Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Our Failed Breastfeeding Journey

To my beautiful, growing boy,

This letter to you has been a long time coming, and to be honest, I still don't know if I'm totally ready to write it. But I'm going to give it a shot, and see what comes out.

No matter what anybody says, no matter what any study shows, and, I fear, no matter how much time passes, I will forever feel guilty about your first eleven and a half weeks of life. A mother's job, you see, first and foremost, is to keep their child alive. Of course there is all that 'love' business (and I sure hope you know a lot about that by now!), but the number one job? To keep you ticking. 

Part of that is to ensure you are fed.

The only photo I have of me breastfeeding you, by my friend Olga. Five weeks..
It is impossible for me to articulate how important it was for me to be able to breastfeed you. That 'Breast is Best' campaign really hit me hard.  Every inch of research I did before you came along (and trust me, there was a lot -- websites, pregnancy books, baby's first year books, books specifically about breastfeeding, breastfeeding DVDs, La Leche League meetings, birth classes, etc etc etc.) told me that if we stuck with it, it would work. If you were doing your part well enough, which you were, then it would work! If I had not had any breast surgery or had any other (currently identifiable) medical problems, such as a problem with my hormones, or a part of the placenta remaining attached to the uterine wall, or having a very small amount of breast tissue, then it was just a matter of trial and error. It would work. Patience and stamina.

Everyone tells me that formula is great. And I'm sure it is. People tell me, "I was raised on formula, my parents both were, probably eighty percent of the current adult population was. And now the formula is infinitely better than it was back then. When he's an adult, he won't care, and nobody would ever know the difference." But it's not just about that. It's not even about all of those studies that continue to be shared on the online mama's groups that I belong to, that tout advanced IQ, better emotional intelligence, fewer allergies, a better vocabulary, less incidence of obesity... It wasn't about that, though they sure pour salt into the wound.

It was about my dream. Since I was fourteen, I've dreamt of being a mother. In my somewhat innocent and potentially a little ignorant head, this was sitting in a rocking chair at night, my baby in my arms wrapped in a white crochet blanket, holding you to my chest and breastfeeding you while humming a lullaby. This is where we would stare at each other and be flooded with emotion. For some reason, having to heat some water, measure out scoops of powder with hands that can't stop shaking because of your crying and putting a big piece of plastic between us... it kind of took away the magic. 
Fifteen minutes old
My mind was focused on the immediacy of  breastfeeding you from the moment you were born. I had researched this idea that if a newborn baby is put immediately on their mother's belly after birth, they will gradually creep up towards the nipple, latch on themselves and begin to breastfeed. This is amazing! I had wanted to give that a shot, but you were absolutely exhausted after a tough birth and had a few problems with breathing for the first fifteen minutes after birth, so we did the next best thing. You remained on my chest the whole time and then, after twenty minutes, we put you on my breast for your first very sleepy breastfeed. 

Yes, you dropped a lot of weight in the hospital. You were born at 3.71kg, and you lost about 13%. The amazingly supportive midwives kept waiting for my milk to come in, kept asking me about this elusive feeling of 'let-down' (what an ironic term this is for me), kept syringing my breasts of the 0.7ml that was available still five, six, seven days after birth. I spent what literally felt like every single moment in toe-curling, foot-stomping, curse-inducing agony as either you or one of many boob-contorting, humiliation-inducing machines were attached to my breasts. Tests were done, everything was fine, it should be working, and I had everything going for me. We had everything going for us.

But it wasn't working.

We began giving you a little bit of horse's milk as supplementation (the closest thing available to human milk). All of that research I had done warned against this -- that it was the beginning of the end. Now, you wouldn't be working so hard at getting my milk and it was pretty much all over. We did everything possible to ensure this wasn't the case. We fed you from a little cup like a cat, your little tongue lapping up small slurps of milk, and giving you only enough to survive, while keeping you on my breasts as much as possible. One night when I finally gave in and let the midwife take you for two hours while I had some sleep, you drank about five times as much as normal. I still remember how much this broke my heart - that you had been so hungry, and I wasn't able to supply you with what you needed. At that time, when you were one week old, this was my number one job. I was failing. 

