Why am I writing about breastfeeding….I am definitely not an expert and I don’t have a strong stance for or against it. But I do strongly think people should do what feels right and what works for them and their baby. We all deal with elements of guilt in our lives and this escalates for women, especially around having children. I don’t believe anyone should be guilted into one approach or another.
For me there are many factors that added up to make my journey ultimately a pleasurable one, which I look back on fondly despite the ups and downs…of which there were many. People may feel that I pushed myself to keep going unnecessarily out of guilt but I just followed my gut and did what felt right in the moment as well as having the right support around me when I needed it.
Get rid of the guilt & expectation
When I was pregnant I knew I wanted to try to breastfeed – I had tried to do everything as naturally as possible on our journey to getting pregnant – however it didn’t quite work out as planned, which meant that I knew all about changing tack mid stream… so I went in with my eyes wide open and without too much expectation or pressure on myself.
I also had friends who had more or less successful breastfeeding experiences, including my mother who was advised and followed the advice to drink several pints of Guinness daily to keep her milk flow up, which apparently didn’t work very well!
Depending on where you are in the world there maybe family or societal pressure to breastfeed or use formula. In China for example, many newly middle class women are told that formula (often from overseas) is better for their little ones because of all the added nutrients. In the west the pressure is squarely on women to breastfeed for as long as possible, often involving a lot of additional pressure and stress, especially when going back to work. Often structures are not set up to support this and sometimes the other pressures are too much to add breastfeeding on top.
The guilt, pressure, and expectation reminds me of women who are childless and the sometimes overwhelming expectation and even criticism they are forced to endure because of our societal expectations. Having been through a fertility journey when people always ask you about having children I can really empathize with this – some people choose not to have children, others can’t have them.
NO ONE SHOULD BE MADE TO FEEL GUILTY FOR THEIR SITUATION – be it a choice or the circumstances in which they find themselves.
So, on to my journey…..
The first phase – before the milk came in
Nothing could prepare me for the feeling of trying to feed my baby for the first time. I am not sure I can really describe it… she was born with fluid on her lungs so I was not able to feed her straight away. In hindsight the hospital was being extra cautious and I could have probably insisted on having her stay with me for longer before she was taken to the special care unit but I was exhausted, still a bit high on the gas, and just wanted to make sure she was safe. So she went upstairs and I went downstairs. They immediately made me try to hand express the colostrum which was completely surreal… I mean the tiny amount of yellow liquid I was able to get into the syringe but it is supposed to be gold dust…
The next morning I went up to her and tried to feed her for the first time. I had no idea what I was doing, despite all those pre-natal classes. It also certainly wasn’t the crawl up to the chest and immediate latch that I had seen on videos… I was surrounded by other babies in incubators and nurses rushing around.
Luckily because she was in special care there was a lactation consultant right there who was amazing and really showed me what to do. But if I had been downstairs on the ward there is no guarantee I would have had this kind of help and I do believe the right support at the beginning is crucial.
After a couple of days I was leaving to go home and she had dropped 9% of her birth weight. The nurse suggested I gave her a bit of formula to stop her dropping further. I decided I didn’t want to do this. Again I didn’t have a strong feeling that I shouldn’t, but in the moment I decided to opt for the more frequent weigh-in vs. giving the formula.
So I went home and had an overwhelming sense of responsibility for this little human. Especially that I was her sole source of nutrition.
After a couple of painful days when I felt I was going to explode my milk came in. I had a confinement nurse who massaged my boobs to help the milk come in… it was sooooo painful but it worked – not for the faint-hearted
The second phase – feeling like a cow
Newborns feed all the time… mine certainly did! It felt constant and it would go on and on especially during the first 2 months. I didn’t relax into it at all well enough. Looking back now, putting my feet up and letting this little creature do her thing whilst I read a book should have been a serious priority!! But I spent most of my time working out if she was latched on correctly, if I could hear that sucking sound – why did no one tell me about that little noise?!
We didn’t have any sort of routine for quite a while so I fed on demand, well actually I never managed to distinguish between the “I’m hungry cry”and the “I’m tired cry” so tended to try the boob first. Let’s be honest, most new parents have absolutely no idea what they are doing…. but we found our way. And for a while boob would solve most problems, albeit sometimes temporarily.
