This week is World Breastfeeding Week 2017. A week dedicated to promoting, protecting and supporting breastfeeding. I agree with it wholeheartedly. But this week has made me sad. Because I still have issues about the fact that I was not able to breastfeed my babies.
Little Miss H is now four years old. But even after all this time, I feel guilt that I was not able to breastfeed. And I feel a tug in my heart every time I see or read about someone breastfeeding successfully.
I don’t want to cause offence by writing this post. And I don’t want to be labelled a bad mother because I was unable to breastfeed my children. I want to write this post to encourage everyone to be more supportive of one another.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
When I was bottle feeding in public or even among friends and other mums, I was always paranoid that they were judging me for feeding my babies formula. I felt self-conscious and a failure.
Taking my children to the doctors would leave me feeling guilty and anxious. Every time a GP or Health Visitor asked me how I was feeding my babies, I would reply apologetically that I was bottle feeding. I was then paranoid that they were secretly forming opinions about my ability to parent.
I desperately wanted to sit down and explain all the many reasons I was no longer breastfeeding my children. Or why I had given up the arduous job of expressing. I wished that I could tell them that it was not a decision that I had taken lightly. It’s a decision that I agonized over. But ultimately I had to put my health and my welfare first.
As this is World Breastfeeding Week I wanted to share my breastfeeding story. And why I still feel sad that I wasn’t able to breastfeed my babies.
The sadness of not being able to breastfeed my babies
My desire to breastfeed
As soon as I found out that I was pregnant with Little Miss H I knew that I wanted to breastfeed. But I did have worries about it.
I’d suffered from depression since my early 20s. I knew that I was at a higher than average risk of suffering from pre and post-natal depression. And I was concerned that I would become obsessed with trying to breastfeed my babies. An obsession which would be detrimental to my mental health.
I talked all these worries through with my midwife. And she replied:
“If you really want to breastfeed. Then you will breastfeed.”
My midwife was convinced that successful breastfeeding was due to confidence and the right support. Simples!
However, life has taught me that things are never that easy. And I wasn’t naive. I knew that establishing breastfeeding would be bloody hard.
I decided to find out more about the potential problems and how I could overcome them. So I attended a local La Leche League meeting a month before Little Miss H’s due date.
It was a surreal experience. Especially when they pulled out a crocheted boob and encouraged us to practice latches with a sock! All quite bizarre.
Yet, I still believed that with the support of Mr H and the midwives I would be able to breastfeed.
Then I went into labour and the situation changed.
Little Miss H’s birth
Little Miss H was born in a hurry. She arrived four and a half hours after my first contraction. And the speedy labour caused complications. I was unable to deliver the placenta and began to haemorrhage.
An hour after Little Miss H was born I was taken for emergency surgery. I was there for a number of hours as they manually removed my fully retained placenta, stopped the postpartum haemorrhage and stitched me up.
It felt like I was away from my newborn daughter for an eternity. Eventually Mr H joined me in the Recovery Room and I was given our little girl to hold.
Little Miss H’s hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
After a few minutes, we were visited by a paediatrician. He told us that Little Miss H was suffering from very low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). They needed to raise her blood sugar levels and if this wasn’t possible then they would need to admit her to NICU.
The best way to raise her blood sugar levels was for her to feed. I was encouraged to breastfeed. But the combination of the after-effects of the surgery (I had gone into shock and was shaking uncontrollably) and a dopey and poorly little girl meant that our first attempt to breastfeed failed.
But Little Miss H had gone for far too long without food. And it was now essential that she eat. After discussions with the paediatrician and the midwives we decided that Little Miss H needed to be given formula.
I remember watching in amazement as this little baby chugged down two small bottles of formula as if her life depended on it. And at that moment, I feared that my dreams of breastfeeding were over.
The following days
The following days are a bit of a blur.
We were kept in hospital for a further three days. I came down with an infection and had to be given antibiotics and paracetamol via a drip.
Little Miss H was still struggling with low blood sugar. And there were many times when we were told that if she didn’t improve in the next hour then she would have to be taken to NICU.
Every hour or so her blood sugar levels would rise. Only for them to fall again.
Every two hours, Little Miss H was taken for a heel prick test. And the midwives would feed her formula.
But I was still encouraged to try to establish breastfeeding. And every breastfeeding expert in the hospital was sent to see me. I was poked and prodded. My nipples being man handled by all and sundry. And Little Miss was violently forced onto my nipple in order to feed.
At one point, one of the breastfeeding consultants shook Little Miss H to wake her up. Accusing her of being lazy. Both Mr H and I were horrified.
On top of this, each expert told us something different and I was getting very confused and anxious. I could feel my chest tightening every time someone mentioned breastfeeding.
