I’d like to start with a little bit of history. I was breastfed as a baby. So was my brother. I always assumed if I ever had kids that I would breast feed my babies too. That said I’ve not always had a very good relationship with my breasts. When I was about 13 they sprung out of nowhere to be big, very quickly. This led to a lot of comments at school, mostly from boys but sometimes from the girls too. Around this time I started having issues with my weight too. I wasn’t really overweight but I thought I was and I thought if I lost weight then maybe my boobs would shrink too. Which eventually led to me, at the age of 17, on the verge of anorexia, weighing just over 8st with 32FF boobs. I looked ridiculous. I couldn’t find clothes to fit me properly and was very self-conscious.
So eventually I went to see my GP and just before my 19th birthday I had a breast reduction on the NHS. At the time it was explained to me that the surgeon would do his best to preserve the nerves and milk ducts but that it was possible I would never be able to breast feed. Although I took this risk seriously, I was 19 and kids were a long way in the future for me. For a while I was really happy – my boobs were reduced to a C cup and I felt normal (whatever that means!). But after 3 years of university I had put on quite a lot of weight and my boobs were already starting to grow back.
Anyway, fast forward 13 years and after a pre-wedding diet I was happy with my body. My boobs had settled at an acceptable (to me) 32F and for once I felt comfortable in my own skin. But after just 6 months of marriage we were thinking of starting a family. Two months later I was pregnant with our first baby and amongst all the other pregnancy worries and joys breast feeding was a the forefront of my mind. I didn’t know if I would be able to breast feed at all and no-one could tell me – it was simply a case of wait and see. I was determined though that if there was any possibility then I was going to try.
Toby was born in July after a swift and fairly easy labour. He was immediately given to me for skin to skin contact and I put him to my breast. He seemed to latch on quite well initially and certainly seemed to know what he was supposed to be doing. Toby was born at 1pm and we stayed in hospital until about 5pm the next day (my waters had broken two days earlier so he had to be monitored in case of infection). During that time I struggled to get Toby into a comfortable position for feeding. He was so small (6lb 10oz) and my boobs were so big that I just found it really tricky. He would latch on but then pop off again. Because there was so much boob in the way I couldn’t see if he was latched on properly.
A succession of well intentioned midwives tried to help us but every one told us something different; at times even contradicting each other. They suggested we stay in hospital another night to get breast feeding properly established but by this point we had had a couple of fairly successful feeds on our own and I just wanted to go home.
So we got home and I kept feeding Toby as best I could. Whenever he woke up I would feed him and he seemed to be doing OK. My nipples were in shreds however – I’d managed to get a blister on one which then scabbed over and every feed was agony. I sat around with no bra on and my nipples covered in Lansinoh ointment. But that didn’t matter – I was breast feeding my baby! Despite my surgery I was definitely producing something… The tricky part was that it was impossible to tell how much Toby was getting from me. There was a chance that although I was managing to produce some milk that I might not be producing enough.
So then the midwife came to visit on the first day at home and when she weighed Toby he had lost 10% of his birth weight. She wanted to see me feed and after some more manhandling (apparently the midwives aren’t supposed to touch you but several of them did – trying to get enough of my nipple and surrounding tissue into Toby’s mouth. One suggested getting my husband to do it as I didn’t have enough hands to hold Toby, keep my boob out of the way and get my nipple in his mouth!) he seemed to be feeding again. However, I was still finding that he wouldn’t stay latched on, or he would fall asleep after 5 minutes.
My memories of the first few days are a bit hazy but at some point shortly after we came home one of the midwives heard Toby crying, said ‘that’s a hungry baby’ and suggested that I top up the breast feeds with formula. Looking back I wish I had said no and we had just persevered with the breastfeeding but as a first time mum I just wanted what was best for my baby and I assumed the midwives knew what that was.
Around this time another one of the midwives visited and she said she thought I had small nipples and using nipple shields might help so we tried that and it did make things a bit easier. From when he was about 3 days old then I would feed Toby on both breasts and then between us, my husband and I would feed him formula from a syringe as I wanted to avoid using a bottle. We carried on with that for I think a week or so but it was so time consuming, every feed was taking an hour and a half and then Toby would want feeding again an hour later. So we carried on breast feeding but gave formula in a bottle as well.
That lasted until Toby was about 4 weeks old but at that point I was just so fed up. I was upset that I couldn’t provide enough milk for my baby. I knew it was good that he was getting some breast milk from me but I just couldn’t see how feeding the way we were was sustainable. I felt like I’d never be able to leave the house! So slowly I started reducing the amount I was breastfeeding, sometimes only giving Toby a bottle, sometimes still doing both until when he was just under 6 weeks old I stopped breastfeeding all together.
And now? Now every time I see a mum breastfeeding her baby I wish we had carried on. I wish I had resisted the midwife’s suggestion of topping up with formula and instead got an electric pump and done more to try and increase my own supply. I wish I had contacted one of the many helplines available and got some more support. Because I don’t feel like I did get a lot of support. I feel like because the midwives and health visitor knew about my surgery they almost wrote me off and just assumed that I wouldn’t have enough milk to feed my son.
The suggestion of the nipple shields really helped but why did it take almost a week and about 5 different health care professionals watching me struggle to feed my baby for someone to suggest them? A week or so after I stopped breastfeeding, and only because I did some research online and then went to the GP, Toby was diagnosed with silent reflux. That’s another story really but I do think it affected his early feeding and it wasn’t picked up by any of the midwives or the health visitor. Maybe with an earlier diagnosis we might have been able to work out a way to continue with breastfeeding.
In my more rational moments I know, in the circumstances, at the time, I did the best I could for my baby. I’m happy that I was able to feed him at all and that he got that vital colostrum and breastmilk in his first few weeks of life. And in the darker moments I feel like I failed him. That the only reason he isn’t still being breastfed now is because it was too inconvenient for me. But what’s done is done and there’s nothing I can do to change it. My boy is healthy and happy and for that I am grateful. And if I have another baby one day I’ll try again and hopefully next time I’ll manage to exclusively breastfeed for as long as my baby needs me to.
Here I am all set up for one of our long haul feeding sessions. It was during the hot summer hence the lack of clothes on both of us!