Right, let’s just get on with this, shall we? I’ve been putting off and putting off writing this post for a very long time now and enough is enough.
I’m not breastfeeding anymore. It hurts me to write that, which is pointless because I know that I did it for much longer than average, but it does. Before I got pregnant I always thought I’d breastfeed my baby for their first year – it would be hard at first, but we’d get used to it and I would effortlessly feed whenever and wherever. I never got to the stage where breastfeeding was effortless, in fact I can honestly say that I put more effort into breastfeeding than I have ever put into anything. And that includes giving birth. For many weeks, many excruciatingly painful hours of feeding, tired nights of getting up time and time again I persevered, until my mum made me realise what I was doing to myself when I admitted that I was too scared to leave the house sometimes because breastfeeding Freddie was so difficult.
I knew I wanted to write about my struggle with breastfeeding as soon as I started, well, struggling, but it has taken me until now to find the words. I suppose it really comes down to two things: my own feelings of failing and the stigma/battles that surround feeding babies. (Let me say that no-one has ever told me that I’ve done the wrong thing in the way I’ve fed Freddie, the only criticisms I’ve heard have been inside my own head and we’re going to leave it at that. It’s been difficult enough to write about my experiences, never mind getting into the ‘breast is best’ debate.) But reading about the feeding journeys of other mothers and talking to them has been a huge support for me that I knew that I wanted my story to be part of that narrative.
Freddie struggled to latch on right from day one (well, day two as he was fed through a tube before then), which was obviously mainly to do with his pneumonia and extended hospital stay. We used nipple shields for about 8 weeks, which really helped with this, but I quickly grew to completely resent them and hated the faff of having to subtly put them on, keep them clean etc. It wasn’t surprising that when I stopped using them his weight shot up, but what was surprising to me was that once I weaned him off them it got even harder.
As soon as I stopped using nipple shields I experienced a lot of pain. The pain was always worse on one side, was pretty much constant and felt like a hot knife was being stabbed into my breast. There were times when I simply couldn’t bear it and would pull off a hungry baby until I made myself try again, and there were times when I just bit my hand to get through it. Let me tell you one thing right now: if breastfeeding is still hurting after a couple of weeks then SOMETHING IS WRONG. It should not be so painful that it makes you want to cry and you must speak to a professional to get some help.
Weeks 8 – 14
Freddie’s feeds were frequent, long and awkward. Every week I tried to see some progress, see whether he was falling into a routine or whether the gaps between feeds were getting longer, but they weren’t. By around 12 weeks everyone else I knew had gotten the hang of breastfeeding and their babies were going 3 hours between feeds – Freddie, on the other hand was still as hungry and barely an hour went by without him feeding. Some feeds were better than others, but some would leave me in floods of tears, hitting a cushion trying not to scream out in pain. As Freddie got bigger and hungrier, he started to pick-up on my anxiety and everyday there would be a fight as he wouldn’t latch on. It didn’t help that it was the peak of this summer’s heat wave at this point. You can imagine how much fun that was…
I was broken. Almost every day I thought that I would give up, but I persevered. When he was relaxed, Freddie clearly loved breastfeeding and I enjoyed the closeness of it, the ease of not having to prepare bottles or take anything with me when going out and the sense of achievement when I saw that he was growing and developing perfectly. But I knew something was wrong and there was no way I could continue as I was without completely losing my sanity. It really did get to the point where I couldn’t be much more than a source of food for my baby as there was so little time for playing or socialising, which, looking back now, should have been a huge great big red flashing warning sign that this actually wasn’t the right choice for us.
I asked for help from anyone I could think of: the GP, the Health Visitor, friends and other mums, determined to sort it out and breastfeed ‘normally’. So much of the advice and support I got was fantastic, but there still wasn’t an answer. I read blog after blog, watched videos online and looked at diagrams to try and fix his latch, but it wasn’t until I finally got in touch with a professional breastfeeding councellor who sat with me and Freddie for over two hours and was completely honest with me that it all slotted into place: we were doing it right, but it would never not hurt. There were a few reasons including a fast supply from me and Freddie’s jaw shape that means that he had a tendency to chomp down on my nipple, as well as his huge appetite that comes from his reduced lung capacity and possibly discomfort on that side for him. For the next couple of weeks I expressed as much as I could to try and get a break from the endless feeds, but because Freddie was such a hungry baby I found it almost impossible to find the time to express more than a couple of ounces – nowhere near enough for a full feed. By this point Freddie was feeding for hours a day – his peak being more than six hours cumulatively during the day and several wake-ups at night.
Months 3, 4 and 5/14 – 22 weeks
At 14 weeks we went to stay with my mum. Feeds had been getting even more painful, night wake-ups more frequent and longer (from 1-2 a night at 10 weeks to 5-6) and I was completely exhausted from the constant feeding and expressing. The crux came when one night Freddie woke-up 9 times for a full feed each time. The next morning my mum took one look at me and declared that she was taking him for the day, would give him formula while I expressed and slept. That night she sat me down with Tom and told me I had to do something: after hours of talking, going round and round in circles trying to find a way that I could achieve what I so desperately wanted, I gave in and said that I would start combination feeding. At 14+5 it felt like I had given-up and failed.
It took a couple of weeks, but we soon settled in the sort of routine that I had craved, albeit with only two breastfeeds a day: I breastfed him first thing in the morning – at about 7.00 – and then in the afternoon, around 3.00 pm, and he had formula from a bottle for his other feeds, which are at about 9.00, 12.00 and 6.30 (bedtime). This set-up worked really well for us – condensing his breastfeeds into two sessions meant I could cope with the pain and he got two large feeds from me to satisfy his hunger and he even started sleeping through the night – until about 20 weeks when he started to become really unsettled by his afternoon breastfeed. I suppose it could have been that my supply was dwindling, but either way I knew that it was time to stop altogether.
23 weeks until now (6 months +)
The process of stopping breastfeeding completely is one for another post that I will only write if anyone wants to hear it, but I’ll just say that it was as emotional as you would imagine. Now that Freddie is on solids and weaning is well underway – completely driven by him, I might add – I rarely think about how I’m not breastfeeding anymore and I realise what a small part of his life it was. But every now and then I will watch a friend breastfeeding and feel jealous that I have to faff with a bottle, or the other day when talking to a colleague about how she never got breastfeeding established I realised how she must think it’s weird that I’m so passionate about it when I don’t do it myself. I will always wish I could have breastfed for longer, but I will try and remind myself that I did it for as long as I possibly could have and I couldn’t have tried harder.
One last thing: if you’re currently struggling with breastfeeding and some of my story has rung true for you and you would like to know a bit more detail of what we went through, then please email me on esmewins [at] gmail.com and I would be happy to answer your questions. Please do not suffer in silence! Seriously, if you’re unhappy then it will only get worse, trust me.