I was reminded this week of a post I wrote 3 years ago when my daughter was born and I thought it might be useful to add to my blog. Here goes:
I’ve been meaning to write this piece now for years. 4 years to be precise. Every now and then something crops up either in the news, on social media or somewhere random that gets my goat and it reminds me I haven’t done it. I also have an extra 50% more experience since then too so I guess, in my opinion, I am even more qualified in speaking about it. This time it was too big to ignore.
So what is it that I so passionately want to talk about? What is it that not only rattles my cage but actually, really and truly upsets me and makes me feel notably sick and offended?
It’s the pro-in-your-face-breast-is-best brigade. And if you are one of them I would really like you to hear me out on this, it is not about saying that anyone is right or anyone is wrong, in fact that’s the point. I have been on all sides of the fence, I just passionately believe in freedom of choice in this matter. And when I say freedom, I mean freedom to choose without being made to feel guilty, inadequate, less of a mother and so on. And in my case, not to be kicked when you are already down.
Jamelia made a comment about a year ago on Loose Women. I cant remember what she said, I don’t care much for her opinion to be honest, but it was very naïve and pretty damning of those who chose not to breastfeed. Then yesterday I saw that the NHS is going to be offering a bribe, I mean incentive, to new mothers in the form of vouchers – £150 and rising to £200 if they breastfeed for a certain amount of time. I literally felt my blood BOIL and here I am tapping away.
Seb as my eldest child was my first experience of motherhood. The pregnancy was a dream, nothing to report. I chose to ignore the labour horror stories, after all I have a high pain threshold and I deducted that every birth was different. What I didn’t realise was that the two camps of “liberating / incredible” versus “horrific / barbaric” birth experiences aren’t split between high and low pain threshold people, it is because every birth and every baby is unique. Hindsight, such a wonderful and utterly useless concept.
And so I went into labour, excited for the challenge, (despite it being a bit ahead of my due date and not even having a bag packed). I had NO doubt I could do this.
It knocked me for six, I was shell shocked by the catalogue of events that unfolded. The distressed baby whose oxygen levels were dangerously low and heartbeat was dangerously fast. The baby who was in such an odd position they couldn’t even work out where his head was. The unexplained hemorrhaging. The veins that decided to react to the drips and cause my arms to swell. The waters that wouldn’t break. The baby who suddenly had to be delivered NOW, without delay, who was all set to be delivered by a c-section but at the last minute was delivered with scissors and forceps. The baby that didn’t cry when it reached earth side. The baby who was so sleepy he slept through his entire first night.
Our first 24 hours together were a blur. They weren’t the magical, euphoric high I had been led to expect. I WAS able to take my eyes of him and get some sleep and I didn’t fall “madly in love with him” either. I was literally stunned by the birth. Stitched front to back and confused by what had gone on. I had a sixth sense that something wasn’t quite right but when we were left to it assumed it was my over active imagination. My poor baby, battered and bruised, just as I was, a full forcep mark across his squished face, was probably just exhausted too right?
So the midwives set about telling me to wake him up and try and feed him. He slept and slept and slept. They showed me how to tickle his cheek to wake him mid feed. I had no idea what I was doing, let alone him. My feeding “equipment” had become NHS property and I was feeling the biggest sense of panic every time my curtain was hoiked back by a lady in blue.
One lovely midwife, who I will remember forever, sat with me and encouraged me though. She told me of the importance of the colostrum and set about making sure it was expressed using a tiny syringe. She also showed me the fridge along the corridor where there were shelves of precious, labeled milk.
We kept at it, still none the wiser as to whether things were working or not. More sleeping and the telling news that Seb had lost over 10% of his birth weight and therefore was not allowed to go home and the conclusion that he desperately needed some formula. I was told that sucking a bottle versus a breast is comparable to taking the lift over the stairs s it’s best not to introduce it too early. The sucking reflex often is not developed until near on 40 weeks. Seb was born at 37, so if you factor in a learning difficulty too, then the bottle most probably was an easier, and kinder, option for a hungry baby.