With the horse's milk doing its job, with lots of information about the best formula, the best bottles and the best teats to ensure there would be no nipple confusion, with a prescription to rent a hospital grade pump, with a prescription for a midwife to visit us as much as needed, potentially every day, for as long as we needed, we were sent home with a lot of luck and love and hugs. 

Potentially not the worst spot to bottle-feed...

Our wonderful midwife, who is also a lactation consultant, came to visit every day. She weighed you, gave every ounce of breastfeeding advice she could (which, for the first few days, was to attempt to find a way to heal my horrifically broken and bleeding nipples while still keeping you on the boob as much as possible), and, I discovered later, took notes on my mood (teary, teary, very teary, teary). My daily aim was to attempt to answer the door to her fully dressed. I only achieved this after three weeks. 

When you were about one and half weeks old, I began to notice strange twitching that would happen during your sleep (always on my chest, skin to skin. It was meant to help too.). It didn't seem to be dream twitches, and it went on for quite a length of time. We spoke to the midwife about it and she said she thought it was just your typical newborn sleep movements, but asked us to take a video. The next day, she watched the video and immediately called the paediatrician to book us in for an appointment that afternoon, 'just to be sure'. I fed you just before we left, ten minutes before our appointment. 

The paediatrician, who, incidentally, was an unfeeling monster who was filling in for your normal doctor, did a bunch of tests. You began crying uncontrollably half way through the appointment and he proclaimed, 'This baby is hungry'. I said that I had fed you just twenty minutes ago, but okay, I'll put you back on my boob (insert whispered cursing and foot stomping). He then began to write notes furiously and his final conclusion? That you were hungry. You were having mini-seizures from lack of food. 

I still don't know what to say about this. I've paused here at this point of my letter for a week now, unsure of how to continue. 

I suppose I'll just leave that as fact and move on. You were having mini-seizures from lack of food. 

Yes, you were putting on weight, so it wasn't a 'failure to thrive' issue. But you were a big boy and you were growing furiously and apparently wanted to be growing more. So the solution? Try harder. 

I made sure we still had as much of a
breastfeeding relationship as possible, bonding
with you while feeding you.

Three weeks in and I was getting a lot of (asked for) advice from breastfeeding support groups, telling me things such as, 'Oh yes, you're doing great. Stick with it - it took three weeks for my milk to come in. It will come.'  I need to say here that those three weeks seemed like an eternity. Would my milk just COME IN already! I decided to try something that a lot of people recommended. I was going to spend a full twenty-four hours in bed naked with you. There was going to be no bottle and no pumping, you were just there on my chest the whole entire time and my boobs were at your disposal all day and night. I would leave the bed only to go to the toilet, and nobody would interrupt us. Your daddy would come in only to deliver food and tea/barley water. I was so determined this would work. We had everything at the ready, I had spent the day before preparing emotionally, and then we made it through only forty minutes before I couldn't deal with your hungry screaming and gave in. I just didn't have enough milk for you, and it seemed no matter how long we tried, it wasn't going to work. 

At four weeks, my midwife/lactation consultant was out of ideas. I had been drinking breastfeeding tea and barley water all day for weeks. Your wonderful daddy had made a wide variety of strange and sometimes-wonderful foods that were meant to boost lactation, I was taking homeopathics , I had friends bring in special non-alcoholic beer from Germany that was meant to have super-lactation-powers, and a wide array of other things. And I was still, literally, spending at least two-thirds of every day (that is, a twenty-four hour day. Not just the daylight hours) with something attached to either one or both nipples. And the amount of formula you were downing just kept increasing and increasing... Your daddy was amazing at making sure he had all the bottle-business covered so that I might be able to sleep a little while he fed you the ever-increasing top-up bottle at the end. And then he had to go back to work, so I had to figure it out on my own...

