Six months ago, at 9.27pm on Friday,25th March 2016, I gave birth to my son. A few minutes later, he latched onto my boob and had his first taste of the White Stuff. Obviously, because it’s what nature intended, we mammals are total experts at this business and I have loved every second of it. Ha sodding Ha.
Breastfeeding is different for everyone. And I would never, ever generalise about something that can be so traumatic for people. However, I am going to speak about my experiences in this post, and I’m not going to sugar coat it, or put a “for me personally” at the start of every sentence. This is how things were for me. It may not be how they were or will be for you. I’m absolutely by no means saying anyone should feed their child in anyway they are uncomfortable with. Right, now that’s said…off I go…
So, from that feed onward, I had a child who definitely wanted to eat. The first night, I got back to the ward at 2.30am and he was literally latched on for over an hour for his first feed. I’d had some great advice from a work colleague about curling my toes when baby first latched on, what I hadn’t known to ask was what to do for the other 59 minutes and 40 seconds. For me, feeding felt weird. It was kind of sore, he didn’t seem to stay on, there didn’t seem to be a comfortable way to hold him. The first day of mumming was, for me, all about midwives telling me I needed to wake my baby to feed him. Now, as someone who had read A LOT about feeding before having baby, I was pretty sure that I was meant to feed on demand. What I hadn’t realised was that it seemed to be on the midwife’s demand, not the baby’s.
I was told he MUST FEED every 2 hours. I MUST WAKE HIM UP FULLY to feed him. I was also told that it was all very natural and it would soon feel like second nature. The contradiction of this seemed totally mental to me. “Trust your instincts”, “baby knows what to do”, “just relax, your body knows what to do”. Followed by “but you must feed every 2 hours”, “don’t let him sleep through a feed”, “hand express into this tiny cup so we can put your milk in a sarynge and force your baby to drink it”, “if you can’t get him to feed we’ll have to try a bottle”.
Now, weirdly, I didn’t take much of this to heart. I didn’t cry much in those first 36 hours or so in the hospital. I didn’t worry that I was happily flaunting the medical advice and feeding my baby as and when I god-damned chose (ok when he chose…). I felt like I was born to do this. It hurt like hell and my nipples were starting to crack and go dry, but I was cool with it. I trusted the system. Why wouldn’t I? Just because 90 per cent of people I’d spoken to when pregnant had told me it was awful and that I probably wouldn’t manage and that it was best to get bottles, just in case…What did they know.
On the Sunday morning, we were flown home to Shetland. Still thinking I would be able to take on the world, even with cracked nipples, I lay in bed that night totally contented. I gazed at the beautiful boy in the crib next to me and felt Daddio’s arms around me and I knew everything would be ok. It was a beautiful thing. Time passes, nipples heal, routines are found. This mumming thing was perfect for me.
The following morning I woke up in a state of utter confusion. Where once my normal to large breasts had resided, now two watermelons were bursting out of my pyjama top. The solid masses were totally alien creatures and they seemed to make my whole body feel off balance. Worse still, we had a plumber arriving any-moment-now and I couldn’t seem to pack them into anything I owned. It felt like the start of the most awful porn film ever pondered. Not only had these things taken over my body, they had brought with them anxiety, panic, sadness, anger and discontent. I was petrified of holding my boy. The thought of leaving the house made me want to cry. The thought of staying home was soul destroying. This, readers, was the day my milk came in.
Now, I can’t pretend I hadn’t been warned. But nothing in the world had prepared me for feeling all these feelings. I felt feelings I’m not even sure I’d ever felt before. I certainly couldn’t name them. And what were we doing on this fateful day? We were getting 2 ferries and going to Daddio’s home town. The most northerly isle in the UK. Unst. What a day trip to be making. At the time this was just the most awful journey I could imagine. But our biggest boy was at the other end of the journey and the thought of being without him another minute was killing me. As was the thought of Granny and Grandad and Nanna not seeing the Littlest Silver as early as possible. So we went. And I cried lots and stropped lots and fed baby lots. And then we came home. And thankfully everyone involved has forgiven me. And here we are 6 months later.
