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Monday, June 02, 2014

Milking it

I meant to write about breastfeeding earlier. Very early, in the first few weeks of the baby, actually. It was a huge, difficult part of my life.

But in those early days, when the baby wasn't feeding and was losing weight, I didn't write about it, because I never had time to write. And because it felt like failure, when really the only thing you're supposed to be able to do as a mother in those early days is keep the baby clean and feed it successfully. I was failing at 50% of motherhood.

Then - after quite literal months - it kind of clicked into place, and became less fraught, less effortful. And still I didn't write. 

I worried that it would cause controversy, a debate I didn't want to have. I was worried that friends who had made different choices would think I was judging them, would have reason to add more chips to their guilt pile.

I think we are probably the first generation who bring up our children by committee. Yes, the Internet is a wonderful thing at 4 a.m., when you're close to a breakdown because there's a funny rash (i.e. three spots) on the baby and you can Google it. But it also means there is one consensus opinion. Ask a forum if you can give your 12-month old something relatively innocuous like grapes, and at least five people will reply within ten minutes and practically threaten to call Social Services because it's a choking hazard. To modify and mollify, they will probably use the word "hun". 

"I wouldn't do that if I were you, hun - it's a choking hazard."

"Hun, my doctor told me not to do that, as she knew someone who... blah blah blah, hun."

Barf. The only type of hun I want to be is Attilla.

So now - rather than as previous generations have had to suffer the advice of a handful of friends and family, who may have a wide range of opinions - mothers (and fathers) today are increasingly told there is a "right" way to do things. You mustn't let a baby under 6 months old cry itself to sleep. You mustn't give a baby under a year old a teddy bear. You mustn't allow your baby to sleep on its front. All of these things will cause irreparable damage or death and it will be your fault because you were warned. Hun.

The biggest and loudest of these is you must breastfeed. Breast is best. Look - here is the science, here are the health benefits for you and for the baby. Hun.

I was sold. I was duly horrified when we did our hospital tour whilst I was still pregnant, and I met mothers who weren't even planning on trying to breastfeed. I was going to breastfeed. I was going to persevere. It was going to be fine.

It wasn't fine. It was fucking awful.

I was in hospital for a fair few days after the birth, because of the C-section, which meant I had ample opportunity to talk to various midwives (never the same one twice. Once called Precious, who was not. One called Patience, who had not. Had there been one called, "Fucking loud at three in the morning when you're trying to sleep", I could have bought that) about how to make the baby feed. My nipples were squeezed repeatedly. I was shown at least four different ways to hold the baby. The baby sort of fed. She slept a lot. I didn't worry too much.

After a day or two it really hurt. It really hurt. Unlike all the books I had read where "baby latches" and then feeds, my baby latched, came off, latched again, came off again, screamed, latched, screamed, latched, screamed. Repeat. Every time she latched was like having your (already sore) nipple twisted in a violent and painful way. I used to keep a stress ball by the bed to squeeze when she latched, as the pain was so severe I thought I might reflexively punch/drop the baby.

"It takes a few weeks for the pain to go away," people advised. Not fucking kidding. Four months it took me to be able to breastfeed without pain.

Five weeks into it, I realised the baby wasn't gaining weight. The doctor wanted to see us every couple of weeks to make sure she was gaining. Her poo turned green. It stayed green for a couple of weeks. 

Every feeding session - each one supposed to last up to an hour - only ever took five to ten minutes, and was generally 30 seconds on, 20 seconds of screaming, another 30 seconds on, another 20 seconds of screaming. Repeat on a 24-hour cycle. Think about what that feels like at 3 in the morning. Remember the pain. Now remember you're not getting more than 2 hours' sleep consecutively either. And you're failing your baby. This little being that depends on you for everything? You're fucking it up.

Fun, eh?

Then, just as she seemed to be feeding, she would lose the nipple and I would have to help line it up to her mouth again.

