Earlier this week during a morning bath while baby napped I was intrigued to see what would happen if I gave the girls a squeeze. And there they were. Two little milky blobs.
Had that happened a week prior I would’ve leapt out of the tub, loosely wrapped a towel around me whilst trying to preserve the two little droplets until I reached the fridge and bottle that I’d been hand expressing into for a couple of weeks. I’d then have tipped myself forward in the hope that the drops would join the measly little collection in the bottom of said bottle.
But this time I looked down at them and yes, got a lump in my throat but it was a lump of pride, mixed with some longing and the clear as day thought ‘well bloody done boobs’.
I don’t think women and more directly, mums give themselves enough credit. We are thrust into parenthood somewhat unlike the dads. Our bodies have nurtured and carried. Our bone mechanics are probably completely out of whack. Our hormones out of balance, bodies sore and our energy completed depleted. Yet we very rarely sit down and take a moment to look at what we’re achieving along the way. If we started a new job and got through the first week without crying we’d probably celebrate on the Friday right? Well done for making it through. But this job? There just doesn’t seem time.
My breastfeeding story
Elodie was born at 36 weeks and 4 days gestation. A mere 3 days before it was deemed ‘safe’ or 3.5 weeks before the ‘normal’ 40 week mark.
While I’m still compiling the proper blog of her birth story, let’s jump straight into the breastfeeding bit for now.
I’d read all about breastfeeding. Attended a special NCT class about it. Skin to skin. I knew that the word ‘latch’ was going to be used now more than ever before in my life. I was absolutely sold on the fact that it was what was best for my baby. Of course I’d breastfeed.
Elodie was born via an unplanned c-section. And directly afterwards I was completely out of it. I remember holding her, looking down at her red scrunched up face and oversized purple woolly hat the nurses had put on her. I was telling her ‘it’s ok, it’s ok’ while the surgeons worked on stitching me back together. But I wasn’t with it. I wasn’t ok. My vision went completely weird and I felt drunk. I vaguely remember being wheeled in the bed to recovery(?) and then the vomiting started. I was so so sick. Drunk, dizzy, virtually blind and sick. The medical staff kept reassuring me that it was just the meds but for a minute there I was really panicked about my vision and speech.
Now, I can’t even remember the first attempt at breastfeeding my baby. Which makes me so sad. The first recollection of anything coming out of my boobs was perhaps the day after or the wee hours that followed her birth at 7.15pm. Before I knew it I was squeezing my boobs and capturing the little droplets of the first milk at the end of a tiny syringe. Perhaps 10ml in size, tops. Once I had filled one up I’d then squirt it as gently as possible into Elodie’s tiny little mouth. So whilst the latch thing was an initial no go I felt so happy she was getting the important stuff one way or t’other.
My baby (and I!) just didn’t know how to get the latching on thing right. She seemed SO small, too small to deal with a boulder of a boob and a zonked out drugged up mummy. And that’s when the onslaught of various medical staff descended upon our hospital room. It seemed like we couldn’t get 5 mins peace before someone else was in to check on me, baby, breastfeeding. All of which I’m grateful for, completely. God bless the NHS. But the pressure that started to mount from the well meaning nurses and midwives began to make me beyond anxious (nb: not great for milk supply). One little nugget I recall from one of the midwives was ‘come on Elodie, there’s an even more premature baby out there already breastfeeding’. Stupid woman. Elodie is hours old. No point telling her, she can’t understand what you’re saying CAN SHE. Oh but mummy can. I see what you’re doing. Talking to a baby but directing the message straight at the vulnerable mum. Nice work.
Elodie had jaundice and was already hooked up to bloody antibiotics because I tested positive for Group B Strep when I was 7 weeks pregnant with her and was experiencing a bleed.
I had a yellow baby that was already on medication. And I hated that. I wanted her perfect brand new body to be filling up on my milk, not chemicals.
One way to rid jaundice quickly is to make sure baby is feeding well. Cue: ANXIETY BECAUSE WE COULDN’T GET HER ON THE BOOB.
During one visit from a nursery nurse I was told that breastfeeding really needed to happen now and that the worst case scenario with jaundice was brain damage. EXCUSE ME WHAT? I lost it. I broke down. Couldn’t stop crying. There in a little plastic cot was my 5lb12, yellow tinged baby with a massive woolly mitten on one hand holding a canula in place. And here I was responsible for her being on drugs and not getting enough milk from me. I felt useless and the tears and snot cascaded down my puffed up face. It was this point that my husband stepped in. He left our room and gathered some of the nurses outside and politely asked them to give us some space. To get organised between themselves and importantly to leave it a little longer before each new visit (without of course putting either Elodie or I at risk).
I felt so lost. Shocked still at being a mummy so early. Panic stricken that here she was and consumed by endless ‘is she going to be ok?’ nerves that fizzed through my body.
I continued to squeeze my boobs into bigger syringes now. But after a few days of that and various nurses performing intricate origami on my boobs to try and get baby to latch on (all with different methods, quite often contradicting one another on the best approach), it was decided this baby needed grub.
