What I Learned From Being a Breastfeeding Failure

This time four years ago, I was lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to an antibiotic drip, knocking back morphine. I was there for four nights, because of an extremely bad case of mastitis, brought on by being a breastfeeding failure. If you don’t know what mastitis is, this NHS article explains it, although it downplays just how awful it can be. If you’re reading this to find out about breastfeeding, please don’t let it put you off, mastitis is normally easy to treat with antibiotics.

Ava in hospital

Ava came to visit me in hospital – you can see the canula in my arm from the drip.

Ava was just two months old, and I’d already had mastitis twice before, and it was due to not getting the latch right when I was trying to feed her. This third bout was much, much worse and whilst I actually thought I was going to die, they thought I had an abscess, though fortunately, neither of us were right! This was Ava visiting me in hospital. You can see her eczema in this picture; I wrote about how we dealt with that here. It’s only now, on the 4th anniversary of being forced to admit defeat, that I feel like I am beginning to come to terms with it. Our problems started early. We’d had to mix feed Ava, with formula and breastmilk, since she was a few days old, as she lost too much weight, and it was either that, or take her back to hospital. And that was not an option, after spending the night in there after she was born. I would have got more sleep next to a busy railway track, thanks to Mrs. Snore-a-lot and Mrs. Chat-all-night-on-her-mobile.

I refused to give up breastfeeding though, and got nipple shields, which made it slightly more bearable, and an electric breast pump so I could still feed her with a bottle. This is not the most dignified or convienient route, but when I was in a lot of pain with cracked nipples and bruising, from not having the correct latch, this was the only option I could manage. It also gave some relief when I had one of my bouts of mastitis. Cows often get mastitis too apparently, which is apt, as expressing milk makes you feel exactly like a heifer.

It never occurred to me that I would find breastfeeding difficult. Much less impossible. Apart from my driving test and Grade 8 piano, this was the first thing I’d failed at. I passed my driving test on the 3rd attempt. I never passed piano but I didn’t really care. But I really did care about not being able to breastfeed my own child.

I’d always gone along with ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.’ And it had generally worked in the past. But this. This was a whole new ball game. Accompanied by tears. Lots and lots of them. No matter how hard I tried and how many times I got told or shown how to get the latch right, it just never worked. A tiny baby (rapidly losing weight because I couldn’t feed her) was entirely dependent on me for her life. She had been when she was growing inside me for nine months, of course, but then I had that wonderful umbilical cord to do the hard work for me.

So I wasn’t just failing, I felt I was failing Ava.

The midwives and health visitors I saw were brilliant. They never judged me or made me feel like I was a failure. I did that all by myself. The ‘breast is best’ slogan is bandied around quite a lot but I guess that is more for persuading people to breastfeed if they were planning on using formula. I just made me feel even more guilty. I believe it is best, but it made me so ill.

A note about Ryan now. He was amazing. So supportive and never put any pressure on me to either keep it up or stop being so stubborn and give it up. He encouraged me and suggested I just try for one more week. He went out in the snow one night to get a steriliser and bottles, when we has been ordered to give Ava formula. He looked up different breastfeeding positions and did everything he could to help.

Ultimately the decision was taken out of my hands by the third bout of mastitis. It obviously wasn’t safe to feed her with all those chemicals in my system, but I had to express, and there is nothing more soul destroying than tipping all that hard pumped milk down the sink. So when the infection had gone, I went cold turkey. This was not pleasant, but I had a carrier bag full of drugs from the hospital to help.

When Thea arrived two years later, I was determined to try again. I knew all the positions, I knew about  waiting for the mouth to open wide and all the techniques. And Thea was a big, hungry 9 pound 1 baby, not like little 6 pound 12 Ava, who wasn’t all that interested.

But it was just as bad. I dreaded every cry in case she was hungry (and she almost always was) wincing in agony as I tried to get her to latch on. I spent about an hour and a half with a great breastfeeding expert at the hospital and finally felt I had it right. But next feed, back to square one.

