As I write this, I am wrapped in the fireproof blanket my son uses for sensory play*, as protection against the angry torch yielding mob likely to turn up on my doorstep simply for typing that title. (I’m not really, don’t worry.) Breastfeeding, as I’ve found since getting a positive on a pregnancy test back in 2018, is a polarising topic. A real ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ type situation, that pits mother on mother with the fervour of an olympic sporting event.
And it’s an attitude that’s not, quite frankly, healthy.
My own breastfeeding journey began during pregnancy, after a few different discussions that almost all culminated in ‘breast is best,’ with the odd ‘only selfish mothers don’t try it’ thrown in. Pre-partum, I had decided it wasn’t for me. I didn’t like the idea of it at all, and had made peace with that. But being spoon fed the numerous benefits changed my mind once mummy brain began to consume me and, as a result, I was all in come the day of my baby’s birth. I was actually quite looking forward to it, truth be told. The bond! The nourishment! The MENSA baby leaps ahead of its bottle fed peers! What could go wrong?
Before I get into what happened next, I want to be clear and firm on the fact that I am not bashing breastfeeding, at all. I think it is a beautiful and natural thing and that, should it go well, it is something to be encouraged and celebrated. It is a mother’s choice how long she feeds, where she feeds, and whether or not she tandem feeds, and I fully intend on trying again when baby #2 arrives. The following, however, is not a positive breastfeeding experience, and what I really needed to read when I was struggling was that I was not the only one that had ‘failed.’ So, as painful/genuinely traumatic as it is for me to relive this through words, I am sharing my experience. For better, or for worse.
So here we go.
As I say, mentally, this journey began in pregnancy. Physically, it started in the delivery room, (what felt like) the moment I became a mother. It was in my notes that I intended to breastfeed and so, as soon as he’d been wiped down, my son was placed on my chest, my boob was whipped out, and he was away. For a brand new person with less than a few minutes experience outside the womb, he was a natural. Two separate midwives checked his latch and said as much, as the little guy nestled in and got right down to feasting, as I stared at him in awe. He kept going until fully satiated, and we didn’t hear a peep of complaint from him.
I stayed in hospital overnight due to some complications, and used the opportunity to ask every midwife I saw whether or not I was ‘doing it right,’ being consistently told that all looked good, aside from one particular midwife who simply said ‘his latch looks wrong’ and walked away without further comment, as I struggled to put my breasts away in time to follow her for more information. Which was helpful. Never did find her.
So far, so simple.
The trouble began on day four.
Day four. The day of hormonal upset. And, for us, the day Rory cluster fed for 13 hours. THIRTEEN. HOURS. Thirteen hours of screaming and feeding, screaming and feeding, until my already by that point pretty chewed up nipples were a mess of open sores, blood and general agonising pain. I had read, and kept being told, that breastfeeding is painful at first. It can take a while to get used to the sensation, I had heard, and sometimes being sore is just a side effect of sensitivity. I read this was the case especially in fair skinned people, and so assumed I was simply being a bit of a snowflake about the whole thing when the entire feed caused me pain, and that every mother went through this, so it was my duty to endure.
By the end of that day, I was a wreck of a woman. I was sobbing whenever baby stirred for a feed, and my husband started having to latch him for me, as I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. We ended up having a blazing row when he suggested he go to buy formula so I could have a break, which at that point I thought of as a very bad idea, as not only did it mean that a) I wasn’t managing to do what so many women had done before me but also b) (as I still believed the old wives tale) even one drop of formula stripped a baby’s stomach of all nutrients previously taken from breast milk, so my perseverance would have been for nothing. We soldiered on until, finally, the little one’s supposedly tiny belly was full, and we could finally sleep. Well, for a short time, anyway, until I had to get up and change the maternity pad I’d had to stick in my bra because not only was it completely full, I had drenched the bed in milk.
I did not smell good in those early days. I did not smell good at all.
Day five brought us some relief, when my midwife asked to observe us feeding, to check everything was going well. I think she first noticed something was off when I all but shrieked ‘HE’S JUST FED.’ But she made me do it anyway (the cow*) (*joking, I loved my midwives) and after observing that I looked like I was suffering, but that his latch was spot on, she asked to borrow him for a second and, after looking into his mouth, gave us a glimmer of hope with the words:
‘Has anyone told you he’s got tongue tie?’
Tongue tie. A condition that I had heard of in passing but knew nothing about, occurs when the skin that connects baby’s tongue to the floor of the mouth is too short. And the very thought of it chills me to my core.
