Its taken me 3 attempts to write this post as I am still suffering a disproportionate amount of Mum Guilt over my breastfeeding story. Every time I put finger to keyboard, I winced and busied myself with something else, such as hoovering my fake lawn, cleaning out my fridge, unpacking my post pregnancy clothes and other such menial tasks. Just when I thought I had the hang of breastfeeding, Mother Nature raised her hand and gave me a good fat slap around the face in payment for me starting to become blasé and taking one too many ‘brelfies’ of Maggie enjoying her time a la boob.
I look at this picture and I want to tell my 10 weeks’ post-partum self that everything is going to be ok. This picture shows me in the midst of the worst time I have experienced so far as a Mother and the panic/worry/stress/anxiety is written all over my face. It was taken at the beginning of September, just as Maggie was going through a nursing strike. And by strike, I mean that starting on 31st August 2016 (the date is engrained in my memory), every time I tried to feed her, she would scream blue murder, arching her back, writhing around and refusing to nurse from me. Up until that date, breastfeeding had been going relatively well and I had been ‘enjoying’ it, albeit feeling like I was being sucked dry and felt like there wasn’t an hour that went by without Maggie wanting to have her boob fix. But this sort of cluster feeding is normal new born behaviour isn’t it? That’s what all the books, online help and health visitors said. We are also extremely lucky to have weekly breastfeeding cafés and other drop in clinics with lactation consultants on hand where I live, so whenever I went there, I was told she was doing great and that I had nothing to worry about in terms of feeding. So imagine my horror when all of a sudden, Maggie no longer wanted me, boob, bottle or anything else.
The nightmare started over the August bank holiday, which saw me hiding in the nursery trying to tempt Maggie to quench her thirst whilst a load of our mates were in the garden having a BBQ. It was the height of summer, hot and Maggie didn’t want anything to hydrate her. I took a deep breath, tried to calm her and tried again. Same thing happened. She was having none of it and every time I brought her to me, she would scream as though I was submitting her to some form of baby torture. I looked out of the window and saw everyone having fun in the garden, sipping on rose and gnawing on red meat marinated within an inch of its short-lived life. Maggie wouldn’t stop screaming. There was nothing I could do but try to rock and soothe her. Time went very slowly that day, I tried EVERYTHING – she eventually cried herself to sleep and I sat upstairs expressing milk in the hope she might take some from the bottle when she woke up. I felt awful.
A few days after the horrendous bank holiday, Maggie was still being difficult feeding. The only way I could get her to feed was if I managed to catch her before she woke up from a nap and put her to my boob – basically tricking her into feeding. This was proving more and more stressful as she was going for up to 6 hours without a feed, which I knew wasn’t ‘normal’ for a breastfed new born. I was terrified that she was dehydrated and hating the fact that my baby didn’t want me.
This milky stand off went on for the best part of 2 weeks and I was at my wits end. There had been an episode on the way back from our friend’ engagement celebrations at Franks Café in Peckham. In hindsight, taking a baby was probably a bad idea, let alone one that was flat refusing to feed and standing with an engorged breast fully exposed in the middle of a bar on top of a multi-story car park in the vain attempt to get my child to take some food isn’t a memory I will would like to dwell upon. The journey home was horrific, with Maggie wailing and me submitting to giving her a tiny bottle of ‘emergency’ formula that I bought from the supermarket to try and get her to stop crying. She guzzled it down, whether through starvation or the fact that it didn’t taste like my milk which clearly wasn’t pleasing to her palate any longer. I felt awful that I had given her formula. I was in tears giving it to her (why oh why was I so bothered?) but it gave us an hour’s grace to get home and get her to bed.
You’d have thought that after that, I would have reverted to giving her more formula, but I still wanted to breastfeed her. In my mind, I had been so fixated on breastfeeding from the outset that I hadn’t even entertained her being formula fed. I kept going, and she would feed every so often if I managed to time it just right and didn’t venture out of my house, but something had to give. We had some important events in the diary (my Dad’s wedding and my Nephew’s christening) and I didn’t want to be the frazzled Mother at the back of the congregation causing a scene trying to force-feed an angry baby.
