I intended to breastfeed when I was pregnant but I had very little knowledge. I was so preoccupied with the birth that I didn’t really think about how I was going to breastfeed and I didn’t anticipate having any problems! I had a wonderful birth experience with the support of a fantastic doula. In under 4 hours of labour and with no drugs my daughter (O) arrived. O latched within 20 minutes of being born, and I felt very confident immediately after birth. However the first night when I was on my own I realized that neither my daughter nor I actually knew what we were doing.
I pressed my hospital bed buzzer and asked for help. A bored midwife on the night shift grabbed my breast and jammed it in my daughters mouth. I said thank you. But it was uncomfortable and I couldn’t repeat the manoeuvre myself to get O to latch. I buzzed a few times that night and each time a different but equally bored midwife jammed O on. There was zero response to my questions.
I was visited by a lovely breastfeeding volunteer the following day in hospital. She taught me ‘nose to nipple’ and the classic breastfeeding holds. O was enthusiastic and I was confident going home that day that I had established breastfeeding.
This euphoria did not last. I was committed to feeding on demand. I knew it would be hard. Nothing had prepared me for the amount of time I would be breastfeeding- looking back it was not right from day one but I had zero context and just accepted that this was what breastfeeding took.
During these early days my daughter fed for 1 hour 40 minutes and then slept for 20 minutes. This cycle continued – day and night – the more I fed, the more hungry she seemed. She dozed, she did not sleep. My first visit from the health visitor on day 3 was lovely – lots of praise for my birth, lots of jokes about sleep deprivation. Then O was weighed – she had lost weight but I was assured this was normal. My latch was watched and I was assured it was fine.
My next visit at day 5 was another weigh in (O had lost weight) and another breastfeed latch check. All was declared fine and normal -I was getting worried but was assured she would put on weight soon.
That weekend I got mastitis. I had never heard of it. I remember lying in bed shaking with fever and telling my husband this was normal baby hormones! The pain in my breasts was awful. They were rock hard and the pain of feeding made me literally scream. My husband googled and diagnosed. I massaged and got in the bath and fed O. Through the tears and trauma I realised I desperately wanted to breastfeed O. I discovered that something I hadn’t given much thought to before becoming a mother was something I needed to be able to do.
I thought I was unlucky to get mastitis as did the health visitors. They visited me every 2 or 3 days.
My latch was checked and checked again by health visitor after health visitor and everyone decided it was fine. And then they weighed her and she had lost weight again. I had mastitis again when O was 3 weeks old. I was advised to top up with formula and give a bottle but no one could tell me why the breastfeeding wasn’t working and my daughter wouldn’t drink from a bottle. The health visitors lectured about the health of my child, the possible brain damage, delayed development. I was accused of putting my principles above the health of my daughter. It was time to give up and do what my daughter needed. It was written in my notes that I ignored advice to give formula. They did not believe my daughter refused (and now I understand she couldn’t) feed from a bottle.
In order to help her I was breast compressing milk directly into her mouth. I managed to keep her weight stable for 2 weigh ins this way. The experience was horrendous. My wonderful birth and healthy baby had collapsed into a breastfeeding nightmare and a starving baby.
At 4 and a half weeks O’s cries changed. It went from crying to something else. It was the cries of a starving baby. I cried all night with her. My husband suggested in the early hours of that morning to phone my NCT teacher – he vaguely remembered her saying something about breastfeeding support. I called the next morning.
She came over and helped. She put her finger in O’s mouth – the first person to do this – and explained about tongue tie. She said first we feed O, then we sort the breastfeeding. She got a syringe out her car and told me to get my husband to buy formula. She told me how to syringe feed. She showed me how my breast pump worked. She gave me the address of a private breastfeeding drop in. The next day we arrived at the drop in and another wonderful lady diagnosed a severe posterior tongue tie. She praised me for still breastfeeding. She told me not to worry about O’s starvation and the implications for her development. She reassured me that she had seen much worse and they were all now the brightest of children.
I got an emergency appointment the next day at the hospital O had been born. At 5 weeks her tongue tie was cut. I felt suction and a vacuum for the first time. However, after 5 weeks my supply was incredibly low. I only managed to pump about 5ml in one day. Again, I was supported by my NCT teacher who told me to increase my supply by changing sides every 5 minutes during a feed, taking fenugreek, pumping when not feeding. She also advised to supplement with formula via syringe as my daughter was starving by this point and just needed milk. This enabled her to have the energy to feed and build up my supply. At 10 weeks I was able to drop the syringe feeding, as she wouldn’t take it. I was finally exclusively breastfeeding my baby.
All this has made me appreciate how precious breastfeeding your baby is, and I am committed to allow my daughter to self-wean. She is 19 months and showing no sign yet! I still have difficultly forgiving myself for starving my daughter. I now know how easy it is to get a lactation consultant and I don’t know why I didn’t phone them on day 3 when the first weigh in showed weight loss. I trusted that health visitors would solve the problem and let that overrule my instincts that something was wrong. I should have had the confidence to find more informed help earlier and make a fuss earlier – before my daughters health was affected.
I hope tongue tie education is increased among the NHS and health visitor community. As my daughters TT was so severe she wouldn’t drink from a bottle, I was forced to continue to breastfeed and go against official advice. If O had had a TT that was less pronounced I am sure we would have moved to formula around week 3. Instead of which she has had 19 months and counting of breastmilk. For that, I am so so grateful.