Breastfeeding doesn't always go to plan

Written by Karen van Beek

Photo by Katherine Schultz

I remember sitting in a waiting room at my first midwife appointment when I was pregnant with my first child. I was 12 weeks pregnant and the room was filled with other women - many of them obviously pregnant, waddling between the bathroom and the waiting area, and then there were others who weren’t even showing, like me.

I was completing a form I had been given, I don't remember much else about the form, but I remember it had a question with 2 check boxes: one for if I planned to breastfeed and another for if I planned to bottle feed. I stared at the question for some time, trying to make this monumental decision in the 5 minutes before my appointment. I still couldn't make up my mind. I decided to Google it later and just tick both boxes for now. I thought I'll probably give breastfeeding a crack but I don't want to be one of those mothers being undressed by her thirsty 3 year old in Coles. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but in that moment, for me, it was a terrifying thought.

As the pregnancy continued I firmed up my decision that I would probably maybe definitely breastfeed for 3-6 months and then switch to bottles. Simple right? As I look back on it, I don't really know how I could have been expected to make that decision before any of my motherly instincts kicked in. In my adult life, I had not been exposed to breastfeeding in any of my friend or family circles and I just couldn't imagine it being part of my life. I thought it was a great idea, I just couldn't picture it.

My daughter's full birth story is one for another day, but once she finally exited and landed like a slimy hot water bottle on my chest, my goodness, my life changed more than I could have imagined. She was quickly cleaned off and wrapped up, and within moments I was being checked for tears. I needed extensive stitching for a very complicated 2nd degree tear which troubled me for 6 months after birth. The stitching process was very painful despite the local anaesthetic and I was writhing in pain - I couldn't hold onto my little girl and so she went to spend some quality time with her dad. Because of all of this, she didn't come back to me for a feed until well over an hour after her birth. After a 17 hour labour, we were all exhausted and when she struggled to latch and was very sleepy, it just seemed easier for us both to sleep.

Throughout the next day and night I focused on trying to get her to latch, but she would either fall asleep just as she got it or she would start doing this weird thing where she would suck her own tongue instead of the nipple. That second night of her life, the typical full on cluster feeding night, she tried all night long, neither of us slept, we tried so hard. It was frustrating to try so hard and still fail. I had countless midwives giving me tips, many of which were conflicting, on how I should hold her, squeeze my boob, different positions and techniques - nothing worked and they all gave up. They said they would refer me to the lactation consultant the following week. They got me to try and express colostrum into a syringe. They even tried to help me do it, but all we could muster was a measly 0.3ml after 30 minutes, which one midwife decided was pathetic enough to just toss in the bin. Each time they came in they warned me that if she lost more than 10% of her body weight we would be forced to stay longer in hospital. I felt inadequate as a mother. I had been lugging around these oversized boobs that were basically useless and I was letting my child down, I was unable to provide for her. I had failed her. If this was happening in another century, my failure would probably impact her ability to even survive.

By my second full day in the ward, I had an overwhelming feeling of judgement from the midwives though I guess it may have been my imagination. It was too much pressure for me and I thought I’d be able to relax more at home and do it my own way, so I asked to be discharged a day early. They did the dreaded weigh-in of the baby and thank goodness, she had lost less than 10% so they let us go (if she’d stayed another day, she probably would have dropped below that threshold). Before we left they said that her jaundice was getting worse because of the lack of milk and they recommended that I start bottle feeding and I could still try to breastfeed if I want. By this point I had put in so much effort to breastfeed that I was determined. It felt right for my baby and those 2 check boxes that I ticked were a distant memory. We were sent home with 200ml of made up formula and told to go and buy some more on the way home. We did.

The first few nights at home were bliss compared to the hospital but I was still so exhausted from waking up to the newborn every few hours. My husband and I decided to share the load equally and fed her bottles overnight because the breastfeeding was too long and too frustrating for me over night when all I wanted to do was sleep. In retrospect, I would have just sucked it up (pardon the pun) and breastfed all night because those first few nights and weeks, I believe, would have made a difference to the overall story.

About 5 days after the birth, after my milk miraculously came in, my little girl eventually figured it out. It was painful for at least 2 weeks, I used nipple shields, creams, cold breast pads, anything to try and help the pain.

Eventually the pain subsided and so we settled into a routine where every feed was about 30 minutes to an hour of breastfeeding, then top up with formula, then 30 minutes of pumping to try and increase my supply and by the end of that it was almost time to start the process again. The lactation consultant found no fault with our technique and just offered a few minor tips. The CaFHS nurse dismissed my request to check for lip and tongue ties (though I don’t really think she had any of significance). After 3 months,we had worked our way up to 50% of her daily milk being breastfed with the help of fenugreek supplements which I took 4 times a day. If I forgot to take them, there would be little milk there for her and she would just drop off and cry for a bottle.

When she was 6 months old, I had to go in for an operation on the tear wound from her birth. I was forced to stop taking the fenugreek a week before as they didn’t know how it would react with the anaesthetic. When I got home after day surgery I had absolutely no milk. The next day I had a little of my supply back but she rejected me because it wasn’t enough and that was pretty much the last time she fed from me. This was the end of breastfeeding for us. It was sad for it to come to an end, but more than anything I felt rejected by her, like I wasn’t good enough for her. It was very difficult for me to accept, but with time, I felt better about it, and I got used to the simplicity of only worrying about one type of milk feed.

It took a long time for me to forgive myself for the little things I could have done differently to try and improve the success of breastfeeding my daughter. I even blamed her wind and sleep problems on the fact that she drank more formula than breastmilk in the early days. It was probably only with the birth of my son 2 years later, where we had a lot of success breastfeeding, that I let it go. It felt like I got a do-over and this time I got it right. The fact that he also had wind and sleep problems, despite being exclusively breastfed, showed me that these are just baby problems despite how they are fed.

Before that baby came out, I really could not have prepared myself for the pressure that I would put on myself and the pressure that others put on me to get it right in every single aspect of parenting. For every thing that doesn’t go to plan with the baby, I would wonder if somehow it was my fault and often the people around me would openly wonder whether it was my fault too. I don’t have the answers to this problem, but like with anything: you learn as you go, not only how to do things, but how to cope with the challenges.


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