It’s 7.30pm and I’ve just finished giving Bailey his bedtime feed. After a good 10 minutes of wriggling around, trying to force feed me my own hair and casually slapping me in the face, he finally succumbed to sleepiness and settled down. This is the part I love the most, when I feel his warm little body grow heavy in my arms. When he stares up at me with those lovely, big eyes of his and his little fingers find mine. When he finally stops feeding with a big sigh and rests against my shoulder. He gazes at me for a few seconds more, full and content, and then slowly, his eyelids begin to droop and he starts to fall to sleep. This is always the point I find hardest, for many reasons. Partly because I know instead of letting him stay there asleep in my arms I must put him down to sleep in his cot, all the while wondering how many more of these sleepy snuggles we will get. Partly because it is another reminder of how big my little boy is getting, and how in a few weeks time I wont have a ‘baby’ anymore, but a ‘toddler’. But mostly because lately I’ve been sensing that our breastfeeding journey is entering it’s final stage, and while there are elements to that which I’m looking forward to, it also fills me with an overwhelming sadness. If you’d asked me while I was still pregnant if we’d still be breastfeeding now I’d have probably shrugged and said, ‘Who knows? What will be will be!’ because I didn’t feel particularly passionately either way in the beginning. I’d read the research. I knew there were suggested health benefits to breastfeeding. But I also knew there were lots of variables to that research that meant you couldn’t 100% attribute those benefits to breast milk alone. I knew plenty of perfectly happy, healthy, bottle fed babies and had seen countless friends really struggle with breastfeeding, so while I certainly wanted to give it a go (there were other obvious benefits to consider, mainly it being free and not having to worry about sterilising bottles at 3am!), it didn’t feel like the be all and end all to me, and I really disliked how much judgement seemed to be thrown around regarding the subject. I decided very early on that the best approach was one of nonchalance – we would simply leave it to nature and see what happened – and in that sense I thought I was prepared. I knew it may hurt. I knew the baby might not take to it. I knew I could have problems that stopped it being a possibility. And I was adamant that if any of those things happened and we decided not to carry on, that I wouldn’t beat myself up about it and all would be fine. I thought that was all I needed to know, but as it turned out, I knew diddly squat! Most people, I think, probably know diddly squat before they start breastfeeding to be fair, because as someone who thought they had read up on the subject, nothing really could have prepared me for the reality. It is, yet again, one of those things we don’t often talk about honestly and is still, bizarrely, shrouded in some sort of taboo, so in honour of World Breastfeeding Week – and my ongoing commitment to speaking openly about motherhood – I have planned a number of posts this week dedicated to the subject, staring with my own personal experiences…
When I try to recall the moments after giving birth, much of it already seems fuzzy and softened by time, but I remember our first feed as clear as day. It was, as far as first tries go, successful – it took a few attempts with the midwife’s help to get him to properly latch, but latch he did, and he fed for around 15 minutes before we both fell into an exhausted sleep. I remember being surprised at how specific the method of getting him onto the nipple seemed – I guess I’d imagined he would simply open his mouth and go to town, but he definitely needed some coaxing to get going. I was also surprised at just how wriggly he was – it was almost as though he was resisting being fed which seemed so silly considering this is all meant to be natural. While the tugging sensation as he started to suckle definitely felt very strange, I was amazed – and relieved – to find that it didn’t hurt. ‘Hurrah! I guess I nailed it’, I naively thought! Little did I know, the pain would come later… We were lucky to only have to spend a few hours in the hospital before being allowed home, so only had one other attempt at feeding before we left, but he didn’t seem particularly interested. No one seemed too concerned about this though, I was simply asked if I felt confident about feeding, and as the only experience I’d had so far was good I answered, honestly, yes, and off we went! Within just a few hours though, ‘confident’ would have been the last word I’d have used to describe how I felt, and thus began what I can only describe as the toughest, most anxiety inducing and emotional stage of motherhood so far, possibly even my life in general!