Having said that it wasn’t all smooth sailing – I definitely had several emotional bouts of crying. One memorable one was when I was pumping and everyone in the house seemed to be transfixed, just staring at me! We gave Xiao xi a bottle from about 3 weeks old so my husband could sometimes feed as well and I could get a bit more sleep (no nipple confusion problems thank goodness).
The third phase – distraction
At about 2 months she started to refuse my left boob…. I couldn’t work out why, sometimes she would take a little and other times she would refuse it completely. I used to pump it to relieve the pressure but still I worried about her not getting enough from just one side.
At about 3 months we went through a super difficult patch. Xiao xi was quite an observant baby from very early on and liked to look around but at about 3 months she just would not feed. She pulled off the boob constantly – we tried all sorts of things from hiding under my tee shirt, under a breast cover, to a dark room and at it’s worst I had to sit on the exercise ball and bounce. It would distract her from looking around and I was able to get her to drink…. so strange. The issue for us was not just boob refusal but it was also bottle, which made me extra worried as some days I couldn’t get much into her at all.
During this time I got a lactation consultant in – they went through all the possible issues – gut, latch, sore back, misalignment and many more but didn’t focus much on the distraction. I am sure her issue was 100% to do with her starting to discover the world. Many of the other babies of the same age also had this to varying degrees. Everyone found their technique from standing up and bouncing to putting your head in the breast cover with them.
We got through it although it was 8 long weeks…. I was petrified about getting on a plane to the UK and not having my bouncy exercise ball – we even considered taking it on the flight! But she was great on the flight – an unfamiliar environment with the white noise made her want to find something familiar. Once we got back on to land things resumed and I had to find new tricks of bouncing on sides of beds or even feeding in the bath…. but we got through it. If she had been like that just on the boob and had taken the bottle super easily I think this would have been a time that I would have definitely considered giving up. I remember sitting there thinking my god if I get to 6 months I am going to be so proud of myself – I tried not to compare myself and kept reminding myself that this is my journey – some of the things I talk about in this post helped a lot.
The fourth phase – biting
After we got over the distraction – one day she just latched and stayed there, I gingerly put my feet up and took a deep sigh of relief. I suddenly thought this is sooo easy! By this stage she was on about 5/6 feeds a day and we were in some sort of routine…. not great for sleep but that’s another post for another time.
She got her first teeth early at around 5 months and she started on solid food at 6 months. Around this time we had the biting phase! She was being playful but damn it hurt – she drew blood on several occasions. I tried all sorts of techniques in terms of pulling her off or pushing her into me to saying NO…. I can’t say any worked amazingly well, but the pushing her into my breast was the only one that didn’t make her cry so I stuck with that and she quickly grew out of it. But this was probably the scene of our first “fight” with me pushing her away or handing her to my husband while I tended to my bloody sore nibble!
The fifth phase – when to stop
After the biting phase, the amount of time for each feed slowly decreased to the point where she would eat for 10 -15 mins or so – this was from 9 months. So it became very easy. I was flexible with my time so I was around but if I wasn’t I would pump which always took longer to get a decent amount than to have her feed directly.
Then it hit a year and many people around me stopped. I didn’t but I started to want to cut it down. I wanted to make sure she was hungry enough for her solid food. So I cut out the mid-morning one first and replaced it with a snack after her nap. Then the mid-afternoon one went, but I replaced it with a bottle of goat’s milk formula and finally the early morning one went.
One factor that I gave a lot of consideration to after 6 months was striking a balance between continuing to breastfeed for Xiao xi’s sake but also wanting to get my cycles back on track and my body back with the view to having another one. Luckily and quite strangely for me I have had regular cycles for several months despite still feeding.
She is now 15 months and I haven’t fully given up, but I think that it is very imminent. I still feed her before her bedtime story. But now I don’t think that she really wants it, and I don’t have much milk, but I am attached to it. I love that time with her and, while of course there are so many other things I do with her that it doesn’t really matter, I am still finding it a little difficult to let go.
We had a pretty straightforward journey compared to friends (looking from the outside) – no mastitis or restrictive diets from allergies, no major blisters etc. but even then it wasn’t easy. I now have very fond memories of it but like so many things, the brain suppresses the tough times.
This has been a long post – I hope it is interesting at least and helpful at best. Do reach out if something particularly resonates. I would love to hear from you.