When my son, Harry, was just a few weeks old my sister said to me: ‘I’ve just realised, you’re the only person I know who has breastfed their baby.’
It was an interesting thought but, actually, not all that surprising. Statistics last year showed that only about a third of Mums breastfeed for longer than six month and less than one per cent do it for over a year.
When I thought about it, all of my friends had formula fed, either due to issues with breastfeeding or because they had made the personal choice that that was the best thing for them (something I strongly support).
For me, there was never really much of a decision to make, I instinctively knew that I wanted to give breastfeeding a try and when the time came it was the thing I felt most comfortable doing.
Harry and I didn’t suffer any of the major challenges that some poor Mums do, but it wasn’t a particularly easy path either and so I’m glad I found groups, both online and in real life, that were able to help me through it.
This post is the story of my breastfeeding journey.
Later this week I will be publishing a post with advice from fellow breastfeeding Mums, with tips on what to do if you face any problems. But for today, I’d like to talk to you about the things I learned…
It isn’t a heart-warming tale of bonding, because that isn’t what I had, but it’s an honest account because believe that may help others. With hindsight, it’s what I needed when I was preparing to become a Mum.
In the early days after Harry was born, my whole life was a blur of new experiences, so breastfeeding just felt like another instance where I didn’t really know what I was doing.
He fed well after he was born and it all felt so easy, the next morning was a little more challenging with a midwife having to show me how to express into a syringe so that we could get him some of that much needed colostrum.
A little later, a rather more confident midwife came into our cubicle and showed me how to get him to feed. I remember something about needing to get a lot of my boob in his mouth and watching her getting him to take it in a way that I just didn’t think I would be able to.
But once we were home, less than 24 hours after my waters had broken, it did seem to come somewhat naturally. I just kind of held him in place, helped him latch on and then waited for him to finish.
There are many, many things doctors don’t seem to warn you will happen after you’ve had your baby: hair loss and the weird regrowth, ridiculous mood swings and that first period that you’ll be dreading. But the worst one of all is the after pains in your uterus.
After you’ve given birth, your uterus which was once very small needs to get back to its original size and, to do that, it has to contract. Breastfeeding is known to make these contractions worse and I swear it was more painful than the early hours of labour.
One of the most vivid memories I have of Harry’s first week is sitting on my bed with him feeding, my toes curling from the pain. My partner watched on helplessly from the side of the bed as I cried my way through every feed.
It was the first time I really regretted my decision to breastfeed, I felt like I was putting the three of us through unnecessary heartache because, after all, I could simply swap to bottle-feeding and avoid all of this.
As I said at the beginning though, we were lucky not to experience any of the major problems associated with breastfeeding. Harry wasn’t tongue tied and he took to feeding quite well, I didn’t ever suffer from mastitis and, when I wanted a break, he would happily drink from a bottle so I could have a glass of wine or three.
But… feeding wasn’t without its challenges. We went through a stage where my nipple was flat when it came out of his mouth and I knew from reading up online that this wasn’t right.
I spent time on YouTube looking up different holds and different ways of getting Harry to take my breast, there I found the most useful piece of information I was ever given was how to unlatch the baby when it was hurting.
Knowing I didn’t just have to grin and bear it was a game-changer.
Then there was the stage of ‘fussy feeds’: where he’d latch on for a few minutes but soon start moving his head to look around the room – while still attached to me! I didn’t mind so much that he was being nosey, but when he was fussy feeding like this he became unhappy soon after – because he was hungry and wasn’t getting a proper feed.
So I began to wait longer between giving him feeds, an hour at first and then I stretched it to an hour and a half and two hours. It made such a difference: to his moods, to the length of his feeds and even to his sleep at night.
Again, knowing I could change what was wrong and fix it myself was a big deal for me!
There were other hard times too: the cluster feeding, the night feeds, the realisation I’d have to go even longer without drinking (but, oh, the feeling when I was told that I could have a drink I just had to time it right – who’d have thought the best time for a glass of wine is while you are feeding!?).
When I was in those hard times it was so, so important that I had someone to speak to.
I’m lucky to have a breastfeeding group near to me that I could go to once a week. It was actually the first thing I went out to alone with the baby and it really helped me start to settle into being a Mum (something I have really struggled with).
For me, the best bit about this group was that they had a Facebook page so when I wasn’t up to leaving the house, or when it was the dead of night and I’d had enough of breastfeeding, I was able to log on and ask for help.
In addition, I’ve been a member of another lovely Facebook group of Mums who were all due to give birth around the same time as me. We’ve helped each other through everything – including the toughest parts of feeding.
