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‘I felt ashamed that I was not a “natural” breastfeeder’

I felt ashamed that I was not a natural breastfeederMost of the posts I write are light-hearted and comical. Self-deprecating because that’s me, just how I am! But this entry is a little different, and about something deeply personal.

I decided to write about it in the hope that it might help start a discussion on a broader level. Now, I recognise that not everyone would face the same tribulation I did, but for those who have experienced issues with breastfeeding, hopefully my story may resonate with you. I felt somewhat embarrassed and ashamed that I was not a “natural” breastfeeder when most of my friends and people I spoke with about the topic seemed to be. If you find yourself in the same boat, then hopefully you can feel a small sense of relief that you are not alone. In any case, I’ve found it cathartic to write about it.

Breasts, boobs, tits, norks, jugs – whatever you call them, if you’re female hitting puberty, you learn about them quickly! I was in year seven when other girls started wearing bras – and how jealous I was! One day, when my frustration of having “nothing yet” had reached its peak, I stole one of mum’s bras to wear to school under my uniform. When I put it on, it looked fairly ordinary, as the cups were empty and crushed, only exaggerating the fact my mammary glands hadn’t been born yet. So, I grabbed two of mum’s shoulder pads (sorry, mum – now you know where they disappeared to!) and stuffed the cups. Brilliant! Worked so well, I thought 13-year-old me was a genius!

Finally, the following year, I hit puberty and now had my very own set of little lady lumps. I emphasise the word little. I got fitted for a sports bra and believed I was finally a woman!

Fast forward – ahem! – a number of years to when I was pregnant with my first child, Sailor. My boobs were huge. Humongous! They were each larger than my head. They could almost have had their own postcode. Hubby called me “Mama Jugs”. Should have been “Mama Lugs” as now I was starting to struggle “lugging ” my mountains around. People would quiz me about whether I chose to breastfeed or not. I would laugh. Could they not see the massive milk factories I was carrying on my chest? Clearly I was built to smother my baby with all the goodness and nutrient-dense breast milk Mother Nature had intended.

My first attempt at breastfeeding was horrendous. Scary. Hard work. Not enjoyable. Painful. I had an emergency caesar and was dosed up on lots of pain meds. I was exhausted after days of labour. My baby and I were separated while I spent some rest time in recovery. I was fairly dazed after the surgery and I was assured this was best. So my baby was sent with my husband for some skin-to-skin contact time while I remained in the recovery ward. My baby was handed to me when I returned back to my room and I was told to put her on my chest immediately and try to offer her breast milk. Since this time, I’ve learnt there’s a great deal of research into breastfeeding new babies within an hour of being born and how it reduces many latching issues and breastfeeding complications.

So in the privacy of my own hospital room, I put this fragile, purple, crinkled little thing that I loved so very much it scared me, on my chest near my ginormous boob and waited. Nothing. She just looked up at me and stared. The midwife told me to encourage her to latch. I felt silly asking how to do that. She showed me how to encourage her mouth to open and to try and place her on my nipple. I was petrified. I couldn’t seem to hold my baby with a grip that allowed me to do that. She was so precious, so tiny and seemingly fragile and her little head paled in comparison to me. She was clearly exhausted. We both were. I kept thinking she just doesn’t want to drink right now. She will when she’s ready.

An hour passed and she was still sleepy but we tried again and again and again to get her to latch onto my nipple. The midwife used her finger and my finger to encourage the mouth position and we would together try to place her on but we couldn’t seem to connect. I remember starting to feel a little confused but also just a bit panicked. The first part of the breast milk after birth – the colostrum – is full of goodness to protect your new baby from disease or infection. I understood how important this was for my baby. She had had a long and quite traumatic entry into the world and I needed to rejuvenate her, to nurture her.

After many failed attempts, we used a syringe to milk my breasts and then myself and the new midwife on duty fed her small amounts by syringe. And we both slept for a few hours.

When my milk started coming in, it looked like I had far too much milk for my baby. With my top off, milk would squirt and spray embarrassingly across the room. My boobs were hot, sore and incredibly hard and swollen. Breast pads would work for a little bit but then they were so wet they became uncomfortable. My flow was so fast with one breast that my timid little newborn would choke if she did half latch on. But we seemed to have found an unusual rhythm, she would lap up the overflow as it dribbled and squirted and she didn’t need to latch on so forcefully. She wasn’t a voracious feeder I thought. I was told this wasn’t considered successful breastfeeding. Again, I felt alone. I felt I was failing.

After a few days and a few medical complications that kept my intravenous pain medication in use, my obstetrician suggested a private breastfeeding consultant. She was amazing. She was gentle. She understood what I had been dealing with and my new and scary world seemed just a little more optimistic. As it was difficult for me to reposition myself due to my surgery and the drips, she encouraged me to try a nipple shield. I cannot recommend this simple little contraption/ piece of latex/ plastic enough! The first attempt using the shield and my baby latched on and suckled away. My flow was slowed down and she could manage big gulps without being choked! I cannot tell you the relief I had at this point. My whole birthing experience had been so different from what I had imagined it to be. The breastfeeding issues felt like just another layer on my failure as a new mum cake.

At this point I began to tie my ability to breastfeed or nurture my child naturally with my ability to mother well. I’m well educated and I realise now looking back that breastfeeding and mothering are two completely different things. I certainly had to learn this the hard way.

