The Great Breastfeeding Conspiracy

Let me start by saying that this post may be controversial. And, as a disclaimer: breast is best.

Well, sort of. Breast is best if:

  • You have a high pain threshold and nipples of steel (literally no one tells you how completely agonising it is in the beginning)
  • You don’t value sleep all that much (and are prepared to go without for months)
  • Your baby nails latching
  • Most importantly: your baby does not have a severe tongue tie.

And it’s this final point that put the nail in the coffin for our ‘breastfeeding journey’ (I can’t stand this term. It’s so flowery and fluffy. There is nothing fluffy about breastfeeding in the beginning).

After Baby SM was born, he was placed on me skin to skin, as I’d dutifully requested on my birth plan on the advice of our NCT instructor, and I tried to feed him. It wasn’t happening; he tried and tried to latch on, but couldn’t seem to form a sucking action, and eventually I gave up, passing it off as tiredness after birth and grateful of an opportunity to have that amazing post labour bath. Back on the ward, we tried again over several hours under the supervision of the midwifery care assistant, who patiently tried him in every different position: cradle, rugby ball, lying down…nothing was working. My quiet little baby was becoming increasingly agitated; scratching, kicking and biting me, and I was beginning to get more and more upset. Eventually, sensing how seriously hungry Baby SM was, she brought out a breastpump. She was reluctant to let me use it, as she explained that the longer he went without latching, the less likely he was to get it, but he’d now been in the world nearly 24 hours and hadn’t eaten anything. The pump worked; we got a good supply of colostrum, and syringed it straight into Baby SM’s mouth, which he gulped down hungrily.

We repeated the process, with no success on the latching front, until I managed to persuade the midwifery team to let me go home. The ward was no longer quiet; the father of the baby opposite appeared to be embroiled in a bitter dispute with a member of the mother’s family, and was threatening them over the phone as well as being aggressive towards members of the midwifery team (including the duty midwife, who we’d not actually managed to speak to for the entire duration of our stay on the ward). The OH wasn’t allowed to use the shower facilities or eat the food on the ward, and was exhausted from trying to sleep in the chair next to my bed. I didn’t want to stay on the ward by myself with the baby and no apparent means of feeding him by myself. We eventually met the duty midwife, and after reassuring her that we had the same breastpump at home, we overcame her reluctance to let us leave.

Back home, I tried and tried to get Baby SM to latch. We attempted to feed under supervision of the visiting midwives and midwifery care assistants, took him in to see a breastfeeding specialist, and bought a My Brest Friend pillow, which turned out to be the most useful breastfeeding support we’d had to date (getting intermittent latches for up to ten minutes at a time – a miracle at this point. If you plan on breastfeeding, you NEED one of these pillows. Your back, core and stitches will thank you for it). Eventually, one of the midwives confirmed our suspicions: Baby SM had a tongue tie which was preventing him from latching properly, and she made a referral to get it snipped the following week. In the interim, Baby SM became jaundiced and started to look quite hollow, but the advice remained the same: keep going. I knew something wasn’t right, and continued to express what I could after attempting to feed him so I could get something in him. The colostrum gave way to milk, but still, he continued to fade. He was, quite literally, starving. The tongue tie was snipped, but by this point, it was too late; he had lost 11% of his body weight and we were on the verge of being readmitted back to hospital. We were allowed to go home to try again now the tongue tie was sorted, but if the situation didn’t improve we would be back in the RUH after our ten day midwife appointment in two days time. I was devastated. At home, I tried and tried with latching again – the tongue tie was fixed, so why wasn’t he feeding? The punching, clawing, kicking and screaming continued, but no latching. My nipples felt like someone was sticking a needle in them and I burst into tears every time I put him anywhere near, fearing the agonising pain which was about to ensue. I felt like a complete failure. Our NCT classes taught us that almost everyone was physically capable of breastfeeding their baby, so why couldn’t I?

At this point, my husband did the unthinkable: he produced a bottle of formula. Exhausted, broken, I agreed that he could give it to Baby SM. In hindsight, I’d viewed that bottle in the same way I would if he were giving poison to our baby. Ultimately, I believe it saved him from starvation. Between my expressed milk and additional formula, he wolfed down nearly a litre in a day. When we returned for our ten day midwife appointment, Baby SM had gained 200g in two days. We were discharged to the care of a Health visitor and allowed to go home. Finally, we were getting somewhere.

Three months later, I have just stopped expressing milk after my supply dwindled to virtually nothing. Between expressed bottles and formula, we’ve managed to raise a healthy baby, who sleeps incredibly well and is consistently recognised as the happiest and calmest from our group. I don’t credit this all to formula – I’d like to think I’m having a positive impact on his wellbeing through my parenting choices – but I do believe being satisfied has something to do with it. After eight weeks he began sleeping through the night, and in general he is extremely relaxed without having that weird, vacant air about him which a lot of babies seem to have. He is bright, bubbly, incredibly smiley and developing as fast as, if not faster, than his peers. He has not spontaneously combusted, nor has his head fallen off, because he’s not been breastfed. We’ve bonded in a way I never thought possible when in the early days, I’m ashamed to say I confessed to my OH that I hated him for the pain he was causing me whilst trying to feed. It’s not for everyone, but, then again, nor is breastfeeding. I’d rather have a fed baby than a dead baby, and I truly believe it was only my husband’s intervention that prevented him from starving.