One big thing I’ve learned since giving birth is that feeding a baby is no easy business, no matter how you choose to do it. I’m strongly of the opinion that fed is best, whether that’s breastfed, expressed or formula – as long as it works for you and your baby – but my choice was to at least try breastfeeding first. I wanted to do so to get all the benefits of colostrum and the early milk, and I also believed that it would be the easier option, without needing to prepare bottles in the middle of the night and spend a lot of money on formula. But it’s not so simple as that!
One of my friends had a bad experience with her first baby where she was very much pressured into breastfeeding and came out of it feeling very negatively about the whole experience. At the time and up until I gave birth, I listened to her sympathetically, but it wasn’t until I was in the position of learning to feed my own baby that I truly understood the pressures of the nursing world.
When Emmy was born, she was very very sleepy. We found out a couple of days later that this was because she was jaundiced – fortunately just under the line not to need treatment – but it meant that she struggled to latch on, and once she did latch on, she fell asleep before being able to suck. We spent a few days in hospital because of her jaundice and because I was anaemic, and as she started to come out the other side of her jaundice, she started being more interested in feeding – but this only resulted in her not being able to latch on because she would start trying to suck before being latched!
Those 3 days in the hospital were a huge learning curve. Emmy’s first feed was immediately after delivery where, as my notes said, she “licked beads of colostrum from the breast” but didn’t latch on, so we collected 1ml of colostrum in a syringe and fed that to her. Over the course of the day, we continued to do this, each time trying to get her to latch on but with her falling asleep every time, then moved on to me hand expressing into a cup and cup feeding her. Eventually, since I already had a good supply when expressing into the cups, I was brought one of the hospital pumps so I could start properly expressing to feed her from bottles. While I still wanted to get the hang of breastfeeding, I wasn’t worried about getting her to take a bottle as I want her to be able to in future too.
But it was a trying experience as it felt like I was fighting her and bothering her every time I fed her, trying to get her to latch on when she was so sleepy and struggling. We were on a 3 hour feeding plan in the hospital where I had to wake her every 3 hours to feed – and as I found out, this means that essentially the clock reset every 3 hours rather than 3 hours from the end of the feed. As such, we would try to wake her first, then try to latch her on, then I would express and feed this to her, then walk down the corridor to clean all the parts of the pump. Basically, this whole process was taking around 2 hours, so I’d be laying back down in bed with an alarm set for less than an hour’s time to wake up to start the whole process again. It wasn’t easy!
By the time we left hospital, the midwives had observed Emmy latch on a few times and had seen her sucking and swallowing. They were happy we had the positioning right, and I had a huge amount of help from several midwives, one of which was a lactation consultant too so was very helpful. They were content that she was within the normal weight loss for day 3 (she was down 7.5% on her birth weight; newborns usually end up between 7-10% down on their birth weight) and they were happy that she was getting fed, even if it was in a time consuming way. We were discharged with reassurances that we were doing everything right and that we’d completely have the hang of breastfeeding in no time.
We continued in the same way with trying to get her to latch on, getting a few successful sucks, then topping up with expressed bottles and me continuing to express. On day 4, we had a midwife visit who was happy with the way we were feeding – as was I, but it was still an exhausting process. On day 5, we had a midwife appointment, and it turned out Emmy’s weight had stayed static.
Here’s where I got a bit stressed. I came away from this appointment feeling like I was failing her a bit. The midwife had put on a lot of pressure, telling me I should be trying to breastfeed her and latch her on more – even though I’d assured her that we were trying for up to half an hour every time she was hungry. The result was that Emmy was ending up stressed and agitated, as was I. It felt like a fight every time where she’d be punching and kicking and I felt like I was forcing her onto me.
We continued like this, and at her next midwife appointment at 10 days, she’d gained a substantial amount of weight – they were very happy with her and my process of trying to latch her and bottle feeding with expressed milk. In fact, they said she’d be at birth weigh again before 2 weeks, which is when they’d normally reach that level! But we wanted to persevere and get the nursing right.
A few days later, I’d been trying to latch her on for ages and it just wasn’t happening. I came downstairs, and it was the only time I’ve cried out of frustration in this whole experience so far. I was started to dread the feeds – every time I saw we were coming up to 3 hours, I’d feel anxious and stressed, and when she wanted to cluster feed, it was even worse. You shouldn’t feel like this when feeding your baby!
So Ben and I came up with a plan – I would take a “night off”. We wouldn’t try latching her on that night; instead, I’d just wake up every 3 hours as I was continuing to do (although she was now starting to wake us 5 minutes before every alarm!) and immediately give her an expressed bottle, then I’d try again the next morning.
And this was a huge turning point. The next morning, we woke up around 7am and I popped her onto my chest for skin to skin, then feeling a bit calmer than I had at other feeds, I tried to latch her on – and she did it, straight away! That day, every feed was on the breast and we topped up that night with the expressed bottle. Two days later was even better – we didn’t even need a bottle overnight. Since that day when we made the turning point – which I believe was day 13 – we’ve been almost exclusively breastfeeding with just a couple of 10ml expressed bottles here and there to get her calmer at the beginning of a feed, and I’m feeling a lot better about it all.
That’s not to say it’s easy still though! Most feeds still begin with a bit of a battle to get Emmy to latch, but having spoken to a health visitor, it turns out I have a “forceful let down”. Emmy detaches herself several times when she’s latched on – it can take 10 minutes or more to get going – and sometimes pulls off coughing and spluttering. Essentially, I have a pretty large supply of milk which comes in too quickly for her little mouth to deal with. While quick let down and a large supply sounds like a wonderful problem to have (more milk!), it’s still making the experience pretty tricky. The health visitor was very reassuring though, giving me some tips on how to deal with it and reassuring me that Emmy will get used to my let down over time as she grows and manages to deal with it better.
To deal with this, I’m no longer expressing by machine. What I didn’t really understand before was the whole supply and demand thing – essentially, my supply will go crazy I keep expressing in addition to feeding because my body thinks it’s supplying for more babies or hungrier babies. This could end with clogged ducts or mastitis if I don’t stay on top of it. I’ll be using it again in future for times when I’m away and when I return to work, but for now, I’m simply feeding on alternate sides and using a silicon breast pump (as recommended by the midwife) to collect leaks from the other side. From just this, I’ve already got a stash of nearly 20 full bags of milk in the freezer – it’s a bit ridiculous how much the silicon pump is collecting from the other side!
But as we stand right now, at just under 3 weeks, I’m feeling much more positive about nursing. The journey started off with a lot of struggles, and I totally understand the pressure of breastfeeding now. It’s not at all an easy thing to do, or even to understand! We’re still learning a lot. For example, there are only 3 positions that really work for us at the moment, all of which use my right hand and arm meaning that it’s very achey, so I try to swap over to the other hand once she’s latched on when I can. Luckily, we’re learning with every passing feed and passing day, so hopefully this will be short lived.
I’ll continue to update on our feeding journey in future, as I realise this is only really the very beginning. But to end the post, and the start of this journey on a very positive note, we managed to feed outside, in public, on my own today, and I was so proud! I’ve fed around family members and friends, and for the first time in a cafe (luckily we had a private room!) with my family yesterday, but today I was alone and she was hungry, so we stopped on our walk back from our first baby group (which was a lot less scary than I anticipated!) at a bench in a churchyard (I’m aware this sounds a bit weird, but it was the only semi-private and sheltered place!) and she latched on straight away – success!