When Thea was a week old, I went back and saw another health visitor, who I will never forget. She listened to our story and said “I give you permission to stop breastfeeding.” It sounds like a cliche, but in that moment, I felt a weight lift and I felt a hundred times better.

I realised that forcing myself to feed Ava had clouded those first few precious months with her, and I was so consumed with feeding, expressing and sterilising the breast pump, I didn’t concentrate on just being with her.

Looking back, I wonder if I had postnatal depression. Either way, I didn’t want to make the same mistake with Thea. I feel guilty that I didn’t manage for a bit longer with Thea. I know it’s silly, but I wanted to give her the same start as Ava. But having a (slightly) more relaxed mum was, in the end, much more important. And look at her now, she’s not exactly malnourished! Thea scoffing Both girls are fit and healthy and bright as buttons, so the formula worked just fine.

I now know that whatever way we feed our babies, the most important thing we can give them is love. And we have plenty of that.

In my head, I’ve always acknowledged that formula is absolutely fine – I would never judge anyone else for bottle feeding, yet I judged myself so harshly in my heart. When I see a lady breastfeeding in a cafe, I feel so happy for her that she’s managed it (though I must confess, a touch jealous too.) And I guess that will always be the case.

So after writing all this with tears streaming down my face, having said at the start I was coming to terms with this, I’m not sure I have, and actually maybe I never will. It’s character building, right?

If you’re struggling with breastfeeding, please ask for help. I did, and met some amazing health care professionals who had great advice and information. If you are in pain when you feed, it’s not normal, and you might need help with your latch. Google ‘breastfeeding support’ and there are loads of web pages. Please don’t struggle on, hoping for the best.

If you do get the signs of mastitis (red, burning hot, swollen patches on one or both breasts, and flu symptoms) get to the doctor ASAP – if you leave it it will get worse, not better. Tonnes of women struggle to start with (probably most of them, judging by how much it’s discussed at baby groups) but manage to get it right. I really hope you do.

But if you don’t, please give yourself permission to stop. I learned the hard way that a happy mummy is the best thing for you and your lovely baby. 62086-bestandworstlinky

My Life As A Mummy

63 thoughts on “What I Learned From Being a Breastfeeding Failure

  1. Natalia says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, so others at least know we are not alone. I’m going through a bit of depression rigth now because my baby, a little bit over 2 weeks old, who was eating just fine suddenly doesn’t want my breast anymore . It’s been just a couple days but I don’t have milk anymore and I can’t stop crying and thinking what I did wrong. I think I’ll have to switch to formula definitely, and I hope someday I’ll forgive myself for it (indeed we are more hard on ourselves than with others, and guilt comes with motherhood).

    • Becky Pink says:

      Thanks for reading Natalia, and first of all, huge congratulations on the birth of your baby. I’m so sorry you are feeling this way, I remember this all too well. Try not to give up just yet, can you find anyone who can help you? Maybe your midwife or health visitor? If not you could talk to an online breastfeeding support group. But if you do have to go down the formula route, you should not feel guilty (a case of do as I say, not as I do!) as they have to eat one way of another. And both my girls are so fit and healthy and clever, I know it has not done them any harm at all. One is coming up to six and is already exceeding where she should be in reading and writing, and the other is 3 1/2 and pre-school tell me they are having to come up with new things to teach her to make sure they stretch her! You’re so right though, we do always feel guilty about something, and if it wasn’t this, it would be something else! I really hope reading our story has helped, even if it is only to let you know that these things happen and it’s not your fault. I really hope you crack it and have a great Christmas together xxx

  2. A Moment with Franca says:

    I understand what you have been through! I had a lot of problems breastfeeding Bella! I also had mastitis but not that severe!! It hurt me a lot. It was not pleasant at all!! So many times I wanted to gave up! I also used nipple shields and they really helped as Bella use to latched incredibly hard! After a couple of months of trying and being persistent things got better and I was starting to enjoy breastfeeding. Now this time around with Sienna things have been much better. Of course at the beginning had other issues like for example I had one breast too full of milk and when Sienna tried to feed she was choking cause of the amount of milk!! Things got better after but it was also difficult. I guess we just need to be patient and of course ask for help when you think it is not looking good as you did! Thanks so much for joining me again at #KCACOLS. I hope to see you again on Sunday!! 🙂 xx

