Growing up, I had watched my mum breastfeeding my younger sisters and it always seemed so natural and normal. I had always assumed I would also breastfeed my children with no problem and when I became pregnant this was reinforced further. To be honest, I hadn’t given much thought to the possibility of not being able to. As my pregnancy progressed, I read a little about breastfeeding and there was a separate breastfeeding session within the NCT course I was on which we attended. During this taught session, I could answer a lot of the questions and felt pretty clued up. My midwife asked if I’d plan on breastfeeding. I said yes and this was the end of the discussion.
So fast forward to the birth of my daughter. I’d written in my birth plan that it was important to me that I attempt breastfeeding as soon as possible and as soon as she was born she was put to my breast. She didn’t latch and the midwives reassured me that this is normal and to just spend time doing lots of skin to skin and we’d get there. Six hours after she was born, she still hadn’t latched but I wasn’t too worried. At that point, a midwife support worker asked if I would try hand expressing into a syringe to feed my baby. Of course I would but I had no idea how to! I was grateful for her to just do it for me and collect enough to feed my baby. After all, I’d had a six day labour which ended in a forceps delivery and I was beyond exhausted.
Throughout the night I managed to get a couple of millilitres of colostrum into my baby via syringe but she still hadn’t mastered latching. From everywhere I’d read and heard, new babies fed roughly every 2 hours so why hadn’t my baby even cried for milk? Again, I was reassured that it had been a long labour and a stressful delivery and her head may be hurting and she’s tired and may not have fancied feeding. Also, their little tummies can get full of mucous so they feel full despite not having had milk. About sixteen hours after she was born, a breastfeeding counsellor came to see me in my hospital bed to offer support. I was in a lot of pain from an episiotomy despite regular pain relief so couldn’t sit upright. She suggested lying on my side and getting baby to latch that way. She stayed about ten minutes, baby hadn’t latched and she said ‘don’t worry, she’ll pick it up at some point' and off she went. This was fine except, when? How long would it take? For now, I was resigned to hand expressing and giving my baby small amounts of milk via a syringe.
Twenty four hours after the birth, a midwife came round and asked if I’d like to go home. To be honest, I wish I’d have said no. I wanted to say that I was worried that my baby hadn’t fed and no one could tell me why. I wanted my baby to have at least latched once before leaving the safety of the hospital. But I was also desperate to get home after such a long labour and no sleep for almost a week. Because I was able to hand express enough to give her, we made the decision to go home. So off we went and arrived home with our precious new baby...who wasn’t at all interested in feeding. She didn’t really give any clues that she wanted feeding and never really cried so I just guessed that we should try every few hours. We went to bed that first night home and it was the best night’s sleep I’d had in a couple of months! Not what we were expecting on the first night with a newborn baby! She only woke once that first night for a feed, where I hand expressed a few millilitres to give her. In hindsight, I probably should have set an alarm but I honestly thought she’d wake as we were always told that babies wake frequently.
Throughout the next day, we made several attempts to get her latched. A midwife came to visit who could help me for a few minutes but had to leave due to other visits which I totally get as I know how stretched the services are. On the second night home, we noticed she’d had hardly any wet nappies and was very sleepy. We tried the usual stripping off, splashing with cold water etc. to wake her enough to feed but by this point she was too sleepy to even swallow what we put in her mouth with the syringe. My milk obviously hadn’t come in by this point as we were only day 2 so a bottle of expressed milk wasn’t possible. You might be wondering why I didn’t just give a little bit of formula at this point but to be honest, it hadn’t even crossed my mind. I didn’t have any in the house and no one suggested it any point which I was glad about as for me personally, it wasn’t an option at this point.
I called a community midwife at 11:30 that night and explained what was going on and she asked us to come in to the local community hospital to check her over for jaundice. She was given the all clear for jaundice but said that she was a little dehydrated. I felt so guilty that I hadn’t given her enough but equally, as a first time mum very new to all this, it’s really hard to know what you should be doing. It turns out, hand expressing is actually pretty hard and is quite a skill! That evening, the midwife asked me if she could do the hand expressing for me. I’d never been so relieved to have a stranger quite literally ‘milk' me! She got loads more than I’d been able to and it made me realise how much she should have been having. Despite not wanting to give a formula feed, I absolutely would have if my baby’s health had truly been at risk.
