The One Thing I Really Wish I'd Known About Breastfeeding

Despite reading all the many books that well meaning friends cared to throw at me, I remained utterly oblivious to the fact that determination, desire and doggedness alone are not always enough to make breastfeeding happen.

When I was pregnant with my son, four years ago, I spent many, many hours reading about and 'planning' - ha! - the birth, (which would be at home, to ambient music, in water, Dipytque candle aglow).

But in contrast to that - although this now seems nothing short of astonishing to me - I managed to get through the entire pregnancy with literally zero thought to how I would be feeding this here baby that was about to arrive.

Well, I say zero. I did attend one NCT class on breastfeeding, which focused on how your baby would crawl up your body and 'self-latch'. So that would all be OK then.

Until that point I honestly thought that the reason that women ended up breastfeeding their baby was either because they chose to...or not. Despite reading all the many books that well meaning friends cared to throw at me, I remained utterly oblivious to the fact that determination, desire and doggedness alone are not always enough to make breastfeeding happen.

I was also in the dark about the fact that once the birth has happened, feeding your baby is really ALL THERE IS. And, in the dark I remained, right up until the point - post induction and emergency C-section (not a Diptyqe candle in sight) - that the midwife tried to latch my baby to a boob that felt it may as well not be mine because I was so out of my tree on drugs, and feeling now might be a moment for a nice nap. Can't that wait a bit, I wondered?

Of course, I got the picture pretty damn quickly. This baby needed food; I had to provide it. I waited for the baby to self-latch. Turned out he wasn't that kind of baby.

Luckily, having paid for an independent midwife (so intent was I on a home-birth) we had someone coming to the house every day to see how we were. Not-so-luckily she failed to spot the signs that my poor, man-handled, engorged boobs, which had slowly become open wounds (oh the agony) after ten days of my son valiantly attempting to get some milk out of them, were failing to provide enough of the stuff, and we ended up back in hospital.

That morning at 7am, seeing my son become thinner, and floppier and more inert, I phoned La Leche League's emergency hotline sobbing down the line, like a woman possessed, that I didn't think I was making enough milk. "Well you will just have to give your son formula then," the calm, kind, right-thinking volunteer on the other end of the phone said.

I fervently wish that I had done just that, and wasted no time in making up a delicious, life-giving bottle of formula for my baby.

Unfortunately, I was so adamantly fixated and certain about the kind of mother I wanted to be - and that breast milk was the only way to give my son the best start in life - that it clouded my judgment. I had been brain washed into thinking that formula was the devil and I may as well have been feeding him formaldehyde. So I persevered with breast-feeding, even though by this point my milk was tinged pink with blood (I'd read in countless books that if it was painful you just had to feed on through the pain).

And herein lies the problem with reading - and believing - books about how birth, pregnancy and motherhood 'should' be: when things do not - inevitably - turn out as they should, you realise too late not only that you have not made any provision for plan B (I didn't even have any baby bottles in the house). But, more importantly, when things do not turn out as they 'should' it is all too easy to feel inadequate and guilty.

I will spare you the long story which, when a doctor wondered if there might be something strange about our son's swallow, involved twelve weeks of him being nil-by-mouth and tube-fed (my breast milk). After that, when I tried to re-acquaint my son with my breast he just cried, so we fed him (my breast milk) by bottle, often while I cried too, feeling utterly heartbroken that I couldn't manage the most basic of maternal requirements: feeding my baby as nature intended.

And that is how and why I embarked upon a path of such monomaniacal determination to give my son breast milk that I ended up expressing milk every three hours FOR SIX MONTHS. Just to clarify: this meant waking up through the night to pump (milk supplies are higher between 3am and 5am). It also meant being at home - alone with my baby, and quite lonely - rather than out in the sunshine making new friends - every three hours. It meant drinking fennel tea and popping so many fenugreek tablets to increase my milk supply that I smelled like an old curry house. It meant nine bouts of mastitis, culminating in an abcess. It meant that for an hour out of every three I was sitting on the sofa wearing a bandeau bra with two holes in it, each boob tethered to a funnel, a bottle and a tangle of dangling wires during which time I could not hold my baby. It meant my husband begging me - for all of our sakes - to stop. It meant, I'm sorry to say, that I pretty much lost my marbles.

Why didn't I just give him formula?

Easy to say now of course but if there is one thing I wish I'd known back then, sitting on my sofa with my be-flaggoned boobs, it is that - although breastfeeding is a wonderful wonderful thing - giving my baby formula would have been OK; more than OK: a GOOD thing - for me; for us, under the circumstances because there is no right and wrong way to feed your child; nor to be a mother. And whatever you are doing, no-one can do a better job than you. So if you happen to know someone who could do with knowing that too, please pass it on. That is all.

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