    • Becky Pink says:

      Thanks Franca, I think it’s so important that mums like us share their stories, so that other women in similar situations know they aren’t alone. It’s without a doubt been the biggest struggle of my life! It’s so great that you managed to keep going, you need a medal! Xx

  3. Becky (@attwtwo) says:

    I too was on the verge of PND I think because of the pressure I put on myself to breastfeed my first boy. I developed thrush which we were passing back and forth as he fed and my milk ducts then became infected so the dr said all my expressed milk carried the thrush too! I was much more relaxed with my second (now six months) – you are absolutely right of course – if they get plenty of love, that is what will mould them as they grow, not whether they got breastmilk for three days, weeks, months or years. Thanks for a great post 🙂

    • Becky Pink says:

      Oh Becky that must have been so awful! Good grief, it’s just fraught with difficulties isn’t it! So happy for you that you’re having an easier time of it with number two xx

  4. Living With The Mess says:

    What a wonderfully honest post, I feel so much of what you went through in my own experiences of breastfeeding although I’m lucky enough to still be doing it with my 10-month old. This will give help to so many ladies reading it. And your daughter is gorgeous! #WeekendBlogHop

  5. moderatemum says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story, noone could look at that picture of that gorgeous, thriving girl and think that how a child is fed makes a jot of difference. I think that ‘breast is best’ is a very manipulative phrase. Parenthood is filled with enough guilt thankyouverymuch. Thanks for linking up #fromtheheart

  6. crummymummy1 says:

    I’m sure this post will help lots of people – I’ve been so lucky as breastfeeding came very easily for me, apart from a brief spell before Little B’s tongue tie was snipped. Your words are really inspiring x #fromtheheart

  7. julie dutra says:

    Oh how horrible for you. I too struggled to breastfeed my son (including mastitis – so unbelievably painful) and am worried I will go through the same if and when I have another baby. Thanks for sharing #fromtheheart
    Also, you don’t need me to tell you this, but you are not a failure, breastfeeding or otherwise

  8. Kalpana says:

    Brilliant blog, I feel like i have just read my own life story over the last 10 days. It’s amazing how much guilt women put on themselves. Yesterday i spent the whole day crying and feeling like a failure because I couldn’t feed my son. Today I decided what he needs is a mummy who is happy and not crying all the time and tensing up every time she needs to feed him. Thanks for being so open and honest. Kalpana x

    • Becky Pink says:

      Oh Kalpana I really hope you can feed him however is best for both of you. You’re so right, he needs a happy mum. I hope you can look back on this precious time with good memories, not tinged with illness and pain. I’m sure you’re doing brilliantly xx

      • Miss B says:

        We’re getting there. I could totally relate to what you were saying a out how feeding, expressing and sterilising take over your life. I am accepting formula feeding now….and it’s fantastic seeing Miles bond with daddy when he’s sharing the feeding. I’m grateful to Nicola Driscoll for passing on your blog. Thanks again x

  9. Jenny @ Let's Talk Mommy says:

    Such an honest and heartfelt post hunny. I can relate so much I breastfed my son for a year with no trouble at all so I thought I would have it in the bag the second time and boy was I wrong and it was awful. I kept getting mastitis over and over and it was sooo painful for months. I wish I had known to just stop and it would have been better for both of us. Thank you so much for linking up to Share With Me. Hope to see you again tomorrow for another great round. #sharewithme

  10. Kealey Bysh says:

    You did really well to keep going. I feel the same with my little boy. He is 16 weeks i had emergency c section with him, didn’t get to hold him when he was born but I tried for 3 months to breastfeed had to mix as my milk never really came through properly and hate the fact i couldn’t do it but you know what you have your healthy little girl thats all that matters so well done x

    • Becky Pink says:

