This beautiful and bravely shared experience shows us that things don’t always go to plan, especially where our bodies are concerned but that support that comes from a place of respect and empathy can make all the difference. Also, that we are all responsible for giving new parents the confidence that they need, from health care providers and partners to fellow coffee swilling, sleep-deprived parents in a cafe. When all is said and done, we are all feeding our babies from a place of love.
While pregnant with my son and first baby I was convinced I would breastfeed. My mum always spoke fondly of breast feeding and although she combo fed due to having to return to work, in my imagination it was breastfeeding that seemed significant. She had said it can be hard and biting happens, but all the literature lead me to believe it was the sort of pain one could breathe through (although at the time I also convinced myself I could breathe through labour pains. What. A. Douche). Along came my son, not out of my vagina at home as I had hoped, but through the “sun roof” in an emergency c section after approximately 40 hours of labour between the hellish anti natal ward and the not-so-private private room. I was pretty shocked to say the least. I had always trusted my body to work and now not only was it apparent that it didn’t but I had also been branded a “failure” (as in failure to progress) before I’d even started.
Nonetheless, I requested immediate skin to skin and support with exclusive breastfeeding. I had failed to give my son a gentle birth but I sure as hell wasn’t going to fail to breast feed him. The brutal beginning to motherhood felt like I had already damaged my perfect little being and I was not going to let this continue. So my ‘immediate’ skin to skin came after two hours and the ‘suppport’ consisted of a midwife groping my breast and tutting as I shook violently in the recovery room from the shock of the birth and the after effects of the anaesthetic. This same midwife had earlier told me I was hot because she had touched me with the healing hands of the Holy Spirit, whilst I begged her to use science to take my temperature. My son couldn’t latch to my inverted nipples, even though I had been told they wouldn’t be a problem, and he proceeded to fall asleep. They told me not to worry and try again later. I expressed a tiny amount of colostrum on the first day and I believe that was all he had. He seemed content as he was always sleeping.
I insisted on giving a small amount of formula just before leaving hospital as even though no one else seemed to bat an eyelid, I was concerned that I hadn’t produced very much colostrum and I wanted to make sure he was full. I asked the midwife if I should pick up some formula on the way home. She said “having milk in the cupboard of a breastfeeding Mum is like having crack in the cupboard of a drug addict. You will use it.” And with this advice I went home on day two. He was weighed on day 3 and had lost 10% of his birth weight. The midwife (a different one) went pale and told us “if it was my baby I would supplement”. She also warned us about being readmitted to hospital. That was the last place I wanted to go after my traumatic birth and postnatal stay so my partner whizzed out to the shop and bought a bottle of ready made formula while I sat at home anxious as hell.
I asked the midwife if I should pick up some formula on the way home. She said “having milk in the cupboard of a breastfeeding Mum is like having crack in the cupboard of a drug addict. You will use it.”
As I fed my son that formula, I remembered about all the beautiful nutrients he was missing out on. I feared our bond wouldn’t be the same and, as someone who has suffered for years with health anxiety, I pondered the many illnesses he would contract as a result. Contrary to these thoughts his little eyes lit up and he looked perfectly content. We continued to top up breast feeds (which were excruciating, turns out my nipples were already destroyed) and he put on weight happily. However, the shame stuck with me. I failed to birth my child. I failed to feed him. Perhaps I shouldn’t have a child at all! I was not the mother I had imagined being. At baby groups all the guilt and shame would be triggered by watching other mums merrily breast feed whilst staring into their baby’s eyes. I wanted to be THAT Mum. Not the Mum trying to breastfeed with a smile even though my toes LITERALLY curled with pain and I struggled not to swear. I did not want to be the Mum hiding in a bush with a bottle because I was so ashamed. I did not want to be the Mum that felt she had to explain why she was bottle feeding every time she fed her child in public.
Thankfully my partner gave me heroic support throughout. I also had a very good friend on the end of the phone that reminded me several of my friends had been bottle fed babies, that exclusive milk feeding is a relatively short event in a person’s life and, most importantly, how you feed your child has no bearing on your ability to be a good mother.
most importantly, how you feed your child has no bearing on your ability to be a good mother.
With my second child I had a good word with myself (and a few other people!) and decided my golden rule was to do what worked without judgment. I found a doula to support my birth (however it went) and made sure I was listened to and respected from beginning to end. When my daughter emerged in a similar manner to my son I didn’t worry too much about the first feed and it actually went quite well. She was a different baby. She latched well and would stay on for a good 20 minutes. However, unfortunately she had to have a short stay in the NICU and it was at this point she received the most loving feed of her life. I made the decision to rest so I could be strong for her the next day. A neonatal nurse gave her some formula while I slept as much as I could. It wasn’t easy but it was best. I topped her up with formula for the first three weeks while I regained strength and built up my supply and from then on we have been exclusively breast feeding happily. She is now a very bonny 5 month old.
The bottles I gave my daughter taught me that you can give a bottle feed lovingly and you absolutely can bond with and nourish your baby however you choose to feed (or end up feeding). It is also no one’s business what you do with your breasts or how you feed your child, so when I overheard a ‘helper’ at a baby cafe saying that a cup feed was not as loving as a breast feed I proudly got my bottles out and fed my baby.