Don’t worry, I’m not about to jump on that bandwagon – I’m several months too late for that, anyway, and it’s been done to death already. However, this is a topic near and dear to my heart, and I’d really like to talk it through – not only for my own record, but as a kind of “you are not alone” message, if I may.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, Evie, we attended prenatal classes run by the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) in the UK. Despite the fact that their website states that they offer “accurate, impartial information”, they are somewhat renowned for being pro natural birth (i.e. giving birth without pain relief or any kind of intervention) and advocates of exclusive breastfeeding – that’s 100% breast milk, no formula, no bottles for as long as possible. As part of our 16 hours of classes, a lot of time was spent discussing breastfeeding. In particular, they talked about getting the baby’s latch right. The general message was that, as long as the baby’s latch was correct, it would be easy, painless and the perfect start for your child. They also warned that if you were dumb enough to introduce a formula feed at any point, to give yourself a break, or give your partner a chance to bond with the fruit of their loins, your breasts would shrivel up and drop off, and that would be the end of your breastfeeding experience. Or words to that effect….
We’ve all seen these posters, right?
She’s beautiful, her hair is washed and brushed, her make-up is perfectly applied, her freaking eyebrows are perfectly plucked, and she’s smiling as she feeds her baby. (NB This woman does not exist in real life, and any minute now Will Smith will appear and zap her to oblivion, right where she belongs!)
I don’t mind admitting that I was well and truly brainwashed by the NCT, and by all the “breast is best” posters, like the one above, that I’d seen plastered on the walls of my midwife’s office. When the wife of one of my husband’s colleagues sat with me and my huge baby bump at a Christmas party, and earnestly spoke of the pain she had experienced while nursing her daughter “like razor blades slicing my nipples”, I nodded and sympathised….but secretly thought “You silly woman, you clearly weren’t doing it right. Your baby’s latch was just wrong, you should have sought help with that!”.
I honestly believed it was that simple. Fix your baby’s latch, and you too can be that woman on the poster, where every feed is a bonding opportunity, where you and your precious offspring gaze adoringly into each others eyes while you lovingly provide them with the nectar of the gods. Or something.
So I went along with it. I didn’t even contemplate buying a breast pump, let alone (gah!) formula, while I was pregnant. I shunned the local hospital, and registered with a midwife-led birth centre, armed with the information that mums who experience a drug and intervention-free birth are far more likely to have that perfect breastfeeding experience. And I was all set. My baby girl and I were going to have a magical bond, we would be permanently bathed in sepia and surrounded by fuzzy edges, so beautiful would be this picture of perfection.
As it turns out, a drug-free birth stings a little. A 47 hour labour is apparently quite stressful for a baby too. And stressed babies don’t eat. Add in to the mix a 20 minute ambulance ride to the “local” hospital, a 5 hour wait in an over-heated ward on the night of St. Patrick’s Day (I can only assume the midwives had all been on the celebratory Guinness, and that’s why they failed to come and check on us for all that time), and two failed spinal blocks, and I guess you have a recipe for disaster. Oh yes, and have I mentioned the tongue tie?
Tongue tie? What the hell? Nobody talked about this in the NCT classes. In fact, it took 24 hours of watching my newborn daughter scream blue murder whenever a breast was shoved in her face (a side note for the uninitiated – lactation experts are brutal with your boobs, and your baby!) before anyone thought to check inside her mouth.
If you can be bothered, there’s a great article about tongue-tied babies and breastfeeding here, but the general gist is:
“…the mother suffers intense pain when the baby seizes the nipple or chews on it, or even when he slides off the nipple, being unable to maintain a hold on the breast. In some cases the pain is severe enough to make mothers dread breastfeeding.
Some mothers have reported feeding their baby 2 hourly, day and night, others describe a feed that might last 2 hours. Pain from such continuous feeding can be so severe that mothers reported hoping their babies would continue sleeping.
These problems can persist in spite of help and support from professionals.
Breastfeeding in these circumstances will be anything but pleasurable or satisfying and will cause disappointment, sadness and guilt for the mother.”.
Evie’s tongue tie was snipped when she was 5 days old, although I believe it may have reformed to some extent, given that the frenotomy had absolutely zero impact on our feeding success (or lack of). Yet, when I spoke to my family doctor about the pain I was experiencing, her response was “Oh yes, breastfeeding hurts”. When I mentioned the persistent bleeding, she shrugged and said “Well, our bodies bleed sometimes”.
Can I just talk about that pain for a second? And I do have a high pain threshold, believe me – I’ve survived two 47-hour drug-free labours, and run the London Marathon. No problem. I’d go so far as to say I’d happily do both of those things again (…one day).
Breastfeeding, though? OhholymotherofGod! I’m not talking about a “ooh, that smarts some”, or “wow, who knew a baby’s suck was that strong?”, or even “hmm, leather nipples would be great right now!” kind of pain. No. Imagine, if you will, that somebody has dropped a very fine wine glass, smashing it into thousands of little jagged pieces. Now, gather up all those pieces, and insert them into your breasts. Shove them in, nice and deep, from the tips of your nipples, right back to your armpits. Now give those puppies a good hard squeeze. Better yet, get a tiny person to put their teeny mouth around them and clamp down really hard with those rock-hard gums. Grind, grind.
Are your eyes watering yet?
With pain like that, you get to the point where you dread every feed. You start to resent your precious new bundle of joy, because every whine or cry is a sign of the hunger that is inevitably setting in every 2-3 hours. And that hunger means pure, white-hot, toe-curling agony for you. You cry when your baby cries, because you know what’s coming. Or you try and ignore your newborn’s wails, excuse them with “oh, she’s not hungry, she’s just over-tired!”.
Do you feel like you’re bonding with your child now? Are you feeling warm and fuzzy like the goddamned poster says you should?
In my determination to reach the golden 6-month breastfeeding milestone with Evie, I spent every Thursday morning with a breastfeeding counselor, trying to find a solution to her abject refusal to feed. I expressed milk using an electric or hand-held pump every 2-3 hours for 5 months. Her weight dropped a centile at every visit from the health visitor, so I had to pump *more* to ensure she was getting enough of the good stuff. And then supplement with formula anyway.
I endured 5 bouts of mastitis, several trips to the GP with bleeding breasts (cause unknown), two burned out pumps and a lot of heartache and tears before, after 5 months, I realised I was spending more time attached to the blasted pump than I was lying on the floor playing and interacting with my beautiful girl. I never did make it to the magical month six.
Was it worth it? Um. No. In a word. I don’t think that formula is poison. Evie is a very well child, and seems to manage to avoid many of the bugs that do the rounds every year, chickenpox included. But, I’m also generally a very well person, rarely floored by illness. Was it my marvelous milk, or is it genetics that contribute to her good health?
I don’t know. I do know that at the time, I still ended up bottle-feeding Evie 90% of the time. When I was out in public, I felt like I wanted to wear a T-shirt that said “that’s breast milk, not SMA”, so paranoid was I that the tree-hugging Brightonian women were spitefully judging me, as they sat there with their bountiful breasts smugly on display.
It felt like every mother in the world was managing to feed their baby with no wincing, curling of toes, or electrical appliances involved. It was a horribly lonely feeling.
If only I’d known then, what I know now…. That we were not alone. We weren’t even the minority.
More on that tantalising tale tomorrow….