What comes up for you when you think of this word?
Its World Breastfeeding Week and my social media is flooded with images of women celebrating their breastfeeding journeys and defending their breastfeeding rights: Their right to feed their child from their body the way nature intended and their right to feed their child in their community without shame, without judgement, without having to hide themselves or their child.
It makes me so happy to see women engaging conversation and challenging the current discrimination around breastfeeding.
But at the same time, my heart breaks.
My heart breaks for the women who cannot or do not breastfeed.
My heart breaks for the women who’s breastfeeding journeys are affected by medical, physical, social and emotional challenges.
My heart breaks for women who’s breastfeeding journeys are wrought with fear, pain, despair and shame.
I reflect on my own breastfeeding journeys, and the imprint they have made on me years later.
The Need for Healing
Last year I participated in a research project on best maternity care. On the topic of expectations, I wrote about my memories of breastfeeding. As I wrote, I recounted the memories with rational feeling, but the day I read it to my research colleagues, I broke down in tears. I had to stop reading. Take a number of breaths. Clear my throat. And then persist. This emotional reaction surprised me. It downright shocked me. I wasn’t emotional writing the story and it had been 7 years since the first experience and 3 years since the last… so why was I emotional reading it?
The truth is, like many other women I know, I haven’t ever really healed from my difficult breastfeeding experiences. This is very apparent as I regularly reflect on my personal postpartum stories while supporting my friends and clients as a postpartum doula.
And I find myself mourning. Mourning for the ability to feed my babies from my body. Mourning for the convenience of express breastfeeding – no pumping, no cleaning bottles, no rushing home to feed the hungry baby because you forgot to pack the extra formula, or you left the bottle at home by mistake. Mourning for the loss of that precious tingling feeling that came with the let down. That feeling I loved and yearned for but which came only a few times. Mourning for the ability to nourish my child in a way I hoped but couldn’t.
It’s all still so raw.
My breastfeeding journey was a difficult one, and was influenced by my self esteem and sense of identity that dates back to my teenage years. I held much shame around my breasts and body shape and held myself back in so many ways.
Later I discovered my mother had also had a difficult breastfeeding journey. There were attachment issues and as a baby I wouldn’t latch on or would fall asleep at the breast. Support options like breastfeeding education classes, and apparatus like breast shields weren’t available in those days. While midwives tried to help, it just created a huge amount of stress and trauma that transmitted from mother to baby and within 8 days breastfeeding was abandoned. From my mother’s journey I understood well before my own pregnancies, that everyone’s breastfeeding experiences were different, not all breastfeeding experiences ended in success, and it was ok to bottle feed if need be.
Preparing For My Own Breastfeeding Journey
During my first pregnancy, I read a lot of stories on parenting forums of women who had felt pressured, and in some cases bullied, by midwives to continue breastfeeding, despite feeling traumatised by their experiences and wanting to give up.
Knowing my personal experience, that my mum had trouble breastfeeding me, and hearing of these traumatic stories, my approach to breastfeeding with my first baby was one of interest but hesitation. I told my midwife that I was open to breastfeeding but would have no hesitation going to formula if need be. I attended the breastfeeding class offered by the hospital, I read up on the benefits of breastfeeding and made a commitment to try it, knowing that breast milk offered so many immune and digestive benefits over formula. I wanted to give my baby the best start to her life as possible.
The Early Days – Round One
My actual experience of breastfeeding my first child however, was quite traumatic. The birth was a completely euphoric and emerging experience for me, but a number of difficulties and disappointments were ahead: My first child never did the newborn crawl to the breast. After half an hour of waiting the midwife encouraged us to place her at the breast and attempt the first feed. My baby was so tired she barely fed. On one occasion she slept for over 9hrs without a feed and was difficult to wake. From the outside, it would appear she was attaching well, but baby would barely stay on the breast for more than 3 minutes at a time before she pulled away or I took her off due to the extreme pain I was feeling.
There was a lot of damage to my nipples. They were misshapen, tender, bleeding and on one occasion feeding had resulted in a blood blister the size of a fish scale on my nipple. OUCH! It also became apparent that a tongue tie was further complicating matters. As it was the new year period, we wouldn’t be able to see a doctor until my baby was 8 days old, so I began expressing to help get food into her, but this strategy had its own pitfalls: I was only able to express 20-50mls a day, and this was barely even enough for one or two feeds, let alone a 24hr period!
By day 4, new years day, we were admitted to hospital for monitoring. My baby had lost a lot of weight. By day 5 she had lost 14% of her body weight, more than the acceptable 10% in 7 days.
There was also concern as she was getting harder to wake, was not taking to the breast or bottle, and barely getting 20 mls at a time by this stage. It was decided the best way to feed her was with formula by nasogastric tube until she had the energy to take the whole bottle. This was a truly traumatic time for my husband and I. It was so apparent how fragile and sick our child was and how inefficient my body was at feeding her.
Hope For Change
By day 8, the tongue tie was snipped and the nasogastric tube removed. My baby finally had the energy to take three consecutive bottles all on her own and we could take her home at last!
At home, we re-focussed on breastfeeding, but to be honest neither of us seemed to have the heart for it. My baby preferred milk from the bottle and my nipples were still hurting so much. I continued expressing and feeding top-up formula, but the cycle of putting baby to the breast, feeding expressed breastmilk, bottle feeding, expressing with a single pump, and then cleaning took up way too much energy.