      Thank you so much Kealey and congratulations on the birth of your son! And you’ve done so well to keep on trying too, he’s here safely and that is what counts. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment, I’m sure you have your hands full with a 4 month old! Enjoy this precious time xx

  11. dearmummyblog says:

    You should not judge yourself so harshly! You gave it your best shot and did what was right for you and your family 🙂 x My mummy BF until I was 6mths and felt guilty for stopping. Parents are too hard on themselves 🙁 #Sharewithme

  12. thenthefunbegan says:

    I feel similar – not as bad as you but I definitely feel like that struggle with breastfeeding combined with awful colic just destroyed any enjoyment I had of the first four months of my first experience as a mother, so much so that I tried five days with my second son and then (with some regret but not huge) I went to exclusive formula and oh my word what a difference! I actually got to enjoy that time with my baby – I felt in tine with him and a lot more in control – it was wonderful! He’s also turned out to be a very healthy boy with a much wider palate for food than his older brother. X

    • Becky Pink says:

      I’m so happy you had such a positive experience second time around- I certainly felt like a different person with Thea, and funnily enough she also eats everything, whereas Ava is quite a fussy eater. Maybe I was justice relaxed in general second time around! Thank you for your comments xx

  13. awesomeausterity says:

    I’m so sorry you had such a tough time with both your girls. I have a few friends who have not managed to breastfed – and most of them are really traumatised by it. I wish there was something I could say or do to make them and you feel better. You sound like a lovely mum and your girls are gorgeous! Congratulations on raising them, I hope one day you can stop blaming yourself and feel proud of how hard you tried. #bestandworst

    • Becky Pink says:

      Thank you so much for your kind words, sometimes I feel ok about it but it’s still a huge disappointment. Hopefully the guilt will lessen as they get older- me head says ‘of course they are fine’ but my heart sometimes says ‘you could have tried harder’! I hope that by sharing my story it might help others to come to terms with it xx

  14. Love From Clueless Mum says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I didn’t manage to breastfeed for nearly as long as you. After feeling a lot of pressure to make it work despite my baby losing too much weight, I was fortunate enough to meet a doctor and health visitor who were more concerned about how I felt about switching to formula than quoting the guidelines again. I didn’t realise how much of a failure it could make me feel until well after my supply had gone. I think the guilt only lessened once we started weaning and milk doesn’t seem such a big thing. At the end of the day we have to do what’s best for our families, and your children are clearly doing brilliantly so well done! X #bestandworst

    • Becky Pink says:

      Thank you for your message, it’s so easy to get overwhelmed by it all, but they only live on milk for six months, like you say, until
      weaning, so not actually that long in the grand scheme of things! I’m so glad you had such helpful support who considered you, not just your child. Xx

  15. Helen Gandy says:

    What a hard post this must have been to write. I struggled too with breastfeeding and had that awful feeling of failure but had to get past it, I imagine having to be admitted with mastitis really was difficult for you. We put so much pressure on ourselves to try and be the perfect mother but sometimes we just have to admit defeat and do what’s best in the long run. Thanks for linking up the first best and worst linky and hope to see you again next week!

    helen – #bestandworst

    • Becky Pink says:

      Hi Helen, thank you, I cried quite a lot when I was writing it, better than therapy! And also when reading about what other lovely mums have written in response. I’ll see you next week x

  16. Mumma Owl says:

    My daughter is nearly 8 months old and I too am a breastfeeding failure. Sadly, I did not have the understanding health professionals around me that you did and I was pushed to keep expressing as my tiny baby was in hospital with a heart condition, to the detriment of my mental health. I still feel so guilty that I formula feed, even though my baby is thriving. I think it will be a long time before I put that guilt behind me, when I’m sure it will be replaced by guilt about spending so much time feeling guilty when I should have been enjoying my baby! I’ve started writing a website about my experiences – http://funandformula.weebly.com/ – and I’ve been amazed at how many women are putting themselves under intolerable pressure to breastfeed, even when it becomes clear it’s not working for mum or baby. You’re right, there is a lot of breastfeeding support out there, and that’s brilliant, because the ‘Breast is best’ message is the right message. But us formula feeding mums need to stop being so hard on ourselves. Formula is fine too!

