I’m not sure whether our breast feeding journey got off to the best of starts. We certainly got feeding as quickly as Thomas’s caesarean delivery would allow. But part of the problem was that it needed to be quick as a result of my type 1 diabetes. Although Thomas didn’t officially have low blood sugars after birth, he was certainly at risk of them without adequate feeding in those first few hours. So once we arrived back to the Delivery Suite from theatre, I found my breasts being fairly unceremoniously manhandled by a midwife. A chunk of boob in one hand, Thomas’s head in the other, she just sort of smooshed them together until, as if by magic, he was feeding.
It didn’t hurt at all. It was an odd sensation, unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. And I was enjoying it. Lying there with the bare skin of my baby boy against my own bare skin as I provided for him exactly what he needed.
But I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. It was all credit to him and his instinct to suck. I was pretty much paralysed to the spot, afraid to move in case I disturbed him or dislodged him. When he did pop off, I tried to shift him round to feed from the other side but I couldn’t figure out how to get him positioned to bring the appropriate parts together. Once again, the midwife was required to perform some magic.
Thomas got exactly what he needed, but I learned nothing about how to actually breast feed. And so began the struggles which would plague me over the next couple of days and nights on the post-natal ward where I would try, often to the point of tears, to bring him on to my breast myself to feed. When I tried to latch him he’d often swing from failing to open his mouth at all (and no amount of cheek stroking worked to remedy this, despite everyone telling me that it was a “reflex”) to wailing so loudly that he wouldn’t close his mouth around my breast. I started to get stressed about each feed, fearing it would be a battle ground and that I wouldn’t get adequate milk in to him. I was desperate to escape the hospital and get home, but anxious that I’d be unable to feed him without a midwife to physically help. I was equally desperate not to give up, and to avoid giving formula milk. In addition to my lack of knowledge and experience, Thomas was also a lazy feeder. He’d frequently fall asleep on the breast and require some stripping off, or intense cheek rubbing to get him going again. I had no idea what his “hunger” cues were, and no idea whether I was offering too much, or not often enough, and whether that lay at the root of our problems. I felt lost, performing a task that I couldn’t really master but which I wanted to do more than anything.
The situation didn’t seem to be helped by the fact that my milk came in pretty early. By the morning of the 12th, less than 48 hours after birth, I woke up swollen and bursting. Latching on to my breast suddenly became like latching on to a beach ball, and Thomas seemed to struggle even more. Now I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t master my half of the process. By the end of that day my nipples were red raw and agonisingly painful.
I think without my desperate desire to go home, we could still have been there now trying to crack feeding. It reached a point where so many different midwives had attempted to help me that I was becoming overwhelmed with “advice”. Somehow I managed to cobble together an approximation of the most effective methods of getting him latched that I’d seen others perform with my breasts and my baby. It involved more physical force than felt natural, but I managed three good feeds completely independently and we were finally free to go. What I didn’t admit was that throughout each feed it felt like someone was scrubbing my nipples with sandpaper. It was so far from the “natural, easy and painless” experience that all the books and breast feeding
propaganda literature promised that I already felt like a failure despite the obvious fact that I was managing to get milk in to my son.
The early days at home are a bit of a blur, even though they’re so recent. I know that I spent a lot of time feeding. I know that I spent a lot of time crying in pain, and that I used a lot of lanolin. I spent a lot of time with my bra off, as my nipples were suddenly permanently erect, and the sensation of fabric rubbing against them was unbearable. Possibly my lowest moment was when I looked at my son and noticed he had blood on his lips. Blood that was coming from my nipples. Then, on day six, I had a meltdown resulting in me calling the midwife out to see me.
It was after that that something suddenly cracked. I still don’t know exactly what it was, but by day eight, I was confident enough to tackle my first out-of-the-house breast feed, at a restaurant table. To say it suddenly got easy would be absolutely lying. Sometimes I still feel like it’s a wrestling match, rather than an act of nurture. Thomas often seems to choke and cough and pull away during feeding. He sometimes still screams so much around feeding time that I have no idea how to manage him. But the dread before each feed has faded and I’ve even began to enjoy feeding. I’ve figured out a way to have a spare hand and started doing things like reading a book whilst also feeding. It still hurts, but rather than being an ongoing pain throughout the feed, it’s become a few moments of toe-curling agony as he latches on, which is a much more bearable situation. I’m still slathering on the lanolin by the bucketload. But it has become easier.
It’s still not approaching the natural partnership that so many sources seem to promise. And at the moment I can’t see beyond the next feed. I have absolutely no belief in the fact that I can keep this up to anything like six months unless it gets easier still, but I feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility to provide food for my son. I’m still as determined as ever not to give formula until it is the only remaining option. With that in mind, I’m off to my first breast feeding support group meeting tomorrow morning to look for more advice. I really want this to work. I want tis to be the beginning of a long journey, not the beginning of the end.