I wanted to breastfeed my first child, but not having been around breastfeeding as a child, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to. My mother was unable to breastfeed my sister or me, and my sister had trouble breastfeeding her first as well. So I thought, “I’ll try.” I booked in for the free breastfeeding seminar offered by the hospital on 20 November 2010. With an EDD of 3 December, I thought I would have time to process the information and prepare myself adequately.
My daughter had other ideas. On Thursday, 18 November I went into labour spontaneously. It was fast and furious, and she arrived in 5.5 hours. She went straight onto my chest and screamed her lungs out for the first 45 minutes of life on the outside. I am not kidding, I was waiting for that mythical “mutual gaze” – all I could see when I gazed lovingly (perplexedly) down at my infant daughter was a pair of eyes screwed shut and a mouth wide open, yelling about the indignity of suddenly being thrust into the world.
After Amelia calmed down enough to give me an appraising look, the midwife suggested we try to breastfeed, and asked if I’d like some help. I made a joke about missing the class, and, thinking she’d explain the basics, agreed to her help. She grabbed my breast in one hand and my daughter’s head in the other, and brought them together without ceremony. Amelia fed for a short time, and then started to doze. We went to get weighed and tagged. The midwife showed us to our room and said to come back to the nursery at her next feed. “When should I feed her again?” I asked. “When she wakes up,” came the reply.
Amelia, probably exhausted by her fast birth and subsequent performance, proceeded to sleep for 5 hours. When she woke, I wheeled her down to the nursery and got roundly chastised for leaving it so long between feeds. I explained that the midwife had told me to feed her when she woke. The nurse tutted and said that I shouldn’t leave a newborn more than three hours between feeds. I felt sheepish and shamed by my lack of knowledge.
I found that every time I went to the nursery, I was met with a different nurse who had different ideas about breastfeeding. There were also a lot of women struggling with engorgement and oversupply and the pain and distress they bring, so my quiet confusion went unnoticed for a couple of days. It didn’t hurt particularly, not even close to the vacuum-like suction that I’d heard about, so I assumed things were going okay. My baby was sleeping in between feeds, and everyone says a hungry baby won’t sleep, right?
At a weigh-in, it became evident that all was not well. Amelia was losing weight and becoming jaundiced. I was introduced to the hospital grade double pump, and when I could only express tiny amounts of breastmilk, formula top ups were given. By this stage, my hormones were going nuts and I felt absolutely miserable. I loved this tiny girl with every fibre of my being as was desperate to breastfeed her. We stayed an extra night in hospital, and my milk finally started to come in on day 5, when I was discharged. I was sent home with a plan to express after each feed, top up with formula, and come back later that week for a weigh in. I felt a lot better going home, where we could start to adjust to our new life as a small family. My husband and I got into a routine of feeding, changing, topping up, settling, expressing, sterilising … aaaaand repeat.
I went back to the hospital for the weigh in. I was thrilled to see that Amelia had gained a fair amount of weight, but despite the fact that she wasn’t yet back to her birth weight, the nurse quite rudely said I was overfeeding her and to stop it! I was so embarrassed – the weigh in was conducted in the hospital education room and there were a lot of people there with their babies. The nurse wrote a plan in the baby book and told me to call if I had any issues. I called her later that day and left a message but my call was never returned. I bumbled along on my own.
Eventually, after a couple of exhausted weeks, I made it to exclusive breastfeeding. Outstanding! I was so proud of myself, and of my little girl. However, shortly before Christmas, I started getting a lot of pain in my left breast when I fed on that side. I contacted a public lactation consultant. She did a home visit, for which I was very grateful, but she did pretty much what the nurses at hospital did – watched my daughter latch, and said, “It looks alright. Does it hurt? No? Well then you’re fine.” I called her again after a couple of days as the pain continued and she told me to try nipple shields, and that she was going on holidays for a few weeks. I tried the nipple shields and spent Christmas in an awkward, exhausted blur.
I wanted to enjoy my baby’s first Christmas but it really was overshadowed by the problems I was having with breastfeeding. I also felt unsupported by my family and I regret not having the guts to a) feed in public and b) take my baby back to feed her when she needed to be fed rather than letting her be passed around like a parcel. I ended up eating a cold Christmas dinner with my husband as my family handed her back, hungry, then started the meal without us.
Shortly after the new year, Amelia hit her six-week growth spurt. I was trying so hard to keep up with her, but she was always hungry. Keeping her awake at the breast was a constant struggle. She was not thriving and I was miserable. I was back on the merry-go-round of feeding, changing, topping up, settling, expressing, sterilising … aaaaand repeat. I was expressing very little so the top ups were mostly formula. My husband was so supportive through all of this and encouraged me to keep going, but whenever I spoke to my Mum or sister, they suggested that I just give her a bottle to give myself a break. One night, exhausted, broken, I did. She slept. I cried.
I started topping up with formula exclusively – mixed feeding, I suppose. Amelia started to refuse the breast, and I didn’t have the energy to fight her on it. The day she was eight weeks, she latched on, dropped off, and gave me a look as if to say, “We both know you’re going to give me the bottle anyway. Can we just skip this part?” I was shattered, but tried to find solace in the fact that I now had more time and energy to really enjoy my little girl.
At her six week check up, the paediatrician found a slight murmur in Amelia’s heart. He referred her to a paediatric cardiologist. It transpired that she had two small VSDs – Ventricular Septal Defects – tiny holes in her heart. It didn’t occur to me at the time that they were the likely culprit for her sleepiness and weak suck.
When I fell pregnant with our second daughter, I joined the Australian Breastfeeding Association and started reading. I can highly recommend The Breastfeeding Mother’s Guide to Making More Milk and ABA’s Breastfeeding, Naturally. I started to understand what went wrong with Amelia, that it was not my fault and certainly not hers. I refuse to lay blame, but I understand now that I did not have the support that I needed at the time. Part of the problem was that staff in the hospital offered conflicting messages and were frequently overrun, and the other part was that I was too embarrassed to seek the help I needed.
Another thing I learned was why my Mum was unable to breastfeed me. She had long shared the stories that a) I had a suck like a Hoover but her milk never came in and b) she had retained placenta after I was born. However, we never connected these two important facts. According to The Breastfeeding Mother’s Guide to Making More Milk, it is highly likely that retained placenta can stop the necessary hormonal messages being sent to trigger milk production. This snippet of information lifted a HUGE weight off my shoulders. I went from thinking, “I will try again,” to “I WILL breastfeed this child.” I knew that my body could make milk, I knew to avoid formula comps and to wake baby if s/he slept too long, and I knew to bloody well get help if I needed it.
My breastfeeding journey shows that knowledge is power. Confidence has a lot to do with it. It is hard when people ask, “how much does she eat?” as it is immeasurable. I just shrug now and say, “As much as she wants.” And here we are. Six months on, and my second daughter is still exclusively breastfed. My first daughter is no different to her friends who were fully breastfed. She is smart, sweet and outgoing, and I am accepting of the fact that I did not breastfeed her past eight weeks. I encourage women to breastfeed – assume that you can, and seek help if you feel you are experiencing problems.