    • Becky Pink says:

      Oh my goodness, I have just read your website, what an awful thing you’ve been through, my heart goes out to you. She is an absolute beauty and you have done incredibly well with her, how amazing that you did manage to give her your milk at all. It’s such shame that this doesn’t get talked about enough, I really identify with being envious of mums who seem to breastfeed so effortlessly (though I’m sure they have their own problems in other areas too!) I’m 100% sure that your Super Z will grow up to be healthy and happy as she has your love and that’s what’s most important xxx

  17. Sarah Howe (@RunJumpScrap) says:

    This is such a great post. There is so much pressure to breastfeed. Someone once said to me “Breast is Best if you can”. This is so true. It’s not best if you are miserable, your baby is struggling and hungry and you are both exhausted with trying. You tried lots, it didn’t work but bottle feeding did. Look at your gorgeous girls. Thanks so much for linking up to #bestandworst and please come back next week xxx

  18. EmilyandIndiana says:

    I think as a mum preparing to breastfeed this was beautifully written. I formula fed my first and still feel guilty sometimes as I didn’t try to breastfeed. I know it’s not easy and everytime I read a post about it, I just think how strong all you ladies who try are! x #bestandworst

    • Becky Pink says:

      Thank you, I’m glad you like it. I think feeling guilty is a mother’s lot in life! I’m sure your first child is just as lovely and healthy and happy as mine are, we can only do our best! X

  19. Pene reynoldson says:

    Hi I don’t know if my post was sent or not. It went prematurely.
    I had said thank you for your very sensitive post. I have three children, one still a baby. I struggled for almost 6 months but dropped bottle once solids introduced. I would never of thought I could do this if I hadn’t had the good luck to have had a friend who mentioned that she had. I have never had pain and not comparing myself to others mother/baby etc are so individual. I could not of done it without amazing support of IBLC lactation consultants, family and partner. Oh and couldn’t of find it without bedsharing. Funny I did the complete opposite of what I started with (Gina Ford). Anyways I am so thankfull for the good support that I did get as I see so many women letdown. It has been an eye opener the rubbish I have had from some health professionals. We are told that breast is best then undermined and given incorrect advice, no real supports and crackers societal expectations. I agree with you seek help and reach out to groups that have breastfeeding mums ( loads mixed feed or express feed in the groups). I don’t think you sound like a ‘failed’ breast feeder ( such a loaded term). Think you did a great job giving your babies what you could manage- which in the end is all that any of us can do. A ‘good enough mother’. All I can add to this is my beautiful healthy (mixed) breast fed first born doesn’t eat any vegetables or meat ( unless you count potato and chicken mc nuggets) so guess I ‘succeeded’ at bf but have just failed at the rest of the feeding malarkey. Promise I tried my best ! Thanks again for your post nice to meet you.

    • Becky Pink says:

      Hello, thanks for your lovely comment, I’m so glad you liked the post. It just goes to show how important other mothers are as well in giving advice, like your friend. How did you find bed sharing? We have tried a few times when little ones have been ill but found we got kicked too much! And maybe your first born is just going through a phase with their eating – and I certainly do count potato as a vegetable, one of my favourites! x

  20. Kylie says:

    Becky,Well done you!!!! Wish more of us mums could be more honest with each other and ourselves about so many challenges we face; one of the first & most important being breastfeeding. Your article is inspiring & I will share it.
    Your girls are healthy,happy & most importantly loved. That is,as you said, all that really matters. Big hugs xxxx

  21. Angie says:

    Beautiful honesty Becky, I had no idea. I think it’s so hard, nothing can prepare you when it doesn’t just ‘feel natural’ I struggled to feed my first baby, she had tongue tie and I had mastitis 7 times in the end. I had to make an enormous fuss to get her tongue tie released because she was gaining weight but I literally couldn’t cope with the pain of feeding her. And because she was thriving, I felt the doctors and health visitors were less interested in my pain, they just encouraged me to keep going or told me to stop. So confusing. That was 8 years ago now so I really hope things have changed. But despite breast feeding both my children, I still have guilt, because I didn’t enjoy it with my first, and I think you are supposed to. It was an ordeal, 8 times a day. So whether or not you can breastfeed, you get the motherly gift of guilt. We love them, and we just have to do our best. Although now mine eat wotsits and party rings (don’t judge me) so it all seems a bit crazy now.

