My Breastfeeding Journey
I never thought much about breastfeeding when I fell pregnant. My siblings and I were formula-fed so I wasn’t given much advice from my own mother. During my medical rotations, the focus of our learning was centered around antenatal medical complications and how to recognize and treat them, and also how to deliver a baby. We observed and assisted in a number of caesarean sections and normal deliveries. I saw the pros and cons of both methods and was put off with both to be honest. I might also add that watching an episiotomy being performed as a female myself is honestly one of the most traumatising things I have ever seen. The lady experiencing it hardly feels it along with all the other pain she is in but the little medical student observing is usually on the verge of passing out!!!
So as you see, breastfeeding was never featured in the medical curriculum. We were taught about immunity and antibody transfer through breast milk. Superficial skin infections and mastitis from breastfeeding was touched upon and we knew what antibiotics to prescribe safely to treat it...that was it. I thought I knew all I needed to know…
When attending my own antenatal classes, a lot of attention was placed on the delivery and birth and this is what I focused my energy on. I knew I wanted to breastfeed and expected it to come naturally when I had my baby, as natural as the instant bond I would have with my daughter when our eyes met for the first time.
9 months later, I had Alyvia and although the labour was tricky, I was prepared for ALL options. As this topic was what was most commonly spoke about and shared, I felt I had had enough time to research and prepare. The moment it came to feeding her, I instantly put her on my breast and could feel her sucking. I was convinced that the hard part was all over and we would live happily ever after. Am I ever that lucky?
When my colostrum came in, I felt uncomfortable from the engorgement but followed the advice of my midwife to hand express some milk if things became too unbearable. Then I started to get sore nipples. Alyvia was a very sleepy baby with some mild jaundice. She often did not cry much. I was told to wake her every 3-4 hours to feed her if she did not wake for it. Each feed wouldn’t take very long and she would very often fall asleep again after 5 minutes or so. As the days went by, the pain from breastfeeding became a lot worse.
During the next midwife appointment, I asked to be observed while feeding Alyvia. She mentioned I had a few latch problems and as we corrected them together, I was informed that the pain would disappear soon. The first weight check was reassuring as Alyvia only lost 60g from her original birth weight. ‘I must be doing something right,’ I thought and carried on feeding every 3-4 hours. She never fed for much longer then 5 minutes or so and I assumed she was a quick feeder.
The sore nipples never improved, in fact they got much worse. They were cracked, bleeding and had yellow discharge oozing at times. That particular breast was always very full and I subconsciously fed from it less to avoid the pain. Then things started to get worse. The 10 day weight check revealed that Alyvia had lost 160g in weight. At this point, I was advised to express milk and supplement it after each feed. I was also advised to feed every 2 hours and to keep Alyvia awake while feeding. If she fell asleep, I was to change her nappy or remove her clothing to awaken her and stimulate more feeding. All of this quickly became very stressful. As soon as Alyvia began to feed, I could only describe the pain as if 10 knives were repeatedly stabbing my breasts. Every time I put her on my breast, I screamed in pain and cried. If she did not latch properly, I would have to take her off me and re-attach her…this meant going through that pain all over again. As she sucked, the pain continued and only lessened after 10 minutes or so. The cycle of putting her on and off my breast every 2 hours became not only very tiring but so profoundly painful that I didn’t think I could physically continue. It was a vicious cycle as the negative thoughts and poor feeding led to Alyvia losing more and more weight. I couldn’t help but blame myself and wanted desperately for someone to help me and tell me what I needed to do.
The more I asked for advice, the more confusing the information I was given. My health visitor would give me completely conflicting advice to my midwife and I felt angry. By this point, I did not want to give up breastfeeding but was advised that the extra feed with expressed milk wasn’t enough and that I would have to introduce formula milk as a top up. As a consequence, I was told this would decrease and affect my milk supply. I didn’t want this to happen but felt I had no choice.
