, you're severely sleep-deprived, so you really don't know your arse from your elbow. I told her I intended to hire a private lactation consultant and as luck would have it, her colleague actually is one, so she sent her in to visit me the next day. Ok, I was finally going to get proper informed help and honestly, I think at this point I just wanted someone to tell me what to do, I wanted the doubt and fear to go away.
Of course, I have family and friends who had breastfed and who were still breastfeeding. They were such a massive support, all of them. They all went out of their way to contact me and offer support and solutions, and for that, I am so grateful. Just those pieces of support, the calls, and texts, were like comforting hugs each time, reaching into my doubt and chipping it away.
Despite all the support and visits from the lactation health nurse, Alex still was not gaining weight. The more weight he lost, the more stressed I got, and the more I doubted myself. I started to dread the feeds. I was told my supply was low. I was also told that the fact I was on fertility drugs for so long (two attempts at IVF and three frozen embryo transfers equals a lot of drugs) could have played a part in that. I was pumping and getting virtually nothing. So yet again, the more formula he was given, the less of my own milk. Your body will only produce what it thinks you need. Alex was two-weeks-old at this stage, and I had to make a decision.
Did I want to breastfeed badly enough that I continue on this road? Is breastfeeding more important than my mental health, and therefore my ability to care for him in other ways than feeding? Not forgetting I have a 2-year-old who also needed me to care for him.
Does that sound a bit over the top? I don't think so. With my first baby Rian, those first seven weeks are a complete blur. One minute he was born, and the next he was almost 2-months-old.. and I had missed it. So caught up with my determination and need to be able to feed him myself. I missed it. I wasn't prepared to miss out on Alex... those first few weeks when they're so tiny. The smell of them and the sounds of them. It made me think about what we had to go through to get these two babies. So I decided that enough was enough.
So, looking back, what would I do differently?
I would educate myself. My husband was horrified when I said that if we were to ever have another baby (although writing this has brought a lot of it back and at the moment I think this baby-growing shop is firmly closed), that yes, of course, I would attempt to breastfeed again.
But I would need support. If I'm ever in the situation again, I will hunt down that hospital lactation consultant Liam Neeson-style. And I would hire one privately too for when I get home. I've read that there is always a breastfeeding solution to a breastfeeding problem. I'm a bit on the fence with this. I was told I just have low supply. Is this just the luck of the breastmilk draw? Do some women just not have a good enough supply? I should note that in 2006 I had to have a milk duct removed from one breast. Could this have played a part? Possibly. Anyone I asked couldn't really say for sure.
But is there always a solution? In other words, did I just give up? I honestly don't know. I hope not. And I tortured myself for weeks with guilt afterward. Some might say I took the easier route – I think formula feeding is actually more work with the making of the formula and the sterilising routines – but in a way, I did take the easier route for me. There was no more stress; I didn't dread the feeds anymore. My baby was no longer failing to thrive. And neither was I.
I still feel sad that it didn't work as I planned, but I have gained in other ways. I really think there is a shocking lack of support for new mothers in this country.
The midwives and nurses are so short-staffed, they simply do not have the time to spend giving the support new mothers need – whether it's your first baby or not. I've learned more about breastfeeding since I stopped doing it than I knew when I was – and there is a shocking amount of misinformation out there.
If you're pregnant reading this, I would say go forth and breastfeed! For a short time, I managed it; it was so precious. But if for whatever reason you don't end up breastfeeding, don't beat yourself up. I don't feel I have any less of a bond with my baby than a mother who still breastfeeds hers. Either of them for that matter. For us, fed is most certainly best. However it happens.
I found I got the most supportive advice from friends and family, but also from cuidiu-ict.ie. I contacted one of their support volunteers by phone one day, and honestly, could not have spoken to a nicer lady.
There is also a great Facebook group specifically for breastfeeding support in Ireland if you want the details just get in touch.
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