At home I was able to breastfeed with the help of my nipple shield. I was very reluctant to feed away from home and I never fed in public like my other friends, as I was embarrassed I had to rely on the shield unlike my other friends. My baby would feed for over two hours at a time that was also adding to my discomfort in feeding anywhere but home. She would sleep for seven hours after a good feed and we would head out then.

When my daughter was just over a month old, I started to get my period regularly and it was unusually heavy. From this point on, every month to the day I would get my period. At the same time, my breast milk would look curdled and my baby would refuse to feed. My supply and flow would also change and I would start to panic my milk would dry up. It was also time for us to join Daddy back on the road for work. This worried me so much because I felt comfortable feeding at home and only there. I had a lot of milk so I began expressing milk so I could feed her by bottle on the plane or elsewhere in public. She took to the bottle the first time and drank more milk than ever but in half the time, and that was it. That was my solution. I would express and feed her by bottle. It worked and worked well, for a little while.

About two months in, I was diagnosed with mastitis. It would hurt to express. My left breast – the one with the slow flow was red and tender and hot. I was put on antibiotics and advised by my Doctor to gently feed, not express through the pain. This was not easy. My nipple shield filled with bloodstained milk and it was agonising. Like a sharp stabbing pain through my chest. I tried and tried again, sobbing uncontrollably at times and feeling guilty when my baby looked up at me with sad eyes. I spent hours standing under a hot shower just trying to relive some pressure so I could sleep. It took a few days of this intensity until the antibiotics worked their magic and things returned back to normal.

Each time I flew on small planes around the country, I became slightly engorged. Eventually I would start to feed on these flights hidden under blankets/ jumpers/ my husband shielding me. On the 2 International flights I had with my newborn, I expressed while other passengers and my baby slept.

When my baby was a little over four months, I was diagnosed with Mastitis again. It cleared up using the tricks I learnt last time but within a fortnight it was back. The same pain in the same breast. I kept going. I wanted to breastfeed my baby for a year. That was my goal. My mother and my sister had both fed for over a year so there was no reason I couldn’t.

By the time little Sailor was six months, I had had mastitis nearly 12 times. She had begun eating some solid food and loved it, and I was dreading breastfeeding or expressing. It wasn’t enjoyable. It wasn’t the natural, bonding, loving experience I felt it was supposed to be. Reading books and literature about breastfeeding only made me feel like more of a failure. I wasn’t bonding lovingly with my baby through the act of feeding. I was now tense and scared and so programmed to remembering the intense pain and blood and lack of sleep I shuddered at the thought of another six months of this private hell.

I consulted a doctor about my feelings. And another. And another. I was told I might have postnatal depression due to my traumatic birth and my problems with breastfeeding. My mastitis had taken over my entire world. I no longer could travel and just remained home, alone, with my baby, in my pyjamas for days on end until I beat my Mastitis each time. I couldn’t see anyway out. I had no other solution. I started to believe I was suffering PND and went on medication as advised by a GP and began counselling.

When Sailor was seven months old, I sought out a new doctor as I was unhappy with my progress and felt misunderstood. This time I saw a female doctor who had three kids of her own. She took me off the medication and told me I should seriously consider stopping breastfeeding. I cried and cried to her about wanting to feed till she was at least one year old. She gently reassured me that I had done a wonderful job, feeding my little baby until past six months. She explained what level a baby’s immunity is at, at six months. Most of all, she listened and she consoled me with her calming wisdom. My beautiful mother who had been by my side as much as she could throughout this tough period had been telling me similar things the whole way but I needed to hear it from a health professional.

Breastfeeding was so incredibly important, I believed. It was the be-and end-all of mothering, in a sense. I needed to hear that it was OK to try formula. My baby could actually thrive on formula as many have, as many babies do. She also told me her own story about one of her own children whom she couldn’t breastfeed and how that child is super healthy and strong today. We tried formula that day and while my baby didn’t like the first one very much, it didn’t take long to find another that she really enjoyed.

There is so much love when you have your first child that it can create, or at least it did for me, an extreme fear for new mums that you’re not enough. That what you’re doing isn’t enough. That you should be doing this or doing that differently.

We tend to compare ourselves to others when we’re unsure instead of asking for advice. Comparisons are dangerous though because we are all so different and situations are different. I now look back on my first experience of breastfeeding with sadness that I suffered with so much guilt. It’s such a shame I never joined a Mother’s Group or had the opportunity to do so because I may have had a different experience. I did have a second daughter – it took me four years to try again – and I successfully fed her easily because this time, I didn’t put any pressure on myself. I gave myself a break or at least I tried to. I chose to stop feeding her myself at six months and I didn’t beat myself up about it, but it took a lot of soul searching and a lot of open and frank discussion with girlfriends for me to be able to get to that point.

Whatever your situation, whatever you choose or find works for you, believe in your heart that you ARE enough for your baby. Your LOVE is nourishing for your child. Whether you breastfeed or formula feed does not equate to how much you love your baby.

If you can breastfeed, and you choose to go down that path, then good on you. If it’s easy, then you’re lucky. If it’s a struggle, know you are not alone. If you can’t breastfeed your baby, know you too are not alone and you are not less of a parent because of it. Your child WILL NOT suffer because you can’t breastfeed.

And if you’re struggling with motherhood on any level, tell someone. Don’t feel ashamed and hide it inside. The more we discuss these things frankly and openly, the more we realise we are not alone.

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