I have always wanted to breastfeed and naively thought it would come naturally. I gave birth to my daughter in hospital 9 days early. When I went in I was told I wasn’t in active labour at only 2cm dilated. In 2 hours I went from 2cm to fully dilated and just 20 minutes after that my daughter was born. This could be one of the reasons for some of our struggles as the quick exit may have compressed her jaw slightly. This however is only one of quite a few contributing factors. The first latch passed in a bit of a happy blur as I gazed down at my tiny child. I will never forget the next one though and the days after that. I just couldn’t get comfortable and nor could she. My boobs felt massive and her tiny mouth just couldn’t seem to open wide enough. I was made to change position several times but nothing seemed to work and it hurt, boy did it hurt. I kept reading that if it hurt we weren’t doing it right. This made me feel like a failure. Why couldn’t I do it? I must have watched so many YouTube videos on how to latch in those early days, getting more and more anxious.
Her nappies started showing signs of dehydration. All I wanted to do was escape the hospital but rightly, I couldn’t leave until she was hydrated. This put even more pressure on me to get it right. I am thankful to the hospital as they never once pressured me to give her a bottle. Instead they supported us through syringing the colostrum from my nipple to give to her (you should have seen my husband’s face when asked to do this!) followed by pumping and feeding her from a tiny cup. There needed to be a certain number of clear nappies to ensure she was safe and we could leave. Sometimes there would be a clear nappy and our hopes would rise, only to be followed by signs of dehydration in the next. I felt like I was failing my baby and on top of the new mum anxiety I had anyway, these times weren’t the happy times I had hoped for.
Finally, we had a run of clear nappies and could leave the hospital. It had only been three days but it felt like forever. I was so happy to get my little family home but little did I know our feeding difficulties were only just beginning. I had midwives visiting me most days for over a week trying to help me latch. The first day I sat in bed topless whilst a midwife latched her over and over trying to get her on. She finally showed me the rugby hold, a position we hadn’t tried in the hospital and while I still felt pain, she was feeding and seemed to be satisfied which for now was a huge relief. I still felt awkward and uncomfortable in this position and had to have her propped up with cushions but it was a start. I should mention that the hospital and midwives checked her for tongue tie and felt there wasn’t one.
Over the next two weeks, things didn’t get much better. My husband had to go back to work after a week and on his second day back had a hysterical me on the phone to him. The pain was getting too much and I dreaded every feed. The one saving grace was that my milk came in, there seemed to be loads and she loved it. Nappies were plentiful and she was growing. In fact despite all that dehydration, at first weigh in she had lost none of her birth weight. My baby was thriving and so the issues were all mine. I told myself therefore that I was a grown women and I could take the pain if she was ok. I am very stubborn and think I drove many family members a bit mad during this time. I couldn’t bring myself to give her a bottle this early on as I wanted this so much. I fell into a rhythm where during the days I gritted my teeth, set my face and got through it. The evenings were a bit more of a struggle with cluster feeding marathons leaving my nipples in shreds but the nights, oh they were another level. I was anxious and tense so it made it worse, she was sleepy and therefore her already terrible latch became worse, I became a sobbing mess. My husband sat up, whilst holding down a full time job with a long commute, holding my hand, massaging my shoulders, whispering words of encouragement. We had almost hit the two week mark when I hit rock bottom culminating in my daughter projectile vomiting blood over the bed. Initial fear for her health was replaced with the realisation that this had come from my nipples. I gave in and my husband reached for a bottle. This was when we realised our baby is as stubborn as her mother as she clamped her mouth shut every time it came near and proceeded to scream and scream until I put her back to the breast. Now, I am so glad she did. Back then, I had never felt so trapped.
By now, I had a health visitor who quickly put me in touch with the Breastfeeding Support team. I now realise we are lucky to have this in our area as funding issues mean not every area does. They asked me to attend a breastfeeding session and a brilliant friend of mine took the day off work to come with me. It was in a library and it felt very odd in these early days to get my boobs out so the lady could have a look. She instantly identified that my daughter had a posterior tongue tie. I don’t blame the hospital and community midwives for missing this, I understand posterior ones are harder to diagnose but I do think they need far better training. I had spent two weeks in agony thinking this was my fault and in an instant the breastfeeding support team found the main issue. We went that weekend privately to have the tongue tie procedure. I couldn’t wait for the NHS where I was told there was a six week wait. To cut a very long story short, I did not feel an improvement and a few weeks later, the breastfeeding support team came back and established it had reattached. Off we went for a second procedure, knowing this was our last shot.
For many people this procedure solves everything and they feel almost instant relief. For others, it may take a little time. Sadly for me, things didn’t really improve and I began to lose hope yet again. The health visitor also recommended osteopathy which we went to every week for a while. This was where they found her tight jaw and worked to free that up. I decided to stop putting all my hopes on these external procedures and instead focused on my own mental strength. I set myself mini goals, telling myself just to get to six weeks, then to eight and so on. A friend of mine told me it improved greatly for her at three months so that was my next goal. In the meantime I was tested for thrush and mastitis and began a course of antibiotics. I began to get severe shooting pains in my breasts especially in cold air so had to wear heat pads and dip my breasts before each feed. I attended a breast clinic to check there was nothing more untoward going on and had scans and some of the worst lumps syringed away. Fortunately there was nothing found and I continued on with my internal battle. I began pumping after the six week mark and daddy attempted the bottle again. Hearing her scream through every feed broke my heart and I eventually put a stop to it. I could do this on my own, I had got this far hadn’t I?!
There were other issues too, some mucus filled nappies causing a dairy elimination diet for a while and oversupply issues causing her to gag but again we overcame them all. Three months came and I was still in pain but I suddenly realised I had stopped crying and I could do the cradle hold. I didn’t need a pillow constantly there to rest her on and I didn’t dread every feed. Slowly, slowly the pain receded. I came to realise she had just needed to relearn how to feed without constriction, her tiny mouth needed to grow and I needed to relax. Together we took this journey and together we made it out the other side. I couldn’t have done it without the support of my family and closest friends, particularly my husband who has been with me every step of the way, nurturing me and keeping me afloat. I am so thankful to my health visitor for her words of support and to the Breastfeeding Support team. Maria of littlepeachlondon has also been and continues to be an inspiration, I only wish I had found her sooner in my journey but her words now help me through the challenges of teething and a baby who most definitely prefers breastmilk to solids.
On Sunday I reached twelve whole months breastfeeding, during World Breastfeeding Week and think it is just about the thing I am most proud of myself for. It has been a long difficult journey to get to today but the bond we share, the moments we have while nursing and knowing I did everything I could to give my daughter the best possible start, make up for all the difficult moments. I would never ever judge someone who chose the bottle from the start, or someone who gave it a go and didn’t feel able to continue. Fed is most certainly best and being a happy mum is most important. I am not ashamed however to share my journey and feel proud of what I have done and the lengths I went to, to achieve this. I hope one day to show my daughter this and have her realise how much her mummy loves her.
For anyone struggling, seek support, reach out, do whatever is best for your family and don’t let anyone tell you what you are doing is wrong, whether that be breast or bottle. You got this mama!