Why my breast definitely wasn't best by Elli Armshaw
When I was pregnant I didn’t put any thought into whether I would breast or formula feed, I knew that, unless any medical reason prevented it, I would be breastfeeding my baby. I was a first time mum and had all the time in the world when I was pregnant to prep for this. I attended a breastfeeding workshop at the hospital where I squeezed some knitted boobs, heard some sketchy information about the way a breast pump works and listened to the woman running it relaying a Daily Mail article about how breastfed babies make it into Oxford and bottle fed babies stack shelves at Tesco, as if this was actual fact. I read about not giving my baby a bottle or a dummy in the first few weeks to avoid nipple confusion. I bought my breastfeeding pillow, modesty cover, breast pads, nursing bras. I followed advice on 'preparing my nipples'! I watched YouTube videos on getting the perfect latch. I was ready. I was already, in my mind, a breastfeeding mother, I was already part of the breastfeeding elite.
I had heard so many times from every healthcare professional I met, and every piece of literature I read, the ‘Breast is Best’ message that I was preconditioned to champion the amazing mummies in cafes, sipping lattes with a baby subtly feeding through a gap in their jumper, because that was going to be me soon enough. Whilst silently disapproving of the ones who were shaking up a bottle of formula because maybe they took the easy way out, weren't willing to get their boobs out in public, wanted to wear their underwired bras again, wanted to share the feeding duties with Dad. I knew they were doing a good job, but probably not the best job because breast is best, breast is best, breast is best. The midwife said so, the NCT said so, the health visitor said so, society said so.
Then Will arrived, and so began months of pain, anguish, upset, confusion, guilt and pressure. Some pressure from others, a whole heap load of perceived pressure from society and pressure from myself to get this right and get him to Oxford!
Will came into this world on a wet and cold morning in December just after Christmas, he was beautiful, loud, tiny and strong. My world changed beyond all recognition the moment he came screaming onto my chest. Once we were settled into the ward a midwife came to help me get Will to latch on, this involved her squeezing my boob with one hand and pushing Will's head onto my nipple repeatedly until he finally managed to get the latch. He kept loosing the latch and I was terrified to move, once he was feeding, for fear of disturbing him, but it was amazing. There he was, 2 hours before he was still inside me and now I was feeding him. We’d done it, all the prep had paid off.
I didn’t know what it was supposed to feel like, no amount of holding a doll to a knitted boob will give you an insight into how it will actually feel. It felt strange. My body had just been through childbirth so, if the breastfeeding hurt at that stage I don’t remember. It all felt a bit frantic with Will’s head bobbing around and him screaming when he lost the latch, then feeding like his life depended on it (funny that) when he did manage to latch on, but if you’ve never done it before there’s no way to know whether this is the way it feels or not. My husband walked past the midwife who had just helped me get Will to latch on and overheard her saying to a colleague “That poor girl, that baby is a ferocious feeder”. We laughed about it at the time but, looking back, I wish they had said something like that to me, rather than just telling me I was doing really well. Of course encouragement and positivity are so important, and the staff really were very good at taking time to help, but hearing what sort of feeder he was might have helped me, as time went on, to stop comparing other people’s experiences to my own and wondering why we were finding it so tough.
We left hospital the following evening, once feeding was established (insert appropriate emoji here!). What followed was 2 particularly horrendous weeks with Will suffering from reflux, me suffering from bleeding and cracked nipples, my husband suffering from watching his little family is pain and us all suffering from the inevitable sleep deprivation that a new baby brings. Will ended up needing Gaviscon, to soothe his reflux and Colief, incase it was the lactose that was causing his pain, with every feed. If you bottle feed you simply add these to their milk, but it’s not so easy when breasfeeding. Making up, and administering syringes of medication before he could feed meant that, by the time he latched on, he was so wound up, and in such a desperate state, he found it hard to settle into the feed. Each feed took up to, and often over, an hour with the gaps in-between being 1-2 hours. I found positioning so difficult, he just couldn’t keep the latch unless I was holding my boob with 1 hand and the back of his head with the other, no sipping lattes for me! And it hurt, it hurt so much. Everything I read said that if it hurt then the latch wasn’t right. So I had midwives, health visitors and breastfeeding consultants all visiting to help me, every time it was decided that Will was latching correctly. It seemed there was no reason it was hurting and no one had any solutions for me.
