Before I had my baby, there were many parenting concepts that I was on the fence about. Was co-sleeping a good idea? Would a routine really help my baby to sleep? And could I actually leave her to cry?
The one thing I knew for sure, however, was that I was definitely going to breastfeed. I wasn’t going to go crazy and nurse my child until she left for university, but I was going to do it for the first six months at least.
Every expert I read – and I read a few - agreed that breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months is what’s best for your baby. Some go further and claim that continuing for the first year of your child’s life will make them smarter and more likely to succeed later in life.
Who am I to argue with the experts, plus, it helps you shift the baby weight, I thought smugly; as I hefted my nearly full-term bump along to breastfeeding clinics, keen to get ahead of the game on techniques before my breast feeding abilities were put to the test by my hungry baby.
But if breastfeeding was a test, I failed it.
It didn’t matter that I’d read all the books, been to all the classes and wanted to breastfeed my daughter nearly as badly as I’d wanted a baby in the first place. My body may have nurtured, then delivered, the most perfect daughter imaginable, but when it came to feeding her after the birth, we both flunked.
And I genuinely believe that if I’d kept on trying to breastfeed for much longer than I did, I’d have spiralled into post natal depression and the mother/baby bond that the breastapo evangelically bang on about would have been severed irrevocably.
My breastfeeding problems started after a difficult birth, when a retained placenta (I’d normally flag this with a TMI but when it comes to breastfeeding it seems there’s no such thing!) landed me in intensive care with extensive blood loss.
Because my body lost so much blood (I required a transfusion of 21 units after delivery), the energy that it should have used to produce breast milk was diverted into keeping me alive. My obstetrician warned us that I might not be able to breastfeed effectively and, sure enough, I never experienced that Dolly Parton-esque sensation of my milk 'coming in' that so many women talk of.
But while we had the obstetrician in one ear, warning us our breastfeeding story might not end happily, we had lactation consultants and midwives in the other, insisting that breast was best and that I just needed to keep trying. The worst advice came from my stepmother who, in addition to repeatedly telling me ruefully that her 'cup runneth over so to speak' suggested that if I really wanted to breastfeed, it would happen.
Not being a subscriber to the much debunked theories of ‘wishful thinking’ advocated in self help sensation 'The Secret', I wasn’t convinced that willing my breasts to provide enough milk for my baby was going to cut it. Instead, I insisted on being prescribed motillium, a drug to increase milk supply. I also went herbal and drank gallons of 'lactation tea', its active ingredient 'fenugreek' tasting as rotten as I was being made to feel. And I pumped. A lot.
When I say a lot, I’m talking every two hours for 30 minutes. A day’s efforts would be just enough to feed my daughter one or two bottles of my own milk that day. The rest of her bottles would come from formula.
Ironically, I’d joked with pregnant friends about the appealing concept of the 'pump and dump', wherein nursing mothers pump a quantity of milk before they go out for a night on the town to ensure that they a) keep up supply and b) can have a few drinks and afterwards still have something to feed their child on that wont have the remnants of a good night out floating around in it.
Back then, I had no idea that when you’ve got a small, sleepless infant waiting for you at home you don’t really feel like bar hopping and, more significantly, that my milk would be so sparse that I wouldn’t dream of wasting the results of a pumping session like that.
I limped on 'mixed feeding' for three months, feeling more and more depressed at my efforts. When visitors came to the house, often I’d have to leave them in one room and shut myself and my daughter in another with the industrial sized breast pump for half an hour in order to make sure I didn’t miss a session. I hated not being able to reach her instantly if she cried because I was plugged into a breast pump.
Then one day when she was just over three months old, she let out such an almighty wail that I instinctively ripped off the breast pump’s suction cups without thinking and lunged towards her, not stopping to think that their contents might spill over the floor. My daughter was fine, but I was devastated – now I didn’t have enough to make up the next feed for her without turning to formula. I really was 'crying over spilt milk'. At last, something clicked.
I was wasting my time and the early moments of my daughter’s life hooked up to a machine, milking myself, all because I thought that being able to breastfeed was what you needed to be a good mother. My daughter couldn’t care less – she guzzled down both breast milk and formula indiscriminately. Neither had a discernible effect on her mood, her nappies or her sleep pattern.
From that day on, I switched exclusively to formula and at last we began to bond. Because I was happier – now that I wasn’t tied to a breast pump every two hours, I could actually enjoy my daughter in a way that my obsessing over breastfeeding hadn’t allowed me to.
I’d like to tell you that I never looked back, but writing about how my blood loss affected my milk supply suggests I’m still justifying the decision.
Although some of my friends were able to breastfeed easily, just as many were not – struggling with ‘tongue tie’, mastitis, too much milk or not enough – and many more problems beside. The one thing that united them was that they all wanted to, and all felt terrible when it didn’t come easily.
I’m not saying that breastfeeding is bad. As I said before, I can’t argue with the experts. But I honestly don’t believe it’s for everyone. And until we stop believing that it is, those extolling its virtues actually stand a chance of doing more harm than good.
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