When chatting to new mums, breastfeeding is a topic that comes up often. And without fail, there’s always one sentence that’s repeated again and again:
“I had no idea it would be so hard”
In those first few weeks when I was struggling so much, I remember replaying a conversation I’d had with my health visitor over and over in my head. When I was still pregnant, she’d asked me how I felt about breastfeeding and I’d breezily replied “oh, I’ll be fine. It’ll all come naturally!”. How wrong I was.
From the moment Hazel was placed on my chest after labour, we struggled. She didn’t latch when placed right in front of her target, let alone make her own way to the nipple like they show you in the antenatal classes. She didn’t feed at all that first day and then followed three days of hospital hell, having colostrum syringed from my boobs by kind midwives and desperately thrusting my nipples into my baby’s face.
On the surface it looked like I’d mastered feeding – the midwives kept telling me I was doing a great job, but instinctively I knew it wasn’t right. On day three Hazel was weighed and she’d lost 15% of her body weight – she hadn’t been feeding properly at all. I was heartbroken and felt so unbearably guilty that I hadn’t done my job properly; that my body had betrayed us both. After that, we were put on a feeding routine which involved bottles of formula topped up with my expressed milk every three hours. Hazel soon regained her weight but that feeling of guilt never left me.
When we left hospital after five days, I was managing to express enough milk for every feed, so we dropped the formula, but she still wouldn’t breastfeed. I tried and tried and tried, a punishing schedule of bottle feeding and expressing and offering a boob – the endless cycle felt never ending, starting again almost as soon as it had finished. Then, completely out of the blue, Hazel started feeding from me.
But still we struggled. Breastfeeding was awkward and painful, and I was constantly worried that Hazel wasn’t getting enough milk. We were referred to a consultant for a tongue tie snip, but eventually told the tie was so minor that if cut, it would probably hinder feeding rather than help. I went to a breastfeeding cafe which was really reassuring but offered no answers – my positioning was correct, our latch was good, there was nothing that needed changing. But still the pain continued and everything I’d read told me if feeding is painful, you’re doing it wrong.
The combination of pain and worry meant I didn’t enjoy breastfeeding at all. It didn’t feel natural or help with our bond – if anything, I think my problems with feeding made it harder for me to bond with my daughter. I spent the first four weeks of her life dreading feeding, getting frustrated and constantly worrying about her weight. Just get to six weeks, I told myself. Then you can stop.
But suddenly, it started to get better. Six weeks came and went. I carried on feeding, each time finding it a bit easier. I still wasn’t enjoying it, but I didn’t fear our feeds. I appreciated the ease of whipping out a boob and started to gain confidence feeding in public. My supply regulated and I didn’t leak. My boobs stopped resembling boulders. And best of all, I could see Hazel gaining weight at a rapid pace. It was working.
Hazel is now 10 weeks old and I can finally say I love feeding her. There’s no more pain and I feel that bond growing stronger every time we settle down together. I love snuggling with her in the dead of night, love scrolling through Instagram while she gets on with it, love stopping her cries with a quick boob in the face. It all seems to have clicked into place, and my goalposts have moved from six weeks to six months to whenever she’s ready to stop. Seven weeks ago, breastfeeding indefinitely felt like an alien concept. The difference is remarkable.
Struggling with breastfeeding is something I hadn’t anticipated. I think of myself as a strong, capable person, but this broke me. It knocked me off my feet and I was totally unprepared. I think my saving grace was the unending support from Rob and my family, plus an acceptance that bottle is just as good as breast. Formula saved us in those very early days and if my struggle had gone on another week or so I would’ve switched to bottles and never looked back.
Feeding guilt is realer than real – pregnant or not, we’re bombarded with pressure to breastfeed and for women who go on to have a baby, breastfeeding is often the end goal. There are no antenatal classes on formula feeding. Expectant parents aren’t taught how to make up a feed or use a bottle. Bottle feeding support groups are practically non-existent. So when breastfeeding doesn’t work, the guilt is overwhelming and leads to many women suffering in silence.
Accepting that there’s no ‘right or wrong’ way to feed your baby is a hugely important part of the parenting experience. Your welfare is just as important as your baby’s, and if breastfeeding isn’t happening or you’re not enjoying it, switching to formula is right for you. A happy mama means a happy baby and the only right way is the one that works for you both.
If you’re struggling with breastfeeding but feel like you want to keep at it, here are a few things that really helped me get through those early weeks…
– Cluster feeding is hell but it won’t last forever. As with most newborn phases, everything is temporary and this too will pass.
– Give up underwired bras immediately. Soft, comfortable nursing bras are your friend, even if they make your boobs look shit.
– Uniqlo’s Heattech tops are amazing. They have a wide, scoop neck that can be pulled down to release a boob without the need for the faffy clips or confusing flaps on official nursing tops. Plus, they’re super warm and cosy for these chilly winter days.
– For nighttime feeds, wear a button-down pyjama top unbuttoned enough for easy boob access, with a soft sleep bra underneath. Sitting up in bed at 3am with your top up around your neck and your stomach exposed is a surefire way to catch cold.
– Don’t worry if you can’t master feeding while lying down. It seems to be the hot new trend in breastfeeding and lots of women find it a lifesaver for those endless early nights, but you (like me) might find it easier and more comfortable to feed sitting up. Whatever works for you.
– Breastfeeding pillows are the best thing ever. Mine is from Mamas & Papas and I love it almost as much as I love my baby.
– It *will* hurt to start with. You might have weeks of pain before things settle down. Your nipples will be red raw and your boobs as hard as rocks. Nipple balm will help, as will distraction techniques when feeding – Instagram scrolling and Amazon shopping were my saviours. If the pain is unbearable or going on way too long, see a lactation consultant to check your latch and positioning, and ask about a potential tongue tie.
– It’s ok if you don’t leak. It doesn’t mean your milk has dried up or there’s not enough of it. The proof is in the pudding – if your baby is gaining weight, you’re absolutely fine. Celebrate by wearing a light-coloured top without fear!
– Arrange your essentials before you start feeding – your phone, a bottle of water, snacks, the TV remote. And make sure they’re all on the right side so you can actually reach them!
– Keep bottles, pre-made formula and sterilising tablets in the house. You’ll be so thankful for them when your baby is screaming and refusing your boobs at 1am.
– Talk about it. Explain to your partner why you want to breastfeed so they can support you. Tell your friends. Meet up with other mums and tell them, too. Go to breastfeeding support groups and pour your heart out. Cry as much as you want. Talk, talk, talk. Normalising breastfeeding and its many challenges is hugely important.
– Be kind to yourself.