Why Breastfeeding is NOT the most natural thing in the world
Preparing for the birth
Like many mums-to-be, I assumed that breast feeding would come naturally and would be something I’d be good at- I was committed and really believed it was the best form of nutrition having drastically reduced my own intake of cow milk and felt the benefits of less dairy. I did an NCT antenatal course as well as a Hypnobirthing course and the hospital 2 hour workshop on Breastfeeding- surely I had this covered right?
The first few days
After a 34 hour labour from start to finish, needless to say I was pretty tired. The hospital bed wasn’t very comfy and I was still in some pain, but somehow passed into a dreamless sleep. I still had a catheter in so didn’t need to worry about getting up to pee at least (TMI?!) I was only woken by the regular blood pressure checks the nurses came around to do.
Leo was born at 3pm on a Wednesday and hadn’t successfully breastfed before the evening- I thought it was OK- we were both still recovering from the shock of it all. However as the time passed and with each attempt he wasn’t able to latch on or really show any interest, I became more worried. I was hand expressing a drop at a time of milk as it hadn’t fully come in yet less than 24 hours post-birth. This was given in tiny syringes to Leo but he barely seemed to register them. I worried it was because of the painkillers I’d had during birth, but I didn’t feel bad because frankly there was no way I’d have got through it without them! So much for my natural birth plan!
I managed to eat breakfast and lunch and got a bit more rest... I don’t really know where the time went, but suddenly it was almost 3pm on the Thursday and Leo still hadn’t managed to have a proper feed. The midwife was quite concerned saying that he was getting dehydrated and that I’d need to express more milk- she gave me an amount to express and a deadline (so not conducive to the process!) When I was unable to express more than 0.5ml she said I should really give him some formula. I wasn’t keen but I also was worried- shouldn’t he have fed by now? Was he distressed? Why wasn’t he feeding? So the midwife poured out a few ml of formula and then began our combination feeding journey. Leo drank it all down and seemed better- more calmer and relaxed. I was upset his first proper feed hadn’t been from me.
Syringe and Cup Feeding- weeks 1-2
I was still determined to breastfeed in the hope of replacing the formula completely. We syringe and cup-fed Leo for the first 2 weeks- I wanted to avoid using a bottle as knew doing that before establishing breastfeeding would mean he would be less likely to fully breastfeed.
It was hard going- messy and not satisfying for him- there was lots of crying and split milk. The syringes were tiny- 1ml at a time, and the cup felt like force-feeding him with him coughing half of it up. Each time he wanted a feed, we needed to heat up the milk and set everything up, and afterwards execute a clean-up. It was exhausting.
Shhhh! Nipple Shields
I found out about nipple shields when Leo was a week old- it wasn’t something the midwives had mentioned- it felt like discovering a secret weapon! They arrived the day after I ordered them thanks to Amazon Prime. They really helped as Leo was able to latch on properly. There is conflicting evidence as to whether they impact your supply, however I had the most successful breastfeeding sessions using them- less painful and I could see Leo was getting milk. It was another thing that made breastfeeding when out and about tricker though- fumbling around to attach it one-handed with a crying Leo was not easy!
Learning how to stimulate supply
Seeing a private Breastfeeding Councillor
The visiting midwife who came in the first week after birth wasn’t really able to help me- unfortunately she was more interested in ticking off the boxes on her visit form. She suggested trying different feeding positions, observed what I was doing and said, ‘keep going.’ I was reading online and discovered I could fork out a decent sum of money £120 to have two hours with a specialist. It was a lot of money and my husband wasn’t sure it was worth it- what could she say that the midwives hadn’t already? I decided to go ahead anyway and was really glad I did. Having two hours to fully discuss everything I was doing and her being able to take time and guide me through different scenarios and just to build my confidence in what I was doing was incredible. I think this really kept me going. Of course it helped that my councillor, Geraldine was just such a lovely lady too. She also recommended looking into supplements I could take that may help with increasing milk supplies. Of course this was in addition to Breastfeeding as much as possible to naturally stimulate milk supply- there was no simple magic pill unfortunately!
Domperidone - Prescription only: You can get this as an ‘off-label’ medicine that is known to increase lactation as a side effect. However no proper study has been done into effect of using it longer term to stimulate milk. I found it did help, but made my whole chest area quite sore and upset my stomach. It wasn’t clear how much to take- the prescription said 30mg a day whereas an expert in using it for lactation recommended 4 times this. I wasn’t sure if taking it in this high dose was a good idea.
Herbal Remedies: Goats Rue, Fenugreek, Blessed Thistle, Brewers Yeast, Nettle Leaf, Fennel Seeds, Shatavari, Anise Seed
I took all of the above together- not sure if this was a great idea but didn’t seem to have any side effects. I don’t think they made a big difference to my supply.
Diet: Oatmeal, lactation-friendly tea.
I ate Oatmeal porridge every day and had at least 2 cups of tea made from the same herbs as above that are meant to stimulate supply.
In addition to breastfeeding Leo as much as I could, I also would pump after feeds to further stimulate supply.
Pumps: single/double, electric and hand
Personally, I found a manual hand pump gave me best results, though was a bit tedious. I tried the electric double pump and found it didn’t work that well for me. Single pump was OK, but in the end I realised I was getting more milk from a hand pump.
At first I tried to feed and pump at least once every 3 hours but I found I was getting no sleep. When I did get more sleep I actually made more milk across the whole day. It needs to be sustainable. When you are feeding, putting to sleep then pumping as well, before you know it, the baby is awake again ready for more food and you’ve had zero rest! You also need to consider your mental health- getting no sleep and stressing about milk production actually has the opposite effect you are hoping for. It also affects the special early days and bonding with your new baby- there is an incredible amount of pressure to breastfeed, but sometimes it’s not the overall best thing.
In the end…
Sometimes it just doesn’t work out
There is a great article I highly recommend on the BBC website which actually states as many as one in 7 women simply don’t have enough milk to fully sustain their baby - read it here.
The NHS is misleading as makes you feel like a freak if you struggle and genuinely don’t think you have enough milk. You are told that ‘your body knows best.’ In a world where formula is an option, I would chose that over my baby being dehydrated and suffering from feeling hungry. It wasn’t an easy choice, but not feeding Leo when he was clearly very hungry and leaving him to cry- for me that wasn’t right. Of course if I ever have a second baby, I will know a lot more and be more prepared.
In the end my breastfeeding journey finished when Leo was 3 months. He suddenly decided he wouldn’t breastfeed at all any more. It was the final straw for me- struggling with a screaming baby refusing to feed on top of lack of sleep and super human efforts to stimulate milk supplies. I continued to express milk for a couple more weeks after this, but found with each session I was getting less and less.
By that time I had managed to find 2 amazing breast milk donors to ensure Leo still got human milk, but that is a separate post! (Read donor milk story here, and post about sharing my story on TV here)