In those 6 months, the extremes I have felt about breastfeeding are insane. Before I gave birth, a dear school friend warned me that although breastfeeding may not be easy, it was worth it. And she was the only person who gave me genuinely useful advice before I started feeding. I will share that advice with you now, “Buy Nipple Sheilds.” Some of the midwives that visited me were not impressed with this choice, but without them I wouldn’t have been feeding past about 10 days. I can vividly remember looking down at my little angel and seeing that he was drinking milk that was stained pink with the blood from my nipples. The shields would, on occasion have bits of nipple that had literally come off in them. I spent all my time feeding and googling. “Shallow latch”? “Tongue tied”? There had to be something, some reason that I was in pain? Surely?
Yes, there was. A combination of several things was going on. His latch was quite shallow. He wanted to be on 24/7. I had an underlying condition which wasn’t diagnosed until he was about 4 months old. So, I gave him a dummy. I also introduced some formula for the times when I just couldn’t bear the pain. And however logical and perfectly acceptable those things sound now, at the time I felt like I was introducing alcohol and drugs to a newborn. The guilt was insurmountable. I was convinced I had ruined everything, that I was giving up too easily, that he was going to feel abandoned and unimportant. It felt horrendous. And it took a long time to gain some perspective.
I also was too anxious to feed in public. I felt judged. I felt clumsy. I felt ill prepared. The pain and bleeding and nipple shields meant that even feeding in the house with friends along felt awkward and wrong. When I went out I would either formula feed or express and bottle feed. All the time worrying that people would think I wasn’t breastfeeding, which I also thought would lead to judgement, so I would try to mention in passing that I breastfed. The pressure i put on myself was ridiculous. I think the first time I really felt okay about feeding in public was when a friend told me I looked “so natural” as I was feeding. She said she’d always felt like she’d looked clumsy feeding her little one. The irony was, that I’d thought she’d looked like a natural at the time…
After 4 months of serious pain and a lot of time on Google, I eventually realised that I was suffering from Raynauld’s Syndrome in my nipples. This was after 2 weeks of thrush treatment for both me and baby after being incorrectly diagnosed. Thrush treatment, by the way, makes Raynauld’s worse. Anyway, a wonderful doctor got me the treatment I needed and things began to improve drastically.
So the road was long, and full of potholes and crossroads. The map was pretty shit if I’m honest. But, eventually I found myself genuinely loving feeding my little one. There had been lovely moments along the way, but once I’d overcome all the hurdles and began to feed without pain and dread, the whole experience changes massively. Nowadays, I lob out a boob whenever it’s needed and I don’t give much thought to who’s looking. It has taken it’s sweet time, but it actually does feel natural to me now.
What nobody ever tells you is that breastfeeding involves more than just you and your baby getting on with it. My journey has been traveled with many companions! Daddio has held my hand through the pain and the stresses. My incredible sister was there to mop up the tears and assist me in Googling all sorts of things about boobs (I’m sure there’s a joke about porn in there again). Old friends and new friends have advised and commented and given me the confidence to get through it.
I’d never claim to be an expert in anything. I’m not. But I have now reached the heady heights of “Silver Boobs”, a term in the breastfeeding community for someone who has fed for 6 months. And now I’m here I’d like to give one piece of advice to anyone considering feeding; seek support. Breastfeeding may not be for everyone. Not every baby will latch easily. Not every mum will feel okay to feed in public or persevere through the hard times. But I am certain that very few will succeed without the necessary support. Google it. Buy a book. Join a Facebook Group, a forum, or read a breastfeeding blog or two. But don’t assume that all the work is yours. Get your other half to make you tea and coffee, or bring you food and water. Decide which box-sets to binge on during the looooong hours of the newborn feeds. Slap anyone who tells you to “savour every minute”. But most importantly, above all else, don’t underestimate what you’re doing. It’s incredible. And it will change you and your baby’s life.
And trust me, once you get your silver boobies, and all around you people are asking you when you plan to stop…you’ll feel very different about things indeed.