Growing up, I was obsessed with the notion that you actually had two little ‘taps’ on your body that filled with milk and fed real-life babies. Although my little brain couldn’t quite understand why women weren’t constantly deploying this skill - “I can’t wait until I have boobies, and I can squirt milk at everyone like a water gun” I crossly said to my mum at five years old, after she’d caught me stuffing my baby brother up my top again. Finally, twenty years later, here I am with the milky boobs I had long fantasised about - although safe to say I have never used them as a weapon!
My First Breastfeeding Journey
My son Otto, now two, was my first breastfeeding experience. He was a little dream to feed at first and latched perfectly on the first day. He went on to feed brilliantly in the first few weeks, and I had enough of a supply to pump. This is where it all went a bit wrong.
I felt this huge pressure to build up a generous supply of milk so that my partner and other family members could be involved in feeds, or, god forbid, so I could have a glass of wine in the evening. By the eighth week, I’m certain my boobs thought they were feeding triplets. I had so much milk that on a day where I wouldn’t pump, milk would aggressively spray out of my nipples causing Otto to choke and cry. I distinctly remember sobbing in a John Lewis car-park, whilst hand expressing into a Coke bottle with my blotchy screaming baby on my lap. I started to dread breastfeeding in public because after thirty seconds of latching, he would pull away, screaming and exposing my streaming boobs to the room!
As a young mother, I felt people were judging my age as a reason for my inability to breastfeed. Ridiculous but true. This problem re-occurred until one day, I decided to give him a bottle of formula. He drank it beautifully and peacefully and dropped off to sleep for hours. After this, he would fight even harder at the boob, until I offered him an 8oz bottle of Aptamil, and at three months I decided to exclusively Formula feed.
This made me sad. Not because I was anti-Formula, but because for that first couple of months, I mostly adored breastfeeding. I felt real grief for the loss of that bonding time and I would tearfully look back at videos of him feeding on me.
Dysphoric Milk Ejection
So when my daughter was born in August 2019, I felt this real determination to exclusively breastfeed her no matter what. I wouldn’t pump, I wouldn’t formula feed, I would feed on demand - it would just be me and her, peacefully bonding and it would all go smoothly right? Wrong. The minute that my daughter latched and I felt that strange tingling sensation of letdown, this creeping sadness came over me. An awful sense of despair that had no real cause. After two minutes I felt absolutely fine again.
This feeling came and went every time I fed her for the first few days so I spoke to my midwife. I was diagnosed with something called ‘Dysphoric Milk Ejection’ which causes women to feel spontaneous feelings of depression for a few minutes after letdown. I felt slightly robbed. This was supposed to be what I wanted and enjoyed, but instead, I felt miserable and sad with every feed. This feeling lasted for about two months, and before I knew it, breastfeeding her felt fine, not the wonderful high I felt with my son, but fine. But the worst was yet to come.
At eight weeks old, her reflux started to really kick in. Every single feed I gave her would come gushing back out of her mouth less than ten minutes later. She was being changed every half an hour, soaking through all of her bibs. I constantly stank of the sour smell of vomit, it was in my hair and my clothes at all times. People were hesitant to hold her because they knew she was like a ticking time bomb. I tried everything - from Osteopathy to Omeprazole. Nothing would stop it all coming up again. I sadly began to resent her for it. If I ever took time trying to look nice, within minutes I would be covered in sick again.
My nipples were blistered and cracked because she fed non stop, and when nothing would come out anymore she would tug and cry. I needed a break, but I still wouldn’t just give her a bottle of formula for fear she would never feed off of me again. I had heaped so much pressure onto myself to breastfeed that it was starting to damage my bond with my daughter, instead of strengthening it. Eventually, at four months, I gave her a bottle of expressed milk just so I could have a bit of space. It all came straight back out of her mouth again, as usual, but it was a relief to have a bit of space. This ‘relief’ bottle, became a bit of a habit as she didn’t seem to have any issues with swapping from breast to bottle.
After six months, the reflux started to improve with weaning, and now, at nine months, I can’t remember when she was last sick. She is now combination fed, and is breastfed on-demand in the day, but has formula at night or if I’m away from her in the day.
Be Kind to Yourself
I love and am an advocate for breastfeeding, but it is a challenge. I wish that I hadn’t heaped so much pressure on myself, and had sought the right support instead of reading a bunch of conflicting opinions online and simply persevering. Reflux babies are tricky, no matter how they’re fed, but I wish I had allowed myself to physically and mentally heal by giving her a bottle sooner. I’m not sure how long my breastfeeding journey is going to be, but I have learnt to respect and appreciate my body for what it has achieved so far, and if it needs a break, it deserves it!