After showing me some new feeding positions that were apparently good for tongue tie (that, unfortunately, didn’t make much difference, actually leading to the total destruction of the remaining ‘good nipple’) and a momentary blip in which I was told that blood in his sick wasn’t a concern because it was my blood, so didn’t matter (it mattered to me!) we were sent off with homework – to book him in with a specialist, to fix the tie.
We were added to two NHS waiting lists, and booked a private appointment, just in case. I continued to feed, and was becoming rapidly more miserable with every latch. I would look at my baby, my sweet little boy, and feel nothing but upset when he began to show signs of hunger. If he stirred in his sleep, I’d be praying that he would sleep just a bit longer, so I didn’t have to ‘deal’ with him. For this, obviously, I felt awful. I wanted to feel the rush of emotion, the boost of oxytocin, the special bond. But all I felt was fear.
We were lucky enough to get an NHS appointment near home within the week and, in the meantime, I switched to pumping my milk – starting with that caught in my trusty Haakaa, whilst gathering information – and feeding it via a bottle. I spoke to both my midwives and a lactation consultant about this, and although they weren’t encouraging of the switch, was met with a resounding cry of ‘expressed breast milk is better than no breast milk’ when I shared my fear of putting Rory on the boob in my current state. And so, after an unsuccessful visit to a lactation group to ask about expressing (the team on call had no advice on the subject, other than to look horrified – though I will say they seemed to be doing a wonderful job with the ladies there that needed help with latch and the like) we drove around visiting baby shops until we landed on a Mothercare (RIP) where we picked up a Lanisoh pump, and I was away.
The reason for the switch was simple – I needed the time to heal in order to stand a chance of continuing the beautiful breastfeeding journey I was so desperate to have. I was a mass of sores and scabs by now, and would cry through the entire feed, every feed, unable to even bring myself to put my child to my chest when milk time came around. The introduction of a breast pump brought with it so much relief, but also a new set of problems.
First of all, I wasn’t healing. Time went on, and the weeping, bleeding and all other unpleasantness remained. Second of all, I became an utterly dehumanised shell of a woman within weeks of turning to expressing, taking myself off 8 times a day to hook myself to a wall and listen to the grinding sound of the machine at work – a sound that now haunts my dreams, and that made me feel like a dairy cow, and a useless mother, all in one. I would hear my son in the next room with my husband as I sat there for 20 minutes at a time, missing out on precious early moments and opportunities for bonding, either watching Glee, staring at the wall, or quietly crying.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The tongue tie procedure arrived quickly, and we were invited along to a clinic to first have Rory assessed, and second have the procedure completed, if deemed necessary. It was a straightforward enough appointment. Taking your tiny baby along to have anything ‘snipped’ is a traumatic event, but the midwives we spoke to were very kind about everything, and got straight down to business with a grading system, designed to calculate whether or not there was truly a problem, or if I was just a sensitive soul that couldn’t hack feeding their infant. The grading, we were told, would go from 1-10, with 1 being the worst, and 10 the best in terms of a whole host of things they were checking for, none of which I can honestly remember as, as I say, it was a fairly horrible appointment to attend as a mother, and I was a bit of a wreck as a result. But I do remember the results. I remember being told that his tongue tie was severe, scoring a 1 in almost every test. I remember being told that in order to get milk from my breast he would have been clamping his gums shut and grinding, as he simply didn’t have the ability to feed in the way breastfeeding is meant to occur. I remember them telling me they understood why I was having so many troubles, using a sympathetic head tilt as they murmmered ‘you poor thing’. And I remember feeling, in that moment if never again, that this shortcoming of mine was not a shortcoming at all, that it was not my fault, and I had not failed him.
This feeling was short lived, as I then couldn’t bring myself to watch as they rectified the situation – essentially putting a pair of scissors into his screaming mouth, according to my husband’s account. But never mind that.
A tongue tie procedure is, I’m told, highly effective in cases such as ours, almost instantly relieving the feeding issues present prior to the cut, and helping to form a great breastfeeding relationship between mother and infant. I had intended on getting back to it once all had been sorted but, unfortunately, my own problems were just beginning.
On the day of the tongue tie clinic, I woke to find my nipples were entirely white – a condition known as blanching – and sore. They had scabbed up in such a way that they had basically healed over, and milk was, as a result, beginning to back up in my ducts. I’m uncertain whether it was before or after this occurrence that I had my first bout of mastitis, but I knew something was off, and so I chose to carry on expressing until things were all the way there, healing wise.