By the 13th September I was at the end of my tether and feeling totally broken and increasingly isolated. I had made numerous trips to the GP, breastfeeding clinics and to the Children’s Centre but no one seemed to be listening to me. They just looked at her weight and told me I she was doing fine and that sometimes babies can go for hours between feeds and that I should just trust my baby to know what she wants. But my gut was telling me something was wrong and I felt like I was fighting a losing battle. Thankfully, my family and husband were being incredibly supportive and not making me feel like I was making the whole thing up. I was at the point where the only way I could get her to even consider feeding was for her to be starving and for me to stand with my boobs out, holding her upright to me and walking around to distract her.
The eureka moment came during a trip to The Nurture Barn, a lovely play barn for babies and youngsters. I was visiting my Mum in Essex and she suggested I break my house arrest to get some fresh air and a change of scenery. I was apprehensive as I knew Maggie was due a feed and the thought of feeding her in public terrified me, given her current aversion to it. It was about 11am when we got there and she had just woken up from a nap in the car. I assumed my entirely unsubtle standing up feeding position, de-robed and tentatively brought Maggie to me. She was having none of it. I broke down and so did she. Mum took her off me to try and calm her whilst I stood there with my boob out crying in the middle of the normally lovely and serene cafe. I felt wholly unable to nurture my baby at this point and it felt like a cruel irony.
Then out of nowhere, a raven haired lady approached me and put a warm hand on my shoulder and asked me in the calmest of tones, if I needed any help. She told me her name was Leigh and that she was a La Leche League lactation consultant who happened to be hosting a drop in breastfeeding clinic on the table behind us. She said she would never normally approach someone but that as I look so fraught, she couldn’t not. I couldn’t believe it. Some lactation god had clearly been looking down on me and had sent this angel to help me. Of course I said yes. She suggested I take myself and Maggie outside to calm down a bit then she promised to help me.
I spent the next hour and a half with her going through everything. She asked me if Maggie had been checked for tongue tie. I told her that the midwife had had a quick look in the hospital but that no one else had thought it necessary as they thought she was doing so well. She had a look in Maggie’s mouth and told me she suspected Maggie had a posterior tongue tie and an upper lip tie. Leigh explained that all of the symptoms I was describing made sense. She said that because Maggie wasn’t able to suck properly, she wasn’t effectively draining my breasts so was living off foremilk and not getting to the rich, satisfying hind milk. All of the the sugary foremilk meant that she effectively felt like she had indigestion all the time, giving her a tummy ache and resulting in her finally deciding enough is enough, hence the nursing strike. Leigh told me that because Maggie was putting on weight (lots of sugary milk will do that for a baby), she wasn’t surprised no one else had recognised the symptoms. This also explained why Maggie seemed constantly wired, over alert and never fed herself into a milk-induced sleep coma.
Leigh gave me some tips to start to try and re-address my milk supply in the short term but suggested I see a specialist to look at Maggie’s lip and tongue ties. She gave me the name of a consultant specialising in laser surgery, Dr Levinkind as she was familiar with his work and thought laser surgery might be the best route if that’s what we wanted. In the meantime, I was to go back to basics with Maggie and try to feed her every hour, lots of skin to skin and keeping her close to me at all times to try and encourage her to want to feed.
I called Dr Levinkind and we managed to schedule an appointment to see him the very next day in his North London clinic. He explained that he would firstly diagnose the problem and would explain any surgery to us in great detail prior to us making any decisions, but that if we decided to go ahead, he could do the procedure following the initial consultation. I drove up to London and met Chris at the clinic as I was a ball of nerves. We walked in to be greeted warmly by Dr Levinkind and his assistant. He had a look in Maggie’s mouth and confirmed a severe posterior tongue tie and upper lip tie. He was extremely matter of fact but had an air of knowing exactly what he was talking about which put our minds at ease. He spoke about how important it was for us not to dwell on the past and to move forward in a positive direction in order to get through this. Maggie was 12 weeks old, which meant that we could either have both ties lasered or do nothing. Doing nothing had the potential to lead to dental, speech and weaning issues later on, but going through with the procedure had no guarantees either. Although, I could tell he knew that the surgery would work.
