Pumping and Me
It’s gone eleven o’clock at night and I am trying to settle my five-month-old daughter who has woken up and is in need of a feed. This is in itself not unusual for a newborn and a first-time mum, however what makes it harder is that I am also attached to my breast pump so that I am having to juggle my little girl, the bottles and the pump whilst my nipples feel as if they are now somewhere down by my belly button. Suffice to say we are both in tears. This is the world that exclusively breast-pumping mothers (thousands of us in the UK) live in, one where we are determined to try to feed our babies with our own breastmilk even if unable to do so directly.
The start of our journey
I am exclusively pumping for my little girl, Cecelia. When I found out I was pregnant I envisaged breastfeeding her. Like many new mothers of my generation, having been encouraged that “breast is best”, the only way I was aware of to achieve this was to directly feed my baby – in fact I did not know that exclusively pumping (EP-ing) even existed. When Cecelia was born, she latched for the first couple of feeds and, even though she screamed blue murder, I persevered. She was born in hospital and it was a straightforward delivery. Knowing that we would be discharged within twelve hours of the birth my husband and I had already planned for me to spend a few days in the local breastfeeding support unit: an amazing facility which at the time was unfortunately under the threat of closure due to under use and lack of funds. We spent two nights there, yet her latching grew more and more infrequent whilst her screams grew louder and louder. We were sent home after two nights as the facility had to be closed due to staff shortages.
The next day, day three, we saw our GP because of a potential eye infection and after some insightful questioning we arrived back in hospital as Cecelia had jaundice – she had already lost 12% of her birth weight. The paediatrician put us on a three-hourly feeding regime and for the next 48 hours I embarked on a hideous rollercoaster of emotions; absolute joy when she latched, even for a few seconds, to crushing despair when after two hours of support by the Maternity Care Assistants (MCAs) and midwives she still wasn’t latching and was just screaming and screaming. Late on our second night with her not latching at all by this time, my husband and I eventually decided to give her a bottle. We said this to the MCA who reappeared with a bottle of formula. I said that I would express a bottle for her instead and asked if she could bring me a teat so that I could use what had been expressed during our time in hospital. At no point during our time in the hospital, and let me say that the staff were fantastic at trying to help us, did anyone mention to me the option of becoming an EP-er.
After she had successfully fed from the bottle through the night, the following lunchtime they were happy to discharge us. My husband had found that we could rent a pump similar to the one that I had been using in hospital, so we collected it and went home. I naively thought that I would have to pump for a few more days, then somehow Cecelia and I would crack the latching letting us move on to direct breastfeeding. On our discharge I was encouraged to attend the local breastfeeding support groups as surely they would be able to help. Off we duly went to the various groups and as it became clear that Cecelia was determined not to latch, I became more and more jealous of the women around me directly feeding their babies whilst I had to get out my little bottles of carefully expressed milk for Cecelia.
Becoming a Pumping Mother
I eventually arrived at my local La Leche League (Chelmsford) where I met the fantastic Kerry Bassil who provided me with much support and guidance yet despite all her wonderful efforts, Cecelia has refused to latch apart from one day where we managed almost all her feeds directly from me. I have started a journey that I was not expecting, nor prepared for, whilst coming to terms with feeling completely inadequate as a mother and quite frankly, a total failure. I, like many women, believe that breastfeeding is the natural way to feed a baby and I want to give my daughter the best start in life. To me that is giving her the milk I can produce and even though I am incredibly sad I do not have what I view as the intimacy of the direct-feeding relationship, I know that every single ounce she has gained is due to me and the many many hours I have spent attached to the pump.
One day of feeding at the breast
Cecelia and I have managed one day of proper latching and, as I explained at a recent La Leche League meeting, that day is my most precious one after her actual birth. My husband is in the army and spends much of his time away from home. We had organised to have lunch together when he was back from exercise and the day started like any other. Cecelia was just over a month old and at that time I was waking every three hours to pump. When she and I woke in the morning I tried, as I was still doing every day, to get her to latch and for some reason, that day it worked. I didn’t dare move but she drank and drank from me and I was ecstatic. No more pumping, she and I had cracked it, no more sterilising, no more creeping down the stairs and attaching myself in the dead of night, we had it sorted.
I didn’t tell anyone, as I didn’t want to jinx it but I felt as if I was on cloud nine as I drove to meet my husband. I fed Cecelia in the back of the car, in a godforsaken army camp with soldiers walking past. She and I sat there for an age and the intimacy as I felt my milk flow into her is something that I shall treasure for the rest of my life. Eventually we went for lunch, and I fed her again that evening without her screaming. Yet when we went to bed, she categorically refused to latch and despite me continuing to try, she has never taken another feed directly from me. I have no idea why she decided to do it that day, nor why she has not done so since. I have tied myself up in knots asking, to no avail.