I found it so hard that the thought of feeding in front of anyone terrified me, I was certain people would be judging me, and the thought of feeding out was just not an option to me. Consequently we barely had any visitors for the first 3 weeks, then, when we did feel ready to have people over, I spent many a visit in another room feeding Will. I read with envy the Whatsapp chats between my antenatal group arranging catch up’s in coffee shops knowing that it would be impossible for me to be part of it. I didn’t dare go further than 20 minutes from home to be sure I could be settled at home in time for the next feed.
I first fed in public when Will was 8 weeks old at a breastfeeding support group, the group was full of people successfully breastfeeding seemingly not needing any support! I was in a corner with a screaming baby trying to mix Gaviscon and feeling like a failure. The breastfeeding consultants, there to offer support, were eating cake and chatting with the ‘successful mums’. I left and cried all the way home.
From all my visits from midwives, health visitors and breastfeeding consultants it was clear to them that I was struggling, they were concerned about my wellbeing, worried that I was isolated because I didn’t feel I could go out but not once did anyone suggest that I try switching to formula or even combination feeding.
Of course getting out got easier as Will became quicker at feeding and, as the time between feeds increased, we were able go a little bit further from home, but feeding in public was still an absolute last resort. For at least the first 3 months of Will’s life I would feel tense before leaving the house to go anywhere, sometimes because I knew I would have to feed Will, sometimes because I knew I shouldn't have to feed him but what if he woke up and I had no other option? I joined a post natal recovery yoga group run by an amazing gentle woman and attended by some lovely mums, all with young babies, it felt like such a safe space to feed Will, he seemed calmer just being in that calm environment. The yoga group was my one activity a week where I felt in control, a place where I felt like I fitted in with the other mums.
Weaning Will at 5 and a half months (don’t tell the health visitors) made breastfeeding so much more manageable, Will had a great appetite and loved his food, he quickly dropped his nightfeed and was soon only feeding first thing in the morning, once in the afternoon and before bed. He was always pulling away from me and would get very frustrated being fed, like he was missing out on what was going on around him so, when he was 7 months old, I asked the health visitor her opinion on replacing that afternoon feed with formula with a view to gradually moving him onto formula for all 3 feeds. She told me I’d done so well feeding for this long it would be a shame to stop now and I should keep going.
So I did.
Till Will was 8 months old and I was back at the doctors with another yeast infection, the 5th time since Will arrived, that was causing me so much pain that I had actually called my gorgeous little boy a little shit that morning when all he did was try and feed. But the combination of my infection and his emerging teeth was just too much to bare. My doctor, a fantastic female GP whose opinion I have always trusted, said to me
“He’s 8 months old, you’ve done your bit, why are you putting yourself through this? It seems to me you are wanting someone to give you permission to stop” And she was right, without knowing it I was waiting for someone with some authority to tell me he was going to be fine if I put some formula in a tippy cup and let my milk dry up.
So I did.
And he continued to thrive.
And I finally felt like myself again.
And our relationship was instantly happier.
He took to a cup straight away and didn’t once try to come to me for breastmilk. I was no longer in pain and we could just enjoy each other. His Dad could give him his milk which was liberating for me and lovely for them. Far from lessening our bond stopping breastfeeding strengthened our bond.
I don’t think breastfeeding is better than formula feeding or that formula feeding is better than breastfeeding. If we have another baby I will start by breastfeeding again and I hope that my experience will be a happier one. I understand why it is important to promote the message that breastfeeding is something all mothers should try to do, and we should all be made aware that it can be painful but, for most people, that pain goes and it is worth persevering for those first difficult days/ weeks. But when breastfeeding isolates you and makes you feel you are failing but all the professional advice you get is to persevere then I think this is where the system is failing new mums.
For the health and wellbeing of you and your baby breast isn’t always best.