Breastfeeding has been simultaneously one of the most difficult and most rewarding things I have ever done. I thought I would write the story of our journey because it might help someone planning to breastfeed to know what to expect. Be warned – it’s a long one (and also contains photos of boobs – apologies!).
It’s not all pretty, but please do not let it put you off – no, breastfeeding isn’t the easiest thing in the world for everyone (or probably anyone), but if it’s what you want and you can crack it, it is also amazing.
When pregnant I read as many people’s accounts of breastfeeding as I could, because frankly, it was the thing about motherhood that scared me the most. I knew I wanted to do it (though was being cautious and saying I wanted to try it, not that I definitely would), but the thought of a little person chomping at my breast was seriously unappealing. I actually found the idea kind of repulsive.
I wasn’t sure at all how things would go once Emilia arrived, but when I was in the recovery room in the minutes following my caesarean, groggy and kind of oblivious to what was happening to most of my body, and the midwife placed Emilia next to me and helped me latch her on, it didn’t feel repulsive or painful – it felt totally natural.
And I suddenly thought that maybe I could do it after all, and I made the decision to do my best to make sure I did. Which is just as well, because things got tough pretty quick. I found it really hard to figure out a position that worked for both of us as Emilia was such a big baby and my breasts are very large; at first they were much bigger than her head!
And when I did get her in the right position she would feed and then cry, on and off, because we didn’t have the latch quite right. Luckily one amazing midwife took the time with me on every feed for her whole shift and actually showed me how to get Emilia to latch by doing it herself. After that, we were pretty much off and away.
First Hurdle: Delayed Milk and Supplementing
Except that Emilia cried non-stop, because after my caesarean it took a couple of extra days for my milk to come in, and because she was a very big baby, I couldn’t produce enough to keep her happy, so for most of the five days we were in hospital I was also supplementing with formula from a cup (as I didn’t want to risk nipple confusion). I really didn’t want to because I thought it was a slippery slope to stopping breastfeeding, but the midwives were great and assured me she would probably stop needing the supplementing within a couple of days, and sure enough a day or so after getting home she was refusing it and pushing the cup away, rather than lapping madly at it as she did at first.
Getting the hang of it…
And then it seemed kind of easy! Emilia was hungry and fed for quite a long period of time, from both breasts each time, so I watched a LOT of daytime TV, but I was assured that it would get quicker as she got more adept at it. She would go for 45 minutes on each side, sometimes an hour! I didn’t mind though as I was loving the experience of spending such precious moments with my baby, and spent happy hours just staring at her as she fed. It wasn’t always pain free, some days my nipples would feel really sore, but I just carried on and the problems seemed to resolve themselves.
Blocked ducts (for the first time)
Then we hit our first snag. For some reason, things got very painful, particularly on my right breast, with hard lumps appearing throughout my breast. Blocked ducts apparently, and I was advised to massage under warm water and also during feeding, but to keep going so the milk would be drained from my breast. At night especially when she went longest between feeds, I would wake up to a rock solid breast (or two at times) that sent searing pains through my chest when I moved. It took a few agonising days to resolve, and tears may have been almost shed. Then it happened again, and that time tears definitely made an appearance. Every feed I was one feed away from quitting, dreading my husband voicing what I already knew … that she was hungry again. Miraculously, things fixed themselves again because I persevered.
Fussiness and fast let-down?
The next issue was that Emilia became really fussy at the breast, she would suck a few times and then start screaming, and she would be so upset I would have to get up, walk around with her, and calm her down (or hand her to my husband!), before trying again only for it to happen again, and again, sometimes up to ten times before she finally settled to feed properly. I got so upset when this happened feed after feed, especially when I was home alone during the day as I couldn’t hand her to Ste to calm down, giving me a chance to calm down myself. This of course made things sore all over again, and led me to ring the La Leche League helpline in desperation, because I was spending all day feeding or trying to feed and was in pain all over again. They said it might be fast let down she couldn’t handle, and suggested I tried laid back feeding. It worked sometimes, not others, but I was hoping that as with all things baby, it was just a phase. With hindsight, I don’t think it was fast let-down, I think it was frustration that she wasn’t getting enough, as we found out a bit later.
