I've had the privilege of breastfeeding Harry for 18 weeks today. A good friend who is expecting asked me for some advice on breastfeeding and I just couldn't put anything quick together. Blog writing has helped me in so many ways it was the natural option to get down some thoughts on breastfeeding too. I guess this is a mixture of advice, thoughts and reflections. It's a bit of an epic and more specific than other blogs I've written so may not be for you! If you get as far as the end...well done, and thank you!
Breastfeeding conversation inevitably seems to end up in a debate about breast milk or formula. It's a hot topic. This blog is not intended to generate any debate; it's just my experience, which has been overwhelmingly positive, I know that not all mums have had the same experience and I mean no offence. It may be useful to you, it may not, but either way thanks for stopping by 😊
When I was pregnant I was asked often how I would feed my baby. At the time I had unknowingly subscribed to the fed is best philosophy and would reply that I would try and would like to if I "could". I had no idea that only 2% of woman could not breastfeed for medical reasons. That means that I was far more likely to fall into the 98% of women who had the ABILITY to breastfeed.
TIP ONE: Do some research!
Pretty quickly though I realised that ability was only half the battle. I have the ability to become an Olympic athlete, what I don't have is the desire, determination, fondness for high protein diets or winter training.
Breastfeeding requires a certain mind set. Why? Because it's tough. Yes it's natural, yes it's how we are meant to feed our babies but it's tough. Childbirth is natural but hey we all know that's no walk in the park either. Natural doesn't equal easy.
It's not something you or your baby can prepare or practice for. There's no dress rehearsal. No exam. Baby comes out, roots around (possibly the most amazing thing I've ever experienced by the way) and there you are looking at this tiny human, minutes old, hoping they know what they're doing because quite frankly you've not got a clue.
In hindsight we shouldn't have been discharged when we were. Only one midwife was able to get Harry to feed, when Scott had been sent home me and Harry fumbled around and I have no idea if he fed or not if I'm honest. No one checked before sending us home.
TIP TWO; do not let a midwife force baby on to latch and then say voila! Make sure YOU can get your baby to latch.
When describing how tough I was finding it to a friend they said "oh but I thought it was all natural and instinctive". Aside from wanting to squirt them in the eye with my painful, engorged breasts, I explained how the instinct to feed and be fed is all natural but the technique takes time and practice.
For about four days Harry just wouldn't latch, or he'd do it once and then not again for the whole day. I can remember expressing colostrum into a tiny pot and feeding it to him via syringe that Scott had had to frantically go and buy. No one told us about this possible event and it was certainly not covered in ante natal classes.
TIP THREE; buy syringes!
So, there you are, tired, physically exhausted, trying to remember your pelvic floor exercises, greeting visitors and pretending it's okay for them to stay for another cuppa and your baby will not feed. It didn't matter how many times I read about 'nose to nipple', we just couldn't seem to do it, it took forever to get him on and get some milk into him and the whole time the poor little thing is crying. You could just pop out and buy formula and this whole thing would be okay. Here comes the mind set; you've got to really want to breastfeed your baby to get through these times. We did with a little help from the Internet and unwavering support from Scott.
Thank heavens for Amazon Prime; we ordered nipple shields as we suddenly remembered the midwife at the hospital recommending them. And. Thank the breastfeeding gods he fed!!! He fed!!! The pain went (ah I hadn't mentioned that bit had I...?!) and he fed!!!!
Despite the midwife at the hospital recommending them, we were then subject to harsh and unhelpful criticism from the community midwife and health visiting team. Without any evidence based research or suggestions of how to wean off the shields they made me feel so crappy. Like a failure. An idiot. They made me anxious and obsessed with coming off the shields. I really hate the way they made me feel at time when I needed support and help. And I most definitely did not need another yellow "off to the best start" booklet.
TIP FOUR; Don't expect too much from your health team. Sadly my experience was not great. I had to trust my instincts and do my own research. I don't rate the aftercare I received very highly at all.
Now, here's the next bit no one told us about. Cluster feeding. Translated into feeding just about every waking minute. No one told me and I didn't think to research how often my baby would feed, I didn't know how quickly breast milk was digested and I knew nothing about how clever Harry would be at telling my body how much milk to produce. I'd lived in a world influenced by formula companies. I thought Harry should feed X times a day, have X much, and that if he wanted any more he must be hungry and must need formula. Unless you are in the 2% who are not able to breastfeed, your milk is enough, your baby is doing what they need to do. Go with it.
Somehow, the experience of breastfeeding him (even when via syringe) for only a couple of days triggered something in me. The mind set was there. Harry was not having formula. I was not going to risk my supply by "topping up" and I was going to trust my baby and my body to figure it all out. They'd done alright working together for nine months to make Harry and bring him into the world so I felt they were a trusted combo.
So I fed, all day, all night, I relied on Scott to bring me drinks and have them through a straw while he stood there. I relied on my parents to do our washing and ironing, we ate ready meals and sterilised nipple shields in the precious moments that Harry slept. I lay on the sofa for eight hours straight one day feeding; Harry would sleep for 15 minutes every now and then before waking with such a scream I felt I was failing. But now, 4 months on, he's thriving!
TIP FIVE; buy straws or drink bottles with straws. Drink LOTS! I was so thirsty for the first few weeks - I'd never experienced anything quite like it.
TIP SIX; ask for help, accept help, give in and be helped. You're keeping a brand new human alive, it's okay to get someone to wait on you for a bit.
Social media was a blessing at these times. 24/7 access to mums going through the same thing and others who were on the other side telling us it was normal. Grab another chocolate bar, get comfy, get Netflix and settle down for the duration.
