Breastfeeding is a very personal thing and every woman with a child has her own story about why she breastfeeds, why she stopped breastfeeding or why she formula fed from the start.
My story begins years before I even fell pregnant, when my, (then boyfriend), husband and I were discussing having children in the future. I just knew that when the time came, I wanted to feed my child myself. After all, breast is best, right?!
Once I fell pregnant, I started to find out as much as I could about breastfeeding. I went to a breastfeeding workshop at the hospital where they talked about all the benefits of breastfeeding; passing on antibodies to your child, bonding, how it’s tailored just for them and gives them everything they need. We talked about different reasons why people usually fail at breastfeeding – for example, they may think they’re not producing enough milk, they may get sore nipples, or they may get thrush or mastitis . We discussed various ways of combatting these problems and I felt optimistic I’d be one of the few still feeding at six months. Six months was my minimum goal, but really I wanted to get to at least a year.
When Autumn was born, once I’d been checked over as there was lots of blood loss, Dave was allowed to lay Autumn on me to latch on. It didn’t feel odd, it felt completely natural to me and it didn’t hurt. I knew that she was getting all the colostrum that she needed; the midwives called it liquid gold. As the next few days progressed, because of my petite frame and being unsure of how to hold her, we weren’t getting the latch quite right. Fortunately for me, it didn’t hurt, but I got a midwife to come round and help Autumn and I and we got the hang of it quite quickly.
It was exhausting, waking up every hour during the night for the first 10 days – she’d almost constantly want feeding from about 10.30pm until 10.30am then nap for most of the late morning to late evening. I had barely slept the night before I went into labour and I didn’t sleep at all the night that I was in labour, so I had no opportunity to catch up on my sleep really. Dave supported me as much as he could, bringing me drinks and snacks (you should try to drink at least a glass of water while you’re feeding your baby to replace the fluids you lose). However, despite my exhaustion, I was doing it. Even now, I think back to the morning after I gave birth to Autumn. I was looking out of the window of the hospital across the river at the sunrise. Here I was, feeding my little girl and it was just a perfect moment despite how tired I was, having not had more than 3.5 hours sleep over the space of 3 days.
It was awkward when we went out. I remember sitting in the car thinking “How the hell do I do this discreetly?” and trying to use the muslin cloth strategically to cover myself up. I also asked Dave to stand right next to the door to block people’s view of me. It was also slightly awkward when we went to family’s houses as people had to leave the room or I had to go into a separate room. There was an expectation that I was going to fail and not do it for long, but that made me even more determined to succeed.
The morning that Autumn fell ill, I was feeding her, finally feeling confident with the latch. She looked so tiny and beautiful; she was already two weeks old and had grown because of me feeding her. She had her little hands on me and looked so content – I loved the way she got drunk on the milk and fell asleep.
When we went to the hospital that evening, they needed me to express the milk so they knew how much she’d been having. I’d never done it before, but managed to express an entire bottle which impressed the nurse. She was fed milk I expressed most of the time that we were in the hospital, although she did take a couple of direct feeds on the Saturday evening when things had seemed to be a bit better.
When we were moved to the hospital in London, I continued to express milk for Autumn. On the second day we were there, the nurse allowed me to feed her directly, saying it was the best thing for her and that’s what she needed. I was so happy to be able to do it again. But I was physically and mentally exhausted. That was the night I ended up in A&E, my anxiety at what was its peak at that time and anaemia combined making me feel dreadful. A nurse came down from the paediatric intensive care unit saying that she was hungry. I felt terrible about it, but I told him I was too weak to be able to express any milk for her and gave him permission to give her formula milk.
The following day, I was told I wasn’t allowed to breastfeed Autumn for 24 hours after having the CT scan. I felt disappointed, but accepted it, I needed to be well enough to look after her . How she was being fed paled in significance at this point, as I was incapable of doing anything. I was given pills for the anxiety, but told if I took them I couldn’t breastfeed anymore. As such, I decided I wasn’t going to take them unless I really really had to. The following day I went back to trying to breastfeed her, but she didn’t seem to be able to latch that well anymore. She got frustrated and unlatched herself quickly, possibly because the flow wasn’t as fast as a bottle.
