Before I had my children I like to think I kept an open mind regarding breast feeding. When I was pregnant with my first baby, Max, I bought both bottles and breast pads; a feeding bra and a breast pump, formula and breast milk storage bags – I was prepared for whatever the feeding fairies threw at me!
My mum is a devout breast feeder – she even breast fed her adopted daughter, no less than 4 years after her previous biological child was born (yes, really!). She couldn’t understand why I’d prepared for both eventualities. “But breast feeding babies is the most natural thing in the world!” she would lament whist looking at my freshly purchased box of bottles like it was an unexploded bomb. “So is making babies” would be my retort, “but that doesn’t mean I want to do it every few hours, in front of all and sundry!” We agreed to disagree. But the truth was, the idea of having a baby drink milk from my breasts was more than a little disturbing. One night in my late pregnancy whilst lying in bed, I thought my husband had dribbled on my side of the bed in his sleep. Alas, to my utter horror, after waking him up to yell at him, I realised it was in fact milk, coming out of me! I was mortified! My point is, I believe having a baby changes everything, not just in a can’t-go-down-the-pub-anymore way, but in the way you see yourself, the world and everything in between. I don’t think anything can prepare you for the momentous shift in perceptions, any more than you can prepare for the way it changes every minute detail of your day-to-day life. Basically, I didn’t know how I would feel once the baby was born and I stayed true to my pre-marriage commitment phobic life – I decided to wait and see.
It’s at this stage I need to write a quick paragraph about my labour. I realised that this is when my feeding story actually began, but when I started to write about the labour, it took on a life of its own in a hundred-page biopic that could rival ‘war and peace’ (I evidently have some labour-related PTSD issues!) So, as succinctly as I can manage, here are some things you need to know about my labour that led me to my feeding conclusion.
My midwife was evil. I had a very long, pain-relief free, end-stage labour due to Max being back-to-back, or, to use its (oddly) proper name, face-to-pubes. I tore like an old sock (grade 3, surgery required to put me back together). Evil midwife grossly mismanaged my placenta delivery, wrenching it so hard from me I screamed – note: she wrapped it twice around her hand before pulling so hard with both hands that she visibly shook. I had a postpartum haemorrhage (undoubtedly caused by said evil midwife’s wrenching of my placenta). After removing my placenta said evil midwife sat in the corner of the room, with her back to me, blissfully unaware that I was bleeding to death.
Once the crash team eventually burst into the room, the doctor had to pummel insanely hard on my uterus to make it contract (he pressed so hard his entire forearm disappeared into my copious post-baby rolls of spare skin). This didn’t work so I had various drugs pumped into me intravenously into each arm. When calculating my blood-loss (‘only’ four pints) they missed the whole ‘slab’ of congealed jelly blood that I’d unknowingly been sat on, and the pools of it on the floor, and the stream of it that my mum had caught on her jeans as it was running off the bed! So subsequently I was not bestowed a blood transfusion. Instead I was gifted with severe anaemia, a hideous two night stay in hospital (more on that little gem later!) and a catheter, which I point blank refused to have, to which evil midwife told me “not to be so silly” and without consent, inserted anyway. I think you’re pretty much up to speed from here, and so I will continue with my feeding story.
As I was saying, I didn’t know how I’d feel once I’d had my baby, but when the midwife handed him to me for the first time, and he was all snuggled up on my chest, skin-to-skin, under my men’s XXL t-shirt purchased especially for the occasion, it was (urgh, most over-used phrase relating to breast feeding on earth coming up) the most natural thing in the world, to latch him on. So I did. Simple. The end. Sadly not though. That last bit was true. I did latch him on and he fed beautifully and I was insanely proud to be doing something that just hours before I’d been so sceptical about. But this is when my labour story and feeding story become entwined.
When I eventually got to the ward and I began giving Max another feed I encountered the most excruciating pain of my life. Forget labour pains, this was far worse. In my ignorance I had not known that when you breastfed, your uterus contracts. And my poor, battered and bruised uterus that had received the pounding of its life just a few hours previously was having a serious workout! I held Max to me, while writhing in pain; through tear-filled eyes I looked down at my toes, twisted and curled in agony. It was everything I could do not to wrench Max off me and fling him down the bed. I know, harsh, but when you burn yourself you drop the saucepan, you don’t hold it even tighter.
