Wednesday 28 August 2019

Our Breastfeeding Journey

Following World Breastfeeding Week (OK, it was at the beginning of August but let's be real, it takes me a while to cobble a post together with a 3 month old) the concept has been on my mind and it made me want to share the experience Eden and I have had learning to breastfeed together. This might sound a strange and slightly TMI subject, but actually breastfeeding can be a very difficult and emotional journey - at least it was for me and many others I have since spoken to. I can't explain how many internet searches I made in the first few weeks, "is this normal?", how many sites and forums I visited and all the different stories I read - so if sharing this makes one struggling person feel normal, then that's honestly my job done.

Personally, I'd always dismissed breastfeeding as being a given as it is very much assumed to be a very natural and therefore very easy thing. I'd been told by some well-meaning mamas that it was hard, and while I took this on board I still unintentionally dismissed this - sure it might be sore at first, it might take the baby and I a while to get used to it, but I'm stubborn so whatever, I'd carry on and get there in the end.

I mean, I was right about the last bit, we did get there in the end, but we nearly didn't. Unless you've experienced this specifically, it's very difficult to describe exactly how hard a feeling it is when you are having to make serious decisions as to whether you carry on trying to feed. For me it was honestly heart-wrenching: I felt completely torn between what I wanted for Eden and what I felt I could do. It was gutting to say the least, made worse due to the sheer shock of being a brand new parent on a few hours sleep and a whirlwind of hormones. But we did get there, and here's what happened:

When I was expecting Eden, Jamie and I attended hypnobirthing classes (yep, still weirdly gutted that I never got to experience going into labour as I needed an elective Caesarean) which also covered various antenatal topics, tending to favour a more holistic, gentle approach. In these classes we learnt about, and put in our birth plan that we wanted, skin to skin contact immediately after birth and for baby to be put to the breast straight away. It's suggested that by putting baby to breast straight away (or certainly within the first hour), they are more likely to be able to successfully breastfeed. (It also releases oxytocin, can help with bonding, and all sorts of other things!) However, because Eden was born by Caesarean it meant that for nearly an hour after she was born we were still in theatre and she didn't get to feed for at least an hour and a half, maybe even two - it's hard to fully remember as it's all a bit of a blur. I can't even properly remember if a midwife helped us with the latch the first time. However I do remember being relieved as she wanted to feed! She was much more of a pro than I was - but she was feeding and that was fine by me. I'd been really worried that by not going into a natural labour my milk wouldn't come in, or that the pain relief I'd have for the Caesarean would mean Eden might be hazy and not wanting to feed (which would make it harder for her to learn in the long run), but luckily for us none of that was ever an issue.

I don't really remember when it started to become very painful for me - certainly by day two - but this made sense to me as Eden was feeding around the clock as is usual with newborns. It makes perfect sense that to begin with it's going to be sore if you've never had a tiny mouth repeatedly clamping around and sucking on your nipple before, for hours of each day - it felt like she was feeding more often than not. Pain is certainly a side effect of a poor latch, but I think it's expected and almost unavoidable at the very beginning regardless. All the information repeats that breastfeeding shouldn't hurt but I think if it doesn't even at the very start, you're incredibly lucky because the body does need to adjust. For us, multiple midwives had looked at our latch and deemed it as fine, so I took the toe-curling pain to be something that would go away once my nipples toughed up a bit and I "got used to it." I kept applying coconut oil to my nipples after feeding because I was desperate to use a vegan cream to moisturise and prevent cracks, and most creams contain lanolin.

But by day five, when we took Eden to see the midwife for some routine tests, I was feeling sore enough that I accepted a sample of a lanolin based nipple cream because I was in so much pain and everyone had assured me how effective this cream was. Although it did help, on day seven Eden had a growth spurt which essentially made her hungry and fractious, meaning that when feeding she became really frustrated. She'd do what Jamie and I described as a "frenzy" where she'd clamp on and then shake her head like a tiger. It was agonising and resulted in my right nipple cracking and bleeding. I ended up only feeding her from the left side, while trying to hand express to keep my supply going from the damaged side. Shortly after this a friend came to meet Eden for the first time and saw how things were going. She was very helpful - having experienced problems at first feeding her son she could relate to the struggle and talking to her made me feel far less alone. The following day, a parcel turned up that neither Jamie or I had ordered - I opened it and found nipple shields, a breast pump, breast shells and some [vegan] chocolate. It was probably the kindest thing anyone could have done for me at that point and it goes without saying that I burst into tears. (Post-baby hormones are evil, by the way. I couldn't help crying at literally anything, good or bad, in front of pretty much everybody - it was really embarrassing!)

