26 September 2018

Breastfeeding: Will I Try Again?

Feeding your baby and how exactly you will do that is undoubtedly one of the first thoughts you have when you find out you're pregnant. Whether you've grown up around proud breastfeeders or formula feeding was the norm in your family, there is no avoiding the highly heated topic of 'breast vs formula', which is played out on social media and in mainstream media day in, day out.

A picture of a baby for a post on breastfeeding struggles

My breastfeeding journey with Willow was like a rollercoaster of ups and downs and ultimately, an extremely negative experience for me. Whilst pregnant with Willow I wrote a feature, 'Is breast best?', and although I touched on the idea of things not working out, it wasn't something I seriously considered being the case for me. I had a goal of breastfeeding for the first 12 months and I honestly believed it would happen; so when things didn't work out, it was a huge shock to the system. I believe it played a very big part in my postnatal depression.

Our problems started right from the get-go, a common issue after caesareans, my milk took longer to come in than expected. We spent days with a screaming baby who was, ultimately, very, very hungry. When my milk did eventually show up, she had lost a substantial amount of weight and we had severe latching issues. I had her checked by the midwives and health visitors for tongue-tie, which they said she didn't have - only to find out this year she has a 'severe' upper lie-tie, which I'm pretty sure was an issue with feeding, as she even struggled to latch onto bottles for the first few months.

My anxiety by this point was extremely high, I was physically shaking with anxiety from the moment I woke to the moment we managed to catch a few hours sleep. I absolutely dreaded each and every feed because I knew it wouldn't be easy and I knew the pain would be excruciating. My left breast seemed to be doing OK, but my right breast struggled to produce a decent amount of milk and after a couple of weeks, stopped producing entirely. It was very odd looking at myself in the mirror with one normal breast at my normal cup size, whilst my left was bigger than my head and felt like a boulder on my chest.

From the get-go, midwives, health visitors, a local breastfeeding support group and advice from every breastfeeder I could get my hands on, everyone tried to help but it was a Catch 22 scenario. I was anxious because she was continuing to lose weight weeks after her birth, I was being scolded by health visitors for her continuing to lose weight and I was struggling so badly with latching I ended up with nipples covered in blisters. Tattoos, piercings, 22 hours of labour, an emergency caesarean, nothing compares to the pain of trying to breastfeed with blisters, nothing.

We had no choice but to add formula in to 'top her up' between feeds, always offering my breast first but ultimately, doing the majority of feeding with formula. I cried with every feed over those first few weeks and months and I felt so incredibly guilty, that I was unable to feed her myself, that I couldn't feed her myself. It got to the point where family, friends, health visitors and my GP had to sit me down and make me realise the damage simply battling against the inevitable was doing to my mental health. I know many feel that 'pushing through the tough times' with breastfeeding is key and that eventually, everything works out honky-dory, but for me, it was pushing me towards a mental breakdown and I did not recognise myself, at all.

This wasn't a case of me not managing to cope with lack of sleep and cluster-feeds; this was my body being incapable of producing an adequate supply of milk to feed and nourish my daughter.

I spent every waking minute worrying about breastfeeding, whilst feeling pressured to successfully and exclusively breastfeed because I had so many people watching and waiting. Waiting for me to share those proud feeding pictures on social media (seeing other people's left me feeling sick with anxiety and full of jealousy), to be a vocal breastfeeding supporter, to praise the pros of breastfeeding; when in reality, the experience I had was making my life hell.

So I stopped. Eventually, I gave in and said 'enough is enough', I know my limits when it comes to my mental health and I was deteriorating at a fast pace, so much so it scared me. So I stopped trying to breastfeed and we moved exclusively onto formula. It took just two days for my milk to completely disappear, which shows you just how little I was producing even after so long of trying. Just two days to look like I had never managed any of it at all.

Formula was great. She was happy and fed, I felt better in myself, there was a serene sense of calm in our family and home. It was, without a shadow of a doubt, the best decision for us as a family. A decision that still filled me with guilt for her first year, though, in fact, it's something I still feel quite rubbish about now as she edges closer and closer to 3 years old.

So here I am, 33 weeks pregnant with baby number two and I am absolutely petrified at the thought of breastfeeding again. I am terrified of going through a similar experience, of putting my all into trying again only to fail, again, and how that could damage my mental health. I'm already exhausted at the throwaway comments people will make, about how if I really wanted to breastfeed I'd stick at it and if I really wanted the best for my baby I'd do whatever I needed to breastfeed. Like it's really that simple.

Will I try? Of course, I will. Part of me does want the second time around to be the opposite experience, for things to work out, for me to be able to feed my baby myself with no help from anyone else. I feel more prepared this time, having had such a bad experience the first time around, knowing more about latching, positioning, knowing how important it is to look after myself too (hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!).

I'm willing to try, but this time, I'm not setting myself goals or even expecting it to go well. I've already got a box of formula in the kitchen, the ready-made formula in my hospital bag and I plan to use formula at first until my milk comes in (if, it comes in). I may even just go with combination feeding (breastfeeding and formula feeding) like last time and see how that goes rather than trying to exclusively breastfeed, I don't know.

But what I do know is, this 'beautiful' and 'natural' thing that is meant to come 'easy' to mothers is by far the hardest thing I have ever tried to do and I truly am scared of having to go through what I did with Willow, with this baby too.

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