TIP SEVEN; stock up on chocolate and get a Netflix subscription (much more useful present by the way than another baby gro!!)
TIP EIGHT; find support! Social media has a lot to answer for in many negative ways, but it was a lifeline to me. Find a group that works for you, I would recommend a breastfeeding support group rather than generic parenting ones.
There are lots of breastfeeding clinics/groups in my area, but for one reason and another I never made it. Unfortunately in those early days when I needed help the most, I couldn't get out of the house on time. More than one occasion, with both my Mum and Scott helping me to get ready, Harry was feeding so constantly I missed the whole 2 hour clinic. Don't beat yourself up when this happens.
Another difficulty was not wanting to hear yet another person's opinion. After the bad experience with the aftercare team, I just didn't want to face another 'expert' and be told something different or be made to feel even worse than I already did.
During ante-natal classes and groups, there was so much focus on giving birth and pain relief. In my opinion, far too much time is spent on this. Baby is coming out one way or another and you'll take what pain relief you and your midwife feel is appropriate on the day. No where near enough time is given to talking about breastfeeding and absolutely no mention was made of thrush.
We had thrush for weeks. The pain was immense.
My contractions started at 11pm on Friday night and Harry was born at 6:24pm on the Sunday. It was relatively quick. Contractions come and go and once the pushing was over, I had Harry and the pain disappeared. Thrush, however, is evil. It's there all day. It's there when you shower, when you undress, when you feed, when you've stopped feeding. I can remember gripping the bed sheets in agony, tears running down my face as Harry fed. No-one so much as hinted this could happen.
I could have stopped breastfeeding. I had the ability, but, my determination and pain threshold was seriously diminishing. Somehow, the mind set and the bond created from breastfeeding got me through. I did some research, I read medical journals and wrote a letter to the partner of the GP surgery and a different approach was taken. Another week or so later and we were thrush free.
TIP NINE; stock up on pain relief, refer to tip one and tip eight, don't give up.
While pregnant, you focus on your new body shape and there's a need for some maternity clothes. You think about something comfy to wear once baby is born, but then, then what? I hadn't really prepared for breastfeeding clothes. Particularly at the beginning while you're learning how to get the latch and when baby might be on and off quite a lot, what you wear can be important. I lived in shirts, cardigans and breastfeeding support tops. I also bought just about every breastfeeding bra I could find (always go bigger!) until finally finding some that were comfortable.
Four months down the line, I can breastfeed in more types of clothes, have got used to how to be discreet when needed but still have certain clothes I'll wear if I know I'll need to feed in public. It's worth giving it some thought as unfortunately you'll find some of your lovely dresses, cute leotards that you wear with your favourite skirt and jumpers with embellishments are just not practical.
TIP TEN; review your wardrobe. Buy cheap crop top style bras in a couple of sizes too big. I really liked these from ASDA. I also found H&M breastfeeding tops to be the best for support and comfort.
Okay, let's talk about leaking. It happens. A lot. It can leave you with wet patches all down your top, it can shoot across the room, it can hit baby/partner in the eye. It soaks your bed sheets and you have to decide whether to eat/drink/shower/go for a wee or change the bed sheets on a daily basis. Honestly, you get so accustomed to lying in/wearing bodily fluids it all becomes a bit of a non-event.
It does stop though and it all calms down. But while you're dealing with it, I can only say try a few different pads to find ones that you like. Stock up on a few before baby arrives. I only really got on with Johnsons. I would also suggest taking a spare vest top out with you in case of any particularly bad leaks. It's also a good idea to have a scarf with you - I keep one in my change bag - to help with covering up during a feed and any leaks afterwards. Oh, and during a feed baby can throw up what seems like a whole feed all down you. It's like someone actually threw a glass of milk at you.
TIP ELEVEN; don't waste all that marvellous milk or get yourself soaked for no reason! I wish someone had told me about the Haakaa pump (again, far more useful gift than a baby gro). I found out via a breastfeeding Facebook group and it's been amazing. Easy to use and a great way to grow your freezer stash.
While you're getting used to things, find a few places around the home you feel comfortable feeding in (after a while, honestly, you'll feed anywhere!) and have essentials available. For example, bottles of water, grapes, chopped peppers and chocolate. Mostly chocolate. You may also find a breastfeeding basket helpful; make sure your partner or other support know where it is and how/when it needs replenishing.
TIP TWELVE; if baby is eating/drinking, you should be eating/drinking too! Try and drink water and have some grapes (and chocolate) during each feed. Especially in those first few weeks when you can barely remember your name, let alone how to sustain a healthy diet. Or any diet for that matter.
I wish I had been a little more prepared with all of the above, but, then, it's also been really fun finding out about it together with Scott and Harry. We've laughed, I've cried, I've never taken so many paracetemol in my life (oh, one more tip, check EVERYTHING before taking it! I once took a cold/flu drink and then found out it can affect your supply. Assume everything is unsafe before you take it!).
Get Amazon Prime, try things, if it doesn't work, try something else.
Remember what an incredible thing you are doing; you were solely responsible for growing your baby for 9 months and now you can be solely responsible for keeping them alive and well. It's such a great feeling at weigh ins, when they're gaining well and you know you're responsible for every ounce. You feel empowered, special, privileged, exhausted, anxious about feeding in public, sometimes trapped that you can't just leave the house for a minute in case baby needs a feed.
It gets easier, you settle into a little groove, you and baby figure it out. Don't give up, without sounding like an advert or cliché, it is without doubt the best thing I have ever experienced. I love every feed, I love it at 4am when it's just us. I love it when Harry looks up at me with his huge blue eyes during a feed, knowing that I am the only person alive who gets that view.