The reality of breastfeeding
I was beginning to discover how difficult breastfeeding was. Yet we persevered. And I was advised to manually express into syringes so that Little Miss could get some colostrum. It was at that point that her blood sugar levels started to rise and stabilise.
During the second night after Little Miss H was born she woke up and began screaming. She was clearly hungry but I didn’t know what to do.
I sat on the hospital bed holding my daughter and sobbed. I even begged the midwife to take my daughter away as I was an unfit mother.
Thankfully, the midwife was lovely. She sat with me while I calmed down. And then she uttered the magic words:
“Would you like to use the hospital breast pump?”
It was the answer to my prayers. Why had no one told me that such a machine existed?!
I managed to express enough colostrum to keep Little Miss happy for a few feeds. And the midwife and I came up with a feeding plan. I would put Little Miss to the breast every time she was hungry. In an effort to establish breastfeeding. But I would express and top up with formula if necessary.
Trying to breastfeed once home
And this is exactly what we did. We continued to follow the hospital’s routine of feeding every two hours. As there was still the possibility that Little Miss H’s blood sugar levels could drop again.
We quickly discovered that I had a plentiful supply. And I was able to express several feeds in one go.
But there was a problem. I was not able to express if Little Miss H was nearby. She would scream and scream as she could smell my breast milk but she was still unable to get to it herself.
So I needed to express in another room, with the door closed. This was fine when Mr H was on paternity leave but once he went back to work things descended into chaos.
I was close to giving up. But I decided to give it one last try and I went for an appointment with the breastfeeding consultant at the hospital. And that was the final death knell for my attempts to breastfeed Little Miss H.
The wrong type of breastfeeding support
The expert told me that to establish breastfeeding I needed to be giving skin to skin and have Little Miss on my breast at every available opportunity. She was concerned that my milk supply would decrease if I continued with my current pumping schedule. She suggested that I pump at least 5/6 times during the day and at least 7/8 times per night.
I worried that this wasn’t practical but I didn’t say anything. Especially as for two glorious minutes during that appointment Little Miss H latched properly and fed.
My eyes filled with tears and I went to stroke the soft downy hair of my sweet breastfeeding baby. The breastfeeding consultant cruelly batted away my hand and told me off for distracting my daughter. And in that moment Little Miss H came off my breast and I was never able to breastfeed her again.
Yet I continued to try to breastfeed. I followed the advice given to me by the expert. I spent all the time I could with Little Miss at my breast. And I expressed up to 12 times a day. With most of the expressing done at night.
But my mental health was fragile. I wasn’t getting any sleep. My nights involved a cycle of feeding the baby and expressing. I was struggling.
The house was a mess. And I was a mess. I barely had time to have a shower or clean my teeth.
Then one day I’d had enough. Mr H came home from work to find both Little Miss H and I crying on the sofa. She was screaming because she was starving and I was sobbing as once again I failed to breastfeed. My breast milk covered us both and we were in a state.
Mr H and I sat down and decided that for the sake of my mental health I needed to stop trying to breastfeed. Little Miss H needed a healthy mummy more than she needed a breastfeeding mummy.
I knew that it was the right decision. But it broke my heart. I felt that I had failed my first challenge as a mother. I felt guilty. And I was sad and envious when I saw my NCT friends breastfeeding successfully.
I feared that I hadn’t tried hard enough. That maybe I had given up just as we were about to make a breakthrough. Yet there was no more I could do. And I had to put my mental health first.
Wanting to breastfeed Little Mister H
I knew that if I breastfed Little Mister H then I would feel guilty that I’d failed with his sister.
Once again, I discussed all my worries with my midwife. She was wonderful. She admitted that she would encourage me to breastfeed. But she would also support me 100% if I formula fed. She understood that my mental health needed to come first.
When Little Mister H was born it was clear that we were going to have problems with breastfeeding again.
So two days after our son was born I began to give him formula. I had harvested colostrum from 36 weeks pregnant and I was happy knowing that he had been given some breast milk. I also continued to hand express for a few days.
But our breastfeeding journey was over.
I’m sad that I never got to experience the wonder of breastfeeding. That I only know breastfeeding accompanied by anxiety and upset.
I truly believe that breast is best. And I wish I’d been able to give that to my children.
I feel that there is a huge chunk of motherhood I will never get to experience. I won’t discover the special bond that breastfeeding brings. And I will never know what it’s like to soothe an upset child with the milk and love that only I can provide.
So if you’re a breastfeeding mum then I commend you. You’re amazing. And you persevered when I couldn’t.
But please don’t judge me for the choice I made. Please don’t think I gave up too soon. Please realise that it broke my heart to give up.
And if you’re ever breastfeeding in public and you see a woman look over at you sadly. Then it could be me. Or perhaps it’s another woman who tried desperately to breastfeed her babies.
And we’re sorry. But we feel guilty enough. So please don’t judge.