Right then my natural instincts couldn’t have cared less about breast is best, they were just screaming out to stop the pain. So I did. Not fling him down the bed. But I did take him off my breast. And of course he was not happy with that arrangement. So I tried again. Maybe this time it would be better I thought. But then and every subsequent time it wasn’t. I was sobbing by this point, in both pain and anguish. I called the midwife. It was still the small hours of my first night. When a midwife appeared and I said I was struggling with feeding, without a word, no introduction or anything, she marched over, grabbed my nipple in one hand, Max’s head in the other, and merged the two together. She then turned tail and left. I continued sobbing miserably. That was the entire extent of my breast feeding support. The next day, I found another midwife and told her about the pain I felt when I fed. Her solution – to bottle feed of course! So, in order to settle a very unhappy baby and give my uterus a break I reluctantly agreed to a bottle. And, what can I say, it achieved both goals. Happy baby, happy mummy. And yet, I was only happy with it as a temporary measure, I wasn’t ready to give up breast feeding yet, this was purely a short-term thing, I told myself. My remaining time in hospital followed in the same suit as my labour; I won’t go into details here but it was a miserable affair, I was treated appallingly and I was so elated when I finally got to go home.
Once home I decided it was time to try again with feeding. My uterus had settled down and was much less painful, however, I know this sounds incredibly naïve but I genuinely had no idea that I wouldn’t start producing milk until five days after giving birth. It was just logical – you have a baby, you have milk; I still can’t get my head around Mother Nature’s somewhat lackadaisical approach to milk production. But anyway, I kept trying with breastfeeding whenever Max demanded a feed, very important I learned, for getting that lovely stuff to arrive in your breasts. But when it got too much and he was screaming hungry in the small hours I caved, and gave him a bottle. Maybe it was a catch 22 in that by giving him bottles I was delaying my milk arriving, who knows.
It was now my first night home, Max was 3 days old and we were settling down for another sleepless night when I was gripped by yet another stabbing pain across my middle. I was stood up at the time and was literally doubled-over in pain. Ok, so this is new, I thought. This wasn’t my uterus and I didn’t have Max latched on either. And this pain did not let up. It got worse and worse as the night wore on. I cried so hard, I was so angry at yet more pain and when my husband took Max to give him a bottle I cried even more. “I just want to look after my baby”! I sobbed, broken hearted at what felt like yet another failing as a mother.
Having had his appendix burst as a child my husband feared the worst and called a doctor. He’d wanted to call an ambulance but I begged him not to; I was devastated at the thought of ever going back to hospital. I was exhausted. I’d had no sleep on the ward, I was still severely anaemic, the stitches on the patchwork quilt that was my nether regions were giving me serious gip and it looked like I wasn’t going to get any sleep that night either! The doctor arrived and examined me; he tested my urine and concluded that I had a nasty urinary tract infection. At this point I was enraged; this was the exact reason why I had refused a catheter! As a former employee of the NHS I knew that they were responsible for the majority of hospital acquired infections and not least UTI’s. And then came more bad news; he had to prescribe me both broad spectrum antibiotics and a powerful, targeted one too, ‘Metronidazole’ – in his words “nasty stuff”. I could not breast feed. Except, this news didn’t come as bad news at all. Relief flooded me; I could stop agonising over breast feeding; I had a valid, bona fide reason to not do it. The hideous mismanagement of my labour, the haemorrhage, the anaemia and the bruised uterus weren’t enough to justify quitting, but this, this changed everything. This put my baby at risk, this wasn’t about my own pain or discomfort, this was about Max; I needn’t feel guilty for quitting anymore! The doctor explained I could pump to keep my supply up and then try again after, but ‘hell no!’ was my main thought to this, I’d had enough! I knew I was quitting; throwing in the towel, giving up, whatever you want to call it, I was fully aware that I was choosing to not breastfeed because quite simply, it had become too hard.
Two days later, ironically, I got my Dolly Partons! Milk seemed to ooze from every pore, but I just ignored it; strapped them up tight against my chest and carried on, to be honest, without a flicker of emotion, with no regrets. I was done with breast feeding.
Nope, sorry, there is still more to come!
I was on the antibiotics for 10 days, my breasts were back to normal, in both size and milk production and Max was very happy having his bottles of formula milk. And I loved it too; true to his (later discovered) personality, Max loved routine, and he fed regular as clockwork, 3 ounces, 3 hourly; I knew exactly how much he was getting and how often, and his weight echoed this – he stayed perfectly on his 50th centile line. As a new mum, all of these things were incredibly reassuring and I knew I’d made the right choice in giving Max formula. Or so I thought. Some time later, when Max was about three weeks old, I woke in the night in a cold sweat. I was consumed with one, single thought – I need to breast feed my baby! I cannot explain where it had come from, but I was feverish, in a blind panic, how could I have been so stupid, how could I have not breastfed my baby!? I threw myself out of bed and not having a clue what else to do in the middle of the night, I ran a bath. When I was letting my milk dry up, having a bath had always made it flow out of me, it hadn’t done that for a while but it was worth a try until I could speak to the health visitor the next morning. I sat in the bath squeezing my nipples, trying in desperation to get something for my trouble but nothing came. I wanted to run back to bed, jump on my husband and start making another baby, just so that I could breastfeed. It was like a temporary insanity had come over me, I was possessed by the realisation that I may have missed my chance.