My hopes were further diminished when, a few weeks into this parenting journey, I was still unable to express more than 50ml a day despite trying numerous medications to increase supply.
By the time my baby was 3 weeks old, we declined the opportunity to use line supplement feeding, stopped breast feeding and expressing, and went wholly and solely to formula bottle feeding and everyone’s spirits soared.
Research and Knowledge
Two and a half years after giving birth to my first baby, my friend sent me a link to a KellyMom article on Insufficient Glandular Tissue. This article and my associated research led me to the long awaited explanations and answers about my body and the breastfeeding experience I had. Armed with information about my body that I lacked in my previous experience I felt relief and a new sense of readiness for my next breastfeeding journey.
In 2014, however, when I fell pregnant with my second child, I became increasingly concerned about going through the difficult breastfeeding process. I spoke with my midwives regularly throughout the pregnancy, as well as a lactation consultant at just 20 weeks gestation. We came up with options for trying to establish breastfeeding, using complementary feeding strategies, understanding the signs of my baby not getting enough milk, a plan for when to cease persisting with breastfeeding as well as implementing antenatal expressing from 36 weeks.
The antenatal expressing was somewhat difficult and uncomfortable but I was able to collect between 0.5 and 3ml a day (progressively) until my second child was born.
The Early Days – Round Two
When my second daughter was born, I was delighted to see her crawl to the breast. Her eagerness gave me hope, but it would soon be apparent she too was not be getting the milk she needed.
We fed her all of the precious liquid gold expressed colostrum and tried express breastfeeding. On day three, the midwives visited and were met with a hysterically emotional mother: A combination of hormonal shifts and nipple pain, an evening of what felt like torture as my newborn had me up all night trying to feed, latching well but getting fussier as time wore on and she wasn’t getting the milk she needed.
My baby was losing weight but forever persisting at feeding.
At this point the midwives conceded that maybe I was right about my body and we decided to cease breastfeeding: I wasn’t going to repeat the experience we had 4 years ago, and be admitted to hospital. I was choosing to feed my child and reduce the stress in our family. My husband and I decided the best plan was to formula feed from the bottle, and provide expressed breast milk at every feed for as long as possible. I hired a hospital grade pump, bought two breast attachments and expressed both breasts for 20 minutes after every feed for a month. I didn’t keep records, but from memory, I think the most milk I was able to express was 70mls per day; more than the first expressing experience, but certainly not enough to feed my baby.
Reflections and Mourning
In both cases, I mourned the cessation of my breastfeeding experiences.
I mourned for the loss of skin to skin contact and physical connection with my baby.
I mourned for the very addictive and elusive feeling of let down.
I mourned for the expectations that my body would provide enough nourishment to feed my children.
I mourned for my changed identity as a mother which was now shattered and replaced with feelings of failure and loss.
I mourned for the easiness that express breastfeeding could have given us, which was replaced with cycles of feeding, expressing, cleaning, preparing and forward planning.
I mourned for the idealistic expectations and hope that I held.
Replacing Grief and Moving On
There came a time when I decided I needed to move on somehow, so I actively decided to replace my grief with more constructive beliefs.
I replaced my grief with strength: I continued to feed my baby and redefine the measures of success of a mother. I wasn’t here to breastfeed. I was here to feed by baby.
I replaced my grief with trust: in my identity and confidence as a mother to make the decisions that are right for me and my family at that time.
I replaced my grief with courage: To stand up to other people (both medical and non-medical), who confronted me with their judgement for not providing breastmilk to my baby.
I replaced this grief with opportunity: For my children to connect with their siblings, father and other important people in their lives by giving those people the opportunity to provide milk through a bottle to my baby.
I replaced my grief with knowledge: About my body and I documented this for my children to read later in their lives so they may know the struggles we had and how this may inform their own choices in their parenting journeys.
My Hopes and Dreams for Mothers Today
Today, years after my own breastfeeding journeys, I am replacing my grief with communication and compassion: For new mothers who may be experiencing breastfeeding issues, so they may not feel alone in their journeys, and For the general community, to raise awareness that not all women are able to breastfeed successfully.
I want new mothers to know that if it works for you then:
Its OK to feed your baby however is right for you.
Its OK to breastfeed your baby.
Its OK to syringe/line/tube feed your baby.
Its OK to cup feed your baby.
Its OK to bottle feed your baby.
Its OK to feed your baby breast milk.
Its OK to feed your baby well prepared formula.
Its OK to do a mix of all of these.
Its OK to feed your baby on demand.
Its OK to feed your baby on a schedule.
Its OK to feed your baby at home.
Its OK to feed your baby in public.
Its OK to feed your baby at a restaurant.
Its OK to feed your baby without suffocating them with covers.
Its OK to feed your baby without guilt or shame.
Its OK to have someone else feed your baby.
Its OK to feed your baby in the way that is right for you, and your baby, in your own unique circumstances.
I want new mothers to feel:
Inspired to research the feeding options that are available.
Reassured that its OK to listen to their own intuition, and seek help and information if they have concerns about breastfeeding.
Confident in making the feeding decisions that are right for them and their families given their own unique circumstances.
Compassion instead of judgement or shame, from other women and the broader community, for feeding their baby wherever and whenever their baby is hungry.
Pride and Achievement for their own unique feeding journey.
Duty and Responsibility to change the current shame filled culture of feeding our babies.
It’s our role as women and members of a broader society, to start changing the way we view and support ourselves and our fellow new mothers in our choices, regardless of whether these are the same or different.