It’s two months today since my little man came into this world. Two months since my waters breaking triggered a learning curve of even bigger proportions than I could have ever prepared for.
Nine weeks in and I feel like I’m finally beginning to find my feet and feel like myself again, which after the experiences I have had is kind of a surprise - I am surprised at my own ability to bounce back so quickly from the events of the past few months. But then underestimating my own strength has always been one of my flaws.
Things didn’t go to plan with my labour. Not at all. It was really tough, and I don’t think I truly realised how tough until I left the hospital and the adrenaline wore off. It was then that the trauma along with the infamous third day tears hit me like a train. It all began with my waters breaking dramatically one Wednesday night and concluded in an emergency C section 25 hours later. My hopes of a calm environment in a birthing pool were smashed to smithereens. So was my confidence. But I don’t feel ready to write about it in detail yet. Maybe I never will, or maybe with time it will be something I will want to share. At this point however, I feel more of a draw to share my experiences since, because that has been a bigger test in a lot of ways.
As I sit here typing with my son in my arms, I look back over the last nine weeks and feel a real sense of pride. I wouldn’t change the decisions I made - I made them for the right reasons and for the good of me and Jack. They weren’t easy decisions to make, and when you work outside of the norm like I have it can be lonely because people struggle to relate (which is where well-intentioned but nonetheless unsolicited advice can be offered long after the decision has been made).
So this post is not only cathartic for me to write, but may also serve to educate, and potentially help any new mums or mums to be out there to see that sometimes doing things your way really is an option.
You’d think it would be easy, right? That’s certainly what you might think - it’s natural and babies have a natural instinct to find the breast and latch on. Right?
Well yes-ish. But does that statement take into account the Western world and medicine in the 21st century? No, I don’t think it does. Those of you who have been pregnant or are trying to get pregnant have likely been advised to take Folic Acid. However, what many people are not told is that this can cause tongue tie in babies, meaning in some cases that they cannot properly latch on. In my (non-professional but personal) opinion this must surely be a big reason for (or at least a big contributer to) the breastfeeding rates in this country being so low. I have been surprised by how many people have never heard of tongue tie and have given up breastfeeding then felt like they were failing in the process. In the hospital where Jack was born they didn’t seem to know how to check for it and it was only because Lee and I had been made aware of it that we then knew to look into it when Jack couldn’t seem to latch on.
So began a stressful few weeks. As Jack was a big baby (9lb2oz at birth) it meant that he needed a fair amount of sustenance from the word go. It can take a few days for your milk to come in but for those who have a C section it can be up to a week. So what do you do in the meantime if the hospital won’t let you go home until you can feed your baby but you have no milk and no one wants to give you any advice?
In recent years the Royal College of Midwives has had to relax its approach to breastfeeding due to the huge pressure (and resulting mental health issues) felt by new mums to breast feed at any cost. However, this attitude towards breastfeeding still remains, and in my experience, midwives in hospitals are genuinely afraid to suggest giving a baby formula. This does then leave a new mum in need of support and guidance stuck between a rock and a hard place, and it left me feeling lost and frustrated after a traumatic and painful birth experience. It was then that Lee and I felt that we had no choice but to give Jack formula. The hours I had spent painstakingly hand expressing colostrum (what you produce before your milk comes in for those not in the know) into several syringes to feed him with in the hospital room simply wasn’t enough. Ironically it wasn’t until we had made the decision to feed with formula that we were actually allowed to go home. Once we were home from the hospital, several days of me trying and trying to get Jack to latch on only for us both to end up frustrated and upset took their toll. We had no option but to feed him formula as we had to ensure he didn’t lose too much weight and started gaining back what he had lost post-birth. (Babies always lose a little weight in the days after birth).
Five days after Jack was born we had him checked and he indeed had a tongue tie. Luckily we were able to have it cut on the spot, hard though it was to put him through. Poor Lee helped the midwife hold him in the bedroom while I cried next door. It seemed to improve things for a short time, but when he breast fed he never seemed to pull down enough milk so would never settle as he was still hungry. One night I breast fed him for 4 hours and he was still hungry so it was very apparent he wasn’t feeding properly. The midwife who had cut his tongue tie recommended a hospital grade breast pump which we invested in immediately. At well over £100 it wasn’t cheap but we were prepared to try anything at this stage to get my milk supply up or just express some breast milk for our little guy. It is well known that there are health benefits for your baby if you are able to give them breast milk, and some women and babies are complete naturals at breastfeeding, but for some of us it is far harder or just not possible, and no woman should be made to feel a failure regarding what she is or isn't able to do.
