I don’t think people are honest about how hard breastfeeding is. The NHS definitely aren’t. They’re so keen for you to do it so that baby can reap the rewards (which I totally get), that I think they downplay how truly exhausting, frustrating, relentless, and ultimately difficult it can be. And I don’t think honesty would scare people off. If anything, I think people would stick with it for longer- at the moment, I know mums who are giving up because they feel like failures, because someone led them to believe that it shouldn’t hurt, or that it just shouldn’t be as hard as it is. Fact is, if you’re going from not having something sucking on your nipples multiple times throughout the day, to suddenly doing so, your kid could have the most perfect latch in the world- but that shit is still going to be at its absolute best, uncomfortable for a while. Your nips will be sore. They may crack, or even bleed. You’ll smother them in Lanolin, but your baby’s relentless chomping schedule will see to that. They won’t fully recover between the feeds, so you’ll favour the slightly less ravaged boob. And then that one will go. And eventually, they’ll harden to it, like a builders hands eventually grow callous (beautiful, right?). And maybe it’ll be better. And if your latch isn’t perfect? Then add in attaching, and then reattaching, and then repositioning, and then you get it, and baby takes a break and goes back to the boob, and it’s fucked again. I likened it to running from a mugger, but on a sprained ankle- you have to do it, but it’s far from fucking ideal.
River and I managed a nice deep latch a few hours after he was born, and that continued nicely. I found that the football hold allowed for the most control over my insanely long baby (56cm at birth!), and I could really see what was going on. But it still hurt, and I was assured by the hospital staff that the latch was great, it was just that my nips weren’t used to it, and after a few days, it would get better. Once we were home, we kept feeding as we had been. Coupled with the lack of sleep and aching from head to toe, it just felt relentless. That first night home was hard, and I’m sure the latch suffered a couple of times, but I couldn’t bring myself to start reattaching him while he was hungry and I was exhausted- he was eating well, and that was the most important.
The next day, the left boob was pretty sore, so I stuck to the right, and used my hand pump on the left, so it wouldn’t become engorged. Our 24 hour visit from the midwife came, and a check of feeding went excellently- the latch was perfect, she was really pleased that we were doing the football hold over the more popular cradle hold, and she commended me for successfully breastfeeding him. I was concerned about the pain still, and she assured me I had nothing to worry about, and that it would improve. But I couldn’t get past what I had been told for the entirety of my pregnancy- breastfeeding shouldn’t hurt. Literally, EVERYONE had said this. If it hurts, you’re doing it wrong. And it hurt. What was the problem? Cracks were appearing, but everyone said there was no problem? Every feed got more intense, and I was dreading his hunger cries. Breastfeeding him felt like something I had to psych myself up for, not the oxytocin producing, beautiful bonding experience that all those same people told me it would be. Why had they all lied? I must be the only one feeling this, because nobody had prepared me for this. I couldn’t express a good amount, as my milk was yet to come in, and the bits I did get out weren’t to fill a bottle, but to finger feed from syringes. Of which I had one left. I felt like a failure when I sent Robert out to buy a tub of emergency formula. The breastfeeding specialist visited the next day. I explained the problems I was having. Cracks had started to appear, the pain was now emanating throughout my entire boob, this could not be right. But I whipped my boob out, popped River on it, and yet again, was praised for what a beautiful latch I had, and how well I was doing, and wasn’t I clever. I wanted to scream at her, no! I’m not even slightly fucking good at this, you all said it shouldn’t hurt, and it does! I can’t successfully feed him AND be in pain! You always said this, why are you only now changing your tune? Which one is the lie? But I didn’t, I thanked her for coming by, and continued.
My milk had come in, so I started pumping, and storing milk for bottles. My supply was and still is very good, and I felt so much happier knowing that if I had to give up, there was a stock in the fridge, and that I could make more. If I found the courage to feed him from the breast, I put the hand pump on the other boob and found I could get another whole feed ready to stash. I got sleep overnight (more on this later) and River became a baby who was combi fed, direct from breast and now mostly with a nipple shield, and expressed breast milk in a bottle. This had always been my plan anyway, so not a problem. I’m a fairly realistic person, and adding formula was no issue if it had to be done (which I have since done, for his in the night feed). Fed really is best. But I just felt a bit pissed off. There were women in online groups that I was a part of who were having the same struggles I had been having. Some of them were now entirely feeding their babies formula, and were heartbroken about it. They felt like they had failed, or that they had done something wrong. But I can’t help but think that if they had been better prepared earlier on, that they wouldn’t have ‘given up’. Or that maybe they would have, but they wouldn’t have felt so guilty about it, and realised that they really were not alone in doing so. We haven’t had breastfeeding support groups, or home visits, or anything to help us, because our babies have been born in or just before lockdown. We’re the women who are muddling through it alone, and by all accounts, with unrealistic ideas that we’re struggling to rectify. So I don’t mean to scare anyone. And I’m sure for some people, it really is as great as everyone tells us it should be. If you have a good latch, you’ll have a good time. But almost everyone in my support network has had a different journey. And very few of them have stuck with just a boob and a kid. There’s been shields, and pumps, and cups, and shells, and formula, and everything else that you could possibly imagine. And our babies are fed, and we’re all ok. We haven’t failed.
Breastfeeding is hard. But feeling like a fuck up is harder. So I want you to remember that, fourth trimester mama, the next time you reach for the bottle, or you cry over a bleeding nipple. You’re doing really well.