When I was pregnant with my first baby I knew I wanted to breastfeed, or at least try, and despite an antenatal course and reading quite a few books I was completely unprepared for how hard breastfeeding would be. Of course this isn’t the case for everyone. But I think a lot of mums struggle in the early days, and the stats would suggest I wasn’t alone in nearly giving up; the UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in Europe, with the vast majority attempting to breastfeed and then stopping by the time the baby is six weeks old (Unicef.org). There is a lot of guilt surrounding swapping to bottle feeding, and a lot of pressure to breastfeed, but support can be patchy. And perhaps we haven’t normalised the fact that it is tricky to master; it’s something both mum and baby need practice at. The narrative surrounding breastfeeding is often focused on how beneficial it is, and how natural. While this is undoubtedly true, it’s also something that can take time and perseverance. If we only talk about how magical it is, and partner it with pictures of a mum sipping herbal tea in soft lighting while the baby placidly and discreetly feeds under a soft John Lewis muslin, the reality will be a shock. And the reality can be messy, painful, embarrassing, and difficult.
My labour was difficult and long, ending with an emergency c section that wasn’t hoping or prepared for. So I don’t really remember the first time I breastfed Francis, in a haze of drugs and sheer exhaustion. I do remember the midwife saying the latch wasn’t quite right but I didn’t take much notice. The baby had stopped screaming and I didn’t feel any pain so I thought; it doesn’t matter if the latch isn’t perfect. When I left hospital the next day I had already started off badly with feeding. The latch, I now realise, is everything. Get it wrong and you’re in for a world of hurt – and wrong it was. I wish I’d taken more time to research the latch (there’s some brilliant videos on this on YouTube). I had mistakenly thought that since breastfeeding was natural I would just instinctively know how to do it, and so would the baby. So I ended up with toe-curling agony every time he fed, and I got really sore. I went through tubes of Lanolin but nothing helped. I used to dread every feed, my nipples bled, and I wanted to just give up.
The early days are tough for lots of reasons and breastfeeding can be a big part of that. I didn’t want to give up but I hated every feed. And the feeds were constant; I felt like the baby was permanently attached to me, I barely had time to do anything else even shower or eat, or have a hot cup of tea. I now know that the frequency of feeding was normal, and he was getting my supply level up, but back then the sheer amount of time I spent feeding felt overwhelming. The night feeds were every couple of hours, and even though I knew that babies mess with your sleep, actually living it was different. I felt like I was drowning and I was tired all the time. I hated having to put little pads inside my bra because of the milk leaking, and even getting in the right position to feed was tricky when I was recovering from a c section. Luckily my husband was so supportive that I managed to carry on, and slowly I began to adjust the latch, my supply got better, the time between feeds grew and it got a bit easier.
Those early days of breastfeeding were pretty awful and I didn’t enjoy much of it. But looking back I’m so glad I carried on; feeding got easier, Frank was thriving, and the day to day pros of breastfeeding started to kick in. The milk regulated itself so I could happily throw away the bra pads, and I started to become more confident. If I could go back I’d approach breastfeeding like a new skill; I’d research latching, feeding positions, mastitis; I’d read more and be ready for a challenge. I’ve got lots more to say about breastfeeding as I continued to feed Francis, and then his younger brother, but for any new mums out there struggling; you’re not alone. And of course there is nothing wrong with formula or bottle feeding – you should never feel guilty for the way you feed your baby. As long as you’re happy they will be too. Breastfeeding is really challenging, sometimes impossible, so don’t give yourself a hard time for making choices that are best for your family.