My breastfeeding story (or rather… how I didn’t breastfeed)

I was determined to breastfeed. I didn’t particularly care whether I had a normal birth or a caesarean section. I just really, really wanted to breastfeed. I developed Gestational Diabetes during my pregnancy and knew that this might make breastfeeding more difficult, as low blood sugars in newborns often makes supplementation with formula necessary. I read up, got some advice, and started hand expressing colostrum antenatally so that we could avoid formula if blood sugars were low and I did have to express. I got a bit obsessed and managed to express 100 mls colostrum, which I stored in feeding syringes in my freezer.

Liquid gold
Liquid gold

My labour was induced at 38 weeks, I laboured quickly but still ended up with a caesarean section. My daughter was born healthy, but showed no interest in breastfeeding. I hand expressed some colostrum into her mouth, her blood sugar before her next feed was normal (I syringe fed her because she wasn’t interested in feeding) and we relaxed and spent the next few hours cuddling and getting to know her. At her next feed, her blood sugars were low and remained low in spite of syringe feeds. I hand expressed and syringe fed her colostrum all night, until finally, I had used up my supply of colostrum, as well as everything I had expressed during the night. She eventually ended up getting some high energy formula via bottle and after three feeds of the high energy formula, her blood sugars were normal and they stopped checking them. We were discharged at 48 hours (she had never breastfed) but I was hand expressing good volumes of milk, so we bottlefed her mostly breastmilk, with the odd bottle of formula. I switched from hand expressing to using a hand pump.

Three days old
Three days old

She had significant jaundice by day 3 and was very sleepy with no interest in breastfeeding. As a midwife, I knew how important it was to get plenty of milk into a jaundiced baby, so during the day we fed her every three hours, even if she wasn’t hungry, and at night time we set the alarm clock and my husband bottlefed her while I expressed for the next feed. We ended up back at hospital for blood tests due to jaundice and discovered she had ABO incompatibility, which was making her blood cells break down. We avoided being readmitted for phototherapy by the skin of our teeth, although she had regular blood tests until she was 12 weeks old to make sure the jaundice was resolving and that she wasn’t becoming anaemic.

I spent days doing skin to skin with her in natural sunlight – the skin to skin to encourage breastfeeding and the natural sunlight to break down the jaundice.

Skin to skin
Skin to skin

She latched on for the first time ever when she was five days old. I was ecstatic. But it only happened occasionally after that. By the time she was a week old, the jaundice was resolving and she was only getting breastmilk via bottle, no more formula. I expressed like a crazy woman. I was so sure my supply would dry up, and I wanted to express and maintain a supply until she could breastfeed. Because she WOULD breastfeed, I was determined of that.
When she was 21 days old, something clicked. She started breastfeeding, she breastfed for a whole day and I was over the moon. I stopped expressing and only breastfed her. My breasts became engorged and she became fussy and started refusing to breastfeed. The next day, it was like it all slipped away again, she just didn’t seem able to do it anymore… She continued to breastfeed sporadically but it was a struggle.

I tried biological nurturing, laid back feeding, taking baths with her, feeding her in her sleep, doing skin to skin with her and trying to feed as soon as she stirred. Sometimes she latched on, most of the time she got frustrated and cried. I cried. I so desperately wanted her to breastfeed.

I read, I trawled the internet… Eventually I came upon a support group for women who struggled to breastfeed. Someone suggested a posterior tongue tie. I clutched on this as the answer. We saw two consultants in Northern Ireland who said there was no tongue tie. By this stage she was 8 weeks old and still occasionally latching on. We travelled to England and had her posterior tongue tie lasered. She never breastfed again, not because of the surgery, but just… because. I didn’t give up though, I continued expressing, trying to breastfeed, reading up on stories, tips, techniques… I learned about suck training, finger feeding, supplemental nursing systems. I tried it all. I always felt that she was just so close to breastfeeding, if only we could try one more thing…

And then… I accepted that it wasn’t going to happen. Finally. She was 4 months old. I was still expressing and making enough milk for two babies. My freezer was filling up with expressed milk. Once I stopped trying to breastfeed AND express, life got more manageable. It wasn’t all about feeding any more. I figured it would be a shame to stop expressing as I had such a good milk supply. She was still getting all the benefits of breastmilk. Plus, I had discovered that my daughter was intolerant to dairy (constant runny poo that left her bum red and raw), but was fine as long as I ate little or no dairy. If I did stop expressing, she wouldn’t be ok on “normal” formula which is obviously dairy based. Expressing boosted my oxytocin levels, which (just like with breastfeeding) gave me a feeling of relaxation and wellbeing. Expressing made up for the disappointment of not breastfeeding. Oh, and the weight was FALLING off me! Turns out making 1 ½ litres of breastmilk a day is better than any diet (20 calories per oz, and I was expressing 50 oz a day, that’s 1000 calories sucked out of my body, every day). Expressing became my excuse to chill out for 30 minutes several times a day and eat chocolate. I ate so many bags of Maltesers, I’m surprised I didn’t make chocolate milk!

So… I kept expressing and bottlefeeding her. I didn’t really know of anybody else who had sustained it for as long as this, but figured if I got to a year, I’d be doing well. My supply dropped until I was making around 900 mls a day – around what she took. Eventually I discovered a support group for women who exclusively express. I still have several very good friends that I met through that group. After using a hand pump for 8 months, I finally decided to invest in a double electric pump. It was amazing, I could have kicked myself for not buying it sooner. I bought a very portable pump, and also got a pumping bra. All of a sudden I could sit, express and chill out with both hands free. I could also tuck the pump into the bra and follow my mobile daughter, play with her on the floor, or get ready for work, while still expressing. It definitely kept me going that bit longer.

Playing while I express
Playing while I express

I got pregnant when my daughter was 9 months old. My milk supply dropped and I started using up my freezer supply. I suspected that it wasn’t an ongoing pregnancy though (because I stopped feeling pregnant) and when I went for my first scan at 10 weeks there was a pregnancy sac but no baby. I miscarried a week later, my milk supply increased again and I continued to express. I got to a year of making nearly a litre a day, and my daughter wasn’t really interested in solids so still drank all of that, every day. At a year, I gradually started introducing some cows milk and she seemed to tolerate it ok, as long as it wasn’t in big quantities. I gradually reduced the frequency with which I expressed and my milk supply settled to about 300 mls a day, with pumping twice a day for about 30 minutes a time. I got pregnant again. My milk supply fell again but I expressed and stored 100 ms of breastmilk in a sterile container in the freezer just in case my next baby had low blood sugars. I was utterly devastated when I had another missed miscarriage at 10 weeks, this time with a tiny baby. My daughter was nearly 18 months at this stage, and I decided to stop expressing just in case it was increasing my risk of miscarriage (I’ve since had 2 more miscarriages, so I don’t think it did affect it). In many ways, I think that if I hadn’t had that miscarriage, I could have continued expressing indefinitely. Stopping was so much harder than continuing to express, and I know that sounds strange, but I guess the lactation hormones have a part to play in that, and it had just become part of my daily routine.

I look back on those first 18 months of my daughter’s life and at the time it felt like they were defined by a breast pump and by a lack of breastfeeding. Now, it feels like a small, but important part of her life. I am incredibly proud of what I did, but it does not define who I am as a parent.

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