When breast might not be best
*My experience and thoughts on a very emotive topic....
When I was expecting my baby, I was naïve. How could I not have been? I was about to get the job of my life with zero training or preparation.
So I prepped as much as I could. I was religious in my research of all things parenthood and filled my brain with as much information as I could soak up. I watched how my mummy friends were doing it and marvelled at their insane abilities to juggle their lives. I tried to make conscious decisions about the type of mum I wanted to be.
I decided I wanted to breastfeed. I was under no illusion it would be a picnic, but I crossed my fingers that we’d be lucky and it would work for us.
Feeding is such an emotive subject. For me the route you choose as a new mum is one of the most innately personal choices you’ll ever make, and everyone’s way should be respected. Ultimately I believe every single mum is a hero and all that matters is that a baby is nourished and loved.
When Xav rocketed into our world five weeks earlier than expected, he struggled to feed from the get-go. After five days he still wasn’t settling for longer than about half an hour, and I was going absinthe-hallucination mental.
I don’t remember it occurring to me that I could quit. I just cried and thought ‘Fuck. Is this what it’s like? Is it really this hard?’
The neonatal heroes helped me to find a feeding combination that seemed to work for him. Unfortunately it was about as high-maintenance as it gets. Breastfeeding so he could get used to the boob; expressing and bottle-feeding because it was easier for him to take and we could monitor what he was drinking, and formula top-ups thrown into the mix too.
We carried on this crazy regime when we got home from hospital. I ended up feeding him for countless hours a day, expressing six times a day (with a baby who went bat-shit crazy every time he wasn’t being cuddled…not all that easy to do) as well as sterilising bottles and preparing tiny little formula feeds (it seemed like a hell of a lot of effort for 10ml that he’d hurl back up again) and trying to appear as though I was loving this new motherhood gig. Feeding him was a 24-hr affair and we were all completely drained.
In the haze of zero sleep and general new-mum overwhelm, I thought that’s what we had to do to get him fed. That that was just how it had worked out for us.
I bawled and told him how sorry I was as I sat in his nursery trying to feed him and he just lay there screaming. I cried down the phone to health visitors, begging them to help me. I sobbed to the GP as I came down with yet another bout of the evil that is mastitis (five times in total. Yowser). No-one seemed to be able to come up with anything beyond checking his latch, which they said was fine. Everyone dismissed his severe reflux as something that was common in preemies and would improve with time.
That was until we met the man who became my God: our cranial osteopath. Within about three seconds of meeting Xav he explained that during the birth his skull had twisted and caused damage to the nerve centres controlling his gut and suck reflex, which was functioning at around 30%.
He worked on Xav every week for almost a year. Slowly, his digestive issues got better. The Cranial God did all he could to reassure me that I hadn’t caused the problems somehow. But still, good ol’ mummy guilt plagued me.
At five months, Xav fed for 24 hours with just the boob and nothing else. I’m not sure I will ever feel such victory again. It was a monumental achievement for us.
As we approached the six-month mark (my original goal had been to feed him for six months, reassess then potentially carry on) the fight in me started to wane. I’d overcome an eating disorder before we decided to have a baby and at the time I’d thought it was one of the toughest things I’d face in my lifetime. My battle to breastfeed had somehow eclipsed it, and then some.
Psychologically, I was defeated. I felt like I’d cheated Xav because he hadn’t been 100% breastfed and I was contemplating giving up. I felt like I had failed catastrophically at the one thing nature had intended me to do for my baby. My confidence was non-existent. I knew that I was enduring the kind of sleep deprivation used to torture information from people, and the stress it caused me (and obviously him as a result) was pushing me towards an edge I was desperate not to get to.
Eventually I broke (we’re talking rocking in a corner) and admitted I just couldn’t carry on. My husband and I decided enough was enough. We bought anti-reflux formula and overnight, our baby changed. He slept better, fed better and when he was awake he was happier. And so, the guilt changed. Should we have just done this all along?
My all-consuming bloody-minded determination to do what I thought was ‘best’ for him had potentially caused him (and me) months of unnecessary suffering and stolen precious days of new baby joy. When I think back now to those first months I don’t miss them; I shudder. (Typing that has just made me cry. It’s so hard to admit.)
I know that everyone has tough bits to deal with as a parent. And through it all I have felt nothing but extraordinarily lucky that we have made this perfect little legend of a human.
But I’d received the message loud and clear and it was on repeat in my head: breast is best.
No-one told me that sometimes, it might not be best. That there were caveats. Of course, people told me that I could quit and that was ok. Yes, they said I’d done everything I could to feed him.
Our feeding palaver wasn’t best, though. The stress, pressure and guilt around it almost wrecked the most beautiful days of my life. I’m so thankful that my bond with my amazing boy wasn’t affected; it could so easily have been.
I’ve said I’d go through it all again, but the brutal truth is I’m not sure I could.
Sometimes, when breastfeeding causes such harm to mum and baby, I don’t believe it’s best. It’s ok to say ‘Enough is enough’. If baby is content and growing and you’re happy, that’s what’s best.