I had fantastic support from our local breastfeeding group. They checked for tongue-tie (none), listened to the weird clicking noises the baby made when she was feeding, and were appropriately baffled. They suggested (over the course of a number of weeks), expressing at the start of the feed, expressing at the end of the feed, not expressing at all, feeding more often, feeding less often, giving Infacol before. Giving Infacol afterwards. Giving Infacol during. Gripe Water. Feeding in the bath. Skin-to-skin. We tried everything.

After about two months of this, when the baby was about four months old, one of the lovely, lovely staff said to me, seeing me at my absolute wits' end, "You know, if you need to give her formula, it isn't actually the end of the world. You have done everything."

Ironically, it was almost as if being given "official permission" to formula feed was like a magic spell. Feeding slowly got better. Less painful. Less screamy for both of us. She still never had long feeds, but something clicked. It worked. She never got back up to the 75th percentile she was born on, but moved up from the 9th, where she had dropped to, and she tracked the 25th percentile pretty well. I was successfully breastfeeding.

Four months doesn't sound that long in the grand scheme of things, but that's easy to say with a bird's eye view. At three in the morning, trying not to scream in agony of your sore nipple being chewed, as your baby literally claws at your face... happy days. Nothing like the "midnight snuggles with my lil man", the forums claimed they missed once their babies weaned.

I worked harder at breastfeeding than probably anything else in my life - possibly excluding my A-levels. But still I felt I couldn't speak out about how pleased I was, in case I came across as a "smug mum", rubbing my success in the faces of those who'd tried and couldn't, or who had made different choices.

For the first time, breastfeeding did become easier than (I imagined) bottle feeding was. I had previously envied friends who rocked up to coffee, whipped a bottle out of their bag, and off they went, whilst my baby was screaming, losing the nipple, screaming again... and in the meantime, my overactive milk production meant I was squirting the poor little thing in the face.

But now - it seemed to work. I didn't have to prep anything or sterilise anything, or remember to take anything out with me. I'd even stopped (mostly) squirting her with my massive milky waterpistols. It was great. 

(For about another two months until she got teeth. But that's perhaps another story.)

We breastfed until she was about ten months old.

I don't know that there's a moral to this story. Perseverance? Maybe. It did frustrate me how many people don't even try to breastfeed their babies (if nothing else, it's so much cheaper!). I want to write, "Each parent knows what's best for their child, and should be allowed to make their own choice," but the number of Monster Munch-clutching obese toddlers dressed head-to-toe in pink, wearing T-shirts saying, "Daddy's little princess" or "Future footballer's wife" makes me shy from that opinion too.

So, for once, no advice. Just a story. If you want advice, go onto a forum. They'll tell you everything you're doing wrong. Hun.


bethamphetamine said...

Thank you! I worked at it for three months before the pain and frustration took over. Lila was topped up from the start with formula and soon worked out it was faster and easier than messing around with me. The relief when we went to full formula . . .

Loulou said...

A great summary Laura. If there's one thing I would recommend to new Mums, it's having a bottle of formula as back up. My son lost 17% of his birth weight within the first week and then struggled to get back onto the 0.4 centile line (how much did you think those lines/charts would rule our lives?!). I still feel guilty about my inability to be able to breast feed during those first months. A combination of seeing the midwife (who suggested topping up) and a breast buddy when he was six weeks also seemed to also lift a huge weight and we've never looked back since - am still combination feeding at 8 months which I never thought would happen. It's interesting that you went through the same feelings once someone else suggested using formula....

Laura said...

Loulou - that's interesting, thanks for sharing. I'm not sure I would personally recommend having formula on stand-by, as I think I would have been tempted to make the decision to switch in the heat of the (miserable) moment, when I would have ideally wanted it to be a considered decision.

As it happened, we had no need for formula until we decided to wean for other reasons... but I think I would definitely have caved if I had some on standby!

Not anti-formula - it saves lives - but I'm also proud of my perseverance, unfashionable though it is to blow one's own trumpet.