We decided to go ahead and Dr Levinkind took Maggie from us and advised that we might want to leave the building for a short while (7-10 mins) whilst he performed the surgery. He said we couldn’t be in the room with her and that I might find it too distressing to hear her if we remained in the building. I felt sick as I handed her over but knew that she was in safe and extremely capable hands. Chris and I took a walk around the building, and made weird small talk to try and keep our minds off what was going on inside to our 3 month old baby. Precisely 7 mins later we were back in the building and Dr Levinkind brought Maggie out to us. Her face was all red where she’d had goggles on and her mouth was all swollen from the laser. The doctor gave her to me and and suggested I offer her some milk. He left the room to give us some privacy and she immediately started feeding, taking long and hungry sucks, closing her eyes and looking like she was in the happiest place in the world. It felt like heaven and I was crying with joy. I was beaming at Chris and he was beaming back at me. My shoulders dropped down from the fixed position of being up by my ears and I felt my entire body relax. We were joined by our miracle worker doctor and given some important follow up exercises and information on how to look after the wounds. He told us they should heal very quickly but that we needed to keep stretching the tissue so that the ties didn’t fuse back together as well as taking her to see a cranial osteopath a few days later as it would compliment the surgery.
The following days were spent feeding Maggie a lot. We also had a holiday booked in Cornwall so it was the perfect time for us to relax as a family and get Maggie used to feeding again. We were told that Maggie wasn’t allowed to use a dummy whilst she was healing, which meant we had a few unsettled nights of Maggie needing to feed all the time, but I didn’t care. At least she was feeding!!! And just like that the strike was over.
It took a bit of work to get my milk supply back in order, which included block feeding (feeding off one side for 6 hour periods before moving on to the next side), but we got there and Maggie was turning into a content and happy baby. It was like having a new born again as she wanted to feed all the time, but given that only a week before it was the complete opposite, I didn’t mind one bit. I also decided that I needed to start to relax in myself and that the anxiety that had been building up wasn’t healthy for me or Maggie. I promised I wouldn’t put pressure on myself like that again and that I would follow Maggie’s lead in terms of feeding. As it turns out, she wasn’t permanently attached to me for very long before we started combination feeding. I tried expressing milk but she decided she didn’t like my defrosted breastmilk so ended up giving her some formula now and again, and this time I didn’t feel guilty about it. We got to a healthy balance in those following weeks and life became a whole lot more settled.
After a couple of months of getting back into the swing of things, Maggie started to show signs of not wanting to breastfeed during the day, but this time it was because she was too interested in everything going on around her, rather than it being a scream-fest nursing strike. Our breastfeeding sessions started to dwindle as we began to introduce solid foods at 17 weeks and before I knew it, I was clinging on to the 7am breastfeed like a life raft as that was the only feed I was giving her from me. On Feb 13th 2017 we had our last breastfeed and rather than being sad, I was immensely proud that we had managed to make it that far despite the odds being stacked against us in those earlier weeks. Now Maggie is almost 10 months old and is formula fed and eating solids well. Although I do still have pangs of wishing she still wanted to breastfeed, I tell myself not to sweat it and that she is happy and healthy doing it our way.
Looking back on my breastfeeding journey has opened my eyes to how huge the debate is over how we should feed our babies when they are born and how much guilt and worry surrounds the subject. I don’t care how anyone else feeds their baby as long as BOTH Mum and baby are happy and healthy. I am passionate that every mother and every baby is different, and, as long as a new Mum is fully supported and armed with as much information on feeding their baby as possible (without being overwhelmed with info), it’s an entirely personal choice. I was no stranger to all of the different and sometimes opposing views on breast vs bottle, breast is best, fed is best, difficulties of breastfeeding in the early days etc. but I was determined to give breastfeeding a go. Even before Maggie was born, I was desperate for her to be a breastfed baby and I wanted to do everything in my power to ensure she had an opportunity to be breastfed from the get-go. I was already contemplating at what age I would start to wean her off the boob (I thought about 3 years old seemed like a good age) so, when at 10 weeks into Motherhood, the likelihood of Maggie making it to 6 months of being breastfed was looking highly unlikely, I was completely thrown. Although the world and its mother (literally) seems to have an opinion on how you feed your baby the only person that I was receiving pressure and judgement from about how I sustained my child in the early months was myself. Looking back its quite funny how one of the first questions a new Mum is asked is ‘is he/she feeding well’ rather than ‘are you ok.’ The latter of these questions would be far more supportive, in my opinion. My learning is that if we are lucky enough to have another baby, I won’t put so much emphasis on breastfeeding and will follow my gut and go with the (literal) flow. And if that flow happens to be formula from a Dr. Browns’ bottle then so be it.