Then we were told of some concerns of a “chromosomal abnormality”. I had already taken an intense disliking to this particular midwife. She had been very curt with me at a time I needed softness – (she barked at me “yes that would be a good idea!” when I had asked if I should check Seb’s nappy) and then she delivered this. I had no idea what she was talking about, but that is another blog. A tough 2 hour wait to see a junior paediatrician (it was a Sunday) who didn’t make much sense either, Simon and I were still totally in the dark about what anyone was talking about.
Feeling brave later on that evening and all alone in my cubicle I googled the notes from Seb’s little red book. I did it for peace of mind. Line after line on the screen. Unanimous. Down’s syndrome. Down’s syndrome. Down’s syndrome. Down’s syndrome.
My already hurting body and mind was just shot to pieces. Dr google, had right there diagnosed my baby with Down’s syndrome. I couldn’t even comfort myself with the thought that maybe the internet was wrong, as it so often is, as every single line on that page said the same thing. The midwife with the incredible bedside manner made another appearance, this time to ask my tear stained face “whats the matter with you? Are you crying because you cant breastfeed?”.
The longest week of my life carried on in a haze. Heart tests, blood tests, other tests I cant even remember and a baby that still didn’t want to feed from me. So out wheeled more bottles of formula…..and a machine that looked like something from Dr Who circa 1973. A turquoise contraption with tubes and buttons. Essentially a milking machine. It was all so degrading, so humiliating, so alien. And yes I am visalising the pro brigaders shaking their heads and lecturing about nature. Please give me some more airspace. Trust me, nothing whatsoever was natural about anything I experienced that week.
The machine and I became friends. We bonded over its’ ability to really hurt me. I mean REALLY hurt me. The rest of my hurt was out of my control, but this, I could switch it on and off. In fact, when it became utterly, utterly unbearable, when it felt like the most excrutiating pain, I turned the machine up a little bit more. And then some more. It is quite something to admit this out loud, but I enjoyed the pain. It was real, black and white pain. It bloody hurt….and I could control it, I could make it worse, I could make it better, I could even make it stop. I don’t want to trivialise self-harming, but I can understand it.
We finally returned home and I tried to keep up the feeding. The pain was OFF THE SCALE. Everything was leaking, engorged, bleeding. I had to bite on pillows / towels each time it was feeding time. I had no idea how much Seb was drinking. He would fall asleep constantly and it would take an hour or more to feed him. He would sleep for an hour and then be hungry again. It was ridiculous. A visiting midwife came, it was like something out of a Carry On film. She was a big, round matron type, she commented on what great tools I had for the job (except she was more crude and personal that that) and she set about trying to feed Seb with them. It was just hideous. I expressed, producing something that Lola from Charlie and Lola would drink as there was blood being expressed at the same time, but I was assured it wouldn’t harm the baby so my little vampire got to drink it anyway.
That night in bed I was armed with my big pile of leaflets. In my left hand I had leaflets telling me my baby, with his new label of Down’s syndrome, who I was struggling to connect with, would have a learning disability, would have a lowered immune system, low muscle tone and be more at risk of putting on weight in adult life if not managed,. And in my right hand I had a leaflet telling me if I didn’t breast feed my baby I would be less likely to bond with him, he would have a lower IQ, be more likely to get ill, more likely to be obese and more likely to die of cot death. Wow, great news all round then, thanks for that.
I am exhausted just typing this and this is six years on, I am sure if I had written this back then there is stuff ive forgotten. Anyway, a few hours later into the night and I felt a fever coming on. I don’t mean a cold, I mean a full on shivering, sweating fever – I was so cold but so poorly I couldn’t even find the energy to get out of bed to get a cardigan or dressing gown– or even wake simon. When he did wake I was in floods of tears. To cut the story short, I ended up sobbing in desperation in the doctors waiting room to be seen as I felt like death. I had mastitis. An infection, probably caused by incorrect latching on.