I don’t want my experience to come across as completely negative, so I do think it’s right to tell you about some of the best times we had:
There was the time I went to watch the football for the first time since giving birth. When Harry was seven weeks old I took him to the ‘away fans pub’ in Leeds to meet my friends who are fellow Ipswich fans.
While we were there Harry needed a feed, something to hopefully tide him over while I was at the game, so I found a seat in the pub and fed him under my football shirt.
During my time feeding I was never particularly shy about where I gave him a feed, I’d try to sit out of people’s way but I believe women shouldn’t have to hide away. I was a little nervous about doing it in a pub full of male football fans though!
But, do you know what? Not a bad word was uttered and I even had a few reassuring smiles as I walked back across the pub after Harry had finished. I was in my element, maybe it was possible to be a Mum and still be the football loving me after all!
Then there was the secret chamber at the Harry Potter Studio Tour, which we came across completely due to chance and the kindness of the wonderful staff there.
Harry had started crying (if the penny has just dropped, yes I named my first born after the Boy Who Lived!) and a kind lady came over and asked if we wanted to feed him. At first I was offended she was removing us from the room… but I needn’t have worried.
She showed us to a lovely room with a posh changing station and the world’s most comfy rocking chair, with a rocking footrest to match! The walls had sketches of the film sets on them, something you don’t get to see anywhere else on the tour.
And finally there was Harry’s first smile, I remember it so clearly even though it’s, what, nine months or so ago now?
We were feeding on the sofa and I had him in my left arm, his least favoured side. I looked down at him, we made eye contact and he smiled, for the first time ever, with my nipple still in his mouth!
There are other times that I remember fondly, like the time Luke bought me a Finding Dory bracelet to wear on my wrist to remind me which boob Harry had last fed from and the time I had to feed him in the middle of Santa’s grotto.
Writing about these has helped me to remember that I did actually enjoy the experience because, sadly, I think the way the journey ended clouds my memory a lot.
I was in a very negative place and I had come to the point of believing breastfeeding was the cause of all our issues. The sad thing is, it wasn’t actually breastfeeding that made me give up breastfeeding.
You see, Harry is an awful sleeper. We’d been doing fairly well until he reached four months and then it all went to pot. I was surviving on three hours broken sleep a night and it affected me in ways I’d never imagined.
On more than one occasion, it was suggested to me that if he was bottle fed he would settle easier and I was absolutely convinced that this was the case. I reached breaking point, I no longer wanted to be a Mum and I made the decision that I needed to take the pressure of feeding away.
I was sad, I was emotional, I was overly angry and really not liking my beloved first born son, or myself either to be honest. Something had to change and I decided that feeding should be it.
As soon as I set myself a target (‘I’ll feed until Friday when we are going out for a few drinks, that way I can enjoy our night without having to worry about when my milk is safe again’) the weight completely lifted from my shoulders.
I relaxed and started to feel like me again.
The trouble was, in my desperation to change how I was feeling I decided to stop in one go, to go cold turkey.
A few friends of mine who stopped in this was told me the pain from engorgement eases off within a couple of days… but that wasn’t the case for me at all! It took two whole weeks for my boobs to get back to normal and I was in a lot of pain for a long time.
The trouble is, when it comes to stopping feeding the support available from midwives and breastfeeding groups is non-existent. You are left to fend for yourself and I strongly believe there should be better advice available.
But, I guess feeding is like everything else when it comes to being a parent: you have to work out what is best for you and your family and a lot of the time it’s trial and error to figure out what that is.
Stopping feeding completely rather than dropping one feed at a time was definitely my biggest error… but I actually wouldn’t change the way it happened because I know it was the right thing for me at the time.
I’m proud of myself though, I set a target of six months and I got past that. I kept going through those awful nights even though the my head was telling me ‘it’d be a lot easier to give him formula’.
I’ve suffered guilt for forcing my partner to watch me in pain because I wanted to breastfeed. I’ve felt guilt for giving my son formula so that I could have a wine night with my friends. And I’ve dealt with the unbearable guilt of my son getting ill not long after I’d stopped breastfeeding – convinced it was because he was no longer getting my antibodies.
Breastfeeding, for me, wasn’t a blissful, bonding experience (in fact I fiercely maintain the relationship between my son and I is far better now the pressure of breastfeeding is off), but it was an experience I’ll never forget.
I don’t often take compliments well, but when someone gives me a pat on the back for doing it for as long as I did – I accept that.
And I’d like to give a pat on the back to every other Mum who has breastfed, as we celebrate an important week that gives us a chance to share information and support – #nationalbreastfeedingweek.
Join me on Friday for advice from Mums as I ask: ‘What tip would you give a new Mum wanting to breastfeed?’ Have you any tips you’d like me to include? What is your experience of breastfeeding?