In those first few days Bailey decided he had a very specific preference for my right boob. It was only later that I realised I had a much higher supply and faster flow on the left side which probably explained why, but it baffled me at the time. The disinterest he’d shown at the hospital had also disappeared and he soon was demanding a feed around every hour and a half, which meant for a good while I spent more time with him physically attached to me than not. This obviously took it’s toll, and that is when the infamous pain kicked in… My nipples were cracked and bleeding. My milk had started coming in leaving me with enormous, swollen breasts that ached with every move. My let down – sweetly described by some as a tingling sensation as your breasts start to release your milk – felt like an electric shock running through my nips, and even a slight breeze seemed to set it off. This was on top of the pain I was already suffering as part of recovering from birth, and it only seemed to take a day to go from mild to unbearable. But there was something else that was bothering me even more than the pain. The day 5 weigh in was fast approaching and I felt sick with nerves. As I mentioned in this recent post, it was only after birth that the realisation that I was now responsible for keeping a human alive really hit home and the weight of that burden caused an incredible amount of anxiety. One of the tricky things about breastfeeding is you have no way of knowing how much milk your baby is actually consuming and I quickly became obsessed with the idea that perhaps I wasn’t producing enough for him. That morning came, and thankfully it transpired he had only lost 1% of his birth weight (anything up to 10% is considered normal) and I was absolutely elated. Sadly though, that relief didn’t last long.
Early on I had read about Mastitis – an infection of the breast normally caused by bacteria from baby’s mouth or blocked milk ducts – and convinced myself I would get it. It seemed to be a self fulfilling prophecy, because by midday on day 5, not long after the midwife had left, I realised the pain and swelling I was experiencing was no longer normal. An angry red patch had started to spread across my right breast, which also felt hot to touch, and though we were in the middle of a heatwave at the time, I knew the feverish feeling I had was not due to the weather. It was, typically, a bank holiday, so after speaking to the midwife support team we found ourselves off to the walk in clinic in search of antibiotics. As I’m not able to drive we all had to go, and I was wracked with guilt at dragging my 5 day old baby out to a building full of sick people on a sweltering evening, but thankfully they took pity on me and rushed me through to see the doctor who confirmed the ugly gash in my nipple was the most likely cause of the infection despite my best efforts to keep it clean. It seems daft to me now to say this, but I somehow took this as confirmation that I was getting everything wrong and beat myself up for days, something that would become a recurring theme in our journey. Having the antibiotics at least took some of the worry away – I was no longer concerned about getting an infection – but anxiety was by now a normalised state for me. Breastfeeding had brought with it so many things I hadn’t considered that every day seemed to bring a new fear. What really didn’t help here was my obsessive Googling – not only was a lot of the material I found not helpful, it often completely contradicted itself, which only compounded my constant doubt that I was getting it right. Some experts said you should offer both breasts at each feed to keep your flow consistent and keep baby interested. Others said you should only feed from one breast at a time to make sure baby got enough ‘hind milk’ (the richer, fattier milk that comes further along in a feed – I know, who knew that was even a thing??) Baby falling asleep was listed as a good sign they were full and satisfied. But then I read that baby frequently falling asleep during a feed could be a sign they weren’t getting enough energy to stay awake. The most damaging thing I kept reading was that ‘if you’re doing it right it won’t hurt’ and, well, I was in a whole truck load of pain, so I concluded that I was doing it wrong and nothing could convince me otherwise – not my mum telling me he looked to be enjoying it just fine, not the midwife regularly reassuring me his latch looked perfect, not the fact he was consistently gaining weight. I still fretted about everything. That he wasn’t feeding for long enough. That he was sleeping too long in between feeds. That my flow was too fast. That my flow was too slow. That my nipples would never actually heal. For probably around 3 weeks I dreaded every feed (and there were so, so many!) I had to literally brace myself each time he latched on and often wept throughout, while poor Dan tried his best to console me without accidentally incurring my wrath. I felt like it would never get better. But then one day it just did.
