My son was born two weeks late, by emergency c-section and weighed almost ten pounds. I was in hospital for several days afterwards, where he managed to latch on quite successfully but screamed pretty much all. the. time. Eventually, just before I went home, a midwife persuaded me to give him a bottle of formula. He calmed down immediately. Of course this made me feel incredibly guilty and like I’d traumatised my poor newborn by starving him in his early days. I felt my colostrum was not enough for such a large baby. I’ve since been told this is nonsense, but we all know there’s no reasoning with a hormonal woman who has just given birth.
I didn’t let this stop me from breastfeeding, though.
A day later I woke up with boobs like footballs, and over the next few weeks I managed to drop all but one of his formula feeds. I endured two horrific bouts of mastitis, which to this day is the worst illness I’ve ever suffered. The only real way out is to feed through the pain, so that’s what I did. I felt proud of myself. I felt that although I hadn’t managed a “normal” birth, there was still something that only I could do for my baby and that was to breastfeed him. Despite suffering through the agonies of mastitis I had persevered.
I can remember going to baby groups and clinics and feeding my son when he cried. When breastfeeding is successful, it is so wonderful. The closeness to your baby, even when it’s the middle of the night is so special.
When Monkey was four months old, he started losing interest. I couldn’t make him concentrate on breastfeeding and he wouldn’t feed from me anymore. He would inhale his late-night bottle of formula but ignore the breast. It seemed he had decided to stop and over the course of about ten days we made the switch to formula. I felt I’d given breastfeeding my best shot but I wished I’d been able to continue it for a longer period.
All of the friends I’d made in my NCT ante-natal class continued to breastfeed for at least a year and I did feel disappointed with myself when I saw them, still nursing their babies as I bottle fed. So I resolved that when baby number two came along, I’d try harder.
Two weeks under two years later, my daughter was born. This time I was prepared. I knew I’d be undergoing a c-section this time around and I knew this could mean difficulty in establishing breastfeeding. I made sure that the nurses knew that I wanted my daughter on my skin as soon as she was delivered. I even bought several feeding dresses, as I knew I’d be unable to wear trousers post-surgery so my feeding tops would be useless. I bought boxes of breast pads and nipple cream. I was ready.
I remember a nurse checking on me that first night. Madam was latched to my breast, albeit uncomfortably so all seemed well. The nurse ticked a box and disappeared. Sadly, I hadn’t realised (and no medical professional had pointed out) that all babies latch differently. It only takes a few feeds with an incorrectly positioned baby to cause horrible damage to your nipples. Once this happens it’s incredibly difficult to heal.
By the time I got home, both my nipples were horrifically damaged with gaping cuts on each side. Every time my daughter fed from me we would both be covered in blood. I can’t articulate how painful it was for me. I remember agonising shooting pains from my breasts to my armpits. I remember sweating, with every muscle in my body tensed. I used to sob whilst frantically kicking my legs in an attempt not to scream out in pain. I didn’t always succeed and used to feed her with tears streaming down my face.
My husband would help me to position the baby and then quickly disappear. I couldn’t understand it and felt like he was abandoning me when I needed him most. Turns out, he couldn’t bear to watch me suffer.
I enlisted the help of a lactation consultant who came to visit me at home. By the time she arrived, when my daughter was a week old, I’d corrected the latch and she was positioned perfectly. But it was too late. The damage was done. It’s impossible for nipples to heal when a baby is feeding from them for hours a day. I couldn’t express milk as that was so painful for me, too. Nipple shields offered no respite.
I endured ten days of unspeakable agony. I used to dread my baby crying, as I knew I’d have to feed her. I found it hard to look at her, as I felt that she was causing me such pain. Reading these words back, I feel sick. But that’s how it was for me. On day ten, my doctor called. He told me that it was okay to stop, really. He pointed out that he was not breastfed and managed to do pretty well for himself. He said that a happy mum is far more important than how much breast milk her baby gets.
I was crushed, but I knew I had no option but to give up breast feeding. I felt such a failure and was utterly devastated. There began a quick decline in to what turned out to be a severe case of post-natal depression.
I realise now that I placed far, far too much emphasis on breast feeding. I’d imagined a wonderful, nurturing bond with my daughter, when in fact, my attempt to breastfeed her caused the opposite. It made me feel resentful towards her and that is something I still struggle to forgive myself for, two years on.
Whenever I saw a mother breastfeeding, I felt immense pangs of guilt. Bottle feeding such a small baby in public caused me more embarrassment than I used to feel breastfeeding my son in restaurants. I felt the need to explain what I’d been through to random strangers, to justify my decision to bottle feed her. I felt like I wasn’t good enough for my baby. Like a failure from the word-go.
Even at the time, I remember thinking that had one of my friends been through the same thing, I’d tell her not to be ridiculous. That she shouldn’t give herself such a hard time and that she should treat herself with more kindness. But sadly I wasn’t able to listen to my own advice.
This is why a point in my Mummy Kindness Manifesto is:
‘I will feed my baby however suits me, my baby and my family. I will never judge another mother for how she chooses to feed her baby’
I think this is so incredibly important. We are our own harshest critics and we really need to pull together. Judgement helps nobody and we are all just doing our best, finding our way as we go.
“Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping them up.” ~Jesse Jackson
So I’m sharing this with you today, because I have been on both sides. I admit to have been slightly smug and judgey as a breastfeeder four years ago. I suppose I felt I’d earned the right. I also know the crushing disappointment at being unable to breastfeed a baby when you want to.
Motherhood is hard. So hard. There need not be a divide between breast and bottle feeders. There need not be a divide between any of us. We can learn so much from each other’s stories. Let’s remember that what is right for you may not be right for someone else and respect one another’s choices.
Our worth as mothers is not and should not be defined by whether or not we choose to breastfeed.