When we got home from the hospital, I continued trying to feed her, but she kept getting frustrated. My supply had also gone down as a result of her being ill and feeding less, followed by feeling too weak to express and her having formula. I was still feeling unwell, but I persevered with trying to feed her myself and I tried different methods to try and increase my supply such as power pumping. I also added foods to my diet that are supposed to increase your milk supply. I’d keep trying and trying to express, causing myself more and more pain, but I kept going. At first, I was getting a fairly okay amount of milk, but it seemed to go each day. Then again, I was getting more stressed each day at the thought of not breastfeeding and Autumn’s pending ultrasound and possible operation. Stress, of course, can deplete your supply.
When we were in the hospital for Autumn’s operation when she was 5 and a half weeks old, I continued trying to express milk for her. I even set alarms for the early hours of the morning so that I could take some milk into the paediatric intensive care unit for her. It wasn’t much, but I thought maybe it would help her to recover quickly. The next day was the day I had a funny spell where I felt like I nearly fainted. The stress was too much and I had to stop. I hoped I might feel better and start trying to increase my supply again, but unfortunately all my anxiety did was increase to the point where I couldn’t function at all, really. It had got to the point where I absolutely had to take medication. I couldn’t live like that and I couldn’t look after Autumn. What mattered the most was that she was fed and that had to be with formula with these pills.
It was nice not having to wear breastpads and having the worry of leaking, or the worry of where I could feed Autumn etcetera, but I was so disappointed. Disappointed in myself, disappointed in the situation. For weeks afterwards, I suffered low mood about it. I wasn’t depressed in general, just about the fact that I couldn’t breastfeed anymore. I’d watch Dave feed Autumn a bottle and just lay there crying. I felt angry when I saw my boobs in the mirror. They were pointless, they weren’t doing their purpose anymore. They were just empty, like I felt when I thought about Autumn bottle feeding. “There are other ways of bonding”, the health visitor said to me. “I know”, I told her. I was doing all the other things to bond with Autumn, but nothing was the same. For me, breastfeeding was this wonderful, almost magical experience. There was nothing like it; the knowledge of knowing that you are doing things how nature intended, watching your baby grow knowing its all your doing, the way they guzzle the milk so cutely, the little expressions and milk drunk faces, the way they look up at you, the warmth of them against you…I just couldn’t believe it was over. It felt like it was stolen from me. It would all have been just fine if it wasn’t for that stupid cyst.
I’m still not over not being able to breastfeed anymore. I feel guilty, especially when I see and hear about other people breastfeeding. It feels like it physically hurts sometimes; it upsets me so much, although it is slightly lessening over time. The occasional smug comment from women at baby groups really don’t help me. “Formula is so expensive, I’m so glad I breastfeed”. “Well, be glad that you’re able to. You don’t know my story”, I think to myself. When I last took Autumn to clinic, the nurse weighing her asked if she was breastfed. “Not anymore”, I heard myself say as I felt myself wincing, wracked with guilt and sadness again. However, Autumn is thriving and I have to remind myself that that’s what matters. Breast clearly isn’t always best, as if I had carried on without my medication I wouldn’t be able to function to look after her. She’s healthy, happy and fed – it’s also fantastic that other people can take over the feeding and give me a break. I know breastfeeding is hard work, but if you are breastfeeding please don’t take it for granted and cherish every moment. I miss it so much.
A couple of months ago, there was a viral trend of turning breastfeeding pictures into a ‘tree of life’. The roots were the mother’s breast and the tree was the baby’s mouth, symbolising how a mother nourishes her baby and makes it grow. I turned the one and only picture I have of me feeding Autumn into one. It’s a picture I’ll cherish forever, it means so much to me.
If I have another child in the future, I hope that life treats our family better and I can successfully exclusively breastfeed for at least 6 months.