The breastfeeding journey. Where do I begin? It might just be the hardest chapter of motherhood, second only to the chronic sleep deprivation (and childbirth, but that’s a league on its own). Even with all the stars aligned in your favour: colostrum giving way to flowing milk, a born-to-latch baby and posture-perfect positions, it is a challenge at best, a nightmare at worst. I am one of the fortunate mamas who had it all going for her but I still found breastfeeding a huge commitment that demanded sacrifices like time and virtues like patience. You see, breastfeeding is not an intuitive process, no matter how deeply the world is conditioned to believe otherwise. Did you know that there is a proper method to break babies free from the nipple? You don’t just grab their skull and pull (I swear I didn’t).
After 9 months of togetherness, Aryan and I were finally separated by a pair of tongs, to which he protested with a lungful of tears. (Read Aryan’s birth story here). Upon being reunited for skin to skin, he curled himself up in my arms before scanning for my breasts like a seasoned baby. Somehow that first feed felt very natural for both of us. I almost had no input – it happened as though by magic while I stared down at my brand new human with wonderment. I was a mom. This was my baby.
I was given a bed bath shortly afterwards and wheeled over to the shared maternity ward. Anyone who knows me knows showers are my THING. After the biggest, bloodiest, and messiest operation of my life that changed the landscape of my nether regions, I needed the therapeutic comfort of a LUSH-esque bath, not superficial pats from wet cloths. With the anesthesia wearing off, a free-flowing bloodbath on the loose, and the catheter constantly nudging me like a hospital version of a Facebook poke, I was a hot, agitated mess. That, however, was supposed to be the least of my worries. You see, the luxury of elaborate showers had officially ceased to be a thing, along with the pregnancy. There were more urgent matters at hand. I, co-jointly with an army of doctors and midwives at the Princess Anne Hospital, had dragged a human out of his happy abode into the the world of Trump and taxes. We had to make it worth his while. He needed to be kept cosy, and, more importantly, alive. The midwives helped me hand express and collect my colostrum, which we syringe fed to Aryan. For the uninitiated, there is also an established technique to hand expressing – a C formation with your forefinger and thumb, followed by application of all the forces in the universe.
No visitors were allowed at the hospital overnight so I found myself alone with my stitches and a little baby. He was awake most of the time, crying, missing the womb, and generally being a newborn. I had to constantly buzz the midwives for help. I still remember the look I got when we discovered a very dirty, very black nappy (hi meconium). Nappy check was baby cry decoding 101, did I not know?
Around 6 am, one of the midwives took pity on me and took Aryan away so that I could rest for a bit. At that point I had gone nearly 48 hours without sleep while being cut open and sewn back in the interval. I was on the edge of a wild breakdown. I managed two hours of shut eye which, on a normal day when I wasn’t going around delivering babies, would have been a really bad joke. But, as I was quickly finding out, motherhood thrives on bad jokes and sleep has been trending Number 1 on that list since the dawn of time.
My mother and husband returned later that morning with food and coffee, and it seemed, a part of me. I was desperate to return home but the hospital had other plans. At his 20 week growth scan, Aryan was diagnosed with a two-vessel umbilical cord (typically an umbilical cord has one vein and two arteries, Aryan only had one). This can affect the heart and kidneys among other things so it was crucial he passed his wee test before we could get discharged. While Aryan was busy producing wet nappies, I was strongly urged to make use of the breastfeeding support at hand.
Another night at the hospital filled me with dread. I was walking the dark and empty corridors like a horror movie ghost, fittingly dressed in a hospital gown and compression stockings, clutching a tiny baby to my chest. My bowel movements had still not normalized and I was ready to give up all my worldly possessions in exchange for a hot shower. Aryan too was struggling with the newness of free space. He repeatedly cried to be held and fed. The midwives offered a formula top up to calm him down but mom guilt had already begun to infest my perfectly rational brain. I refused, thinking I could make it better by trying harder. Perhaps wanting to keep at it was not such a bad thing at that crucial initial stage. If it wasn’t for sticking it out through the intense crash course at the hospital learning about latching, hunger cues and feeding techniques, I might not have had such a smooth start to the breastfeeding journey.
By the third day the wet nappy count was well on track and we were ready to be discharged. After getting the car seat approved, we set off for home with our brand new family member. My milk was flowing by then and Aryan seemed content. I considered myself very lucky, knowing all too well about the challenges of tongue ties, inverted nipples and mastitis, but adjusting to the life of a breastfeeding mama was still a handful. First of all – breast leaks, woah. It combined with nightsweats to give way to milk baths, creating pools of yuck in our bed sheets. Second – uterine cramps. My uterus kept contracting from the nipple stimulation and it was bloody painful. Third – sore AF nipples. I would clam up in fear of the maddening, lip-biting pain each time Aryan went on the breast. Thankfully it would subside after the first few suckles.
One of the midwives came over the next morning to check Aryan’s weight. Babies usually lose 5-10 % of their birth weight in the first few days and get back on track in two weeks’ time. Aryan had lost a minimal 0.7 kg, a positive indication that he was getting a good milk supply. His runny poo was also apparently normal. The midwife enquired about my general mood and warned me about baby blues, known to strike on the 3rd or 4th day after childbirth. The euphoria subsides, leaving women feeling moody, weepy and irritable in their hormonal whirlpool of a body. I thought I was doing fairly well but maybe I had spoken too soon.
The next evening, everything went downhill, or so it seemed to my new mum mind. I found myself tied to a corner of the couch for hours, nursing a seemingly insatiable baby. My exhaustion and inexperience magnified every tired thought in my head. I felt terrified that this couch ridden life was my new normal. I wish I had known that it was down to a simple supply–demand issue that baby and body would eventually balance out.