Every feed was stressful and mentally challenging. I knew as soon as I started, I would be in pain so delayed putting her on me for fear of the pain. I tried cold ice on my breast just before feeding but that didn’t really help. The nipple creams didn’t help with the pain either. The pain was MUCH worse then labour and I wished I had been told about this aspect of motherhood during my antenatal classes. Having contacted my friend who was a paediatrician, all she could say was to continue supplementing with formula and if I didn’t want to harm my milk supply, to express as often as I could…but it would be difficult. When did I factor in sleep??? Rarely.
One day, my mum came over to see me and I started shivering. I was feeling terribly cold and my body ached. I put it down to exhaustion and she became very worried about me. I had a fever and could barely keep my head up. I was reluctant to take any medications other then paracetamol as I knew it would transfer into my breast milk but after 24 hours of this, I was not getting any better. It suddenly occurred to me that I may have mastitis and when I checked my breasts, I found that my left breast was red, hard and tender. I had mastitis. Strangely, I felt confident about treating it as this was something mummycleverdoc actually knew how to manage. I wasn’t keen on taking antibiotics while breastfeeding so opted for more conservative measures at first. I tried regular paracetamol, massaging the area and taking a warm shower. I was still getting a fever and chills. The next day I collected a prescription for antibiotics and started taking them straight away. Time was of the essence as I knew that the longer I left it, the more likely I would need to be taken into hospital for intravenous antibiotics or even surgical drainage of the ducts. I certainly did not want that after the battle I was currently going through.
It was a dark few weeks. After 6 weeks, Alyvia finally regained her birth weight and was continuing to put on weight. I was discharged from the midwife’s care. My mastitis had gone and I felt much better. My breasts no longer hurt and I continued to make sure I regularly checked my breasts for signs of redness.
I still couldn’t shake off the longing to exclusively breastfeed Alyvia. Was it too late to cut back on formula milk? Would it cause her to lose weight again? I went online and came across a much recommended pro breastfeeding organization, La Leche League. They had advisors online and over the phone who would be able to offer support and advice based on your individual case. I contacted them and was relieved to learn that it wasn’t too late to try to exclusively breastfeed after 6 weeks; but I was told it would be extremely hard work. I would have to feed Alyvia every 2 hours on the dot for the first 10 days. If I didn’t feed her, I would need to express. This was day and night. I dreaded it but was internally strong and ready for it. I would cut down the amount of formula milk by 5mls each day. Calculating how this would actually work out for me, it meant I would have no rest in between feeds. It took me almost 1 hour to feed, burp and change Alyvia during each feed so I would have to wake her again only an hour later and start the whole process again. Regardless, I was determined.
2 weeks later, I had an abundant breast milk supply and Alyvia was completely off the formula milk. She was continuing to put on weight. I was so happy and felt I had overcome THE biggest challenge since becoming a mother.
6 months later, I fell pregnant again and eventually stopped breastfeeding at 10 months and switched Alyvia to formula milk along with solid food. I got about 4 months rest before starting again with Sophia. This time round, I shifted a lot of my focus on the possibility I would struggle with breastfeeding again.
Luckily this was not the case and she gained weight steadily without the need to supplement her. Now I can’t get her off me!!!
I’ll end this post with this, I was a first time mother like many of you are and have been. Medical school prepared me to become a doctor…not a mother.
I had the same struggles and if not more obstacles with breastfeeding regardless of my background. I was desperate for support, guidance and encouragement and was determined to conquer breastfeeding. I have come across numerous ladies who have struggled with breastfeeding and I feel that we should be given a choice about how we want to feed our babies and then encouraged thereafter. There is no ONE way to do it. I feel the antenatal classes need to put more emphasis into addressing feeding options with your newborn baby. This should include the problems you may face with weight gain, feeding the jaundiced baby, how often to feed baby, when to supplement feeds etc.
Do not feel alone or hesitate to seek help. In my case, La Leche League were extremely helpful and supportive. I would recommend speaking with one of their advisors if you have any specific questions regarding breastfeeding.
Have a lovely Christmas and new year everyone!