My Breastfeeding Journey

8 Mar 2016

A few weeks ago when I posted Willow's one month update, I shared that my breastfeeding journey so far hadn't gone quite to plan and I have really struggled to breastfeed Willow, who is currently being combination fed with formula.

Over the coming weeks and months I am going to be sharing a few posts about our breastfeeding journey, what has and hasn't worked for us, the services, communities and organisations which I have turned to for help as well as products and devices which can help if you are struggling to exclusively breastfeed. 

Today I wanted to start things off by sharing my breastfeeding experience, from someone who had the aim of exclusively breastfeeding for one year and who never realised how hard to achieve that would actually be.

For those of you who read my post announcing Willow had been born, you will know that any ideas I had of how I would give birth completely went out of the window and after a 19 hour labour I ended up with an emergency c-section. I'm mentioning this because I really do believe it has had a massive impact on my breastfeeding journey; I wasn't given skin-to-skin contact in the hospital after she was born, nor for the entire time I was an inpatient before discharging myself (more on that in my birth story, which I plan to share soon). Also by the nature of a caesarean, my body didn't go through a full natural labour which teamed with the lack of skin-to-skin contact meant my body didn't go through the motions of getting my milk flow started. My colostrum was there, and I fed Willow in the hospital, but it took much, much longer for my milk to come in, 5 days in fact; which seems to be the standard for caesarean mamas. 

Ultimately this made it harder for me to establish breastfeeding in those important early days and give Willow the amount of milk she needed, particularly as she was cluster feeding and we were 'feeding on demand'. Another way in which having had a caesarean made our breastfeeding journey difficult was the recovery process; I had just had major surgery and so trying to position Willow in order for us to get a good latch was really difficult, painful and uncomfortable. I'm still recovering now, having unfortunately caught an infection and finding it harder than expected to get back to my normal self after the surgery. 

It's the positioning and latch I struggled with the most in the first week or so and ultimately what has been the biggest problem in trying to breastfeed. Before my pregnancy I have always had a big bust and obviously when you are breastfeeding, your breasts get bigger. Gravity also took over some time ago for me and years of not wearing correctly fitted bras means my breasts aren't in the best shape. All of this put together makes positioning extremely difficult and despite trying every position going, nothing seems to fit.

My partner and I went to a breastfeeding workshop when I was pregnant so we actually knew quite a few different positions to try out and we also got some tips and ideas from the community midwives, we literally tried every position going and nothing seemed to work. I either couldn't get comfortable or I couldn't get the latch right, all of which left me feeling stressed, anxious and extremely upset.

As each day passed, my anxiety levels rose, which in turn had another negative effect; my milk supply which had only just come in started to decrease, rapidly. Did you know your mood, for example being anxious, can inhibit your milk supply? I didn't, and finding out that was a factor in how much we were struggling simply made me more anxious. And so the vicious cycle continued. 

I had sore, cracked nipples right from the off, with one bleeding after just a couple of days and an issue with blocked ducts on the same breast due to the severity of how cracked that nipple was. I pretty much applied nipple balm from the get-go but struggling to get a good latch meant that my preventative methods were fruitless; Willow was pretty much on the end of my nipples the majority of the time which was extremely sore, caused a fair bit of damage and at one point I even ended up with blisters. I tried the whole 'if the latch is bad, remove her and start again' method, but I struggled so much to get the latch right that I would often be sat there for an hour doing just that, in which time Willow would get worked up and more hungry, in turn making me more stressed and anxious. I have my fair share of tattoos and piercings, I spent 19 hours in labour - I can wholeheartedly say that trying to breastfeed through sore, cracked, bleeding and blistered nipples is by far the worst pain I have ever experienced in my life.

