As a neonatal nurse working in a proudly breastfeeding friendly trust for several years I have always been taught that ‘breast is best.’
I’ve attended several courses designed to provide me with the knowledge to be able to support women to establish and maintain breastfeeding, I have an update every year to make sure my practice is up to standard and I liaise with the units breastfeeding specialist nurses on a daily basis.
I know which positions are most likely to suit ladies with larger or smaller breasts, I know the benefits of breast milk and breastfeeding for baby and mum inside out and back to front, I know how to use several different brands of electric pumps and I’ve spent hours doing demonstrations with knitted boobs to try and help the women I work with.
None of this helped me when Squidge was born.
Breast may well be best (as various studies have shown) and although it is portrayed as a natural and instinctive process for many women it is far from easy.
I very much wanted to breast feed; partly because I wanted that connection with Squidge and partly because I was on a very high dose of antidepressants throughout my pregnancy and I didn’t wanted him to experience withdrawal symptoms if possible.
I actually started expressing before Squidge was born so that if there was any reason why I couldn’t put him to the breast straight away then he could still have my milk from a syringe. I started about two weeks before my elective c-section date but he actually arrived two days after I started. I still had a rather satisfying 20mls of colostrum sat neatly bagged and labelled in my fridge which was then promptly forgotten when I unexpectedly went into labour at 37 weeks.
When Squidge arrived I did try to put him to the breast almost straight away but he didn’t really show much interest and refused to latch on. I found myself in the rather undignified position of having a midwife stitching up my grade two tears, a drip in one hand, a new baby in one arm and a death grip on the Entonox with the other whilst the healthcare assistant and second midwife both hand expressed for me to try and encourage Squidge to feed.
The only reason I didn’t protest, even though I felt like a dairy cow was because I thought they might take the Entonox away and being stitched up smarted somewhat.
I continued to try and get Squidge to latch for the rest of the day and all of that night with no assistance from any of the midwives. Squidge then developed low blood sugar and so we spent that night being woken every hour to either check his blood sugar or force feed him formula to try and bring his blood sugar up.
At no point was I offered any help with hand expressing, offered a breast pump nor was there any mention of support from a breastfeeding specialist. I don’t know if the hospital even had one.
I spent the next three nights in my local maternity hospital as planned so that I’d have a few days of not having to worry about cooking and the like and could just focus on getting used to being a mum. The food was lovely but again the breastfeeding support was almost non-existent.
One the occasions that I was ‘helped’ it usually involved one of the midwives pinching my nipple and trying to stuff it into Squidge’s mouth. There were no syringes or bottles for me to express into and so I ended up trying to express into a tiny plastic cup which left me sore and uncomfortable.
By the time we were discharged I had managed to successfully breastfeed Squidge on several occasions but we were by no means established. Although I’d had in-depth training at work it had been tailored to focus on women who were trying to feed premature babies, often after several months of tube feeding.
I was used to explaining to women that they needed to be expressing every 2-3 hours (including overnight) while their baby was too sick or premature to feed and then helping them to establish breastfeeding with babies who were already used to being fed 3-4 hourly via a tube.
Therefore I no idea that cluster feeding was a thing and that to properly establish feeding you would probably spend 23 out of every 24 hours with a baby attached to you. Instead I was feeding Squidge every 3 or 4 hours and thinking that I was doing it properly because he didn’t really cry.
I’d picked up various leaflets about breast feeding support groups but the combination of depression and new baby meant that I was never ready to leave the house in time to attend the groups.
Due to having had severe depression during pregnancy I saw the midwives every day so that they could make sure I was coping and I could raise any concerns with them. Even though several of them saw me feeding Squidge and asked how often he was feeding no one picked up that he wasn’t feeding enough until one midwife noticed that he was rather jaundiced.
She took some blood and sent it to the local hospital, who phoned us a few hours later to tell us that Squidge was very jaundiced and needed to be admitted to the Children’s ward.
