It’s World Breastfeeding Week this week and to celebrate I wanted to write about my breastfeeding journeys with my two boys. It’s not a conventional story of “successful” breastfeeding, but I am proud of our story.
I was diagnosed with Insufficient Glandular Tissue (IGT) when Leo (my eldest son) was 3 days old. I had been expecting to breastfeed through any challenges that came our way. I had read all the literature about ‘boobie traps’ and formula compromising your supply, so it was a horrible shock to have health professionals telling me that I needed to supplement him. I thought that if I saw enough Lactation Consultants someone would tell me that it had all been a bad dream, but no-one could tell me that I’d ever be able to produce enough milk for my little one.
Every bottle felt like a reminder of my inadequacy and failure as a mother.
To say that I was shattered by not being able to exclusively breastfeed is an understatement. I left the hospital feeling like Mother Nature and hours later I felt like a worthless piece of junk. It felt like I was grieving for a death – the death of a relationship with the most precious person in the world. I felt deeply ashamed of feeding Leo formula, and bewildered by all the extra jobs: sterilising bottles, counting out scoops of formula, having a warm bottle ready for him as soon as he needed it – all at a time of the greatest sleep deprivation.
Chronic low supply is chronically depressing! Every time I expressed I was faced with it, every time he chugged down a bottle of formula I was faced with it. Eventually I had to stop pumping after his breastfeed in the middle of the night because I couldn’t sleep afterwards.
In those early days breastfeeding feels like mothering itself, and many of you would agree. Part of me agrees… I loved our time we had breastfeeding. BUT, when you have something like this happen, you’ve got to find another way of thinking or else you’ll go mad. It’s the first question you’re asked by GPs and other health professionals: “Are you breastfeeding?”. So if you ‘fail’ at breastfeeding it feels like you’ve failed full stop. Making new mothers feel like failures is so unhelpful.
Part three of this series is about things I’d like to say to health professionals, and other people, about breastfeeding challenges. You can read that here.
I had a million worries: that our relationship would be affected, that he would wean, that he would get sick from the formula or if we didn’t sterilise the bottles properly. That he would have low immunity or grow up to be obese. That people would judge me for formula feeding or for me choosing to do both rather than just switch to formula. Articles that (rightly) were seeking to encourage breastfeeding rates contained information that felt like a stab in the heart to a mother who was using formula.
The desire to be a “good mother” in everyone’s eyes, including your own, is so strong in those early days. I felt like I wasn’t a real woman and I couldn’t and didn’t deserve to be a mother.
I heard stories about babies refusing the breast, especially where there had been supply issues, so I was anxious that every feed could be our last. This upset me all-the-more because if he was really unsettled, breastfeeding was the only thing that calmed him down and helped him to sleep.
I read all the parenting books I could get my hands on in the early days, and every time I got to the part where they said “breast is best” I would cry and go through the supreme mummy guilt afresh.
My husband and my parents were incredibly supportive and I don’t think I would have kept going were it not for them. My mum had low supply with me (which I somehow had never registered until I was in the same boat). She had thought it was because she’d had a c-section and been separated from me for 16 hours after I was born and I was an only child so she never got another chance to test her supply. My maternal grandmother also had low supply, so there must be a genetic link in there somewhere.
After all the grieving and worrying it turned out that Leo breastfed (plus formula top ups) until he was one year old. Even after that I still felt uncomfortable identifying myself as a breastfeeding woman. He is almost six years old now and is a wonderful, healthy, happy, normal kid.
When his younger brother Clem was born in 2014 I was hoping that it had been an incorrect diagnosis, or that I could somehow overcome it, but IGT struck again. I was sad about it, but much more than that I was relieved and at peace to know that there was nothing I could have done differently that would have meant I could exclusively breastfeed.
In part two of this series I detail some of the things I tried to increase my supply.
Even second time around after I had done so much healing, I still felt sadness and anger about my IGT with Clem. This is what I told my husband to help him understand how I was feeling: it’s like you have a job, but your boss tells you that you’re not performing all the tasks required in your job, but there’s nothing you can do to increase your productivity or efficiency – it’s just how things are. So they need to bring someone else in to work alongside you so that the job gets done (formula). You still need to come in every day and do your half, and facilitate the other person who does the other half of your job, and be reminded that you’re not doing your full job. But it’s even worse than your boss telling you. It’s this baby that you love more than anything, and that you want to do everything for, having to tell you.
There was still some grieving to do.
This is from an email I sent to my friend when I was feeling down about it all when Clem was a few months old.
“Last night I said a little prayer that all mothers find peace with themselves. Because we are all trying our very best. With such good intentions. It’s really important to me to finish this book because it’s our offering into the world for new parents to help them find peace and realise what a great job they’re doing. But it’s a long journey to peace. I thought I was pretty much there, and then I had another child! And to some extent it all starts again. The great thing about that feeling of searching for peace and searching for answers from your baby on how to parent them – is that it extends the amount of compassion you have for everyone in their own struggles. The amount of compassion I have in my heart is a million fold what it was before I had Leo. Makes me cry again just thinking about it. Happy tears.”
Clem is 13 months old now, and since he started solids he has been needing only a small amount of formula in addition to my breastmilk. I have worked so hard to get where we are today and I am extremely proud of Leo, Clem and myself.
Our book doesn’t tell you how you should feed your baby
When we were writing You’re Doing Great, Baby we decided very early on that we wouldn’t show any pictures of the baby feeding. We 100% support women feeding their babies however they need to. Whether you feed your baby with your breasts or with bottles, spoons, syringes, tubes or Supplementary Nursing Systems (SNSs) – or a combination like we do.
I promise that if you’re in the thick of breastfeeding or other challenges you can read our book without feeling like a failure. Everyone is doing great.