Thursday, 23 January 2020

Breastfeeding Is Easy...

Breastfeeding is as natural as mud. It's the supplied way of feeding our infants and we grow special appendages purely for this purpose. I did 8 years of it all together and I'm really quite lazy, so it must be easy. Of course I wouldn't have managed more than a single day if I hadn't been ridiculously stubborn, and I'm mostly remembering the experience of someone who had 8 years practice, but I can practically do it standing on my head...

I was 22 when I had my first child and I was some sort of rebellious amateur hippy. I was that person who hooked my plastic bottles over the handlebars of my pushbike and cycled to the single town recycling centre to drop it all off. I read all the pregnancy books and wanted everything as natural as possible. My partner was asthmatic and I was determined to try and protect my kids from that. I was also paying a 15% mortgage rate on a council worker's wages and very broke. A tenner a week on baby milk was an expense I didn't want. Of course I was going to breastfeed.

Scan photo showing baby sucking his thumb in the womb

I had a long labour, but no need for sympathy. We played Rummy for 22 hours of 5 minute contractions and I won every hand. I'm pretty good with pain, so when I started to say I'd had enough, given up and wanted Pethidine, the midwives didn't realise my increased discomfort was due everything getting suddenly exciting and the baby wanting immediate exit. I had my injection less than half an hour before delivery.

My baby was perfect and he took his first feed a charm. Told you it was easy. Stung a bit, but totally doable. Then he just wanted to sleep, and so did I. Obviously I've missed out lots of the boring bits, so the salient points stand out, but looking back it's easy to see we didn't really appreciate that the Pethidine was probably to blame for the amount of sleep we got that day.

I demand fed, but mostly it was me doing the demanding of my sleepy baby, which he was not happy about. He refused to take the breast again, but I knew I could do it because I'd done it that once. Every midwife on the ward tried squeezing my nipples and moving me to a different position. I sat up, lay down, knelt, slouched and bent in every direction. He wouldn't do much more than a single suck, but did drink a little expressed into a cup - hoorah, success.

That success was a bit poor really. Never in my life will I again be so excited by 1/2oz of sipped milk. It was a start though, and my baby was capable of drinking, he just needed more encouragement. He would take sips from the cup, but not many. We poured some expressed milk into a a bottle, which he refused, and I was secretly pleased because spending the next year sterilising bottles was definitely not my plan.

By day 3 I was becoming quite sad about the whole thing. My hormones took over and as I watched other mothers feed, I felt a complete failure. I managed to get him to suckle if lay him on his back and I crouched over him with my nipple falling directly into his mouth, but it was a very impractical way to feed, and he'd still only try for a couple of minutes. I really couldn't imagine trying that one in public.

By day 4 he was a bit yellow. He wasn't getting through many nappies either, and no danger of him weeing on the changing mat. My boobs became so engorged they looked like over-inflated party balloons full of streamers. I relented on making a concerted effort with bottles and sat sobbing on the breastpumps while my ailing child slept beside me.

12oz of milk I produced on that first pump. I didn't actually know how much I needed, so I just kept going. I thought I had to fill the bottles. Turns out that was enough for an entire ward. We poured 2 oz into a clean bottle and spent the next 2 hours trying to make him drink it.

The midwives were becoming annoyed with me now and told me I had no choice but to give him bottled milk. My inner hippy was screaming about antibodies and gut flora, the baby milk advertising scandal and all that jazz, but I know when I'm beaten and my baby's health was almost the most important thing. I relented and they brought out the colourfully labelled bottle. He wouldn't touch it. He was even less interested than when I was trying to breastfeed.

My baby was slipping away in front of me and I felt a complete failure that I couldn't do anything to fix it.

Day 5 and I was a desperate mess. I'd been moved to a ward by myself with my somewhat limp and decidedly yellow baby, and constant nudity and sobbing. I just wanted to take my baby home like everyone else seemed to be able to, I wanted to be able to do it. Towards teatime magic happened. Within a 3 hour period I managed to get him to take 2 feeds of 2oz of my milk from a bottle and we were told we could leave if we repeated this trick.

As often occurs just when you think you may be on the verge of winning an epic and almost insurmountable battle, someone strolls in and offers an easy victory. A midwife who had returned after 3 days off recognised me and couldn't believe I was still there. She told me a secret, and I wasn't allowed to tell anyone she told me. It's been 26 years and I have no hope of remembering her name, so I think I'm okay to let it out now.

Her secret was nipple shields. When all else fails, it's worth a try. My partner raced off to the nearest Boots and was back within half an hour. I applied it to my boob and slapped that child on like a professional. He casually sucked away as if he'd been doing it all of his life. Which he blinking well hadn't.

We were home within the hour.

I was warned my milk would probably only last 6 weeks, but that was the most important bit and I would still feel a winner if it stopped then. I still felt a winner with every drop. I had to sterilise on a miniature scale, but I soon perfected feeding lying down in bed, or with a top on, and all those things you see normal people do.

I was the most stubbornly determined person I knew, and once my baby was feeding regularly and gaining weight, I started each feed without the shield. At first I had varying degrees of success, but I'd stopped using it entirely by 6 weeks. From 6 weeks to 18 months I fed my baby using only the power of my boobs, just like in the books.


My second baby had a severe, but undiagnosed tongue-tie, which he had operated on at age 7. I'll tell you sometime about how easy it was to feed him. He's 22 and my toes still haven't entirely uncurled...


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