Breastfeeding Problems and Me
*Refers to breastfeeding problems and mental health*
*Some reference to high risk pregnancy and poorly baby*
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‘I don’t think I could choose to bottle feed after reading these statistics!’
I remember saying these exact words to my husband during my first pregnancy, I had just been reading the maternity booklets from the hospital, specifically the page on feeding, and was shocked by the figures given as benefits of breastfeeding. I had always planned to breastfeed, but those pages emphasised the reasons that I HAD to do it. It was best for my baby. It protected my baby. Interestingly, I don’t recall noticing any mention of some women struggling or being unable to feed. I naively assumed that it would come naturally and easily with a little support. But it wasn’t like that at all.
BREASTFEEDING WITH J
The pregnancy had been a fairly simple one, no medical issues throughout and we had enjoyed the excitement of waiting to learn if we were having a baby boy or girl. The birth of J was also relatively straight forward. A natural birth after a fairly short eight hour labour, and he was healthy and utterly gorgeous. When it came to feeding, I had seen all the posters, attended the antenatal classes and read the baby books, and still in that moment, I had no idea what I was doing. My own anatomy felt completely alien to me. Somehow I managed to begin feeding and the student midwife was happy with the positioning, although I wasn’t even sure if he was actually feeding at all. Nevertheless, he was content and less than twenty-four hours later, we were on our way home as a family of three.
But the hours that followed felt like torture. I was aware that latching-on would create some discomfort, but this was a constant, eye watering pain. It made my toes curl the entire time and rather than fading as I believed the latching-on discomfort would, it intensified until the end. Midwives checked the positioning and offered support but couldn’t solve the pain. I tried shields and creams in the days that followed but nothing seemed to help.
Mentally, I was struggling too. Exhausted. Anxious. Ashamed. I’d begun to dread feeding time, resent it even. I’d cry in the bathroom when he began to get hungry, knowing how I was going to feel whilst he fed. I wanted to stop. I wanted someone to tell me I could stop. But I was also terrified this was a sign that naturally I was a bad mum. What kind of mum struggles to feed her own baby or wants to stop trying? Mothering from this position of anger, shame and guilt was already taking its toll.
When J was around a week old, I noticed one of my breasts felt hot and sore across the bottom and gradually overnight, I began to feel really poorly. I had a temperature and could barely function. One clear memory from that day was crying to my husband that I couldn’t feed J anymore, I didn’t want to. It was at this point that he collected formula so that J could be fed without relying on me. A little later, my friend took me to the doctors and I was diagnosed with mastitis. There was a part of me that was disappointed when I was told I could continue to feed, but as suggested, I carried on trying. Slowly over the next few days, my supply reduced and we moved over to formula fully.
I was relieved that the pain was over, but I was also ashamed. Ashamed that I had failed. Ashamed that I even felt relieved. It was this way of thinking that prompted me to still seek out information and support for going back to breastfeeding. I contacted Facebook groups and feeding clinics, who emphasised that a return to breastfeeding would be possible. Just listening to the method of trying to feed and express to increase my supply filled me with dread and left me feeling incredibly drained, leading me to the final decision that I needed to let it go for good.
But the mental effect of failing to do what was best for my child gradually got worse. Every time I saw another mama feeding, the waves of guilt and shame would wash over me again. I’d hear people talk about fighting through the pain, or phrases like ‘breast is best’ or ‘everyone can breastfeed’ and instantly felt like a failure. My confidence began to disappear, both in who I was as a person and my abilities as a mother. It felt like I was playing the role of a mum and performing it badly. I questioned myself constantly, and compared myself to other mums, convinced they were doing a better job than I was. I couldn’t shake that thought that I was hopeless.
The shame and guilt of prioritising myself when I stopped trying to feed also led to an increase of intrusive thoughts about my little boy’s future health. In reflection, it was here that my obsessive compulsive disorder probably began to take a stronger hold. There was always an element in my life but suddenly the world felt hazardous to my baby and the fear that I would fail to protect him from something began to evolve. (I’ll be writing more about this another month.)
BABY NUMBER TWO
With my second baby, C, things were far from simple. We knew she was a high risk whilst I was pregnant and consequently, she was delivered by emergency c-section at almost thirty-four weeks. C was extremely poorly with a condition no-one at the hospital had seen before. She needed to be fed by ng tube to begin with, so I needed to express until she was ready. I was determined to try again. To redeem myself. My supply was amazing this time and I felt completely relieved that my body was doing the right thing. Unfortunately, after a couple of days, C reacted to the milk and needed a prescribed formula. I continued to express hoping that she would be able to accept the milk at a later date.
A few weeks later, we tried again. She was older now, and able to latch on. I had nurses and feeding specialists on tap, and yet the familiar story began to unfold. The same intense, unbearable pain and the frustration at struggling again was getting to me too. After a couple of days of trying, I read about a condition called Raynaud’s Syndrome and it was agreed this could have been the cause of my difficulties. However, I was never formally diagnosed as C had begun to react to the breast milk again and the decision was made to move back to formula. Knowing that there may be a medical explanation provided a little comfort and understanding. There was also a relief that this time it had not been my decision to stop feeding and that I didn’t have to prioritise myself or my baby.
THE DIFFERENCE WITH BABY THREE
When it came to having T in 2020, I made the choice immediately. No breastfeeding at all. I didn’t want to try. To try and struggle again I knew would be damaging to my mental health so I took control and made the choice. The same anxieties about other people’s opinions of that decision were present, but this time, my mindset was different.
This time I knew that protecting my mental health where possible was the best thing for all of my children, including my baby. And although I am still battling postnatal mental illness, I know deep down that the situation would have been much worse.
DO I WISH I HAD BREASTFED ALL OF MY BABIES?
Of course! I still believe that breastfeeding is amazing, and the best milk for a baby. But I am slowly learning that prioritising myself runs simultaneously with what is best for my baby too. When I look back now, there is still, and probably will always be, a part of me that wishes breastfeeding had been easier for me. It’s a magical bond between a mother and baby that I will continue feeling a little sense of craving for and a sadness for missing out. But another part of me knows that I need to accept my journey and letting go of breastfeeding was the right thing for me to do. I’ve also realised that others may have an opinion but they are not sharing the discomfort, the pain or the upset, and they are not responsible for a baby. Only the mother who is living that journey knows when the balance is wrong and whether to carry on trying or to let it go.