I have been trying to write this for months now, although if I really think about it, probably since we started our feeding journey. Much to my husband's dismay, I just never could bring myself to put my thoughts in writing along the way as I was scared it would feel more 'real' reading my own thoughts and would be disappointed with my thoughts - stupid I know - but I wish I had done this to look back on today.
So for now, I am writing this as honestly as I can and with a dose of baby brain so no doubt I will remember the good times more than the bad! DISCLAIMER: this isn't the most positive breastfeeding story, but it is real, and I am surprised on our Instagram community how many others have had such similar experiences. It is a long read and I have summarised in many places, I probably could write a book on our feeding journey!
Where to start... maybe the naivety that before birth where I thought breastfeeding would be easy and come naturally? Simply because it is a topic which isn't discussed about enough in the UK and almost a taboo thing! Which puts a lot of pressure on new mums, that you must be able to breastfeed and if you can't, or need to ask for help, then you are failing. Cue where I came in - with no real thought to what was Plan B if I couldn't feed because why wouldn't I - having paid for NCT classes with 1 class covering the topic, which reflecting on this, wasn't anywhere near adequate on what to expect or stopping this pressure that breast is best and you should just be able to do it.
Add to this, if you happen to know family members or friends who have breastfed and made it look 'easy' – feeding successfully for months/years even – and obviously for us Millennials the non-stop glamorising of it on social media. It is a recipe for the perfect rose tinted perspective on what breastfeeding is and that anyone can do it, but it is a struggle and not enough mamas have the support they need.
The 'how on earth do I do this' week
I fully thought my baby would just latch once he arrived and we would be in this little bubble in the delivery room, soaking in all the oxytocin (buzz word of pregnancy!) feeding away. However, if you have a difficult labour whether it be long, complicated or just everything goes wrong like mine, then you don't get that time either. I won't divulge into my birth story, as I still can't decide whether I will share that yet but after being whisked into theatre because I lost a lot of blood and had placenta accreta, then being in the lucky stats of the 10% whose body does not take epidurals or spinal blocks, meant I was put under general and then didn't come around or see my little one for bonding until about 3 hours later.
So, we were always on the 'backfoot' as it were and I don't know if it was truly because of those missing hours, the big loss of blood or other factors but I could not feed him at all for 4 days. He wouldn't latch, when he did he came off all too quickly, I couldn't get him to latch without help (of which midwives were not pleased whenever I asked for help) so felt like I was inadequate and not doing my new mum job right. Then the fun of the harvesting the precious colostrum elixir, what a farce that is, my husband still laughs to this day that he had to catch this in a syringe while I hand expressed; at least we can laugh about it now and not cry!
Day 3 of being in hospital and I was so engorged and asked to pump so at least I could feed my baby my milk and not formula, to which one of the midwives almost scoffed at me and said 'yeah you can try and do that'. So, I do love that after double pumping (Medela pumps are amazing and you should hire after leaving hospital) I could get so much milk she was lost for words when she returned.
By Day 5 and our last day in hospital, I cried happy tears when I finally got my baby to latch all by myself and he had a full feed on me. I was so terrified of him coming off, that I did not move a muscle for what felt like an hour, just to make sure. So, when we were discharged I had a bit more of a positive outlook for our feeding journey.
A traumatising turn of events
We spent a whole 12 hours at home in the blissful baby bubble, not sleeping, but happy away feeding and trying to sleep in between but he cried ALL night non-stop, which I know comes with the territory but my mum instinct felt something else was wrong. So, I checked his temperature, and it was 33c (knowing that from midwife checks daily they were looking for 36-37c as the norm), so I googled and panicked when it said call 999. We rang an ambulance, they arrived in minutes, checked him and got the same read so we were asked to pack a bag as quickly as possible and get in the ambulance too. I spent the whole journey and most of that day crying, not only had baby blues kicked in, but I was terrified for my baby's life, I was so sleep deprived and not eaten so almost passed out myself.
He was quickly whisked onto a children's ward where we spent 3 days in an incubator as he was treated for pneumonia/sepsis and I spent days non-stop expressing so that I didn't burst (because I was leaking all the time). I was lucky at this point being in a different hospital to my birth nearer home, that I had wonderful support of the feeding consultants there to watch me and show me how to improve my latch, to talk properly about cues and signs, making sure I was fed and drank constantly and offering me daily guidance to figure it all out. So, once we finally left I felt like I could do this, just maybe.
Reflux + Colic = No Sleep
At 1 week old he had never dropped below his birth weight and it was rewarding to know that this meant I was doing a good job of feeding him, because it is normal for babies to lose 7-10% of their body weight in the first few weeks too. I spent the next few weeks trying my best to feed him, even though uncomfortable a lot of the time and I was getting zero sleep. He cried after every feed, would hate being lied down and therefore on the rare occasions he did go down he would have 20 mins and be awake again or sick. Cue reflux baby.