From then on, things improved. I got hold of some bottles and luckily Eden was just as happy to take a bottle as a breast, and we could mix between the two. I could use my pump and breast shells to collect as much milk as possible while I healed, and feed her from the less damaged side. I was much happier being able to do this, but still felt a real sense of dread and worry that this situation would keep repeating itself. Then we had our two week midwife visit - after doing all the usual routine checks and asking the usual questions, I'd explained our feeding situation was but laying it on heavily that we were fine, we'd be fine, it was all getting better, there wasn't a problem. You could tell she wasn't entirely convinced and when Eden became hungry she asked in a very non-pushy way whether I'd mind her just watching us feed so she could see the latch. I'm glad I agreed because she literally proceeded to save our breastfeeding journey.

Every baby is different and it's very difficult to explain how what she showed me made such a big difference. The only way I can pinpoint it is the way that I was to bring Eden to me - she described it like hooking a coat on a peg - you don't bring the peg to you, you line it up and then hook over. The best comparison I can find is this UNICEF latching video. Although Eden was looking like her latch was great prior to this, that slight change in angle and tipping her head back - even a slight change in the way that I held her - made an absolutely huge difference for both of us, and meant that she suddenly fed far more efficiently and successfully, despite the change being barely visible.

Over the next many weeks, I still experienced some pain but never anything near to what I had experienced. There was different kinds of pain - a bruised feeling from when she'd fed so much and sucked so hard during a growth spurt, and general tenderness for the same reasons, but it all paled in comparison to the first fortnight. Now, unless Eden latches lazily I don't experience pain at all.

Personally, as a new mum, I didn't want to admit to anybody the extent of the struggle at the time because it made me feel like a bad mum. I felt so inadequate that "everybody" else seemed to be able to feed their baby yet I was struggling so much. I felt so guilty that I felt a deep and intense dread every time she became hungry. I hadn't realised how personally I would take it - it really cut into me that I was experiencing this when I just wanted to be able to feed Eden comfortably. For this reason I wanted to share this for anybody who might be feeling the same way.

On a side note, after we had drastically improved our breastfeeding journey, we later found out Eden had a slight tongue tie which most likely impacted her latch to some degree in the beginning. We didn't need treatment as her tongue mobility is still good and we were no longer experiencing issues feeding, but if you are having similar problems it's really worth speaking to multiple midwives as several of ours checked for tongue tie with Eden and told us that she didn't have it (understandably, it was harder to pick up as it was only slight.)

If you're one of the lucky ones who has had a very easy ride of it and can't understand why some people go on about it, then I'm envious! For any vegan mamas out there, I would love to know if you have any vegan breast cream recommendations. I was gutted to have ended up using a lanolin based cream this time, but my rationale was that it meant I could keep breastfeeding and that given the choice I'd rather use a small tube of non-vegan cream than have to change to continually using non-vegan formula. In the end, I just did the very best that I could - I'm a proud Leo and I didn't want to give in so I dug my heels in and fortunately things improved before it all got too much. After all, I'd desperately wanted to breastfeed as it was always my goal from a health perspective as well as financially and ethically (as soya formula isn't recommended before 6 months.) I feel very lucky, and now proud, that Eden's only ever had my milk and I'm so glad I persevered with feeding her. Now we have really lovely feeds together - it's very bonding and special. However, it's important to note that I genuinely do believe that fed is best - every mama and baby is different and our story could easily have been really quite different. Did you breastfeed, or would you plan to?

*Please note this post contains affiliate links to items that made a huge difference to me, this post is not sponsored and all opinions are my own.

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