By the time we got to the hospital Squidge was so dehydrated and jaundiced that we couldn’t wake him to feed and he ended up having a feeding tube put down his nose. Yet again there were no breast pumps available and although I had a hand pump I needed an electric pump to try and stimulate my milk supply which had decreased due to Squidge not feeding properly.
I had to beg the neonatal unit for the use of a pump, which they eventually lent to me very reluctantly after I explained that I was a neonatal nurse and my husband was a doctor at the hospital.
None of the nurses on the Children’s ward were trained to offer breast feeding support and none of the neonatal nurses wanted to know because Squidge wasn’t a patient on the unit but after two nights in hospital Squidge was much less jaundiced and I felt like we were getting somewhere with breast feeding.
Three days later we were back in hospital again and the medical team told me that I was going to have to stop breast feeding because it just wasn’t working for us.
I felt like such a failure.
I had enormous boobs full of milk but I was such a rubbish mum I couldn’t get that milk from me and into my baby.
When I thought it had been going well I’d really enjoyed breast feeding; the snuggly, milky cuddles and having Squidge close to me. He got into the habit of putting one of his hands in my cleavage to keep it warm.
However, much as I enjoyed breast feeding I was too overwhelmed with being a mum and too frightened about Squidge being admitted to hospital again to fight my corner and insist that I got the breastfeeding support that I needed.
Instead I went home with my hand pump, bought bottles and freezer bags and expressed all my milk to give Squidge via bottle. Initially I tried to mix breast and bottle feeding but I was so worried and Squidge seemed to prefer the bottle and I just wanted to do what was best for him.
I managed to express for eight weeks and hated it.
The hand pump was very effective but unless I constantly watched what I was doing it would leak all over me and I would end up covered in sticky milk and changing my clothes several times a day. It meant that I couldn’t even watch tv because I had to sit hunched over looking at the pump to make sure my boob didn’t work its way out.
I would spend several hours a day expressing and then about as long again feeding Squidge the expressed milk via bottle so that I barely moved from the sofa.
When he woke up in the night to feed I just wanted to cry because I knew that instead of going back to sleep once he’d fed I’d have to express.
By the end of the eight weeks I was so tired and miserable and bored that I just didn’t have the will to keep expressing. Me and Squidge barely left the house and if we did I was constantly aware of my boobs filling and starting to leak. I was happy to breastfeed in public and had done so on a few occasions but expressing was a completely different matter.
Developing mastitis complete with a raging temperature, fever-induced hallucinations and horrendously painful boobs finished me off totally and I sent the Northern One to the supermarket to stock up on formula, used up the small stock of milk I had stored in the freezer and began the miserable and painful process of stopping my milk supply.
I still help the mums at work with breastfeeding and expressing; explaining to them that breast milk is the best thing that they can give to their tiny sick babies.
However, I also tell them that I know it’s difficult, that waking multiple times in the night to express is exhausting, that I’ve been there and I know how difficult what we’re asking them to do can be.
As part of my role as a neonatal nurse I do have to encourage breastfeeding and ascertain the reasons behind any mum not wanting to breastfeed but I always make sure that they know that it is ultimately their choice.
That they are not a bad mum who doesn’t want the best for their baby.
That I will not try and make them do anything they don’t want to do.
The study featured on the news today conducted by the University of Brazil doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know about the benefits of breastfeeding. The news report also featured a spokesperson who, when asked if she had any issues with breastfeeding said that she’d found it quite easy and that she’d had a strong support network of relatives and friends.
So for those of us that aren’t that lucky; who live miles away from their families and don’t have friends who have children or who’ve every breast fed.
What are we supposed to do?
Instead of continuing to conduct studies we should be training and placing breastfeeding support workers in every hospital and in the community, supplying hospitals with electric and hand pumps and actually helping women to breastfeed instead of producing statistics that make them feel like failures.
I’ve met so many women who stopped breastfeeding before they even started because it wasn’t as easy as they’d been led to believe and there wasn’t anyone to help them.
But what do I know?
I’m only a mum.