My second child has recently turned one and I find myself once again breastfeeding a wriggling, giggling, distractible toddler. I have been either pregnant or breastfeeding for the best part of four years, which is incredible when I think how hard it was to establish breastfeeding with my first.
You become what you see
Before I was a Mother, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to breastfeeding. I wasn’t aware of anyone who had breastfed their children; I had played with dolls as a small girl, but I had bottle fed them as had all my friends. So when my antenatal teacher asked if I was planning to breastfeed, I wasn’t entirely sure. I had a clue that it was better for the baby, and the antenatal teacher explained how it would help us lose baby weight (bonus!) and fight off postnatal depression. We played around a bit with a knitted breast and a puppet, and left feeling a lot more confused than before the class.
At the next class, we were given information on how to make up a bottle, in case breastfeeding didn’t go well. By that point I had done my own research and was certain that I wouldn’t be bottle feeding my child. I tuned out of the class. I was going to breastfeed: I have breasts, that’s what they’re for, why wouldn’t it go well? That’s what I said to myself with all the self-assurance of someone who just doesn’t know what’s about to hit them.
And then it hit me
Months later, I found myself in theatre preparing to have my eldest child delivered by emergency C-section. She was overdue, back to back, and being induced hadn’t worked very well. Suffice it to say that it was traumatic for baby, me and Daddy too.
Unfortunately, my first experiences of breastfeeding were not much better. I was entirely clueless about how to get my baby to latch onto my breast. Instead of letting things happen naturally, hands that weren’t mine were suddenly milking me, thrusting my baby’s fragile, bruised head towards my breasts. She hated it. I hated it. It hurt me, I have no doubt it was hurting her. I cried. She cried. This was not how I imagined it would be.
In the wilderness
Two hours after the C-section and still in shock, I was left alone on a crowded post-natal ward with my brand new tiny bundle, my head as numb as my body. I felt detached from my baby, I hadn’t seen or felt her being born; I knew she was mine, but I didn’t feel it yet. I wanted to sleep, but I knew I needed to be “mother”. I heard her coughing, a desperate cough, a plea for breath. To this day I am not sure how I did it, but I dragged my sedated body out of that hospital bed, pulling out my catheter and my drain, and I scooped up my baby and wobbled to the midwife desk to ask for help (there wasn’t a call bell). After a scolding from the midwife, I was returned to my bed, too frightened to put my baby down.
I held her tiny body to mine and tried again to get her to feed. I asked the midwife for help; again she squeezed my breasts and thrust my baby onto me. She started to suck, but didn’t stay there for long. We went on like this for hours and it seemed like she was the only baby awake. Eventually she slept and a midwife offered to take her while I had some rest. I’m not sure how long I was asleep for when a health care assistant woke me up telling me: ‘Your baby’s just been sick, there was blood in your breastmilk that’s made her ill. We need to give her formula!’ She then proceeded to give me a choice of formula, as if she were reading from a wine menu. I had just been given morphine, I had no idea what was happening and unwittingly consented by selecting a brand before falling back into my drug induced sleep.
By morning, I had slept off most of the drugs, my husband had been let back in and the reality of what had happened overnight had hit me. ‘It’s not rat poison’ my husband said as I sat there sobbing, my baby still unwilling to suckle for more than minutes at a time, but bobbing on and off for hours still unsatisfied. At that point in time, formula milk may as well have been poison, it felt like another failure to do the right thing for my baby. It’s safe to say that things weren’t the blissful oxytocin fest we had been told about.
A week later we were home, still struggling to breastfeed. I had asked for help from every midwife, paediatrician, GP, health visitor, breastfeeding support team member and, more generally, anyone who’d listen. Everyone said the latch looked fine, but by this point my nipples were cracked and bleeding, and after every feed they seemed blanched and misshapen. It was inexplicable to me then, that my baby hadn’t regained her birth weight.
Blood, breastmilk and tears
Weeks went by and despite my constant feeding she wasn’t gaining weight at the rate the health visitors would have liked. There were murmurs of ‘failure to thrive’. I started doing my own research and began to wonder if I had initially been tackling two problems: 1) delayed milk production due to IV fluids and haemorrhaging during labour and 2) a tongue tie. I wasn’t sure about my milk, but when I introduced a bottle, milk would pour from my baby’s mouth and the teat would come out mangled, so I decided to investigate the tongue tie further. Fuel to my fire was a conversation with my mother in law who said that all four of her children had tongue ties as babies.
My midwife, health visitor and GP weren’t able to help me diagnose a tongue tie nor point me in the direction of help. With daily weigh-ins, a serious lack of sleep and the threat of bottle feeding looming over me, I decided to take matters into my own hands and hired a private lactation consultant who was able to confirm that my baby had a thick posterior tongue tie. However, the surgeon she referred me to had a long waiting list and was on annual leave for two more weeks.
Feeling adrift, I returned to my health visiting team with the tongue tie diagnosis. I needed help and was determined to get it. Calls were made and I discovered that the hospital I had given birth at had another breastfeeding clinic and a surgeon who divided tongue ties. I will never know why no one was able to send me there sooner, but finding it was a revelation. It is run by two amazing midwives, both gentle and patient, who are real breastfeeding advocates: they were able to provide me with essential reassurance, as well as solutions to my problems.
My daughter was just 8 weeks old when I swaddled her and handed her to the surgeon to have her tongue tie divided. I was full of anxiety, but the procedure was quick and she was back at my breast again within minutes. I noticed a difference immediately: my daughter was relaxed at the breast, content even, and there was almost no pain.
And they breastfed happily ever after
The midwives at the clinic worked with me to adjust my position and ensure that the latch was just right. I made weekly visits to the clinic for essential support in those early days and I soon saw my baby’s weight climb up the chart.
Once the pain was gone and I had the confidence to trust my body, breastfeeding was easy! More than that, it was a joy. We could go anywhere together and she’d have food on demand; it was comfort for her throughout illnesses and teething and once I went back to work it became a wonderful way for us to reconnect at the end of a long day apart.
My baby soon grew into a wild-eyed toddler and she was 27 months old when our breastfeeding journey came to an end. By that point I was four months pregnant with my second daughter. It was never my intention to breastfeed for ‘so long’ and goodness knows I got lots of questions and raised a few eyebrows!!
By contrast, my second child was a natural born breastfeeder; she was a professional from the very first feed. Still, something didn’t feel quite right and I decided to get her checked for a tongue tie while still in hospital, where they confirmed my suspicions. When it proved to be interfering with feeding, I returned to the brilliant breastfeeding team I had found for my first baby and they were able to help me once again.
Getting the right support early is crucial to establishing breastfeeding, whether you decide to continue to nurse for weeks, months or years. It doesn’t always come naturally to every woman or every baby, but using positive language, managing expectations and explaining what is normal can make a tremendous difference. This time, I knew where to look for help: there was no anxiety about weight loss or about my milk supply. No anxiety at all, just lots of lovely oxytocin-infused cuddles with the new baby and my eldest daughter breastfeeding her doll alongside us, as well as plenty of breastmilk-induced sleep.
Jennifer Yendell, LLL Berkshire
This story was originally published in issue 216 of Breastfeeding Matters (Nov/ Dec 2016)