The lack of breaks took a heavy toll on my breasts. Every time Aryan latched, I felt lightning bolts shoot up my nipple. It was pure agony. An Aptamil top up settled him for a few hours, giving me a badly needed break. First thing we did after waking up in the morning was to call the NCT breastfeeding helpline. The counsellor was a godsend, her supportive words moving me to tears. She confirmed that he was cluster feeding, which is normal during growth spurts and more likely to occur in the evenings. It was a newborn thing, so was his need to constantly cling to me. She sent me an email with helpful YouTube videos on how to attain the perfect latch. Good latch = less pain = more patience during cluster feeds.
On our hospital visit the following day, I passed my first public feeding test, albeit in front of a midwife. She recommended buying a breast pump to alleviate the cluster feeding madness. She suggested some useful tips to settle baby in the evenings, mainly instilling the day/night concept by establishing a routine. It could be as simple as 1) offering him one boob with his clothes off, 2) putting on his sleeping suit, and 3) finishing off with a final top up or ‘pudding’ from the second boob.
That evening we caved in and purchased the eyewateringly expensive electric breast pump by Medela. It took only one try for me to know this was not my motherly calling. An hour of pumping gave me something ridiculous like 10 ml. I was in disbelief – surely £200 worth of kit couldn’t be this inefficient? I went to bed feeling disheartened. Then I tried a second time. By the third attempt I was feeling more confident, pumping reasonably well and figuring out how to maximise milk production (timing is key). Breastfeeding a newborn leaves little time for anything else in your day – add pumping to the rotation and you might as well rename yourself Mrs. Milking Machine. No wonder when I pumped, especially when I pumped well, it turned into a sort of mini celebration in our household. Soon it became clear that pumping was not only a saving grace for nipple survival but also a catharsis for mums in distress. After an urgent half day trip to London, I returned home and pumped two river beds. My raging milk had soaked through the breast pads, wetting my clothes. Lesson of the day: do not keep your milky boobs away from baby for longer than absolutely necessary. Unless you enjoy the sensation of your breasts being lit on fire.
Come second week, my nipples started to toughen up and hurt a lot less. Pumping got lots better too. I researched on pumping dos and donts and picked up on a few tricks. One of them was not to keep staring at the pump every second and to my surprise, it actually worked. By the third week I realized I was cherishing the breastfeeding bond. Watching Aryan flesh out filled my heart with pride. To my project manager mind, this was shaping up to be a success. Succesful breastfeeding is neither easy nor to be taken for granted and every mama should pat herself on the back for their sheer perseverance.
At this point you must be thinking: great, this sounds like a success story. Yes, and no. Because while breastfeeding clicked for us, bottle feeding absolutely didn’t. We tested several ideas – my milk, formula milk, warming both said milk, different bottles, different people, me leaving the room with my damning mum milk smell. Choosing a time when he was hungry so more likely to yield. NOTHING worked. He cried and cried, at first with unhappiness, then with full-blown indignation. In the beginning it was a hit and miss but soon it became a complete no-no.
I personally find bottle feeding much harder than breastfeeding simply because of all the pre and post prepping it involves – washing, sterilizing, pumping and/or making formula feeds. Not to mention the commitment it takes to pump knowing fully well that the milk was more likely to go down the drain than your baby’s wee mouth. Throwing away breastmilk HURTS. It’s like throwing away your time, energy and emotions. I feel like I am throwing away a part of me.
I am so grateful Aryan and I have had such a smooth sailing breastfeeding journey. But I have to admit it’s also limiting not being able to bottle feed. I have worked hard on getting comfortable with public breastfeeding through practice, pressure and the modesty of bebe au lait scarves. But I am no Kylie Jenner. I am a regular mom, not a cool mom. Dealing with public breastfeeding is the number one reason I still hesitate to go out. Not knowing when he would want a feed and whether I would be in a position to do so is a constant worry. On one occasion I was faced with the choice of feeding Aryan in front of a work mate or in the washroom. I chose the latter. Yes it was a squeaky clean disabled toilet but I still felt mad over how wrong it was and my own insecurities. The whole experience would have been different had he accepted the bottle.
Most people I share this with will say, oh you need to keep trying. I just want to say, I DID. Maybe we could have tried harder in the beginning but what with taking care of a newborn while being tired all day and not having the time or energy to pump or deal with a crying baby who hated the bottle, I perhaps did not try as much as I should have. We tried when we could, and with earnestness, but it just did not seem to work. Initially I also struggled to be comfortable with formula feeds, something I am ashamed to admit. I was shocked when someone threw shade at me for even thinking of formula. Do people still do that these days? Turns out they do, and to a new mum, nothing could be more damaging. I wish I had not listened to these silly jibes. Maybe if I was mentally more confident, I could have translated that into my actions.
I plan to return to work when Aryan is 8 months old. I need to get him onto the bottle for that reason, if nothing else. I hope to keep trying but I have a sinking feeling it’s not going to be an easy battle to win. We have started introducing different pacifiers to him in hopes that it might make him more accepting of teats. Another battle as it turns out. This barely three-month old cheeky bugger has worked out how to block foreign objects by sticking out his tongue! It’s his fingers or my nipples or nothing.
If any of you mamas reading this have anymore tricks up your sleeves, please do throw them our way. We have exhausted all our options and looking for a miracle here! Hopefully we will crack this sooner than later and my next post will be a photo of a happy baby with a big drink in his hand. 😉 Till then, breasts at attention!