I can’t pinpoint the exact point at which it stopped being so hard – it lasted a lot longer than the normally quoted two or three weeks – but by the time we took him away on a first holiday at 8 weeks old we seemed to have settled into things somewhat. I was managing to express now and he had taken to bottles straight away, meaning I got little relief from being the sole feeder. My milk supply had started to regulate and I was no longer suffering regular bouts of engorgement or a crazy fast flow that seemed to choke him at times. The worry hadn’t completely gone away, but I was no longer in pain and I actually felt like I knew what I was doing, which was such a relief. I was finally able to start enjoying it, and I most looked forward to the mornings, when Dan would go out to work and Bailey and I would snuggle in bed until lunchtime, just me and him. There were still frustrations. He still woke for night feeds every few hours (and would do until around 6 months) I hated having to dress appropriately all the time and missed my wardrobe. I really struggled (still do, actually) with the sense that my body didn’t really belong to me anymore and found myself regularly just not wanting to be touched by anyone. And I couldn’t help feeling a tiny bit of resentment that Dan could casually have a few beers with lunch while I had to be carefully limiting my caffeine or alcohol intake all the time and couldn’t even take medication when we all got struck down with colds in the winter. But it really did feel more convenient and I loved that it was a special bond that just he and I had and no one else. Slowly but surely my original 6 month target loomed and we were still going with no sign of stopping. But weaning definitely brought a new set of challenges.
At around 5 1/2 months Bailey’s weight gain suddenly stopped. As it transpires this is perfectly normal at this age when babies begin to get more active and need a bit more sustenance, but a slightly snarky and not very sensitive Health Visitor shook my confidence. I reverted to my old pessimistic ways and instantly assumed I was somehow at fault. All the anxiety from the early days came flooding back and I cried for three hours solid after that fateful clinic visit. This was the first time quitting entered my mind, because I felt that maybe it was safest to pump exclusively so I could monitor his intake and make sure he was getting enough. I panic bought the most expensive breast pump on the market (which actually ended up being a great buy, but more on that another day!) and set about obsessively filling the freezer full of milk as well as purees we were about to need. We also started supplementing one of his night feeds with formula as it has a tendency to keep them fuller for longer. I have never been anti formula – far from it – but I found it strangely emotional making up his first bottle, and shed a tear or two, which should really have been a big indicator that I wasn’t ready to stop yet. Thankfully, a more sympathetic member of the team visited a week later (when we found his weight gain had started up again) and managed to convince me the breastfeeding wasn’t the problem at all. It was just time to crack on with weaning, and we got back on track. It turns out I was to be very glad for that, because two weeks later Coronavirus hit and the shelves quickly emptied of formula during the panic buying stages, so I was very grateful not to be relying on that as his main source of milk! Then, of course, came teething! Bailey had always had a bit of a habit of clamping down on my nipple, sometimes even twisting his head as he then pulled off which was DELIGHTFUL! But after his first few teeth came through we had a few days of him quite literally biting me, and on the day he drew blood on both sides I confess thoughts of quitting once again entered my head. It only lasted a couple of days though, and now somehow, here we are. Still breastfeeding and approaching 12 months old! Something at one time I just wouldn’t have thought was possible!
I don’t know yet how far we will continue beyond this point. I enjoy the feeds, but pumping has become a real bore these days, especially now we are able to leave the house again and spend time with others. I really would like to start wearing those beloved dresses that have been languishing in my wardrobe for the last 18 months again! I’ll be returning to work soon which will bring with it a new set of challenges. And of course, it would be nice to be able to accept a spontaneous glass of wine without tentatively checking the time and working out when the next feed is due! But for now I really do cherish those quiet moments when it is just the two of us and will miss them so much. I am incredibly proud of how far we’ve made it, but if anything, it has made me all the more passionate that breastfeeding is not the only way. That you have to do what is right for you. Because the fact we made it as far as we did comes only down to simple twists of fate. It could have been completely different were it not for slightly different circumstances, so I could never hold any ill will against a woman who decided it wasn’t for her. All of that will take a post all of it’s own to explain, so more to come on that later this week! For now though, some words of encouragement if you are currently navigating this crazy journey for yourself. I remember Dan saying to me once in the early morning as I sobbed through another anxiety attack that in a months time I’d be looking back at this moment as a distant memory, and that concept really helped to get me through – the reminder that everything is temporary. There were so many moments where I thought I couldn’t bear any more, but I did, and I’m so grateful I pushed through because it’s provided me with a sense of closeness and accomplishment I could never have imagined. There were times at the beginning I’d have said I’d rather go through birth again than the early days of breastfeeding, but the truth is I’d do both again in a heartbeat just to get to experience one more of those sleepy cuddles, which now are becoming a rarity. One day we will have our last, and I won’t know it until it has gone. For now though I’ll enjoy absorbing every last minute.