Now hubs and I had decided upon organic goats milk formula should we need it. By a brand called Holle. But hahahahaha we had the baby 3 hours away from home on a mini break and had no supplies with us and you can’t get this stuff at your local Boots. So we had to settle upon what was within our reach and we started topping her up with Hipp Organic.
Then started the choking. Baby didn’t like bottles. So that was a no to bottles and boobs. OH CHRIST. We were told to then try cup feeding her. Literally filling up a tiny measuring cup with milk and pouring it into her weeny little mouth. Not fun.
This is all still a blur to me. I hadn’t left the hospital room once. We had a room with our own toilet so I didn’t need to leave. ‘Out there’ on the ward seemed scary. I didn’t know what I was doing. How to sterilise anything. And my body killed. So hubs was completely in charge of sterilising all the whadgamacallits. He would frequent the milk kitchen place while I stared at our babe in awe, with love, in fear.
This wasn’t the start to her life I’d anticipated. In my head I’d be breastfeeding like a champ with a milk drunk small on my chest. What happened to that version of events? This wasn’t the plan.
It was when our favourite nurse came to visit and suggested trying a little bottle we hadn’t seen before that everything changed and Elodie started to fill up with minimal choking. The bottles were teeny tiny, I’ve kept one in her keepsake box, and what we know now is that they were Nuk teats, what Elodie uses now. Nuk are great for anti colic and the latex ones mimic nipples really well so if you are still hoping to breastfeed there shouldn’t be too much confusion for baby.
We had to keep a feeding chart showing how much breast milk she was getting, formula top ups and me expressing. It showed baby’s nappy adventures too. What her poos were like etc. I have kept one of those too. The chart, not the poo.
To say this was all overwhelming is a total understatement. I didn’t know my arse from my elbow. I’d set alarms and wake to feed her while John was trying to sleep on the floor with my pregnancy pillow. People would come in and top up baby’s antibiotics at all hours. Check my c-section scar, my blood pressure etc.
We were at the hospital 5 nights and by the end of it I didn’t want to go home. I felt safe there. Outside was scary, not least the looming 3 hour drive home.
Our favourite nurse had shown us how to bath baby on our last day. She was so kind. She also fetched us a few more knitted woolly hats that little old ladies had made for the ward. I’ll treasure those forever.
We stopped a few times on the way home because of the car seat fear and got baby out to stretch, cuddle and feed her. I sat in the back next to her and held her hand the whole journey.
I still desperately wanted to breastfeed.
In the days that followed I kept putting baby on the boob and we were finally getting somewhere but SWEET BABY SHIT, the pain. Daggers. Sharp blades in my boobs. But I persevered because this wasn’t about me (note: it IS about you mummas).
We had home visits from midwives and health visitors who would watch me feed baby. They’d come in for real close ups to watch the latch and to see if Elodie was doing the ‘suck suck suck suck pause suck suck suck suck pause’ thing. “Hhmmm that pause is a bit too long”. Oh gimme a break love. They’d suggest me holding her differently. Like the rugby ball hold instead.
To be honest in those very early days I found it so hard to know how to position her at all. She was TINY and floppy. I used to awkwardly hold her head in place with one hand while squeezing and positioning my boob with the other. We used one of those half doughnut pillow things.
Baby went down to 5lb4. Down 8 ounces from her birth weight. They all lose weight initially but I felt really crappy about those 8 ounces. We needed them back.
Those first nights of feeding were alarming. Elodie would still choke and my heart would stop every single time. I now know that she was actually gagging and there’s a BIG difference between that and choking. But regardless, she gagged a lot and my panic soared. I would stare at her as I laid her down in her cot, waiting for the inevitable little sick up and making sure her head turned to the side to do so.
Before I knew it, my attempts at breastfeeding resulted in cracked bleeding nipples. Oh ace. This couldn’t be right.
I googled for some help, avoiding mumsnet like the plague, and decided on going to see a specialist; a lactation consultant who was also a midwife and an osteopath. Aka, the angel who changed our breastfeeding journey.
Her name is Sara Randall, based in St Albans, Hertfordshire. Myself, baby and John all went to see her one late morning for an appointment where she would watch me breastfeeding and offer us some expert help.
She was so, SO much more than a lactation consultant. She was a therapist for me too. She was so warm, telling me that motherhood can be very scary at first and that I need as much support and care as possible myself. This wasn’t just about baby, but me too. It was the first time I’d realised that. We chatted for ages before the actual bit where she watched me feed. And in a very soft and caring way she offered up alternative approaches for getting baby to latch on. And it bloody worked, there and then! Less pain for me. More milk for baby. Unbelievable. She said the perfect latch has nothing to do with how it looks, it’s how it feels. Does it feel deep? If so, you’re on to something.
She gave amazing little nuggets of advice too like if baby falls asleep on the boob while feeding, give her a little tickle under the chin and lo and bloody behold the sucking would start up again.
