Breastfeeding – the ups and downs

Ah, breastfeeding. It so nearly went the way of the cloth nappies. As in “Nice idea, but life is too short”.

After an unfortunate start in Special Care, the situation with breastfeeding went from bad to worse to a bit better to horrible to acceptable. This post has been brewing some time so it’s a long one!

A better start for breastfeeding

Our hospital only supports breastfeeding which was just fine with us. Before we actually had a baby. Unless you end up in Special Care like we did. In the midst of confusion about whether he was going to have serious problems, nobody asked us whether they could give him formula. They just did.

In hospital I repeatedly asked the midwives for help with positioning and latching. I was advised to use nipple shields for my flat nipples (they’re not) and told he was latching fine (he wasn’t). As a GP friend pointed out, most of the midwives that would have been around us are from the first generation who didn’t breastfeed – they happily filled their offspring to the neck with formula, because they were told it was ‘scientific’. I suspect that it was because we were in a private room that we never encountered the hospital breastfeeding counsellor while we were there – although friends on the ward did.

After a week in hospital, on our first morning home the Community Midwife took one look at Sproggett and diagnosed a tongue tie.
If it had been identified and treated in hospital maybe we would have had more success getting him to latch on. But again it’s not a priority for them, especially with funding shortages. The wait list to get it assessed and then treated on the NHS is 4-6 weeks in our area. We had it done privately.

By then he was ten days old and frankly our second wind hadn’t kicked in yet. You know, we were still at the stage where you might find the milk in the oven or random bits of cutlery in the fridge and everyone is just happy you haven’t absent-mindedly left the child outside the shops. Yet.

My attempts to offer him the breast before the bottle became half hearted as I lost confidence. I failed to follow up when the hospital breastfeeding counsellor didn’t come to appointments she’d made with us because in my mind that meant facing more anguish trying to feed. Instead I put effort into following an expressing schedule.

Eight times a day, I was told. Obviously those pesky baby creatures feed throughout the night too so my alarm was set for 22:00, 2:00, 6:00 and then every two and a half hours to try to get those eight sessions in. I don’t think I ever made it. But the milk supply didn’t go down which was the important thing. With well-meaning advice ringing in my ears, and making me dread missing a session: “no pump empties a breast as well as a baby”, I kept plugging away. When you add in the time involved in sterilising bottles, expressing and actually feeding the baby it’s brutal how physically and mentally draining (badum-tish) that could be. I nearly gave up.

Why persevere with breastfeeding?

Breastfeeding is convenient, fast, and comforting for a squally baby as well as all the health benefits and immunity from illness. It can also sit somewhere on the pain scale from sore to agonising, it’s tiring when you’re getting used to it and sometimes downright bloody heartbreaking.

For us, things improved dramatically at ten weeks and made me think breastfeeding might actually be possible.

Nothing could have prepared me for the enveloping feeling of guilt when we were not doing well, massively fuelled by hormones. Every time we failed to achieve a latch after seeing a consultant or counsellor where we’d been fine, Mr D would come home to find me feeding Sproggett a bottle of formula with tears steaming down my face. Breastfeeding can be just as tough on your partner. He’d tell me that it was fine and that the baby’s health was the most important thing. I’d agree and then snottily wail about how breastfeeding “was the one thing I’d wanted to do for him”.

What worked for us?

Being a squeaky wheel. We kept asking for help. Endlessly. In hindsight I was kind of obsessed.!

He was born on Sunday at 6pm and we left hospital on the Friday at 5pm. We talked to

  1. The community midwife who on the Saturday detected the tongue tie and put us on to…
  2. the hospital’s breastfeeding counsellor who came around on the Monday. Mind you she didn’t actually come back to either of the follow up appointments I made to get help with positioning. However she gave us details of a…
  3. woman who could help with tongue tie privately but didn’t do any real follow up to assist with feeding. Instead she suggested we contact…
  4. Local breastfeeding support groups but most of them were closed down for the summer but we found…
  5. A great lactation consultant in town and then by September our local groups were going again.

Yeah really. Around the houses. We spent a whole bank holiday weekend on a babymoon – in bed doing skin-to-skin – which really seemed to help with making breastfeeding our default way of feeding but then it became unbearably painful. That’s when someone passed me Ann Dobson’s details.