The midwife suggested we go to a different lactation consultant. She put us in contact with a Japanese woman in a different part of Switzerland who had an entirely different approach to her. Off we went, on the cross-country train journey, hoping for a different outcome. This hilariously matter-of-fact and business-driven woman whipped off my shirt and prodded and pounded at my breasts. She told us to go ahead and use a dummy. Anything that encouraged you to suck was good (and oh my god were you suddenly in heaven with this!). She gave us different teats that made it incredibly difficult for you to drink from a bottle and made me take detailed notes on everything breastfeeding related. We were to feed for five minutes on each breast, to begin with (! As opposed to 45-90!), and then pump for another fifteen minutes. This was largely to give my mind and nipples a mini rest. We'd then, after a week, increase the times and keep doing this until you reached 4.5kg. Then you would be heavy enough to start to play around with things a little bit. We went back three times before you reached that weight for more specific advice and to get the answers to a couple of questions. The day you finally reached 4.5kg, we called her excitedly, but she was unexpectedly on holiday for six weeks. 
One of many pages of notes I took on your breastfeeding. Tracking your wees and your poos, tracking
how long on each breast, how much formula you drank and how much did I manage to express with the pump.

What the? 

I can't tell you how angry this made me. We had been working so incredibly hard on such a wide variety of things again, and had been waiting waiting waiting until you reached that weight for us to finally actively do things that would help. And now she was gone. For six weeks. 

We were now eight weeks into our breastfeeding journey, and I was still trying. Eight weeks is a long time. I wasn't going to give up. Surely there were still things to try, other people to speak to, different foods to eat, more barley water to drink. You began to occasionally refuse to breastfeed, which would break my heart. I was starting to cry more and more. I would skype with my mum, your Nanny, in Australia and she would say to me that she supports me and loves me and she would tell me that the most important thing is that I am enjoying you. I never got to the point where I didn't, my gorgeous boy, it is very important for you to know this. I never ever had a 3am urge to throw you out a window. I promise! This, to me, was evidence that I did not have post-natal depression. I looked at you and could not love you any more. You were and are such a miracle. And I enjoyed you! Though I dreaded the minutes leading up to the time where you would be hungry again... I enjoyed you. 

We went to a doctor, the head doctor of the obstetrics department at the hospital where I gave birth to you. She, incidentally, was also a lactation consultant. She watched me feed you with the nipple shields and asked me to try without too. You actually did it without the shield, for the first time in weeks. She ran all the medical tests on me again, doing a vast array of blood tests to check my hormone levels, ensuring that all the placenta really was gone, etc. And she had no answers for us. 

She sent us to a very renowned lactation consultant nearby, though she didn't speak English. So at nine weeks, your wonderfully supportive Daddy came along with us to help translate, and her daughter was also there to help. This amazing woman focused a lot on the emotions attached to breastfeeding. She could tell how injured I was emotionally by that point. She got me to tell your birth story and held me as I cried again and again. I didn't realise that I could develop such a relationship with a woman who spoke a different language to me. Your daddy talked to her a lot also, explaining to her the kind of person that I am, which is someone who is not used to failure, who needs to be successful in everything she does, who believes that once I set my mind on something, it can be achieved. It was quite enlightening for me to hear him explain who I am to a third party.
Going away for the weekend... oh the organisation that was required, instead of just bringing boobs!

The nights were the hardest. They were where I cried the most. And I cried a lot.

Your daddy took a day off work when you were eleven and a half weeks old and sent me into the city to have a massage. This would be the first time that you would have a feed that did not begin with my breasts. When I returned, my whole world turned upside down.

You and your daddy were on the rug playing. You were happy. You were the happiest I had ever seen you.

That was when I realised what I had been doing. What I had been doing to you. You spent the first three months of your life hungry. You were working so hard at being fed that you didn't have enough time to play. I didn't give you the space to be happy.

