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.
This was a great post Jen! You’ve done so well to carry on through the pain and difficulties and come out on top with your feeding.
I’m hoping to breastfeed when my son is born and reading this has really helped in anticipating what may come with it. You’re also so on it regarding the antenatal classes and lack of support or knowledge for bottle feeding and from my experience ‘feeding specialists’ dismiss any ideas of breastfeeding being difficult when you ask about it prior to birth and make out as though it will be a smooth ride as your ‘body is designed to do it’.
Great stuff! 👍🏼
Chelsea | http://www.theloveofsunday.co.uk
Best advice we got was from my wife’s cousin (also a midwife) just as we walked out of the hospital; she said if it was too hard DO. NOT. WORRY. about it and go bottle – the first few days are so amazing and mental it’s not worth the stress of worrying about breastfeeding…bottles and formula are cool too.
I could have written this myself, Jen. I too was nearly broken by breastfeeding and with my daughter just aimed to make it to the six week mark. But for both of my children having their tongue tie snipped proved to be the silver bullet. I finished feeding my daughter when she was 10 months old and I’m just wrapping it up with my son who is 13 months old. For as long as I live though, I will never forget going to a breastfeeding group and bursting into floods of tears in front of everyone, it was such a low point. X
This is all so true! You had a similar start to us. My baby didn’t latch on at the start either. We didn’t discover that she’d lost 13% of her weight until we were home at day 3. I was readmitted to hospital but they put us in the children’s ward, not maternity. I was given a crappy fold up camp bed despite a traumatic labour, episiotomy and blood loss. Instead of helping me breastfeed I had nurses and doctors force formula on us. Some of them were horrible to me. But her weight returned and when I got home a lovely midwife sorted us out with some tips that resulted in us exclusively breastfeeding from them on! But thank goodness for formula in those early days.
I have to say, I thankfully never had any pain breastfeeding.
16 months on, the feeds are getting less and less. I’m looking forward to getting my body back but will miss those cherished moments between us.
This is the post I needed before having my son, thank you for writing something that doesn’t just cast it in a rosy glow and throw guilt at formula feeders. We tried for three weeks, but he had zero interest in the boob. We even tried (gasp! controversial) nipple shields which helped a little bit, but were frowned upon. Eventually we switched completely for formula and both of us were much happier (if dealing with a lot more washing up, breastfeeding once established seems a lot more convenient, and cheaper!). Everyone has to find the best way for them. It’s quite nice once you get past the year mark and people suddenly care less about how your child gets their milk hit 🙂
You’ve done amazingly well, Jen. I totally failed with breastfeeding my first born and quickly switched to formula You kept going – that takes a lot of courage, it really does. And indeed you HAVE got there, Hazel Rey is a happy, thriving, beautiful, little girl.! xxxx
p.s. I meant to add that if I’d’ve read your blog back when I was struggling with feeding my baby then I might just have succeeded in doing it. Brilliant bit of writing!
[…] 1. Bookmark weblog posts from different new mums who a) make you chuckle, b) make you do a therapeutic cry and c) make you realise that you just’re completely not alone on this. A few of the phrases that introduced a bit aid to me by way of a digital hug have been Morgan’s ‘Thoughts On Early Motherhood’, Rosie’s ‘Life With A Newborn’ and Jen’s post on breastfeeding. […]