Which took a lot longer than I had hoped.
First of all let me say, without a hint of embellishment, that mastitis is worse than labour. I would rather give birth than have to endure another bout of mastitis, and that is not an exaggeration. I distinctly remember when the first infection began. I was lying in bed, leaking milk all over myself, when I felt a blinding pain in my right breast. I yelped, and upon checking the site of the issue discovered a large red area, that was sore to the touch. Within a few hours, I had a high temperature, felt like I was freezing, but knew that I was burning up. I became very tired and weak, to the point of just lying there crying (and sweating, and spraying milk) as I tried to understand why I felt so unwell. A trip to the GP confirmed the problem, I was put on antibiotics, and we all assumed the issue would go away.
That first round of mastitis, thanks to the wonders of modern medicine, did come to an end within a couple of days. But what followed was an endless cycle of blocked ducts (basically the same breast pain as mastitis, without the horrible fever and the risk of death), nights sat crying in the bath as I tried to massage out painful lumps to prevent further infection, body shaking chills that came on from nowhere if I didn’t empty my ducts the moment they demanded to be emptied, more mastitis, stabbing and shooting pains, painful let down every time I heard a baby – any baby – make a murmur within a 5 mile radius, thrush…
All of this over and over, and still, my nipples hadn’t healed (at one point, scabs so thick fell off both that I thought I’d lost my nipples entirely. But they came back – the scabs, I mean.) And, still, I was producing an insane amount of milk, that had me changing the sheets daily, even with two extra thick maternity pads stuffed in my bra before bed.
This went on for months until, finally, it all became too much, and I was diagnosed with postnatal depression.
I tried, one last time, to feed on the breast. I wasn’t healed, hadn’t even begun to heal thanks to the repeat issues that kept cropping up, but I was determined to get this right. I sat in the chair brought specifically for nursing pre-partum. I put him to my chest without shields (which I tried for a while before this final feed, though they sadly made little difference) and he fed like a dream. His latch was as good as it always had been, only now his tongue could do what it was designed to do. He drank readily and happily and then fell to sleep in my arms, filling me with pride, and we both went to bed feeling satisfied. The next morning, I awoke with the telltale signs of mastitis, and was devastated.
I wanted to continue. I felt ashamed of myself, of my body for having so spectacularly failed this most natural of tasks. The physical side of things go deeper than I have explained, and the emotional trauma was beyond anything I could ever describe. I so desperately wanted this, needed to succeed at it. But when, too many weeks into this journey, I read a line in an article (I wish I could remember which) that stated ‘if you watched your best friend go through what you are going through, would you tell them to continue if they asked your advice?’ I knew that enough was enough. And so I bought formula. I sobbed as my gorgeous boy polished it off with no problems whatsoever, and slowly transitioned him onto it full time. (Which took a good 4-5 weeks. I had a massive oversupply issue, which was the cause of many of my issues – arguably brought about by expressing too early in the process, though no-one informed me this could be a problem until after the fact. One of the things I struggled with most was this ready flow. I had the milk. So many women had to give in because their babies weren’t growing, but mine was. It was a purely selfish act on my part to give in, in my mind, and I hated myself for it.)
The physical healing eventually occurred, once the milk began to dry up, and the infections stopped rearing their ugly heads. I have a lot of scarring, but every woman has her battle wounds, these ones just happen to be external. The emotional healing is taking longer. I have sat and cried as I wrote this, still experiencing the guilt and the ‘what if?’s’ that I experienced then. I can no longer look at a woman that is breastfeeding – something that I never even noticed before, but that now makes me feel itchy in my own skin, because it fills me with shame to see others so easily achieving something that I couldn’t. Posters in the hospital and children’s centre shouting out breast is best are something I can’t even look at, to the point that if I notice them on one visit, I will avoid looking on that same wall on my next.
This feeling of failure, of sadness, of fear when it comes to this one subject is painful. But I will try again with my second child, due this coming April. I will try again, and I will either succeed, or I won’t. If it doesn’t work, I will switch to formula, because I know now that formula isn’t the devil’s work and is, in fact, absolutely fine. And if it does? Then maybe, finally, the true healing can begin. And then, perhaps, I can finally regard my past self, that brand new mother, doing all that she could do, with the kindness she truly deserves.
*Story shared to bring a little relief to those who also had to give up, and beat themselves up over it, not shared to discourage breastfeeding.