I can’t recall exactly when I made the decision to exclusively pump and bottle feed breast milk (to be honest, the first few weeks of Jack’s existence are a bit of a blur looking back), but suddenly it seemed like the obvious answer. I could give Jack what he needed and ensure he was full without distress to my child or a serious hit to my mental health and confidence. I battled with it for some time. I felt so lost and on my own with my experience and sought the advice of several of my friends in the hope that the answer would become clear - I had wanted so badly to breast feed, but getting there would have potentially meant feeding every hour through the night and effectively making my baby go hungry just to make him less lazy. I knew I couldn't do that. All the while I was also trying to recover from major abdominal surgery and was being told to take it easy and rest so something had to give. There was also no guarantee that if I did push through and try to make Jack feed from me by letting him go hungry that it would even work. His demand for milk was high and I couldn’t bear the thought of him screaming in hunger and becoming more distressed just for a principle. It felt selfish on my part. It felt like it wasn’t for the greater good but to make me feel better about myself and feel like I hadn’t failed as a woman. So I tried to let it go and focused on pumping the milk for him.
At the beginning I was pumping 8 times a day which when you consider that you also have to find the time to feed, change and burp a newborn every 2 hours, is incredibly hard work. It effectively doubles your workload and that in itself can be incredibly draining. I definitely wouldn't have been able to continue with it without the support of Lee and our families and friends. However, I didn’t even think of about how much more work it was compared to others until I was having lunch with some of my NCT friends and someone said to me how incredible it was. It was only at that point that I started to look at what I was doing as more of an achievement than a failure. Against the odds I had found a way of sustaining Jack and it felt amazing.
However, the difficult part to that was the isolation. I’m the only one in my group of 7 NCT mums who has done things this way, and the only person I know who has either. So it does sometimes make it difficult when you talk to people about it as it seems that they often assume you haven’t tried things. Thats when the unsolicited advice comes in which is always well intended but when you have just been saying how proud you are of how far you’ve come, then someone chimes in with “Have you tried....” it can be frustrating. It makes you feel unsupported in your decision even though you know people are just trying to help. It’s at times like that I wish people were in my shoes for a minute to see that I didn’t just give up and that it has taken immense mental strength and determination to keep pumping. I had to try though, for Jack and for me. I needed to know that I had done all I could to give him my milk, even if it was just for a short time. I’m so very glad I did. It has been gruelling and at times a bit soul destroying sitting up at all hours of the night milking myself like a cow, but it has been worth it. My milk production has turned out to be huge and my baby is chunky and happy and thriving. I look at his chubby little cheeks and thighs and feel immensely proud of what I have done. He was the penultimate birth in a group of 7 babies from our NCT group and is the biggest. One of the babies is a month older! So that isn’t a brag about my bubba being the biggest, but a statement of pride that I have managed to keep up with his demand, and kept him happy whilst preserving my own mental health and giving myself the chance to recover too. I now see what I have done for my son as an act of love, because I took a far harder route than I could have done.
My particular experience seems to be quite rare in a lot of ways - no one told me when I was pregnant that “exclusive pumping” as it is known was even an option, and no one really talks about us “EP-ers” - we aren’t really considered because we don’t fit into the category of bottle or breast feeding, so when asked how you are feeding you feel you have to justify it. The response to it can sometimes be quite demoralising too as you can often be perceived as having given up too easily.
So spare a thought for the ladies who take a different route or approach in feeding their child, however they do it. Chances are they have tried everything and haven’t made their decision without tears or agony behind closed doors. Support them in their decisions and let them know that they are awesome. Words of positivity and encouragement could be just what they need to hear at a difficult time.
And to new mums I say, stand strong in your decisions. It can be a scary and intimidating time and often you are shell-shocked and exhausted. But this is your child, your sanity and your story. Do what is best for you both. Only you know what that is.
*Since writing this post I am very pleased to report that I have discovered countless support groups on Facebook for exclusively pumping mums, the existence of which is a huge source of comfort. It just goes to show that sometimes it’s worth reaching out to others - there is bound to be someone who shares your experience and needs comfort too. :) x