Sunday, 11 October 2015

Throwing in the muslin

"Oh. Well that's a shame." The health visitor sucked her teeth with a look of matronly disappointment as she noted down my confession in the red book.  I winced inwardly, telling myself that it could have been a lot worse.

I had desperately wanted to breastfeed, and always assumed it was a foregone conclusion.  Antenatal classes talked about it as the most important thing you could do for your baby, and questions were breezily batted away.  Low milk supply?  Exceptionally rare.  Latching problems? Always surmountable.  We were sold an idealistic vision of all of our babies arriving bright and alert and knowing exactly what they needed to do to relieve their hunger.

Unfortunately this wasn't my reality.  When my daughter arrived she was three weeks early, a pound lighter than she should have been and soon to develop jaundice, while her mother was exhausted, drugged up and physically and emotionally raw after an emergency c section.  That blissful postnatal feed didn't happen, and I watched, frustrated and immobile, as a nurse bundled her away to administer Aptamil.

By the end of a five-day hospital stay, despite the amazing support from the hospital staff, we'd got nowhere.  I'd watched as my tiny, scarlet daughter, bawling with hunger, had been trussed up, flipped and flung at me during fruitless attempts to get her to latch.  On day three, when my milk came in, excitement quickly evaporated when using a breast pump for over an hour had resulted in a pitiful dribble of milk that could only be given to her by oral syringe.

In the weeks that followed, my husband and I did everything we could to build on the minimal progress already made.  We became regulars at breastfeeding clinics, invested in all the lactatory paraphernalia they recommended, from pumps to shields to fenugreek tea.  I hit my lowest ebb when half an hour hooked up to a breast pump under the supervision of a lactation consultant and health visitor produced no milk, sending me weeping back to my husband and baby.

Feeds were fraught and prolonged: latching attempts, feeding dwindling amounts of expressed milk followed by Aptamil, more expressing and an inevitable sterilising marathon before the next feed came round.  I found myself increasingly distressed and desperate to put my daughter down as soon as possible after each feed so that I could find the time to express, usually no more than 15 ml a time.

Throughout all this, I was told by almost every health professional I saw that persevering would pay off, that eventually I would be able to dispense with formula feeding altogether.  A community midwife dismissed my questions about buying a bottle warmer with: 'Well you'll be exclusively breastfeeding soon so why waste your money?", even though our session had almost exclusively focused on my failure so far.  No-one addressed my concerns that, despite our best efforts, my milk supply wasn't going up, and probably 90 per cent of my daughter's intake on a good day was already formula.

It was only when I went to the six week check and was reassured by the GP that actually the well-being of mother and baby is paramount that I felt an immense weight lifted, and moved to exclusive formula feeding within a week.  Suddenly I didn't dread the moments when my daughter, fist in mouth, indicated she was hungry.  We settled into an easy routine of feeds at home and on the go, with plenty of time afterwards for cuddles and play rather than making friends with my breast pump instead of my baby.

I applaud those who breastfeed, and this article is by no means trying to pit that brigade against those who bottle it.  All I ask is that before people judge, they understand that many formula feeding mums have gone above and beyond in trying to breastfeed their baby before conceding that for whatever reason it isn't happening.  While health visitors et al are doing an admirable job in getting those that can to persevere and achieving some major successes, I feel that some fail to spot the signs that a mother, after weeks of trying, should be told that it might be ok to make the switch.  That, whether a baby feeds from a nipple or teat, all that really matters is that they're happy and healthy, and strongly bonded with a mother who is doing the best she can.