Hormones all over the place, not to mention stitches, first time mother, diagnosis etc etc. And thank GOD, my mum got firm with me. “Give yourself a break” she said. “you’ve done your best. Give him a bottle. You were bottle fed and you are fine. You cant go on like this, its no good for you and its no good for Seb”
And that was it. The best decision I (my mum) ever made. It was like the biggest relief ever. Yes, I still struggled with feelings of guilt and failure, yes I went to my post natal group and felt “different” and useless because I was the only one not breastfeeding but Seb started to thrive, Simon was able to share in the night feeds, my mum could feed him and so on. I lied to my midwives though. I told them I was doing a bit of both. I couldn’t stand the backlash or the pressure I knew I would get and I most certainly did not want to go to a chuffing breastfeeding clinic, so I lied.
And then along came Dominic. He took to feeding the second he came out. A 10 pounder he was hungry and he just did it. It still hurt like crazy and I had another bout of mastitis, I got through a tonne of Lansinoh and I still had to bite on pillows for about 10 weeks, but it was totally different. I had had the euphorics too that I had missed first time round. Our first night together in hospital I held him all night. I stayed awake and stared at this beautiful creation that I had made.
But along with the success, I felt guilt. Again. Seeing the hurt and confused look on Seb’s face, as any 2 year old gives their mother when they walk in the door with a new baby in their arms, was enough to make me cry. I felt guilty at the elation I had felt at Dominic’s birth and now this, the breastfeeding. Would I grow up feeling closer to Dominic because of it? Would I feel that I had given Dominic a better chance in life than his vulnerable brother? As a result I combination fed from fairly early on to dilute the guilt.
Two years later, and Polly arrived. Another hungry baby thanks to my love of cakes and gestational diabetes. Her blood sugars were low and we had to stay in a couple of extra days because of it. She also had to have a few bottles of formula to get her sugar levels up, which stirred lots of memories in me. But she was pretty much exclusively fed from there on in until 9 or 10 months. Two bouts of mastitis and more pillow biting. But I didn’t feel any guilt. None. I realise that less stressed is best. Not breast. What is good for one is not necessarily good for the next. And I mean baby AND mother. I did my best for Seb and that’s all I could have done. I gave it my best shot but it was far better for me to be in a better state of mind than to be stuck in the hideous cycle of guilt and failure that I was already experiencing for other reasons.
And you know what? Seb is the brightest spark. He is super sporty. He is rarely ill. And I love him just as much as I love the others. Of COURSE I do. I was brought up on formula, I didn’t die of cot death, I am rarely ill and I (somehow) passed my 11+ and went to a grammar school.
Barely a month goes by when we don’t see Dr Hilary on Good Morning Britain banging on about Post Natal Depression and the NHS’s commitment to tackle it. PND is a time when a new mother’s self esteem hits rock bottom, they feel a failure, like they cant cope and often there is no bond with their baby. I accept that breastfeeding can help with this, if breastfeeding is an option, if it is physically possible. But is bottle bashing going to help the numbers of women feeling helplessly low at such a vulnerable time who are unable to breastfeed? This advert too, attached to this post. It’s horrific. It stirred in me the same emotions the leaflets did when I had Seb and should not be allowed. (I chose to spare you of the one showing a formula bottle in a coffin and the strapline Formula fed babies are 26.5% more likely to die in the first year of life than breastfed babies). I don’t know where these were used but the fact is they are out there, they exist and a simple google search found them.
So please, pro-breastfeeders, don’t judge others based on your own experiences. We all know the benefits of breastfeeding. We know it’s nautral, we know it’s convenient and we know it is a form of bonding. But everyone is different and everyone is entitled to their own experience too, and their own choices, whatever that may be. Even people who CHOOSE not to breastfeed simply because they don’t want to should be allowed to do so without being made to feel shame. Give new mothers a break.
New mothers need support, they need information and guidance, they need confidence and self esteem. They need emotional wellbeing.
As a mother who has experienced every which way – bottle feeding, combination feeding and exclusively breast feeding, I can honestly say that less stressed is best, every time. For mother and baby.