Another problem we had was that Willow wasn't waking herself for feeds and we were really confused as to how long we should leave it before waking her to try and feed her. One person would say 4 hours whilst another would say no longer than 90 minutes, with others saying everything in between and one midwife even saying that 5 hours between feeds was fine. There was so much contradictory information being thrown our way which made an already stressful situation even more difficult to manage. You're not given a handbook when your baby is born, you don't automatically know what to do and become a perfect parent. We trusted advice given to us and all too late found a lot of the advice was bad advice. Eventually we had to give in and Willow was given formula as a 'top up', which over the weeks has increased in quantity, to ensure she is getting enough food and growing the way she should be.

Breastfeeding is hard, and it's something I think very few people are emotionally and mentally prepared for. Having shared some of the difficulties I faced with feeding Willow when chatting with other mums on Twitter and Instagram, it astounded me how many others had faced the same difficulties as I had, and even more who had found it more difficult. Being able to breastfeed is an accomplishment and not something to be sneered at - everyday I feel guilt that I am not exclusively breastfeeding my daughter, and envy over every happy breastfeeding picture I scroll through on my Instagram feed. I cannot tell you how upsetting it is when you have your heart set on breastfeeding, to struggle the way I have. You feel like a failure, that you can't do the one thing that is meant to come naturally to all mothers.

I've learned a few important things over the past 6 weeks. The first being that fed is best. When I couldn't provide enough food for my daughter, formula was a life saving product which meant she got enough food and didn't become poorly. There is no doubt that breastmilk is best in terms of health benefits and being the best food you can give your baby, but in those times of need, no one would chose to let their baby starve for the sake of being stubborn. Secondly? There are an unbelievable amount of resources, organisations, communities, all just a phone call, email or direct message away who are there to help in whatever way they can. I lost count of the amount of times I had the community midwives come out to see us in those first two weeks. Thirdly, technology. It is astounding the products and devices which have been created to help mothers, whether they are exclusively breastfeeding with the aid of electric/manual pumps, whether they like me are combination feeding or whether they just need a little helping hand in upping their milk supply.

I have a couple of posts coming up covering exactly that; products and brands which are great in helping you along on your breastfeeding journey, essentials and must-have items which have made things easier for Willow and I. I'll be sharing my feeding essentials, techniques, tips and tricks we have tried as well as reviews of a range of breastfeeding aids from Medela which have been absolutely invaluable.

Today I want to end my breastfeeding journey post with a quick fire Q&A with Medela's Lactation Consultant, Sioned. I was given the opportunity to ask Sioned some questions and decided it would be beneficial to pick her brains about my own experience, including the specific aspects of our journey so far which have affected our breastfeeding experience, and in doing so learning a lot more about why I have struggled and what else I can try to make things easier.

001. I attended breastfeeding workshops prior to my little girl being born and I was shown many different positions for breastfeeding and told how to get a good latch. However, as a naturally big busted girl I find it extremely hard to find a position that works for us, even more so to get a good latch - do you think size of breasts can have an effect on someone's ability to establish breastfeeding and if so, what positions do you recommend as easiest for getting a good latch whilst being comfortable for both mother and baby?
Every lady is different and whilst the generic feeding positions are adapted sometimes mum has to be a little creative and finds what suits them. Nipples come in different shapes and sizes and are not always positioned where baby can be tummy to tummy. What is important is that baby can get a big wide mouth and a deep latch. To do this a guide of having her in line where her nose is in line with her umbilicus or her ear is line with her hip means that she isn't twisted and can slightly tilt her head back and open wide. For ladies who are fuller breasted adopting a biological nursing semi-reclined position may help as baby is on top but occasionally this can lead to breasts shifting to the side with gravity. Placing a small muslin square at the side or under the breast can help with supporting the breast or using a scarf to sling the breast to help lift and support to aid feeding. Size does affect and more so on posture and back support. A good supportive bra is a must and it will aid you to monitor and check for fullness and discomfort through breast examination to ensure that baby is draining effectively, minimising fullness and engorgement.

