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 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! 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.