The Battle to Breastfeed

April 20, 2015 Written by Helen

On the rare occasion this poor second baby gets so much as a mention, the conversation tends to go something like this:

Me: Christ! I’m 37 weeks and we haven’t bought a single thing for this baby. Let’s make a list.

Ben: OK. Number 1: Steriliser.

Me: Oh thanks. Thanks SO much. Thanks for having so much faith in my ability to feed our child this time around…

And so it goes on… Until I admit that actually it’s probably a sensible idea and could he add 8 teeny bottles and a carton of formula onto that Amazon order, please.

Mother Earth I am not. My dreams of breastfeeding in a meadow were dashed rather swiftly the last time. (Not only did my boobs not work, meadows are hard to come by in North London.) Eve arrived a full 17 days late, after a four-day-long failed induction, failed forceps and an emergency caesarean. She didn’t breathe on her own for 8 minutes after she was born. Eight minutes feels like a lifetime. Never mind skin on skin, I barely got to look at her before they took her away to give her antibiotics for her temperature. Ben went with her and I was left alone and exhausted on an operating table while they sewed me back together.

Nobody reads your Birth Plan at 17 days overdue. Which is probably a good thing as we hadn’t bothered to write one. But suffice to say, there is no pool, no plinky plonky music, and none of it is how you hoped it would be. There are just worried-looking doctors discussing how best to get this baby out safely. And that is all that matters. Nobody was to blame. She just wasn’t ready to come. But I can’t help feeling that all of what had gone before contributed to the problems I had feeding my baby. Why wouldn’t it? Other bits of my body failed to work afterwards (my bowels, my brain); it’s not surprising that my boobs failed too.

The hospital wanted me to stay an extra night in order to “fully establish breastfeeding”. We had been there for almost a week by that point, and I needed to go home. I understood the techniques, I had grasped the principles. I needed to practice, and I could do that home.

I was desperate to feed her myself. It was a primitive thing, an animal need that I hadn’t anticipated. Beforehand I had been all for having a go, but told myself I wouldn’t beat myself up if it didn’t happen. And the truth is that it wasn’t so much for her that I wanted to breastfeed as for myself; to live up to my own arrogant ideals of the sort of mother I wanted to be. And in that long and sorry quest I did neither of us any favours. By day 3 or 4 Eve hadn’t wet her nappy for 2 days. That is a dehydrated baby. I was “feeding” her constantly, but she was taking nothing. When we asked the midwife’s “permission” to give her a bottle, (not to give up breastfeeding, but merely give her something to actually eat) we were told very clearly that if we wanted to make that choice as parents then she couldn’t stop us, but it certainly wouldn’t be what she would advise. I was mortified and guilty and from what I remember I almost never stopped crying. Never have I felt more of a failure, more hopeless, or more desperate.

And so followed a troop of breastfeeding counsellors, lactation consultants, and, one awful night, a tongue tie specialist who came to cut the tiny (negligible) piece of skin under our baby’s tongue. (£180 later, she screamed, I wept, and nothing much changed.) I diligently attended the breastfeeding group recommended by the midwife. There was me and 3 breastfeeding counsellors; that is not a group, it’s an ambush. Our hospital-grade industrial double breast pump was delivered, I got a prescription for Domperidone (an anti-sickness drug whose side effects include increased production of breast milk) and I spent literally hundreds of pounds on Fenugreek – 12 a day, every day, for six months. I really, really tried.

I was pumping 8 times a day, and producing about 15ml from each side if I was lucky. That’s 3 teaspoons. It is not a good use of time. What would have been better would have been holding my baby, getting to know her, looking at her in wonder instead of dreading the next time she needed feeding. Enjoying her, and learning to be her mum. Hell, sleeping.

Eventually, we did achieve what I think we could legitimately call Combination Feeding. She got a bit of both. She took the breast as well as the bottle and vice versa. And she grew – big and strong and gorgeous. And with the clarity that can come only with hindsight, that is really all that matters. Through my sleep-deprived newborn fog, I had an awareness that only my mum could have told me to stop breastfeeding and give her a bottle. Only to her would I have listened.

So this is my vow: this time will be different. Yes, I will try to breastfeed my baby. (A good friend pointed out recently that I don’t have to: it is not the law. True, but the desire is still too strong in me not to at least try.) What I will not do is let it SEND ME MAD. I will not pump or pop pills or call help lines or let women with scissors near my baby. I will not spend my time at breastfeeding groups when I could be in the park with my babies. I will trust myself, I will know what I have learned, and I will remember what my mum would tell me if she could.

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6 thoughts on “The Battle to Breastfeed”

  1. Hils Bindi says:

    Hi Helen
    I met you once before and remember you well and your lovely family. It was at Alex and Dans wedding, I am Hils, Dans first nanny, you probably won’t remember me.
    Anyway, I love love love your blog. It is so true and made me laugh so much. I didn’t know you were pregnant so good luck with your next labour, it sounds like you had a horrific time first go so you deserve an easy time.
    If it’s any concellation, I managed to breastfeed Princi for the first 3 days and it was such agony, I gave up but felt really guilty about it. Second time around with Luca I didn’t even bother trying as I was like watermelon sue again and knew it would probably go wrong again, so I took the wimps way out, and didn’t even try. I did feel guilty too but he is so lovely and perfectly healthy, there is no point beating yourself up about it. You’re mum would have been so proud anyway, whatever you did.
    Good luck. Xxxx

    1. Helen says:

      Hils! Of course I remember you and your family. Thank you so much for being in touch and for your kind comment. I am glad you like the blog. Keep reading!
      Helen x

  2. Angela says:

    Oh Helen everything you write just reads true to me too. Breastfeeding is one of the hardest things I did and I thought about giving up everyday for 4 weeks. It was painful, not working with Georgie and pretty horrendous. I eventually got it but there is a lot of guilt associated with it. My mum gave me the best advice and that is to just do what is right for you. The baby will not know as long it gets some food whether it be from the breast or bottle. Motherhood is hard enough without the added pressure. Enjoy the little one when it arrives . Xxx

    1. Helen says:

      Thanks so much, Angela. You did so well to stick with it when it was so painful. But you’re right – babies know no difference. It doesn’t matter to them where it comes from! xx

  3. Margaretannburch says:

    Very nice piece of writing. Should be read to all midwives. Xx

  4. Hannah says:

    Hi Helen.
    I’ve just come across your blog and think it’s lovely how honest you are. I’m sorry your mum is no longer here. One of my biggest fears is to lose my mum. Silly as its inevitable . But the thought terrifies me! What will I do without her? Your birth story is very similar to mine, c-section, feeling of guilt and failure, the irrational desire to keep trying to breastfeed at all costs. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one. The difference is that my mum was there to help me, but I didn’t listen to her either! She came from an era where everyone formula fed their babies, I felt she didn’t understand. She would also wrap my boy up too much, rest him on his side instead of his back and wanted me to feed him solids at 3months! I guess what I’m saying is that even with my mother I felt pressure and guilt. I think you do as a mother-it’s part of the package! It shows that you’re a good mummy. Your mum would be proud of the decisions you made and how you handled a newborn. Out of curiosity, I see that this post is nearly a year old, was it all different with your second one? Or did you fall into the same dilemmas?! Love Hannah x

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