Why work with a lactation consultant?

Ann Dobson is a lactation consultant who runs a drop in clinic on Fridays at the Welsh Centre on Grey’s Inn road. It’s busy and you’ll wait to be seen (seriously – bring lunch with you) but she was the first person who really helped us to have a breakthrough in terms of feeding. She asked me to see if he’d latch on, then said ‘try holding your breast like this.’ Boom. Baby latched, pain free. I may have cried a little at this stage. Later this led to extreme frustration, frankly. It took this woman approximately ninety seconds to get us off the starting blocks, and we’d been pissing about for ten bloody weeks?

She wasn’t judgemental about shields, and was completely practical. She also was visibly cross about the consultant who treated the tongue tie but didn’t help with breastfeeding. Her take on it? “Anyone can cut a tongue tie, that’s the easy part. Establishing breastfeeding takes work”.

We went back a number of times, both for appointments and the clinic and we also had some cranial osteopathy sessions. I would have poo-pooed them initially but they did seem to help.

Board certified lactation consultants specialise in breast-feeding and related issues, which is not the primary focus for a midwife. She also was great with support by text outside of the clinic but given how busy she is, I wouldn’t depend on this. The clinic isn’t NHS so there’s a fee payable, which could be beyond some people’s reach. But when I think about the money I wasted on nipple shields and other paraphernalia…

Why is breastfeeding so bloody hard?

I do get rather angry about the way that most hospitals seem to let women down when it comes to breastfeeding. Although I asked for help on numerous occasions, I was mainly fobbed off or told I was doing a great job when anyone who knew what they were talking about should have seen that he wasn’t latching, he couldn’t with the tongue tie. It’s an old chestnut but although breastfeeding is ‘natural’ it’s often far from simple. I truly believe that one decent lactation consultant working in each hospital really would make a difference in terms of how many women breastfeed successfully and keep breastfeeding.

In our NCT group, out of six couples only one woman took to it from the moment her boy was flopped on her chest. She is a sweetheart and bless her, actually felt bad about it and went out of her way to downplay how easy it had been for her. I did go through a period of feeling envious of anyone like her. Why didn’t it just “happen” for us too?

Stopping breastfeeding

Originally my goals were “to breastfeed” and in my mind I wanted to get to a year. Then it was getting it to happen at all. We cracked the latch at ten weeks which was fantastic. Then I developed vasospasm which wasn’t fun. So I reluctantly moved to two breastfeeds a day to allow some recovery and also to ensure that he kept getting some breast milk every day – in the entire period of breastfeeding he only got one cold which beats the average by a country mile.

Then the first teeth arrived. At nineteen weeks. Jesus, really? I know that I could have worked harder at supervising him to make sure he wasn’t going to bite but the final straw for me was when he bit me while I was breastfeeding him on a flight home to Ireland, trying to help his little ears avoid popping (oh and then he threw up everywhere too which is unusual for him) and it just seemed like a sign. Also he’d been showing such interest in food that we started weaning a few days later and that seems to be going well.

I think it was a natural end for us, even though I’d always assumed it would last longer so that makes me sad. I’ve been reading a lot recently about post-weaning depression which seems to strike so many women, but personally now that I’ve come around to it, I’ve realised I’m quite keen to ditch the nursing bras and tops and start wearing proper underwear again. When I borked my back this week, Mr D was able to take over all the night feeds without me having to express. Sproggett is desperate to try anything he sees us eating and is a rosy happy little fellah on the mixture of formula and milk he’s had so far. It feels like things have worked out the way that they were supposed to.

Still here? Blimey, well done!

Lots of pregnant friends have asked about breastfeeding, as I think there’s a natural curiosity and anxiety about it. I usually say:

  • ask for help with the latch and try to be as confident as you can before leaving the hospital
  • in hospital, ask for tongue tie to be checked if you can if you’re having problems
  • if you’re having problems with latch, focus on your milk supply
  • if you’re expressing to exclusively breast feed, consider hiring a hospital grade double pump which makes it all so much faster
  • keep asking for help

Did you have issues on your way to breastfeeding? Or did you decide it wasn’t worth persevering after a bad start? Were your midwives and hospital supportive and knowledgeable? Would love to hear about your experiences in the comments.

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