I've had two quite different experiences breastfeeding my two sons. Both were hard work, as I'm sure any mother would tell you. I've never heard any mother say "The baby just latched on all by themselves and since then it’s been great!". If I did, I'd be tempted to hit them over the head with something. Probably my breast pump.
Lets start with baby number one. Born at 37 weeks, he was healthy and happy. I was REARING to go with breastfeeding. Literally couldn't wait. After years of infertility and an assisted pregnancy, here was the first 'natural' thing I could do all by myself - no doctors, just Meeeeeeee! I soon discovered that willingness and enthusiasm doesn't automatically make for an easy ride (shocker). I hand expressed colostrum for the first three days and syringe/teaspoon fed baby. I was amazed at how quickly I went from getting 0.1ml per session to getting 1ml and then 3ml and then 5ml. When I look back at those feeding logs, I have a bit of a shudder and feel like I need a stiff drink. Then came the infamous Day 3. You know, the day you wake up and suddenly resemble Pamela Anderson (that is, if Pamela Anderson had put on an alarming amount of weight and really let her standards down). Suddenly I had milk and I wasn't afraid to use it! But, hang on, why doesn’t my baby know what to do? Isn't it supposed to be instinctive?
What I didn't realise then was that breastfeeding is something that a new mother and her baby are supposed to learn together. It’s ok if it takes a while to get right. The reality for a lot of women is that the early days of breastfeeding hurt. My husband had to hold my hand every time I fed my son for the first fortnight. I'm sure he thought I'd got all of my screaming in pain out of the way during labour. Not so dear husband. Sorry about that.
The good news is that I was able to successfully and exclusively breastfeed my son. After the first two weeks, the pain turned into discomfort and the discomfort quickly disappeared. I found I didn't need all the lights blazing to latch baby on. The first time I latched him on in the pitch black during a night feed, I literally fist pumped the air. Take that breastfeeding - I just crushed you!
But then came baby number two.
Born two days over his due date, this was one chubby, happy baby. Unfortunately, he was born with torticollis. Its a relatively common and self-correcting condition and meant that he had stiff neck muscles due to being in a weird position in utero. Perhaps related to the torticollis (but perhaps not), his jaw was a little misshapen making for an adorable sucked in bottom lip, but also for extreme difficulty with breastfeeding. He couldn't latch; not on me and not on a bottle. His jaw wouldn't close all the way. I spent a lot of time just squirting milk into his mouth, which while fun, was an incredibly ineffective way to feed.
We saw a lactation consultant. She was very knowledgeable and kind and expensive but said, "You're doing everything I would have told you to do". We tried having his very minor tongue-tie snipped, and then we consulted the tongue-tie specialist's lactation consultant. Nothing changed. The bleeding nipples and pain were unbelievable and nearly caused me to give up. In desperation, we saw a paediatric Ear, Nose and Throat specialist at our local hospital. She examined him and found nothing amiss. She suggested we could cut his tongue-tie again, deeper this time, and also cut his top tongue-tie (frenulum). By this stage, I had already slid into depression and was finding it hard to cope. I was ready to try anything. I agreed. Because my husband was looking after our toddler, I was by myself at this appointment. Unable to bear watching my precious baby be taken to with sharp objects yet again, I sat in the next room and waited to comfort him with a breastfeed.
This was my lowest point.
They brought him to me, bleeding and screaming, and I tried to latch him on. No luck. I had tried everything and nothing had worked.
And so began a long journey that I like to call 'How The Heck Do I Feed This Baby?'.
I feel like most of you are yelling at the computer screen right now "Formula! Just give him formula!" That was one option. I was advised by many people, midwives included, to do this. Now, I have nothing, NOTHING against formula. It’s amazing. It does the job. But, boy, was I stubborn. I had a good milk supply and I was damn well going to use it to feed my baby. I decided to express milk and bottle feed him. Now, if you don't have enough thrills in your life, I recommend expressing up to 7 times a day while trying to stop your 18 month old from maiming your newborn infant (with love). "Mummy, I give Ben cuddle?" "Benny want pillow (on his face)?" "I tuck Ben in Mummy! (blankets over face)" You get the picture.
In the end though, my need for formula came soon enough. Exclusively expressing guarantees your milk supply will dwindle sooner rather than later. I stopped expressing. Now you, being a rational human being that is reading this, will think "Wow, that would've taken some stress off her!" Nope. It felt like a failure. I had fought very hard to give my son breast milk, often to the detriment of my mental health and my family's. I'm not usually a crier (unless I'm watching videos of men in the army that surprise their kids with a home visit. Anyone else? Gets me every time.) But I shed a lot of tears over these few months. I knew that once I stopped expressing, my baby would never have breast milk again. New Zealand doesn't have breast milk banks where the milk is tested, and I didn't feel safe getting breast milk from people I don't know and felt it was an imposition to ask it of people I did know, so that option was out.
Ultimately, no longer expressing or trying to re-establish breastfeeding was the right decision for all of us. But it wasn't easy. New mama, if you're reading this and your experience sounds at all like mine, know that you're not alone. There are other mothers out there going through the same thing. Its sucks and I'm sorry. I can't tell you if persevering with breastfeeding, expressing feeds or exclusively using formula is best for you and your baby. You need to ask for help from trusted professionals - your midwife, lactation consultant, GP, obstetrician etc. But just remember this; YOU are very important. You're the glue that holds your wee family together. You're happy expressing all day? Wonderful! You're not coping and need to put baby on formula? Great! You've decided to persevere with breastfeeding despite the difficulty? Good for you! No matter if your experience is like mine, or if you're one of those magical breastfeeding unicorns that has never had an issue, just know, you're doing great! Get good advice from good people and trust your instincts.
And if it helps at all, this troublesome little baby is now a hulking 16 month old brimming with giggles, smiles and personality. We got through it!
And I'm even doing it all over again in 3 months.