Until my milk came in, I continued to hand express day and night into little cups which she would lap up like a cat. I felt reassured that she was getting enough but my goodness, hand expressing was hard! My husband even had to help as I was getting terrible neck pain from doing it. I don’t think either of us thought we’d be having to do this...it certainly took our marriage to another level! I was looking forward to my milk coming in so that I could at least express with my pump and bottle feed to make it a little easier. I mentioned this to the midwife who said that it was really important that I didn’t go down this route as baby may then be even less likely to ever master breastfeeding. I felt really stuck because I wasn’t getting much support with getting her to latch but also being told not to bottle feed as it would hinder our chances further.
On day four, my milk came in and despite being advised not to, I expressed milk and gave in a bottle. I’m so glad I trusted my gut in doing this. I was still frequently trying to get her to latch herself by doing lots of skin to skin and reading everything going on the best positions and what I could do to help her. But this kid was just not interested. On day six, the nursery nurse who works with my health visiting team came to my house for an hour to give us some support. My midwife had told me that she’s specifically trained in breastfeeding and that I should finally get the support I needed. I was feeling hopeful that she’d be able to wave her magic wand and get my baby breastfeeding. So for a whole hour, the nursery nurse just kept forcing a screaming, hungry baby at my breast until she had to give in and say that it was no good. So off she went. My only hope of getting my baby to breastfeed. I felt pretty deflated but not willing to give up hope.
The following day, I spoke to another midwife who suggested I go to my local breastfeeding cafe for support which had never been mentioned until this point. I was assured that if they couldn’t help, not much could...how reassuring! For the first time since my baby’s birth, I cried because it suddenly hit me that perhaps by baby would never master breastfeeding. I felt so sad as it was something I desperately wanted to do. My husband was fantastic, as were my whole family in supporting me and not once did they suggest I give up but also put no pressure on me to battle on. To this day I’m so grateful for this. I made the decision at this time, that if I had to express milk using my pump for the next six months, then this is what I would do.
The following day (day 7) I went off to my local breastfeeding cafe and met a midwife there who changed everything. She did a full assessment of my baby, including checking for tongue tie and her jaw and just looked at me and said ‘she’ll be fine and will feed from you’. Confident? Yes. But she was absolutely right. It also turns out she was my mums midwife almost 30 years ago which was wonderful to know. What eventually enabled my baby to feed was nipple shields. It turns out that my baby’s mouth couldn’t open fully due to her forceps delivery and by using nipple shields, she could open her mouth just enough to latch. The moment she latched, I burst out crying. I was just so happy. I also didn’t really mind at that point if this was all we ever managed, I was just so relieved!
We continued using these for the next week, day and night. When she was 2 weeks old, the same midwife managed to get her to latch for the first time without a shield. From then, we used the shields for most feeds, especially at night time when she was too sleepy to latch properly and she’d do the occasional feed without them. I was absolutely OK with the idea of potentially using nipple shields for the entirety of our breastfeeding journey, however long that might be because to me, that was better than not being able to feed my baby at all. Over the next couple of weeks, we managed to wean her off the shields in the day, just using them at night. They did make feeding in public even harder for a first time mum but from quite early on I was adamant that I if my baby needed feeding, she’d get fed, wherever we were. I soon became very confident, realising there is nothing to be embarrassed about. Luckily I’ve never experienced any negativity from the public. By week 6, we had stopped using shields altogether.
I’m really happy to say that, 9 months down the line we are still breastfeeding and see no signs of stopping anytime soon. It’s now become so easy, I don’t even think about it. All the hard work in the early days truly paid off. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve certainly still had our ups and downs with over supply, engorgement and nursing strikes but with the right support, I feel we’re out the other end. I feel quite emotional when I think that one day, our breastfeeding journey will come to an end but I feel so proud of what we’ve achieved together.
My advice to pregnant women planning on breastfeeding and new mothers at the beginning of their breastfeeding journey would be to seek support early on and insist on daily help in the early days if you’re struggling. Get to your local breastfeeding cafe or seek help from the specialist feeding team at your hospital and perhaps seek support from a cranial osteopath (something I wish we’d done). I also found Facebook support groups, Instagram accounts offering support and other mums an incredible help in those early days and sometimes still fall back on them now if we have struggles or questions. Luckily, I never felt that I was mentally suffering with these difficulties which is why it’s so easy for me to say ‘don’t give up’. I also realise that this isn’t the case for a lot of new mothers and there should be no shame in introducing formula feeds for your baby.
We often hear the term ‘fed is best’ which is of course right, but in my opinion information and support is surely better no matter which route you end up going down in making sure your baby is fed. Whether that be exclusively breastfed, bottle fed with expressed milk, combination feeding or formula fed, a healthy and happy baby is paramount.