However, this week is World Breastfeeding Week. By coincidence, I’ve also just spent a couple of days in the company of my friends back home, and their newborn babies. It’s brought back many memories of M as a newborn, including of him nursing. So perhaps this is a good opportunity to revisit my breastfeeding experience, a little for myself, but also in case other mums out there reading this find reassure, advice, a common ground. In case it helps them come to the realisation that, if breastfeeding is hard, or they don’t like it, or they find themselves reaching for formula, it doesn’t make them a bad mummy.
Before I go on, I want to make it clear that this is NOT an anti-breastfeeding post. Rather, this is an
anti-oversimplifying-breastfeeding kinda post. A can-we-please-stop-putting-all-the-onus-on-mums post.
In a textbook situation, successful breastfeeding is supposed to go a little like this: mum has baby, baby gets a belly-full of precious colostrum in that magical first hour, then 2-3 days later mum’s milk comes in, they both flap a bit, but with some guidance for the nurses or health visitors they get the hang of the “technique”. Still having trouble? It just takes “practice”.
Or not. Since when is anything about parenting textbook, anyway?! There are so many things that can make breastfeeding much, much harder: mum being very ill from a traumatic labour, baby having tongue-tie. Or baby having reflux.
The Bean was a reflux baby. He’d feed and, despite my best efforts to prevent it, vomit most of it back up again within 60-90 minutes. And then he’d be starving again, less than two hours after I’d last fed him. He’d cry for hours because of the discomfort reflux brings with it, and often he could only fall asleep if I was massaging his poor belly.
Unfortunately for us, he was never diagnosed. I paid visit after visit to the paediatrician, but as he never had issues gaining weight the response was always either “it’s colic” or “you’re doing it wrong”. Wrong. My let-down was too fast so he was gulping in air. I was feeding him too much foremilk. I’d encouraged him to purse his lips, so he was gulping in more air. I was feeding him too often. I needed to “practice” and improve my “technique”.
It was soul-destroying. I felt like I was permanently either breastfeeding or rocking a screaming baby. Never sleeping. I started letting Mr P&P give him bottles of expressed milk, and then formula, to take off the pressure.
The Bean loved the bottles. Why wouldn’t he? He got the milk, lots of it, and fast. He got cuddles from whoever was feeding him. He started to dislike breastfeeding too, fussing and crying every time. At six months we switched to formula completely, and I never got the impression he missed it. At about seven months he outgrew his reflux. And that was that. Hardly textbook, is it.
I’m aware that my breastfeeding issues were not just about breastfeeding. In failing to diagnose the Bean’s reflux, and help us to manage it, the doctors failed us. However, I do think that this failure of theirs is part of a larger problem: successful breastfeeding does not just depend on the mum.
Instead, successful breastfeeding depends on all sorts of things: positive involvement from the medical profession, access to breastfeeding counsellors, wider support for parents with newborn babies. I hope that, if there is anything World Breastfeeding Week achieves, it's these things. And I know I'm not alone in thinking this.
I felt negative about my breastfeeding experience for a long time. I’d feel pangs of regret and guilt every time I saw anything that promoted breastfeeding: I’d failed at that bit.
Of course, I didn’t fail. I did the best I could, which was certainly good enough. So really, when I think back to that period now, all I want to take away from it is:
a) Living with reflux is sh*t, so stamp your foot until you get the help you need. And if you can’t, and it all goes pear-shaped, it’s not your fault.
b) The Bean got fed. He loved (loves!) his milk. As this post-feed photo attests to. I don’t even remember whether he’d had a bottle of expressed milk or formula, but it doesn’t really matter, does it?
c) The word ‘colic’ should be banned from the dictionary of every medical professional out there...