As soon as it was light I woke my husband to tell him me and Max were all packed and ready to go to my mums – if anyone knew how to turn back the clock on this one, it was her. My husband was surprised but supportive, as he always is of my many hare-brained ideas. Once at my mums she was brilliant, having breastfed all six of her children (the adopted one being the sixth), she really knew her stuff. In her breastfeeding heyday she produced so much milk that the local hospital sent round a special van to collect it for the NICU babies.
Our first objective was to find out how long the nasty antibiotic could stay in my system. For some reason, this proved to be no easy task. It seemed that as soon as you mentioned breast feeding to health professionals, they got an image of law suits, poisoned babies, death, disease and all horrors flash before their eyes and no-one was prepared to commit to when it would be safe. And so, not wanting to pose any risk to Max, for now all I was armed with on my mission was one, rather pathetic manual pump I had bought oh-so many moons ago when I had lived in blissful ignorance of all that had befouled me over the previous three weeks. So I pumped, and pumped until my hand was blistered and my nipples were raw. After about two hours I had produced about half an ounce of a very thick, creamy looking substance. It certainly bore no resemblance to the almost transparent, watery stuff I had previously produced, and yet I had never felt more proud of anything in my life. I decided based on various responses that when I was a full two weeks clear of antibiotics I would try latching Max on again. I’d like to reiterate for the benefit of people who feel that breast feeding should be about what’s best for the baby, how content Max was on formula. He was getting predictable, regular feeds, his weight was very steady and healthy and he was showing no signs of having a compromised immune system from not receiving the ‘benefit’ of my milk. In a nutshell, the only voice screaming about breast feeding was my own, and I was very aware (and felt dutifully guilty) that I was doing this purely to fulfil my own needs.
I did promise myself (and Max too) that I would not do anything that might upset him, his weight or routine. So just before he was due a feed I would make his bottle ready but then latch him on to me. I was so proud of him for happily switching from a nice, easy rubber teat with a plentiful supply behind it, to pulling with all his mite for very little in return on my withered mammary glands. At first I just kept him on a few minutes each side and would then give him his bottle straight after. Gradually I increased the time he was on me, and my guilt over doing it for selfish reasons diminished when he showed how happy and content he was on the breast; often he would doze off, something he had never done with a bottle, and it was wonderful that he was able to do that.
Over the weeks that followed, I barely left the house, days were spent either with Max latched on or with me hocked up to my newly purchased electric pump. Everything I did I saw as an opportunity to get my flow up – I ate like a horse, I drank gallons of water and languished in hot baths, squeezing my nipples throughout. I would always still give Max a bottle after every feed from me, because I knew in my heart of hearts, I was not up to full capacity, but what I did notice over time was that I never needed to increase the amount of formula I gave him. When I first started out he was on 3 ounces and that stayed the same, so whatever else he needed, he was getting from me. His weight remained beautifully on his ‘line’ and I think we were both overjoyed to be getting the best of both worlds.
I’d always thought my perceptions would change after my baby was born, I saw the birth as the defining point in this shift, but actually what happened was my baby was born, my perception changed and then a series of events happened to change my view of breastfeeding one way, then another and then another. I breastfed my second baby 100%, with a minor exception during the miserable five days it took for my milk to come in again, and I feel no shame in admitting that. Formula is not poison. This sounds like I’m joking, but honestly, I do genuinely believe that some people actually think this is the case. It is made by very clever boffins and is packed full of essential vitamins and minerals and I object strongly to the idea that by formula feeding my baby I was harming him in some way.
There are many benefits to formula feeding, and there is no reason why it should be frowned upon. Equally, I no longer find the idea of breast feeding disturbing. It is a beautiful thing and of course is brilliant for babies’ health and immunity, and establishes a bond too. On the whole I do not like the idea of extremes. To say ‘breast is best’ is a bit too extreme for me. Likewise, to not even entertain the idea of breastfeeding is also too extreme. Despite everything I went through with Max and then Poppie who followed, and despite saying ‘having a baby changes your perception on everything’, I am sticking to my pre-baby guns: you have to just wait and see how you feel and do what you think is right for you and your baby at any given time. And always keep an open mind. The end. I promise, this time!