I had one more appointment with the lactation consultant, and I told her that I was finished. We were finished. No more. There was such visible relief on her face when I told her this, and I realised that the whole time we had been seeing her, she was waiting for me to come to this conclusion on my own. She told me that she has three children. Her experience breastfeeding the first was almost completely parallel with mine, and she felt as if she had gained enough knowledge during that time that she wanted to become a lactation consultant. Her second child, for some unknown reason, was a completely different story, and she breastfed her until she was 18 months old. Her third child was a little more difficult and she only managed four months. She told me that if we decide to have more children, she'd love to see me while I was still pregnant, so she could talk me through all my emotions regarding this issue and help me to move on, to be positive about my second attempt.

I don't know what will happen if I ever get the chance to embark on another breastfeeding journey. I have said in the past that I don't know if I would even try breastfeeding again. I just don't know. Maybe I'd give myself a strict time limit. Three weeks sounds like a small amount of time, but I remember you being three weeks old and that feeling of having struggled for such a long time already... so I just don't know. I do know that you won't remember any of those eleven and a half weeks, but you will remember all the 'I love you's that I say when you are older. And hopefully you will always know that feeling of love around you. 
Photo by Olga Bushkova

I am so sorry, my little boy, that you were so hungry for so long, and that that was your introduction to this world.

I'm so sorry that I forgot about everything else, and that I connected our happiness only with this success.

I'm so sorry that I was so sad for the first months of your life, and that you watched me cry so often.

I'm so sorry that I haven't been able to talk to you about this until now.

My beautiful, clever, thriving, gentle and funny boy, I am so lucky to have you. 

I love you so so much.

Love, Mummy. 

(Since writing this post, I have now had another baby and have battled through another breastfeeding experience. Our breastfeeding journey is blogged about here.


  1. Haven't read every letter in this blog, but for me, as a lecturer, it was really nice to hear about the father's part in this story.

    I admire the support and understanding he offered all this time. I admire you for trying everything to be the best you can for your son.

    You are a very very lucky lady, despite the breast feeding history. You have a warm and happy family who supports you in who you are and when things are hard.

    What else could you whish for more...I hope you will be able to come in terms with the breastfeeding experience. There is no person, anywhere on this planet, who could do things better for Ruben.



    1. Oh Ruxi, I am absolutely so very very lucky to have the amazing supportive husband that I do. And also to have such a loving mum myself... I can only hope to be as loving to my own child!

      You are wonderful to say that there is no person who could do things better for my boy. Writing these letters to him helps me have to confidence to really believe this, and writing THIS letter was so important to me. I feel such a weight has lifted now as I have finally managed to put it all (well, not all of it, but as much as I can!) down.

      Thanks so much for reading and for such a lovely comment.

  2. Wow Joh. I tried so hard not to cry while reading your story and failed miserably.

    What an unbelievable strong woman you are.

    I know girls who gave up after a week, or took supplements to cease their milk production because bottle feeding was 'easier' and that way they had more freedom to go out and could drink alcohol. Aaaargh! It makes me so angry.

    There are just a handful of mothers I have met who really have true maternal warmth and affection, and your mum is one of those ladies. You must have this same beautiful, immeasurable quality.

    1. To think that I might have those same qualities as my mum is incredible. I know how much it would mean to her to hear this from you. It's very sweet of you to say.

      When I was going through this, I would visit websites to research which formula to use, and every single link made me acknowledge that breast milk was the best for my baby and I choose to use formula. I remember at the time thinking that surely every mother knows this by now, but in the last few months I've learnt that there still sadly is work to do in ensuring people are educated about the awesome qualities of breast milk. It made me so angry at the time, but I'm starting to see through that red haze now.

      Xx big hug to you and your gorgeous little girl. X

  3. Dear Joh, I can only agree with the other commentators - I was crying while reading this. What an amazing mum you are!!! We are having a baby in March which is exciting and scary and I'm doing a lot of reading. Like you I've read lots about breast feeding and it's benefits but I realise I shouldn't take anything for granted! I'm so glad you shared this - thank you.

