Vicky had a lot of troubles when she started breastfeeding her son: she turned to LLL for practical advice, and stayed for the emotional support that comes from being surrounded by like-minded mothers.
‘I’ll give breastfeeding a go but I’m not going to martyr myself or my baby doing it’.
So I said a few weeks before my son was born. I even bought bottles and a few cartons of formula, thinking myself very clever that we wouldn’t have to make an emergency dash to an all-night garage at 11 pm on a Sunday when it all got too much. As a paediatric doctor coming to the end of my training, I believed breastfeeding was broken. My professional experience was of weeping mothers and dehydrated babies. I was pro-breastfeeding in theory but, like many of my colleagues, would heave a sigh of relief when the mother of a small or early baby opted to formula feed. It was measurable and controllable and I knew how to advise on it. I’d attended mandatory breastfeeding training but been deeply cynical about it. My personal experiences were also pretty off-putting: my nephew had been severely ill after he struggled with breastfeeding due to a missed medical condition.
Then my own son was born and the first lesson he taught me was humility. He was a great feeder from our first breastfeed, cuddled in recovery. And then, at ten hours old, he pulled himself up my body, looked me in the eye and latched on. I was astonished and humbled. Above all, I was proud of us. Before we left hospital I asked to be shown how to express, thinking this would confirm for me that I had milk and could feed. My 12 ml of colostrum was there: physical proof to my sceptical eyes that I could do this.
Unfortunately we quickly ran into trouble and by the time my son was a week old I had severe nipple trauma and mastitis. We ended up in hospital after he aspirated and stopped breathing when breastfeeding and I had to resuscitate him. This is still the most terrifying thing that has ever happened to me. Years of training do not prepare you for your own baby lying blue and lifeless on your bed, with no equipment or other medical staff to help.
My son fortunately made a very speedy recovery, and I tried to get some help for my lacerated nipples and hugely swollen red painful breasts. By this point I had become quite unwell, had a raised heart rate, temperature and, unknown and unrecognised, the start of a breast abscess. A couple of days of intravenous antibiotics helped with some of those issues but no midwife observed a full breastfeed start to finish. We were discharged home pretty rapidly, with dire warnings ringing in my ears from a senior member of staff that my damaged nipples would scar and break down repeatedly (wrong) and that my supply would inevitably falter and I would end up supplementing or using domperidone or needing to express (completely wrong). I did, however, still have problems with painful latch and lipstick-shaped nipples after every feed and was fed up of being told ‘if it hurts, you’re doing it wrong’. I am a perfectionist type A personality so felt utterly frustrated at being told I was doing things wrong when I was doing everything in my power to make it work and given no constructive suggestions to improve things.
What followed was a very dark and difficult few weeks. I required multiple needle drainages of my breast abscesses (yes, plural). My baby was thriving, jumping up centiles and clearly loved breastfeeding so despite the pain and difficulty I felt I could not deny him. He cluster-fed for six or seven solid hours each night and I was exhausted as I had been adamant I would not have him sleeping in bed with me. To this end I had spent more money than I like to admit on a co-sleeper cot which was supposed to be just like sleeping in my arms. No matter how frequently I showed him the promotional literature, however, he was not convinced! I used to sit up to nurse him (no one had taught me to breastfeed lying down and teaching myself from video clips off the internet was not a success), and set an alarm for once he had completed a couple of sleep cycles. He would sleep soundly through the alarm but wake as soon as I tried to lay him in the co-sleeper, settling only by breastfeeding, and so the cycle would begin again as I sobbed with exhaustion.
