Before my son was born I went to the free breastfeeding class at the hospital. It was terrible. They didn’t spend time discussing common problems women have. No mention of tongue tie, delays, or even mastitis. It was a typical ‘agenda’ class. Breastfeeding is natural. Baby will latch on, your supply will magically match itself to baby’s needs. They did have a mother come in to discuss feeding her infant. She hadn’t had any problems feeding, her baby slept through from six weeks (wtf?), and when she fed her baby in a class full of women there to learn about breastfeeding, she used a cover. Look, this woman had clearly had a lucky start, and while her experiences are just as valid as anyone elses, I’m just not sure it was the most informative perspective.
Feeding a newborn is hard. It is work. It is work when it works out, and work when it doesn’t. New mothers are often so badly supported by the networks who are meant to help them. You can go to a class, and not learn anything, other than they thought they should teach a group of heavily pregnant women who had voluntarily turned up that they should at least try to breastfeed. As though that wasn’t exactly why we were there. And then things go wrong, and people say ‘I didn’t know’.
So in the hope that these words will be read by someone who needs them, I offer up to you my story. My stories that should be. Two very different experiences of feeding newborns.
Feeding my first baby
I was lucky. Oh so lucky. How I hate that word. Not only did my milk come in, I had an abundance of it. A massive oversupply that meant I was so engorged my son couldn’t latch on without me expressing first. That sent huge gushes down his throat that promptly came back up again. And that meant I was in so much pain I wouldn’t sleep, waiting to get him feeding again to ease the pressure. He vomited and vomited and vomited. But he gained weight. ‘He’s just a happy chucker’ they said, though my son was anything but happy. We were drowning in a sea of milk-covered-washing but he was gaining weight. So we had nothing to worry about. He went from the 10th percentile at birth to just over the 50th. ‘He was born hungry’ they told me, ‘babies don’t overeat’ I was assured again and again and again. So I kept feeding. And he kept screaming.
Our doctor eventually referred us to pediatrician, but we had a long wait; ‘baby screams a lot’ doesn’t exactly get you on the priority list. I spoke to multiple midwifes and health nurses. My supply did adjust (I highly recommend block feeding for oversupply) but my son was no happier while feeding. I gave up dairy. I wept. He wept. Then came the night he refused to try feeding after he got upset. The next morning I managed an appointment with a different doctor. ‘Have you tried medication for reflux?’ No. We were told multiple times a baby gaining weight could not have reflux.
It was silent reflux.
Even though we had to pin him down to syringe the medication down his throat, his mood and then mine improved dramatically. Not quickly enough to keep him growing. He developed a phobia of us putting anything in his mouth. He was eight months before he would try solid food. My milk supply finally let me down, I couldn’t keep up. He woke hungry multiple times a night. His weight plummeted down to just below the 5th percentile. But once he started eating, he didn’t look back, and was fully self-weaned at ten months.
Feeding my second baby
A difficult birth, with a severe haemorrhage. Blood loss of that magnitude typically causes delays in milk production. My body barely had enough fluid to keep itself going, of course it couldn’t manage colostrum as well. My daughter was a healthy, hungry baby. She latched on straight away and just kept trying. I’ll say this for my babies, they are suckers. But as we got into the second day, she got angrier. Quite frankly we were relieved when a nurse walked in carrying formula. She fed and fell into a happy sleep. She had a few more top-ups, as well as sucking away at me. The next morning she was weighed, she’d already lost nine percent of birth weight. We kept going with breast first, formula for afters. Eventually she began to regain weight. And by a month old we were exclusively breastfeeding. I’m pleased I was eventually able to get there, but I will never, ever, feel guilty that my daughter’s first meals were formula.
This is where I know I was lucky. We had a cast iron reason for why my body was not producing what she needed. Did I feel like my body had failed? Yeah. I felt like it failed when my uterus went walkabout and tried to kill me. But I survived, so after that we just had to deal with where it left us. But lying in the hospital bed, watching my husband feed the baby I wasn’t strong enough to actually hold yet, I cried. Of course I cried. I cried many times. I cried once we were home and I couldn’t tell if she was hungry crying, and needed more formula, or crying because she just wanted something to suck to help her sleep. The two of us were a big crying mess a lot. And while she was louder, she was also cuter.
Sometimes I wondered why I was so persistent, considering how much I hated breastfeeding the first time round. Once it was working, mostly it was okay. Sometimes it was frustrating to be stuck when my boy wanted me to play. Sometimes it was boring. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, when it’s just me and her it can be nice; I’m not pushing her to quit. Sometimes after four years of pregnancies and feeding I really look forward to putting this work behind me and my body being my own again.
Feeding newborns is hard work, however you do it.
When you have a new baby, and you go out and see other women with theirs, it’s easy to feel that they’ve got it all worked out. That you are the only one struggling. But everyone has a story, or will get one eventually. Those mothers might have had a start as difficult as yours, and with just a couple of months under their belt are able to get out and look okay, because things do, and will get better.
It gets better. We tell each other this, we tell all new mums this. But that doesn’t always help someone now. There are too many judgemental people, and too many people unable to look beyond their own problems. I was told so many times to stop complaining about oversupply because it was not a real problem. And that hurt. When I sat in bed crying, trying to convince my son to stop crying, those words hurt. We have to remember it is not a competition and there is no one legitimate problem.
So here is my most important point: how you feel matters.
‘Fed is best’ might be true. But it is also reductive.
It implies that as long as your baby is fed, it doesn’t matter how you feel about it.
There is no job where you are expected to love every aspect of it. People have a moan about loving the work but hating that their colleague is always yelling. The retail worker complaining about not being free to take toilet breaks when they need them. Or, a waiter, who always gets food spilled on themselves, staining clothes and making large quantities of washing. Or the plumber on call 24/7 receiving midnight call outs when they want to sleep. See if it is an actual job, a real job you get to complain.
Newborn babies can spend eight hours in a day feeding. That is a full-time job. A full-time job where at best they fall asleep, or at worst they crap on you.
So, go ahead complain that it hurts and doesn’t work. Complain that you are sore. Complain about being tired. Complain about the mess. Complain that you are heartbroken that it didn’t work out. Complain that people judge you for choosing not to try breastfeeding, because you are still feeding your baby aren’t you? Reach out in the middle of the night when you feel alone and as though you are doing it all wrong. And the rest of you reach back to lift others up when they need.
Feel how you feel. Own it.
But also know this. Eventually you have to let it go.