My mother breastfed my three siblings and myself. I was 11 when my brother was born and as she fed him till he was almost 4, breastfeeding was a natural, normal part of our lives. When I became pregnant for the first time, a little over three years ago there was no doubt in my mind that I would breastfeed my baby. I mean another option didn’t even enter my head. I didn’t even think about express feeding at any stage, the baby was going to be on the boob until baby didn’t want to feed anymore. Simple.
My son Lewis’s water birth was empowering and beautiful, I was wonderfully supported in a continuity of care midwifery model at the RHW birth centre. In the hours after the birth I was on a high, he latched on well and while I didn’t feel 100% percent relaxed while he was on the boob I assumed I just needed to adjust to the new positions and muscles my body was using. My problems began that evening when I elected to stay in hospital; I was a nervous GBS positive new mum. How I wish I had gone home with my husband and my mother. Lewis had a restless night and I chaffed at being told I couldn’t have him in bed with me. My lovely caseload midwife had gone home to sleep and the postnatal midwife on shift was cranky and tired. She roughly grabbed my breast and seemed exasperated that Lewis was grizzling and I couldn’t get him settled. She offered to give him formula. I, appalled, rejected the offer and spent the rest of the sleepless night rapidly losing confidence in my ability to settle my new baby. I practically fled the hospital the next morning and hoped being at home would give me back the wonderful, powerful feeling I had felt after the birth.
Over the next week Lewis was unsettled, my midwife, my husband and my mother all worked to help me settle him but I felt a growing sense of anxiety and unease. A visit from the early childhood nurse sent me into free-fall. I was so used to the wonderful woman centred care from my midwife and this well intention nurse arrived, weighed my boy, weighed him again and declared him very slightly under the weight he was meant to be on her chart. She issues me with a barrage of instructions about feeding schedules and said she had to get me on the right track. ‘Oh my God’ I thought ‘I have been on the wrong track!’ With my anxiety confirmed, amplified, I would feed my poor screaming boy with an eye on the clock all the time, I would dream about baby scales, I dissolved into tears regularly. The nurse retuned, disliked the progress we had made and set about getting me to feed, express, feed express take motillium, give him a bottle, the list was endless. My confidence was rock bottom. I was confused. Once in the same sentence I was told that I had an undersupply, making him cry and an over supply making him cry. Lewis didn’t regain his birth weight till 6 weeks and lactation consultants, the ABA and even the breastfeeding guru Dr Jack Newman couldn’t give me the answers I needed. Oh how I wish someone had someone had told me to climb into bed with my baby and do nothing but feed and cuddle, feed and cuddle and take the odd bath together. But I know if I had been told that I wouldn’t have done it, there was, on retrospection, a part of me that hadn’t quite surrendered to motherhood yet and I’m not sure that anything apart from the lessons I was learning would have been able to teach me how to do that.
Lewis and I “breastfed” for 6 pretty agonising months. By the end he refused about 80% of feeds and he had a mixture of expressed breast milk and formula supplements. I loathed expressing and I often cried when I saw my baby guzzle formula. I felt little stabs of pain every time a mother in my mums group weaned their happy, breast adoring baby so they could have ‘me time’. After the first three months I let the pain go a little, Lewis and I thrived emotionally together, my love of motherhood grew and we bonded beautifully without exclusive breastfeeding. I sure my extensive baby-wearing and general attachment parenting instincts really helped this. Lewis grew into a wonderful, feisty toddler but a little part of me grieved for our lost feeding relationship.
As I began to consider a second child I had a few hard rules. I wanted my midwife with Lewis involved, I wanted to homebirth and I wanted to breastfeed. I wanted one on one breastfeeding support from the person who supported me during pregnancy and birth. I didn’t want to have to forge new relationships in the emotional intimate and vulnerable days after birth. My feeding experience with Lewis had not turned me off breastfeeding, it had turned me into a passionate advocate for breastfeeding and moreover, respectful support of women during the postnatal period.
I found a midwife who was happy to attend my homebirth and she partnered with another midwife. We met with the second midwife and we spent a good hour discussing my feeding of Lewis. I came away knowing that both midwives would re-write a lactation plan every day if needed to get my new baby feeding like a champ. One of the midwives told me that I needed to learn to love my breasts again, wise woman. The pregnancy was wonderful. I did have anxieties about feeding. I would dream that I had given birth and then fallen asleep for 12 hours and that my husband had let me sleep and fed the baby formula rather than wake me. I discussed my anxieties with my midwife more towards the end of the pregnancy and by the time I gave birth I was so looking forward to feeding. The lessons on mothering that Lewis had taught me had taken root deep inside me and the un-parallel support and care my midwives gave me combined to make me so perfectly ready to make the sacrifices I needed to make in the precious days after birth.