To pump or not to pump
In the five months since leaving hospital, like any new mother I have experienced multiple highs and lows. I am blessed with a wonderful little daughter who each month is steadily putting on weight tracking along the 50th percentile. I know that every ounce of weight gained is down to me and that is probably the proudest I have ever been of myself. However, there is also a cost to this achievement. Even to admit that I have sometimes questioned my stubbornness at persevering makes me question my credentials as a mother. Surely, I should willingly and happily attach myself to the pump that has been, along with Cecelia, my constant companion for the past five months. However, I hate and accept the pump in equal measure.
As always, I try to look at the positives of any situation and I can list the positives of pumping. The pump has enabled me to provide Cecelia with the liquid gold of mother’s milk that I value so much. Alongside of that, and these are purely selfish reasons, I have been able to maintain a modicum of independence from Cecelia. I have been able to go to the gym, go to the ballet and take afternoon naps, none of which would have been straightforward if I had been nursing her directly. These times have enabled me to feel like me, the old me, from the time before nappies and bottles.
On the other hand, sometimes the negatives are overwhelming. The main feeling of negativity stems from the crushing feeling of inadequacy, that I am unable to directly feed my daughter. I have a huge oversupply of milk; I could feed multiple babies with the amount of milk I produce yet for some reason she and I have been unable to make it work. I feel the need, whenever I pull out a bottle of expressed milk, to loudly declare that this is expressed milk, so I am not judged for being a formula mother. When my friends tell me that they think I am super mum and that they would have given up long ago, I think that I would give anything to swap with them, to not be super mum – just to be a “normal” mother directly feeding her baby.
Yet why do I have these feelings of negativity? I have decided, by hook or by crook, to get Cecelia to a year on breastmilk. Despite support from my husband, friends and family, I have had to bat away the suggestions of “you could always try her on formula” or even “combi feed” because ultimately I believe that the milk I produce for my little girl will really give her the best start in life.
The right time to wean
Luckily I fall into the category of “over-supplier” so each day I can put away a surplus of milk, sometimes 250ml and sometimes as much 750ml. I have taken over, not only my own freezer, but my parents’ freezers. I have invested in extra freezers and am looking at how on a trip I can transport breastmilk to the US in September so that I can start to wean myself off the pump. I have pumped on planes, in airports, whilst being driven, in car parks, cooking supper, eating supper, carrying Cecelia and feeding her at the same time.
I know that as it stands today, I have fewer than two months of pumping on this schedule to go before I have enough in the freezers to get her to the year. At that point I will start to cut down, a minute a session until I can reduce the number of times I pump from five to four to three and so on. Each drop of milk I express after my goal is an extra bit of goodness in the bank for Cecelia. I will have done my absolute best by her and that is, mostly, worth the frustration, and sometimes anger I feel for the pump.
“Ladies in our Phones”
Like me there are women across the UK who have committed to EP-ing in order to give their babies what they believe to be the best start in life. Yet we are a hidden group, there are no regular meetings for us where we come together with our pumps and our babies. There are no places that for a couple of hours a week or month we can be the norm, the women who pump, rather than the outsider or invisible breastfeeding mother.
Luckily for us, with the help of social media we have been able to find one another in a safe and supportive environment where we can rely on the unconditional support of the “ladies in our phone”. Whatever time day or night there is always someone out there, no doubt experiencing similar emotions to you. They are wonderful women who will be able to provide the right words of encouragement as you juggle baby, bottles and pump; who can understand the utter despair of a spilt bottle of milk (try telling us that there is no use crying over spilt milk!); or the utter joy of getting that first bag into the freezer so you can start to build up a stash. There is no one there to judge you if you are finding it hard, only to offer empathy and sympathy when all you want to do is give up
War Cry for Breast Milk
I and many women in the UK who are unable to direct feed for a plethora of reasons have persevered with pumping in order to give our children what we believe is the best start in life. As a collective group we feel that it is important to spread the word as to how it is feasible to exclusively pump long term and that there should be more done to encourage Health Care Professionals (HCPs) to discuss this with pregnant women during ante-natal care and that whilst in hospital post labour more information should be provided to new mothers.
EP-ing is a full-on commitment on top of having the pressures of a newborn to take care of, but without being informed as to the realities, both good and bad, then new mothers for whom direct feeding doesn’t work out are being denied the opportunity to provide their child with their own milk.
As I finish this article it is coming up to eleven o’clock at night again and I have to get ready to pump. I shall make myself a hot drink and I shall carry on re-watching a favourite sitcom, my treat after a long day. I know I will be up again at around three to feed Cecelia and then the alarm will go at five so that I can hook up yet again and get on with the morning pump. I feel drained by the thought but know that as I creep into bed and give Cecelia her midnight dream feed that it is all utterly worthwhile, that even though I might not be putting her to my breast, I shall be cuddling her as I feed her and that is the perfect end to my day.
Written by Elizabeth Newman-Earl, LLL Chelmsford, and first published in Breastfeeding Matters issue 229 (January/February 2019)
You can get more information about expressing milk for your baby here