Discovering a posterior tongue tie
Emilia was three months old at this point, and she cried all the time. I stopped leaving the house because I knew she would just scream, and I certainly wasn’t confident enough to feed in public anymore, having done it happily in the earlier months. I was getting really quite depressed and was just taking it one tear-filled long day at a time. Ironically, actually feeding Emilia seemed to be going fine at this point, she took her time, but it wasn’t painful, and we seemed to have cracked it. I was glad she took so long, as it gave me a break from the endless crying and rocking.
It was at Emilia’s 12 week jabs that I realised she had actually lost a significant amount of weight and there was something really wrong, despite an unhelpful GP who had previously dismissed me and my concerns when I took her in to ask about her non-stop crying (his exact words: “Babies cry, deal with it”). Upon discovering the weightloss he told me I obviously wasn’t “very good at breastfeeding” and should start formula. No attempt to find out why she wasn’t putting on weight. I am still so cross about this. Thankfully, we had an amazing health visitor friend who did care, and we had Emilia’s posterior tongue tie diagnosed. I’ll be writing a post all about how we discovered it, and what to look out for, and what happens when your baby has one, and how we got started on our combination-feeding journey, but this point was a pivotal one in our breastfeeding journey.
Emilia needed to gain weight fast so I had no option but to supplement with formula. Thanks to our health visitor friend, I also got into a heavy pumping regime to preserve my own supply, and to help increase it, and I continued breastfeeding before every bottle feed. It was incredibly hard to come to terms with this, because for me, having intended to breastfeed her and now being forced to use the bottle as well, felt like a huge failure, not to mention the fact that she hated bottles at first and from the screams it seemed like we were torturing her. (No formula vs breast judgement here by the way, it was just that things had gone so differently to what I hoped, and I was still reeling from discovering she had been slowly starving, and it had a big impact on me).
Emilia had her tongue-tie cut, and we continued to breast and formula feed (I got very tiny amounts from expressing or pumping and not enough to feed her exclusively breastmilk) for the next few weeks until her weight began to increase to the health visitor’s satisfaction. I had intended to then decrease the formula and go back to exclusively breast, but I couldn’t manage to pump enough whilst also looking after a baby who refused to nap in the daytime and only wanted to be on me all the time (where do you hold the baby with a pump on each boob?!), and I struggled to increase my supply enough.
And actually, once I got over the upset of being forced into formula feeding, I began to see there were some quite big advantages. Ste could get involved which was great for him, and occasionally gave me a break during the day (though I was still offering the breast at every feed too, so I wasn’t completely off the hook), and it was also convenient when we were out and about, because my confidence had been well and truly knocked by the last month or so.
Getting into our breastfeeding stride at last
By about 5 months we were into a really good routine which worked brilliantly for me, Emilia was thriving, and it actually seemed like combination feeding was the best of all worlds. I would breastfeed first thing (and at night if she woke because I didn’t want to go downstairs in the freezing cold in the middle of winter to heat up a bottle, and also because I loved the intimacy of sleepy night feeds), and then she would have a bottle mid-morning, a breastfeed to get her to sleep for her nap (which she only started taking at around 5 months!), a bottle mid-afternoon, and then one before bed plus I breastfed her to sleep every night. I know that people advise against that, but with a sleep-dodging child you do what you have to, and again, it was a lovely bonding time for us, part of the reason I wanted to breastfeed in the first place, so I wasn’t about to give it up.
Other than one further instance of blocked ducts, we seemed to have hit our stride with the breastfeeding – it wasn’t painful anymore, I was no longer waking up with milk stains all over my pyjamas and the bed, my breasts had softened and reduced in size a bit, and it was only taking 10-15 minutes per side. Still a long time compared to many babies, but far less than the 45 minutes each side before we had her tongue tie cut!
Going back to work (and discovering reflux)
It was around the New Year when Emilia turned 6 months that I began thinking about needing to go back to work, and I actually realised we had inadvertently already done some of the hard work – she was happy to take bottles during the day, so I just needed to get her out of the habit of feeding to sleep for her nap. Easier said than done, and by the time she went to the childminder at 8 months she was still being fed to sleep quite often, as it was the only way I could get her to nap. The childminder however clearly worked some amazing magic on her and could get her to nap with no trouble without even a bottle, so that fixed that!