Rowans home water birth was just gorgeous. I had my baby boy on the breast just after birth and I felt like flying. Curled up on the couch in the hours after the birth with my living room lit by lamps and my family murmuring around me, I held that little boy and I fed and fed and fed him. The midwives would make little adjustments here and there, mostly making sure that I relaxed my muscles and was comfortable. And I was! Rowan loved the boob and I loved feeding him. Oh my! I could feel myself healing. My midwives nicknamed Rowan ‘Mr. Boob’. He knew exactly where he wanted to be and even with my husband having to work a gruelling production schedule after the birth, meaning he was away for long hours, and with a two year old to care for I still managed to just feed and feed and feed. I fed in Kmart, in slings, in multiple parks around the inner west, even at the international arrivals gate at Brisbane airport. I fed ALL NIGHT most nights, thank god for co sleeping and smart phones, Rowan would latch on and I would doze or read novels on my phone till he was done. I read more books in that time than I had since Lewis had been born.
Most importantly I surrendered completely. Rowan needed me and he needed milk so I fed him. It was easy. Never once did I have that panic I had felt with Lewis, panic that I needed more sleep, that I didn’t know how to settle my baby.
As Rowan grew I felt like I was having a beautiful love affair with him, he made my heart melt. Breastfeeding was a big part of this. I loved seeing him develop little habits with the breast as he reached new developmental stages. My heart sang when he started making a distinct breast request noise. I began to look forward to feeding him as a toddler. By 10 months Rowan was still feeding every 2 hours through the night and umpteen times a day. I was getting a little sick of being an all night milk bar but I could bring myself to deny him feeds, it just felt wrong. I was tired but I was perfectly functional. I was happy to let him guide me. At this time he cut his first little tooth, over the next few weeks his HUGE front teeth almost broke through so one afternoon when he gave me a hard bite while feeding I was not too surprised. He was in a grizzly mood after the little bite and I knew he had a little cold and he was very congested. After a bath we sat and quietly fed while Lewis splashed in the water. That feed was lovely, long and relaxed. I am so grateful for it. That night while feeing him to sleep he gave me another big bite. I yelped, latched him off the breast and he cried. I knew he was ill and very tired so I patted him and sang to him and he fell asleep. That was the last time he ever fed.
The next few days are a horrible blur. Rowan got really very sick with some kind of virus. He violently refused every feed I offered him. Even being held in the positions I used to feed him in caused him to cry hysterically. My breasts were so so full and I was in agony. I started inhaling information, the first rule seemed to be do not force the breast. My husband I tried to coax him and once he almost fed only to turn away at the last moment and cry piteously. Our worries extended, we couldn’t get him to take ANY fluid and barely any solid food. We took him to the children’s hospital where I begged for some lactations support, some advice, anything. We were reassured about Rowan’s health, he was not dehydrated, he had a virus, his throat was red but he was ok. The lactation support wasn’t forth coming, a kind nurse (herself a mother of 4) helped me express and relieve some of the pain but she had no new ideas how to get him on the breast.
As Rowan got over his illness I hoped and hoped that he would feed again but as the days turned into weeks I knew in my heart that it was over. I tried every method I could think of to get him to feed. We had loads of skin to skin, we took many baths together, I offered the breast in every way I could think of, I tried a nipple shield but the closest he came was a few huge bites. My emotional state over this time was very low. For the first week I cried almost all day, everyday. I was blindsided by the depth of the emotion I was feeling. Lewis told strangers in the street that ‘row row won’t drink milk and this makes mummy cry’. I am eternally grateful that I was surrounded and supported by people who understood and empathised with me. My husband held me as I cried and never told me to stop feeling what I was feeling. A neighbour and close friend appeared on my doorstep with in hours of hearing about Rowan’s feeding strike and I knew that she JUST KNEW what I was going through, I didn’t have to explain why I was in tears. I bawled my eyes out in the arms of an ABA leader in a room full of almost strangers. I had feared so much that I would be judged for not feeding my baby but all that came my way was love.
I expressed milk for Rowan until he turned one. That experience was gruelling and un-rewarding, he didn't enjoy drinking the expressed milk and would only sip it if it were cold from the fridge. I am still very confused about Rowan’s feeding strike and I mourn our lost relationship but I leant very quickly that Rowan still needed me close to him, he still needed to be cuddled to sleep, he wanted to sleep nestled between me and his dad till he was almost 18months and he still loves me. My ability to come to a place of acceptance was by letting myself be guided, yet again, by him. I am just so grateful that every time my baby boy asked for milk I fed him, I never denied him feeds to fit a routine or in an attempt to get him to sleep through the night. I fed him on demand and we both loved it.
Original article appeared in Midwifery News Spring 2013