My breastfeeding struggle – for those who are struggling too

Tips for new mums who are finding breastfeeding difficult, from my own experience

Apparently, in the USA, August is National Breastfeeding Month. I’ve read some really interesting posts about feeding and I thought I would share my own story along with a few thoughts I have that might help someone just starting out on their baby feeding journey and who is perhaps finding it difficult.

When I was pregnant with my first baby, I was a bit complacent about breastfeeding. I’d read all the literature saying that “breast is best” and that it’s easier than formula feeding, and it was never really a decision for me. I just planned to breastfeed and assumed it was as simple as that.

But then real life sent me for a loop. At 10 days overdue, there was evidence of meconium in my waters, and so they induced labour. I laboured for 20 hours but ended up with an emergency caesarean. At first, I was put on the ward with my new baby, and I couldn’t get him to latch despite lots of help from the nurses there. Then, suddenly, they whisked him away to special care. It turns out he had pneumonia, probably from breathing in some of the meconium-stained waters. So he ended up in a different ward from me, in a plastic box with extra oxygen and antibiotics.

I was then encouraged to pump some milk to be fed to my son through a feeding tube put in his nostril. However, milk doesn’t come in as quickly after a caesarean, and the breast pump did nothing. One of the nurses suggested that we try hand expressing colostrum into a syringe. At 3am she helped me painfully and painstakingly squeeze my nipple (that’s right, another woman was squeezing my nipple – no dignity for new mums) until a tiny bit of “yellow gold” leaked out into the syringe. I was then expected to do my post-caesarean shuffle all the way to the other ward to deliver the infection-fighting stuff to my little one. I did this every couple of hours for 3 nights that seemed like an eternity.

Later, when he was well enough to be moved into a room with me, I spent countless hours trying to get him to latch without success. He failed to gain any weight, and they suggested top-up feeds in order to get some food into him. They also suggested I try nipple shields, to make my rather flat nipples stick out more so that baby couldn’t get some purchase on them. The combination of these two tools were the magic bullet for us – he gained weight, got better, and we were able to go home. At home, we carried on with breastfeeding using nipple shields and kept up the formula top-ups. My health visitor told me that our breastfeeding was doomed because my breasts wouldn’t get enough stimulation using the shields and the top-ups would affect my supply.

But she was wrong! At 3 months old, my son figured out how to nurse without the nipple shields. We then carried on with the mixed feeding and ended up breastfeeding until he was 18 months old, albeit not exclusively.

Because of this ultimate success in building a breastfeeding relationship with my first son, I was overconfident again when it came to my second. When I brought him home from hospital, he was too sleepy to feed. I initiated formula top-ups, but then the midwife that came to visit me told me that if I used top-ups I would never be able to establish breastfeeding with him. She recommended I stick with exclusive breastfeeding and, unfortunately, I listened to her. By the time another midwife came to visit a couple of days later, my son had lost weight and was becoming dangerously dehydrated. We ended up back in special care with my son in a plastic box and me chained to a breast pump, just like with my first!

We were sent home after a few days doing top-up feeds, but I was finding his latch so painful that I was sobbing every time we tried to breastfeed. I was so disappointed in myself for not being able to do it after I’d ultimately managed it with my first. I decided to move to exclusive bottle-feeding, to use mostly formula and to keep expressing breastmilk until my supply ran out (as I was assured by many it soon would). However, somehow the act of taking the pressure off myself changed things, and when I decided to try breastfeeding again a few days later, he latched. And we were away. Our breastfeeding relationship lasted until he was 16 months.

So as you can see, it was a struggle for me, and I really feel for every single mum out there trying to feed her baby. No matter what you do, it feels like someone else thinks you’re doing it wrong. So here are a few tips for new mums trying to feed their babies, gleaned from my personal experience. They might not resonate with everyone, but if they help even one mum not feel overwhelmed with guilt for her feeding situation, it has been worth sharing:

  • While there is scientific evidence to say that breastmilk is best for babies, the best thing for babies is to be fed! Get food into your baby any way you can. Breastfeeding, expressing & bottle feeding, using nipple shields, formula feeding, whatever. It’s your body and your baby and don’t let anyone guilt you.
  • Many lactation counsellors, midwives, nurses and health visitors will give you great advice, but some might not. Their advice is not the end all and be all. Go with your gut. If you don’t agree with some advice you receive, don’t follow it blindly (like I did with my second son).
  • There is a lot of advice out there that says that things like nipple shields, exclusively expressing & bottle feeding, and top-up feeds mean that your breastmilk supply will drop and you will ultimately have to stop. I’m living proof that this isn’t necessarily true! If any of these tools help you carry on breastfeeding, even if it’s only once a day from just one boob, then that is just fantastic.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I’ve had some wonderful advice from NCT lactation consultants, and there are loads of breastfeeding support groups out there where you can meet mums going through similar things. Ask your local children’s centre or health visitor for details. Sometimes a sympathetic ear can be the thing that keeps you going. 
  • Let go of the mum guilt. Us mums are guilt machines. But you are doing your best. I know because you’re here on the internet looking for help.
  • Formula has everything your baby needs. If ultimately you are unable to establish breastfeeding, or for whatever reason you stop sooner than you had hoped to, your baby is going to be just fine. You haven’t “failed”. You have been on your own unique feeding journey and moved on from breastfeeding at the time that was right for you. If you encounter any haters, tune them out
  • Finally, one last thing I wish someone had prepared me for: breastfeeding can be as difficult to stop as it is to start. If, like me, you end up breastfeeding for quite a while, ending breastfeeding starts to feel like a huge step. What if baby won’t sleep anymore without nursing first? When is the right time to stop? Just the act of reducing breastfeeds can send your hormones haywire. I was incredibly emotional both times I stopped, crying constantly for no apparent reason. Don’t be afraid to go back to a lactation consultant at this time to get support as you wind down the feeding.

So there’s my little contribution. I hope someone might find it useful. Remember, they’re your boobs, it’s your baby, and you’re the boss!

I would love to hear your feeding stories in the comments. What was best and worst? What helped you?

Keep Calm and Carry On Linking Sunday