We did have a surprise when she started going to the childminder – she told us Emilia had reflux! We did know she was sick a lot, (seemingly more so than other babies) and she got hiccups a lot (another symptom) but for some reason we never realised either were abnormal and just always carried a muslin or three at all times! By the time she went to the childminder it had reduced considerably, and all but disappeared by 9 months, but it was just another thing which could have hindered our breastfeeding journey that wasn’t looked for or picked up on by professionals (even though I mentioned the sick to health visitors and GPs).
So for the next 4 months, she was breastfeeding morning and night from me, and having formula for the other feeds. As she was taking in more food from weaning we gradually decreased the amount of formula during the day, and at around 12 months we cut out a bottle in the day completely. She is now 12 and a half months, and has a bottle morning and night, which we are gradually switching to cows milk (by doing three quarters, half, a quarter…), and also to a beaker rather than a bottle. I know I am a bit late with this, and my health visitor told me off for not having weaned her off a bottle already, but she is also happy with the beaker and we are almost there so I don’t think it’s a problem.
I always wanted to breastfeed to a year old, and as much as I admire the mothers who carry it on much longer, I was feeling as though it was time to give up. I had met the goal I set for myself, and I am proud that I kept going despite quite a few obstacles. Emilia is a wriggle bum, often lazy at latching, and has a lot of teeth, and I was rarely looking at it as a loving bonding experience, more something to be endured again, so it became clear our time had come. When we got back from holiday two weeks ago, I cut out her evening breastfeed, and let Ste give her a bedtime bottle and put her to bed, which went without a hitch thankfully, perhaps because she had become used to going for a nap without a breastfeed.
And then two days ago I also dropped the morning one. It wasn’t really a conscious decision, but as she woke and I got up, I realised I just didn’t want to do it, so instead of bringing her into our bed and feeding her like I did every morning, we went downstairs and played together. She didn’t ask for me to feed her, or seem upset, in fact, she didn’t seem to realise anything had changed. I was a bit emotional, but not as much as I thought, because I felt it was time.
What happens next?
I had been warned about huge hormonal moodswings and also engorgement issues before I stopped, but as yet, I’ve not experienced either, or indeed, any adverse effects. I haven’t even felt particularly full. I think because we had gone down to only one feed a day, and for a very long time she was being combi-fed so my supply was never huge, it wasn’t a big deal for my body to stop. I may be speaking too soon though – will report back!
How I feel about stopping
I am really pleased that I have been able to stop on my own terms, and it’s my own decision. Having had the combination feeding somewhat forced on me, it actually turned out to be a brilliant option for us, although there was little to no information on how to go about it, or how to know quantities, etc, and it didn’t really feel like even the health professionals thought it was a viable option. I plan on writing a post to combat this, because I think that many more people could continue to breastfeed successfully if the taboo about supplementing with formula or fully combination feeding could be dispelled, because it really takes the pressure off and gives you some time to breathe.
I am sad to have stopped – my little baby is truly no longer a baby anymore, but at this age every day she seems more of a child and less of a baby and so this seems just one more part of that, which is maybe making it a bit easier. I thought that I would be very emotional during the very last feed, but I barely even knew it was the last because I hadn’t made a conscious decision to stop. I had been talking that afternoon with my friend Rachel about stopping though, and so I was thinking what if this was the last feed, and I realised I wouldn’t mind – it wasn’t a special bonding experience anymore, it was a foot in the face and pinchy fingers on my stomach – and it felt like it had run its course. I will always cherish the happy cosy times I spent feeding my daughter in the earlier months and later during bedtime feeds, snuggled up comfortably and quietly, and I feel very lucky to have had them. Equally, I would like to forget some of the harder moments, particularly if we have a second child and I contemplate breastfeeding again! But already those moments of pain and tears have faded and I am looking back with mainly rose-tinted glasses. Our journey wasn’t easy, but we made it.