I seemed to feed non-stop, he seemed to cry non-stop, we both never slept and then whenever we visited family this meant there was also extra pressure that he was 'hungry' - "why don't I try formula to help him sleep more?". Even though I knew this wasn't what was wrong. He was gaining weight very slowly, but not losing it but of course health visitors were concerned and as I was at home with family for a few weeks I did not have my usual HV and to be honest she was not great. She always made me feel extremely useless after leaving, never giving constructive advice and suggested I top him up after my feeds with 4oz every time which when you think of how small a baby’s stomach is at 4 weeks old it was bizarre.
The feeding plan and expressing hell
Post-Christmas and we had our 6-week check-up and mentioned to the doctor the way he was after feeds; she saw his slow weight gain (not loss) and was concerned he may have a more serious condition which can occur in boys particularly so we were sent to paediatrics for a 2nd opinion. Which meant another few days in hospital to monitor and test him, thankfully it wasn't serious but he did have Gastro Oesophageal Reflux Disorder (a more severe form of reflux) which meant we were put on a strict feeding plan of feeding on me for 30mins then expressing and topping him up with 2oz and then eliminating all dairy from my diet too as they suspected a Cow’s Milk Allergy also.
This plan continued for around 8 weeks, which to be honest was the hardest part of our journey. It would take me around 1-1.5hrs to feed, top up, wind, express, clean the pump and then start it all again. I never had a break, I felt like a cow just milking every day, and it seriously affected my mood and ability to do anything like go out for a walk or coffee because I just didn't have the time in between. My husband had gone back to work after shared parental leave and I was on my own with our baby for 4 days a week not sleeping, barely eating and just becoming more and more depressed. Adding to this weekly weigh ins, calls with dieticians and visits to the feeding consultants meant I just had the weight of the world on my shoulders and felt under a microscope.
After a visit from my health visitor I broke down sometime around the end of march and that was the tipping point, I rang my husband in tears and for the first time ever asked for help and said I needed him to come home too. So, he moved project (which I am forever thankful of his company for accommodating so quickly), my health visitor called the dietician to relax the feeding plan more and I finally felt like I had the time and support to breathe again.
Many tears and trying to re-lactate
At 4 months into my feeding journey – hoping I would make it to 6 months – I had gotten to a point where I didn't enjoy it, everything up until this point had felt so tough and although I had gotten through the worst of it all, my little one’s demand for milk was growing, especially as he has gotten used to the top up feeds. So, I decided to cut back on the afternoon feeds from me a day fully so that I could have the time to go out and see friends, coffee, walks; anything that would get my mental well-being back up to where it needed to be.
However, I had been timing my feeds as told by the dietician/feeding consultant which for anyone who knows (I found out too late), that restricting the time on the breast just lowers your milk supply and sadly that was what had been happening with me for weeks. So, I had to make an incredibly hard decision to change those afternoon feeds to formula too as I just didn't have enough milk to fill him and he would cry (we used Neocate as he did/still does have a cow’s milk allergy and was prescribed). So, I too spent days/weeks crying every night at this, I felt like I was failing as a mum not being able to make enough milk, by having to supplement with formula and for ultimately not making my goal of exclusively breastfeeding for 6 months.
Nothing can prepare you for when you do that last feed forever, I remember it so vividly for me, it was around Easter time (5 months) in the middle of the night and he latched and just fed on me contently for a while and went back to sleep again. Something which he hadn't cone for weeks, as all feeds slowly diminished as he was never full from me and I always had to top up with expressed or formula eventually. I spent a solid 2 months after this, possibly 3, reading about 're-lactating', trying to find things to boost my supply, seeing a feeding expert who is so knowledgeable (see her vast free resources here) for one to one advice on how to do this as well because I was just so depressed about it all. Things like fenugreek supplements, warm baths with baby to let him just root, expressing even if nothing was coming out etc.
Unfortunately, nothing ever did come back, whether it was because it just wasn't meant to be or I wasn't doing enough I don't know. But after this realisation and a down morning one day of many tears, something just switched in me and I decided to not do this dance anymore and to put my energy elsewhere into helping new mamas who too struggle with breastfeeding and need the support both to start their journey and to have the confidence to feed when they were out. As I knew that this was one factor which massively affected my mental wellness when feeding and wish I had more confidence to feed when I was out in public. This was where Bon + Bear was born and you can read more about this next chapter in our story.
For all you new Mamas, please know you are not alone. You must turn to friends, family, health professionals and mum friends for the support you need. In the meantime, we will be here to share monthly breastfeeding stories in all forms so that you all know you are doing an amazing job, there is no right or wrong and ultimately FED IS BEST. To be a good mama, you need to be happy too! Cherish those feeding moments, the small victories, the daily struggles and just take that photo or you will regret it. I forever do and wish I had more of this special time in our journey together documented.