Two things got me through this period. The first was my amazing husband, who supported me every step of the way. If you saw Steve in the street, you would probably not expect him to be a pro-breastfeeding, sling using, bedsharing attachment parent as he is built like a brick outhouse with a shaved head. However, he has never faltered in the support he has given me. He used to take Tom for an hour or two every morning once the cluster-feeding had finished, bringing me breakfast in bed before he left for work, leaving food for me to eat during the day, and cooking our meal every night when he got in from work. Equally importantly, he told me all the time what a great job I was doing, and how proud of me he was. He also bought me a lidded china insulated cup which is now the gift I buy for all my new mum friends as it was invaluable in maintaining my sanity, given that I am fuelled principally by tea. When feeding was at its worst he would sit next to me and cram chocolate into my mouth to stop me swearing and screaming in pain as our son latched on.
The second factor in keeping me going was LLL. I came across the organisation more or less by chance, as a friend of a friend in Canada is an LLL Leader. I was beyond desperate when I first made contact with a local Leader shortly after discharge from hospital. She was the first person to observe a full breastfeed and the first person to offer useful suggestions on how to improve our latch. A second Leader who happens, wondrously, to be an IBCLC offered further detailed help and we finally achieved painless feeding after nearly six weeks, four weeks of antibiotics, multiple needle drainages of two separate abscesses and a course of treatment for thrush. I cannot describe the joy of the first comfortable breastfeed. I cried with relief. I had started to dread breastfeeding, to loathe my baby’s need for me. When I heard his first stirrings I had begun to lie there desperately wishing he would settle and go back to sleep, full of anticipation of the pain I would be in. Now I finally enjoyed breastfeeding, loved seeing his satisfied, milk drunk face, and the rolls of flesh appearing on his chunky thighs and arms. Each new chin felt like a victory.
Having come for the breastfeeding support, I stayed for the mothering advice. I quickly learned that LLL isn’t like your average mothers’ group. Our local branch has an active Facebook page which is especially useful for those 3am feeds when you feel like the only person awake in the world, while everyone else’s baby is peacefully sleeping. I sought advice to encourage my baby to sleep in his cot, and while many helpful (but sadly doomed to failure) tips were offered, a chorus of experienced mums also pointed out that he was still tiny and that his need to be in my arms was immense. In a fit of pique, I threw my phone down, muttering ‘bunch of hippies’, and then picked it up to order a raft of sleep training books and sign up to a horde of sleep websites. Within a week I realised that sleep training was simply not an option for us, recognised that I had a snuggly little baby who needed me and returned to LLL for information on safe bedsharing and maximising my rest.
I found the support especially useful when the whole universe seemed to be offering advice I didn’t want to take and that didn’t make sense when I looked at the science: ‘give him formula to make him sleep’, ‘he’s a big hungry baby – get him on solids, a little thing like you won’t be able to fill him’, ‘he’s just using you as a dummy’. For me, LLL offers evidence-based advice I respect as a doctor, whilst emphasising the mother’s knowledge and understanding of her baby.
So here I am nearly eighteen months down the line, breastfeeding a toddler, using a sling, refusing to sleep train, baby-led weaning, attachment parenting, bedsharing when necessary and knitting my own yoghurt – only one of these is a joke! I am back at work and trying my damnedest to offer a pro-breastfeeding viewpoint without making the mothers I work with feel pressurised, or boring my colleagues too much. I am astonished every day at the embarrassing ignorance of paediatric staff about breastfeeding and am trying, piece by tiny piece, to fix it. And when a new mum posts on our Facebook group about her frustration that her baby won’t sleep in his cot all night, I am one of those annoying voices saying, ‘well, he’s very new, he might not be ready quite yet’ . Perhaps at those moments I am trying to whisper back a year and a half ago to myself, angry and desperate in the middle of the night.
I am both softer and stronger, which makes me sound a little like a toilet paper advert. But I have learnt to relax into mothering a bit, to throw away the books and read my child, whilst becoming fiercely defensive of the rights and needs of all children in society. In LLL I have found my tribe, and I am grateful for it every day.
Vicky Thomas, LLL Tyne & Wear
This story was originally published in issue 204 of Breastfeeding Matters (Nov/ Dec 2014)
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