  22. Emily says:

    Thank you so much for this. I have a friend going through something very similar and I want her to know that she is not a failure if she moves on to formula. I’ve shared your story with her and hope it makes a difference x

    • Becky Pink says:

      Thank you Emily, I really hope it helps. I was so much happier and healthier after I gave it up and actually, it meant that my husband could be much more involved in feeding them, which was great for us all x

  23. Jenny says:

    Giving up breastfeeding is not a weakness sometimes our best laid plans don’t go to plan. I always wanted to breastfeed my two but circumstances meant I couldn’t and I had the most content babies you could ask for and today they are strong, well adjusted children. Struggling with breastfeeding and unsupportive midwives/careers just makes you feel inadequate at your most vulnerable and no one should be made to feel like this. If you can breastfeed great if you can’t then don’t worry you are certainly not a failure.

    • Becky Pink says:

      Thank you Jenny, I think it’s so difficult at the time as there are all those hormones whizzing around, plus having barely any sleep and adjusting to life with a newborn- it all gets a bit much! X

  24. theviewfrommysippycup says:

    Thank you for a sweet and genuinely deep viewpoint. I am the last of my group of friends still breastfeeding and we joke that I have earned “freak” status. I feel to each his own and admire the determination and perseverance you showed. You are SO right in the end…we turn our babies into healthy and bright tods because of loving choices we make. And sounds like though it did not turn out as you predicted, your kiddies lack nothing ♡

  25. Angela says:

    Hi Becky!
    I had an emergency C-Section a month before Evie’s due date after her deciding to arrive early and be quite entirely breach. I never produced enough milk and she was a TERRIBLE eater despite being hungry. We had to supplement with formula because my little baby dropped from 6 pounds to nearly 4 even though I was “feeding” her every hour. Our doctor wouldn’t actually let us leave the exam room before seeing us feed her and weighing her after.

    Devastated and humiliated I started a regime of Mother’s Milk Tea, Fenugreek, pumping after every feeding attempt and then some actual prescription drug that caused depression because I thought it was worth it. Sinking into a bout of severe depression I longed for someone to tell me to stop. Everyone kept saying things like ‘every little bit counts’, ‘just a little bit to get her through cold season’. I am not sure if I will fail with the second one should we decide to have more and I hope I will be more level headed about the situation but I doubt it.

    It’s so lame the way people push breastfeeding as the only option when in today’s society we are so very much alone in this task. People often say, “what did people do before formula” and to that I say that people used to live and work together in communities and your sister probably helped feed your baby, or your friend etc. You weren’t alone.

    • Becky Pink says:

      Angela I feel so awful for you, it sounds like you went over and above the call of duty! It’s amazing how much it gets to you isn’t it. Nothing could have prepared me for how dreadful I felt or by how all-consuming it becomes. I had a few similar comments but on the whole I think people could see that it just wasn’t working out the way I’d hoped. If you do have another, I really hope it goes more smoothly for you all! X

  26. Jo Tough says:

    Hi Becky its Jo from Sherington Peeschool. I just wanted to say well done for this honest and heartfelt article! Would you mind if I forwarded it to my daughter who is in her first year of midwifery at Kings college? She has already been on the Post natal ward placement and is helping new mums through all these issues. She is on labour at the moment and already delivered 6 babies herself which is absolutely amazing to me!!! Where did my baby go? Hope all is well with Ava and Thea, what beautiful girls xx

    • Becky Pink says:

      Hi Jo, lovely to hear from you and how exciting about your clever daughter! What a great career. Or course, please feel free to share with her and anyone else who you think it might help. Xx

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