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'Mastitis, Not Cystitis!' A Story For National Breastfeeding Month 2014

12/08/2014 14:18 BST | Updated 12/10/2014 10:59 BST

It scares me to think that back when I was editor of a parenting magazine in the UK - long before I had even thought about becoming a parent myself - I used to write articles about subject matters as personal as breastfeeding.

This is truly a terrifying thought and I can only hope that my ramblings on how "breast is best" didn't offend any mothers who were battling with their own breastfeeding demons at the time. For those who did have the misfortune of reading one of my very shortsighted pieces, I can only apologise and hope you have somehow stumbled across this blog post.

It is only now - eight years after working on the parenting mag and almost seven months as a breastfeeding mother - that I can really appreciate how sensitive and complex the topic of breastfeeding is.

Sure, breastfeeding is best, in fact it's the best - once you find your groove - but for many, including me and my daughter Esme, it takes time to establish and it most definitely was not just a case of latching on and away we go, happy days. In fact, before I had her, I had no clue about the turn my own breastfeeding journey would take, which is probably a good thing.

Despite having the breezy attitude throughout pregnancy that I would "give breastfeeding a go if I'm able to," I never really believed that there would be any reason why I wouldn't be able to. I mean, how could there be any problems with feeding a baby this way? It's "the most natural thing in the world." And it is, but as I now know, it's far from straightforward.

I didn't have any idea of the hurdles I would be faced with either. You see, when Esme was born, she was a screamer, or "a diva" as the midwife politely put it. In fact, she screamed so much that getting her to latch on proved difficult. So, after several attempts under the bright lights of the delivery room, Esme was wrapped up and whipped off to a private and dimly lit room for some calm time with my husband.

When I joined them a short time later, she did eventually latch on with on a lot of help from the midwife, but it was only briefly before having to be put back on again and boy was it painful! "You should feel a pull rather than a pinch," the midwife said. "Uh huh," I nodded through gritted teeth. Maybe my definition of 'pinch' is a bit off, I thought.

That first night was all about getting Esme to latch on. During that time, I was visited by three different midwives, one of whom decided that the solution was to throw on some nipple shields. To be honest, these did nothing for either of us, but I remained as breezy and cool as ever about the whole thing, nodding and smiling and wondering why the hell it hurt so goddamn much.

The next midwife to check on us that night was horrified, however, when she saw the shields lying on the side, and I suddenly felt ashamed for using them - as if I had cheated and failed at breastfeeding already. Once again, with a lot of midwife help, Esme latched on (minus the shields) and off we went - another 20 or so minutes of eye-watering pain.

The lactation consultant came in to see me the next morning and by this point I was a mess - but only on the inside. I didn't want anyone to think that I couldn't cope with 'the most natural thing in the world', so I did my best to hide the cracks and bleeding that I had acquired after a night of hit-and-miss latching. Between the two of us, Esme and I didn't really have a clue what we were doing, but we made a damn good job of looking like we did. "This can't be your first baby, feeding away like that. Not a bother the pair of you," said one of the nurses, unaware that it was hurting like hell.

That second night in hospital I will always remember as The Cluster Night. I had been told about cluster feeding, but didn't really believe that a baby could feed so much... I was in for a shock. Every time I took her off she would roar, but putting her back on was agony - I couldn't win, I couldn't do this, but I had to, I wanted to! After seven hours I was exhausted - enough was enough, I HAD to sleep. I asked for Esme to be taken to the nursery so I could get some rest, but just 20 minutes later she was wheeled back through to haphazardly latch on some more.

Back at home and we were yet to find our groove with breastfeeding. Sure, we looked the business - "You're a natural!" guests would say - and I was loving looking the part, but little did they know what I was hiding underneath that nursing bra. It was not pretty, people. The right side was worse off, so I compensated and began to nurse only from the left, which is how I ended up getting mastitis - something I had heard about but thought was one of those things that nobody really got.

Shivering with fever and writhing from the pain of engorgement, I called my Public Health Nurse. She is brilliant (I got lucky in the PHN lottery) and diagnosed me straight away. Under her instruction, I got an appointment with the GP to get antibiotics that would help clear the infection and in the meantime, she told me to nurse through the pain because that was the best and fastest way to clear the blockage.

"You have cystitis?" asked the GP, who looked as though he should have retired a long time ago. "MASTITIS!" I shouted back. He handed me a prescription and then said, very matter-of-factly, "You must stop breastfeeding immediately. Your baby needs to be bottle fed from now on so make sure you stop at the supermarket on the way home to buy formula."

I was totally confused and also pretty devastated. My PHN had not only told me it was safe to continue breastfeeding while taking the antibiotics, but also specifically said not to stop. "No, absolutely not, continuing is the worst thing you could do," the doctor argued. Even expressing until the mastitis had cleared was apparently out of the question. I wasn't ready to stop breastfeeding and certainly not because I was being told to, so I Googled frantically and gave my PHN a call. Both confirmed that stopping would be the worst thing to do.

Getting mastitis was far from ideal (obviously), but it all turned out peachy in the end. By telling me to stop, the GP actually gave me the fight to carry on and decide that I was going to stop breastfeeding when I wanted to, not when I was told to. Plus, giving Esme her first bottle at two weeks old meant that she became a pro at switching between the two, which gave my husband chance to bond with her at feeding time.

It took about six weeks and two bouts of mastitis later before things really calmed down, during which time I combined fed so I could heal faster. Strangely, the real breakthrough came when I revisited the nipple shields at about week four while going through mastitis AGAIN! My supply did diminish through the combining, but once I had healed completely, I spent a few days lolling on the sofa, working my way through Netflix while Esme fed and got things going. Before I even realised, I was exclusively breastfeeding again and we eventually dropped the formula altogether because it was a lot easier.

I never anticipated breastfeeding this long - I used to think quietly that I would be pretty chuffed with six weeks under my belt - but am so glad I stuck with it and know I would have regretted stopping. The only regret I really have now is not attending my local Cuidiu Breastfeeding Group, despite being encouraged to by my PHN. In all honesty, at the time I didn't think I needed to go and convinced myself that I could figure things out on my own. However, the motivation I got just from mum friends of mine proved so invaluable that I can only imagine how beneficial it would have been to go to a breastfeeding support group every week.

Starting out was tough - breastfeeding plays havoc with the emotions and I definitely felt pressure to keep at it (I'm horribly competitive) - but I have loved it a million times more than I've hated it. I tried not to put too much pressure on myself and instead set achievable targets along the way. We're almost at seven months now and Esme has started to wean (turns out she is a natural with the spoon feeding and a GREAT eater), so I won't be breastfeeding for much longer, but I'm letting it come to as natural an end as possible so I know that we were both ready to finish.

While I am in full support of National Breastfeeding Month, I want to high five all mothers who feed - whatever way, shape or form that feeding may take. You never know what journey they have been on to get there and I believe that we should celebrate being able to provide for our babies in a way that is best for us and right for our bodies. After all, a happy mum equals a happy baby and surely that is the best possible start in life that we can give our children.