    1. Malin! Wow, you are having a baby! Oh congratulations, that is amazing news for you all and we are just thrilled for you! I'm glad that you were OK with reading this while pregnant, and that it didn't put you off... I was worried about doing that. I think the thing is, like one mum said to me after reading this, that we all have to figure out where out own limits are. So at least hopefully this shows that, as you say, we can't just take it for granted! I wish you lakefuls of milk and a thousand newborn milk-drunk smiles :)

  4. My reaction to your heartfelt and awful personal story is one of anger. I'm currently reading Elisabth Badinter's The Conflict (see http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/aug/29/womans-place-elisabeth-badinter-review) and am becoming aware of the political implications of the natural motherhood and breast is best movement. I'm not saying breast milk is not better but the rigid, religious dogma of breast feeding over bottle feeding has caused you and your lovely baby son so much misery. I'm certain this is not a unique story, but possibly one that is normally kept quiet and not shared publicly. The shame of not breast feeding silencing those who have tried but not succeeded and I bet there are many more mums and babies out there suffering needlessly. I am angry at the experts, who should have known better than to encourage you to keep trying. I believe they were probably fearful of suggesting that if you don't breast feed your baby will be absolutely as clever, health and happy as if you do and since it's just not working, do what he needs, which is to eat. Motherhood is hard enough for us to be given these impossible challenges and we feel enough guilt as it is without having these dreadful superhuman goals set at every step of the way. Just for reference, I have breast fed and found it dreadful first time around, boring second time around and incredibly rewarding third time around, kept it going for two years with my youngest.

    1. I have never thought to be angry before. But now that you have opened that door, I'm bloody angry. You are totally right. I think there is so much education on breastfeeding available to the public and to prospective parents, even with things such as Breastfeeding Awareness Week, and yet there is so very little information available for those that are struggling. Like I said, I did so much research -- I truly feel that I could not have, in any way, been better prepared to breastfeed -- and none of it exposed situations like mine. This also makes me angry.

      It seems that you are absolutely right about there being many others out there who have kept quiet about having very similar problems and the internal conflict that goes hand-in-hand with it. I have been inundated with private comments from women (who always claim to be crying! It wasn't my intention to bring all mothers to tears!) who have parallel experiences. But that's the thing: They have only written to me privately. Even when this issue is made public, like I've tried to do, it is tough for mothers out there to announce their difficulties. This also makes me angry -- not at these wonderful mothers who are doing everything they possibly can for their babies, but at a society that makes us feel shame about these problems.

      By the way, I have heard on the grapevine (though this is a rumour, I haven't looked into it) that if you are officially a 'lactation consultant', you are not allowed to encourage a woman to stop breastfeeding. I think my wonderful consultant at the end did this, though, in her round-about way, getting me to come to terms with my emotions around it and to stop being so tough and steadfast, to reveal vulnerability. Which was, in hindsight, the first step.

      Thanks so much for providing me with the link to that book, it sounds incredibly interesting. I'd love to read it, as the reviewer did, alongside Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender . This is absolutely up my alley, with my interest in philosophy and critical literary theory, but entirely in context with my 'current life' as a mum. So I'm excited to have a read -- thanks! And thank you for such a thoughtful comment, it is very much appreciated.

    2. One more thing: Reading that Guardian review reminded me of how much I hate it when someone talks about my 'instincts'. Doesn't everybody know that I know nothing? Instinct doesn't tell me when there is something wrong with my boy - otherwise I wouldn't feel the need to check on him multiple times a night. Instinct doesn't tell me if I'm doing the right thing sending him to daycare twice a week. Instinct doesn't tell me if he is hungry - experience does. I could go on. Like I said, you've unleashed the angry dog.

  5. This post has just made me cry "You spent the first three months of your life hungry. You were working so hard at being fed that you didn't have enough time to play. I didn't give you the space to be happy." I've just written my own story on my blog (https://wordpress.com/stats/day/threedifferentdinners.wordpress.com) so you are not alone and I'm sure your beautiful boy is perfectly healthy. Love is the most important thing a baby needs after all :)