002. In my personal experience breastfeeding is not only a huge responsibility, but it puts a lot of pressure on you as you try to ensure your baby is being fed as often and as much as they need. I found my anxiety to have a big effect on my experience of breastfeeding and my community midwives suggested a rise in my anxiety levels could be inhibiting my milk supply. Do you believe your mood can affect your milk flow and if so, what do you recommend for ensuring breastfeeding is as stress free as possible?

The breastfeeding hormone oxytocin not only regulates and supports breastfeeding but is also can affect mothers well being. It buffers emotion and releases anti-stress agents so that you feel happy, content and bond with baby. However if you are stressed, apprehensive, afraid, in pain, these physical and emotional factors can switch down the release of oxytocin and inhibit milk flow. Mood and parenting come together with reduced sleep and adapting to motherhood, and can affect milk production. Any tactile stimulus can trigger oxytocin so hand/back massage can release this love hormone, massage your hands and thumb area to stimulate the reflexology points for buffering worry, eat foods with essential fatty acids; 2-3 portions a week can also enhance mum's well being as well as increased concentration of these fats into your milk to help baby's brain development too. 

Make time to rest and relax. Value those minutes that baby is asleep to take 5-10 minutes of you time rather than try and catch up on chores or emails, close your eyes and do a few deep breathing techniques. Maybe have a few days that you go to bed early and refresh, and if baby wakes your partner can help with getting baby ready so that you just need to feed. The breastfeeding hormones help you to get quality sleep and help to take you into deep sleep so quality is often better than quantity. Link into a support group for chatting rather than feel the pressure associated with achieving milestones; every baby paces development at different rates so enjoy the moments. Be realistic with what you can achieve and if things are a little overwhelming see if family can help out with some of the chores such as the ironing or don't iron, have a morning where you double up on a few meals that can be frozen in advance and see if you and your partner can have a date hour so that your relationship also has some protected time too.

003. Having had an emergency caesarean I didn't get the birth I had planned and the skin-to-skin contact I so desperately wanted did not happen during my 2 day stay post-birth in the hospital. Do you think skin to skin contact in those first few hours after birth can affect how someone may go on to breastfeed, and do you think hospitals should do more to ensure those who have caesareans, are on strong pain killers afterwards and may not be in a clear state of mine to request help, get that important skin to skin contact after birth?
There is still unfortunately some work to be done in the early hours and days after birth. Skin-to-skin is greatly beneficial to you both and ideally it should happen in delivery suite immediately and can be done with supervision of a nurse even after an emergency section whilst you are in the recovery room. Skin to skin can be done at any time and is not just for after birth as I'm sure you have done. What this does is introduces your baby to your skin flora by being placed on your abdomen , as if he was born vaginally he would have been bobbing on your pelvic floor exposed to the outside world being protected by your unique flora too. Skin-to-skin surges your oxytocin levels as you go through the third stage of labour to deliver your placenta, this releases the love hormone oxytocin for you to connect with baby and this helps with milk stimulation and let down.

I believe there is still a lot of work to be done for women who have emergency sections and their partners are unable to attend, and theatre nurses should support placing a newborn in skin to skin so that the mother and infant are safe and monitored in the recovery room even if mum is under sedation and pain management until family can support this. Feeding back to the midwife in charge and through patient experience (PALS) can start to make a difference and talking and including in your birth plan that these are your wishes should highlight that there needs to be a change in support in recovery and postnatal wards.

Skin to skin definitely supports breastfeeding initiation and maintenance but it is the early initiation, frequent and effective feeds where baby latches well and suckles with lots of swallowing, and good milk transfer and breast emptying which are the key things for good milk production and this affects the breastfeeding experience for both mum and baby.

A big thank you to Sioned for taking the time to answer my breastfeeding questions.

If like me your breastfeeding journey has not been as easy as you expected, I would love to hear from you - none of us are alone in this! Keep an eye on the blog over the coming weeks where I'll be sharing more breastfeeding content, with my breastfeeding essentials coming up very soon. In the meantime I'd love to hear your breastfeeding stories as well as any tips and tricks you have for making breastfeeding easier.