The most natural thing in the world: that’s what I used to think about breastfeeding before I had a go at it myself. “Just be positive and it will be an easy ride,” I told myself, just as I did with pregnancy and childbirth. And whereas with those two this attitude worked a treat, breastfeeding was a whole different matter.
Do you ride a bike, play a musical instrument or swim? All these skills seem perfectly easy once you’ve mastered them, but they all take a certain amount of time and effort to learn; having a teacher or instructor at the beginning helps someone to show you the ropes. Breastfeeding is also a skill, and it makes a massive difference if you have someone who can show you what to do, how to hold and position your baby, what signs of a good attachment to look for and how to solve any problems you might have.
A lot of women put a great deal of trust in their GP, pediatrician, health visitor or midwife. This is as it should be. However, when it comes to breastfeeding, their knowledge can be very superficial. Most of them aren’t trained to aptly assist the breastfeeding mum and infant, thus making it necessary for you to get a certified second opinion when faced with challenges. There are certain websites with varied resources that I consider the “Breastfeeders’ Bible” and it might be worth familiarizing yourself with them. They include kellymom.com and Dr Jack Newman’s on http://www.breastfeedinginc.ca. I know of women who have actually taken printouts from these sites to their GP, ensuring they got the right treatment. There is A LOT of information on Kellymom and Dr Newman’s page; don’t worry; most likely you won’t need to know all, or even half of it. But you can usually find the answer or solution to your problem there. Local support groups and forums are also an invaluable source of first hand experience.
So, riding a bike? Playing an instrument? Well, that’s all good, but there is certainly more to consider where breastfeeding is concerned. After all, there is a second (and possibly a third or fourth?) person involved in the process, not just an inanimate object like in the case of cycling or playing the piano. Also, breastfeeding comes at a very special moment in your life, when your body and your mind are prone to be in a delicate state, and you’re bound to feel vulnerable. This all adds up to making breastfeeding a dicey skill to master, this is true especially with your first child, but many women still feel apprehensive even if they already have kids.
If you have a relatively uncomplicated birth, it’s best to give breastfeeding a go right after. This is what I did, having watched videos of babies instinctively climbing to their mothers’ chests (my husband still reminisces on those videos shown at antenatal classes!). Even if you have a Cesarean section, you can usually have some skin-to-skin contact with the baby straight after, an attempt at the first feed. And guess what: you don’t have to wait for an invitation from the health professionals looking after you to do it, you can demand it. Don’t be afraid; follow your instincts, sometimes mum just knows best, even if it’s your first time.
Sometimes your baby just wants to sleep after a long, tiring labor; sometimes pain relief might be involved and baby is sleepy – don’t worry, it will happen for you two, just give baby time keeping them close to your skin as the chances of the first feed is likely to happen under such conditions. This new person is very likely to know what’s good for them and the two (three etc.) of you might be lucky enough to have a smooth start of breastfeeding, and carry on, without ever looking back.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case for us (but perhaps this was a character-building exercise? Who knows!). My son had a severe tongue tie, which was picked up at the hospital right after he was born, but snipping right away sadly isn’t normal practice. After a nice and easy start, baby latched on but then failed to let go of my nipple for hours, things progressively worsened with my nipples suffering really badly and the baby getting full of wind. When a referral letter from a children’s hospital arrived nine days later, with a consultation (and possible snip of the tongue tie) planned for six weeks away (and each of those weeks seemed to be an eternity), I was in such a state that we decided we couldn’t wait any longer and booked a private appointment for the next day. It cost an arm and a leg, and it changed our breastfeeding story from a potential failure to a slightly less painful journey. Would I pay this much and drive almost 60 miles each way again to have this snip? I’m not sure. Was it the best decision in that particular situation? Yes, I believe so.
Knowing what I know now, I would’ve insisted on being referred to other clinics in the area, and I would’ve probably gone for a free (NHS) cancellation appointment five days later, which my husband managed to secure. But I only found out about all those options after the tongue tie was snipped, and it wasn’t really an issue anymore. Just in case you’re wondering how babs took the snip – well, he cried for the whole of 20 seconds it took for me to stick a nipple in his mouth, and he never looked back. The 120 mile-round drive and the fact that he had to be hungry before the appointment were slightly more traumatic.
Did we breastfeed happily ever after? Well, not straight away. Having been through a near-complete nipple destruction mission, my breasts decided to take revenge. And so, began a long journey of recurrent blocked ducts and bouts of mastitis, which lasted for the next three months. Mastitis, that word has the potential to truly terrify breastfeeding mums… as much as it’s not pleasant, it can be treated. My first bout took place on my husband’s 40th Birthday, and it wiped me out completely; I wasn’t able to get out of bed, give him his Birthday gift or even write out his card. I had a high temperature, hot and cold sweat. After a telephone consultation, my GP prescribed antibiotics that were safe while breastfeeding, my husband picked them up and a few hours later I felt much better.
A similar situation happened a few weeks later (after I gorged on buttery oat biscuits, facepalm!) and after that second lot of antibiotics, mastitis and blocked ducts left me for good (I hoped!). I found not-knowing when or if it would ever get better the most worrying aspect of the process, it really brought me down. Looking back it seems like an insignificant period of time, but at that time, it seemed like my whole life was collapsing under my feet and the pain would never go away. It was hard, it was tearful and I didn’t need the pain or anguish on top of the normal new-mum anxiety and hormonal rides. Now, almost a year after having my son, I don’t regret going through it. Would I endure it again? Hell yeah!
I was fortunate as in my case baby was putting on weight fabulously; he didn’t seem to suffer at all. This saved me a lot of worry. Some mum’s resort to giving formula, is formula the root of all evil? Errrm… no. Formula has its place in the world; there are situations where it is the only viable option to sustain a child’s life. I know there are also mums who have all the information on breastfeeding, but simply don’t want to breastfeed, and that is absolutely fine, and nobody’s business but their own. However, giving formula to a child because they are fussy or because you’ve mastitis isn’t necessarily the best course of action. It interferes with your milk production especially in the early days; research also shows it has an impact on the baby’s gut. (The virgin gut concept might be worth a Google search).
The rate of women initiating breastfeeding right after birth speaks for itself: a vast majority of women want to breastfeed. They believe it’s best for their babies; they want to feel the mother to child bond at the breast. And some, like me, don’t want to spend a fortune on formula, bottles and sterilisers, if they don’t have to. This article is for that mum who starts out but comes face-to-face with hurdles that seem insurmountable in the moment, don’t fret it does and definitely gets better. Your experience isn’t new, as with every new skill, support, proper information and a persevering attitude pays off in the long run. I’m almost 12 months in, and it is one of the best aspects of motherhood for me.
Written by Ola Jones.
The breastfeeding mother of a lovely smiley baby called Benjamin. Ola, her husband and Benjamin make their home in Liverpool UK. Ola and Benjamin are a testament to the benefits of persevering through challenging and some what complicated breastfeeding journeys.
Ola acknowledges the tremendous impact the support and guidance received from BAMBIS (Babies and Mums Breastfeeding Information and Support) had on her journey and recommends that such services should be duplicated across the country.
Thanks Ola for sharing your beautiful story.
Disclaimer: this is a personal story and not a medical recommendation. Please consult your doctor and lactation specialist.