I told her that we were combi feeding (part formula, part boob) but that I’d love to get the ratio up on the boob side. She advised to use Nuk latex teat bottles to compliment the breastfeeding. The same as what we’d used in the end in hospital! Latex was advised because of how soft and malleable it is, just like a real boob.
She showed me how to really massage my boobs, where the actual milk comes up from (the bottom of the boob) and suggested to stop using the nipple cream stuff that everyone loves (Lansinoh) as it can cause milk duct blockages and to instead go to a pharmacy and get some sheets of Jelonet which is basically moist gauze mesh that you can cut to size and put on your nips. Soooo much nicer.
Finally she also told me to get some fenugreek supplements. These usually take 3 days to increase your milk supply and boy did they! My boobs grew even bigger and the milk would come out if I literally brushed the side of my boob.
So, we were all set. I felt re-energised, enthusiastic and positive. All from an hour with a wonderful woman. I couldn’t wait to get home to feed.
It changed everything. I was able to express more milk than ever before, she was latching on and would often come off from a feed with milk all around her chops before turning to place her cheek on my boob for a snooze. SO EFFING HAPPY. Best sight ever.
Then we got the thrush.
Likely caused by us both being on antibiotics from the birth, baby had a white coated tongue and my boobs were on fire. So so unbelievably uncomfortable. Like little sharp stabs all day. And at feeding time a pain so brutal I would grimace and cry each and every time.
I of course took us both to the doctors and they of course didn’t see to us properly straight away. They told me to use canestan on my boobs and gave baby nystatin which is laced with sugar. And what does a yeast condition thrive on? Yes. Sugar. Well done everyone.
So I started ordering natural shit. Grapefruit seed extract that I would dilute in water before wiping my boobs and swabbing her tongue before and after every bloody feed. I also put baby on baby probiotics mixed in with her bottle feeds once daily. The grapefruit seed extract solution sorted it out for a while but before long it was back and I got SO fed up of not being able to enjoy breastfeeding again that I went back to the docs. This time we both got given Daktarin; one gel for the mouth and one for boobs. Sugar free. It eventually worked but I think all in we had thrush up until the 3 month mark. It was hellish.
Sleep deprivation is so unkind. Makes you anxious, upset and unable. I was never one to ‘sleep when baby sleeps’. I don’t think I ever managed it once. Not once. I was too wired (in an overtired way) that I just needed to watch her as she slept to make sure she was always ok. So night time and early hour breastfeeds became scary for me as on more than one occasion my head would jolt forward as I nodded off briefly, as words of a friend slammed into my brain about how you can suffocate your baby when breastfeeding if you fall asleep. So night time feeds became bottle feeds; some expressed milk and some formula top ups.
By this time, some 3-4 months into babies life I loved breastfeeding. Genuinely. We nailed it, in a combi feeding way. I was so proud of myself. I’d breastfeed in public (I mean of course) and at weddings during the speeches. Looking down at my feeding babe to see her look up at me with a smile before carrying on with her feed are visions I will never ever forget.
But things took a turn a couple of weeks back. Although I was pumping while she napped to keep supply up my hungry baby wasn’t getting satisfied by the boob anymore. She was angry at them. Very. There was milk there for her but I dunno, maybe the flow was too slow for her now or the effort too great. Something had changed. I would hold her head and try so hard to encourage her to feed but it was making us both upset.
She was starting to reject me.
I then went into panic mode. More fenugreek, nursing teas, boobie smoothies, massage, pumping. All the pumping. A supply was there but I had a baby that was done.
I decided that the medela breastpump wasn’t as good as me hand expressing so at every opportunity I was back to the early days of squeezing my boobs into oblivion. We’d come full circle it seemed.
It was all in vain. It was coming to an end. But I couldn’t let go. This could be it. The only time I will breastfeed a baby. I can’t explain the longing I felt for us to continue breastfeeding. A real desperate lurch from my tummy. A panic that without breastmilk she wouldn’t get rid of colds as easily. I guess I looked at breastmilk as medicine. I really did. The one cold she’d had so far I truly believe came and went so fast because I kept her on the boob. So now without my milk how could I ensure she’d be well? Honestly, mum guilt panic mode.
I’d used breastmilk on her skin too if she had scratched herself. It would heal super quick. I’d used it on her gunky eyes as a newbie. It was magic stuff. I was so proud of my body for making it for her. I didn’t want it to stop.
I desperately needed someone to hold my shoulders and look me in the eye and say ‘you’ve done a cracking job. And it’s ok to let go now’. Sound dramatic? It’s the truth. I really, really needed that.
I guess what I’ve learned is that I had no idea that the bond developed via breastfeeding would be so magical. It was something only her and I could do. It would calm her down, comfort her. Comfort me. I am so bloody pleased we achieved what we did as a team until just shy of 6 months of her life. I’m proud of us both.
One thing that remains etched in my head is something Elodie’s osteopath told me. The sucking reflex in an unborn baby doesn’t fully develop until 39 weeks gestation. So a premmie baby just might not have that down when he or she is born.
God I dearly wish I’d known that before.