Oh my. Breastfeeding sucks big time. Well literally. There is an actual baby sucking on your boobs. But my, am I not having the best experience with it.
I totally and absolute understand why so many give up. I’ve always supported breastfeeding as the first option for babies since forever, it’s what feels natural in my head. I didn’t judge women’s decision not to breastfeed, I think everyone is entitled to do whatever is best for them and for their babies. But for me, I just think breastfeeding is the best option especially for the baby.
But my oh my, how I now understand why there’s so many not doing it!
Here’s the truth
The truth about breastfeeding is that for most of us it absolutely sucks. Whether that’s temporarily (especially in the first month) or throughout the whole process.
For some lucky women and their babies (genetics is a lucky algorithm) it’s simply natural and second nature. Babies come to the breast, make or are quickly taught how to do a good latch and know how to suck correctly. Breasts might be slightly sore due to milk let down a few days or a couple of weeks into it (that’s when your “pre-milk” – called colostrum – becomes the “actual milk”), or/and nipples might be sore in the beginning due to the constant “use” by the baby, but they get on with it and it’s quickly or eventually fine.
But for a lot of us (if not most)… Well, it’s not as straightforward as everyone might want us to believe it is. I still think it’s the best option. But definitely not straightforward.
What I didn’t know
When we went to the Hospital Antenatal class, it took me by surprise that not that many women breastfeed in the UK.
In the UK, whilst 81% of mums attempt to breastfeed (at any point even if occasional), by 6 months only 34% are doing so and at 12 months only 0.5% are still breastfeeding. *
And before I got to breastfeed, I found those numbers quite shocking. It’s supposed to be the most natural thing to do, it’s what breasts are designed to do after birth and it’s supposedly the best for both us and our babies. So I didn’t understand why so many mums (with no medical limitation) would decide to give a bottle of formula over their milk which gives babies a natural and the best feeding start. Again, I’d respect their decision, but I didn’t understand it.
And really, I insist, no judgement, everyone is entitled to do whatever they please, it simply didn’t make sense to me. Until now.
Despite reading quite a bit about breastfeeding, here’s the thing I didn’t know: breastfeeding sucks for quite a lot of us. Totally sucks. And why? Because it does hurt, because your baby is on you all day and night, because you’re never sure whether they’re eating enough and because it’s tough.
And this is not just me! This is basically most of my friends’ experience (of the friends and family I’ve spoken with so far). I’m quite surprised that no one is speaking about this properly.
Because the other problem is that for a lot of women it sucks for much longer than just the first days, it can last for months and sometimes a little fix is the only thing that’s needed.
Difficulties and lack of support
So, if you’re still pregnant get mentally ready for it: a first tough days, weeks or even longer is going to happen, irrespective of whether it’s going well or badly.
I don’t want to put you off, but instead just want to inform you of the difficulties. It is possible (despite all my struggle, I’m still doing it and wouldn’t trade it for anything), and I hope you give it a proper try, but it is not straightforward.
Why? Several reasons:
- First of all, your nipples have not had this kind of use, so they will need to adjust. They do adjust but it might take time.
- You’ll have to learn how to latch your baby correctly. THIS IS THE MAIN THING. This is one of the videos that helped me the most.
- The baby might not really understand how it works straight away as it’s a new skill for both of you. And some babies have got no clue of what’s going on.
- Then the baby might decide he/she is actually too lazy to do it and well… They might not want to do it all the time but they’ll be hungry anyway. And if we feed them with a bottle it’s even harder to make them do it.
- Also, your baby might have a tongue tie that is not diagnosed or fixed straight away. There’s three types and only one is easy to see. This video makes it a bit easier to understand what it is. If you suspect that’s the case please insist with getting a specialist to check it properly while you’re still in hospital.
- In the first couple of months you will be doing it all the time and some days you won’t have time for nothing else but breastfeed. And that too is very frustrating. Although it’s the only way to guarantee your baby gets enough milk and that your supply meets demand (it gets better over time).
- And then (the most annoying reason for me) your family/partner/friends might not be that supportive, do not get informed and will immediately start telling you the following:
- “the baby is crying, he’s hungry, give him formula”
- “it hurts you, why are you going through this, give him formula”
- “his cheeks are not getting fuller, he’s probably not gaining enough weight, give him formula”
- “he’s not sleeping several hours in a row, give him formula”
- “the baby is always on the breast, you have no life, give him formula”
- “you probably don’t have enough milk, most women don’t, give him formula”
And just like that, puff! You start doubting yourself, you start giving him formula. Your supply starts to actually go down and done! No more breastfeeding.
Well, my first days of breastfeeding were not easy at all. My baby is a beautiful baby (of course I’m biased…), he was quite calm at birth, quiet and easy to content. I know, lucky me. All this despite the fact that his birth was induced, he had to be pulled out through suction and we both had to be put on antibiotics for a few days (administered through a catheter positioned on our hands).
But then, apparently (and this rule – as any human rule – doesn’t apply to all babies), babies that are induced can take longer to get the hang of breastfeeding. Same with babies on antibiotics. And then baby boys can be a little bit lazier as well. So my little boy Dinis scored his first hat-trick by ticking three boxes on the “potentially harder to breastfeed babies”.
On top of that, I soon discovered I don’t have a very patient boy. He loses his cool quite quickly. He’s like: “it’s not easy, it doesn’t magically appear out of the blue, I’m frustrated, I don’t want it.”
So, on the first days, most times, I would manage to get him on the breast. It would be quite painful in the beginning (despite the fact that he was, from the outside, latching quite well) but it would get slightly better afterwards or I would power through.
The problem started on the second night.
The second night
One thing no one tells you about is how bad the second/third night is going to be. And that it’s totally normal, there’s nothing you can do about it, you just need to be ready for it. (It would have helped to know about this though, so I dug in and here’s another mum explaining the “why”). I wasn’t told about the second night until the next day when my nurse said that “all babies are fussy on their second night” “well, the next door baby seems to be fine” “the next door baby is a day younger than yours, his second night will be today, you’ll see” (you do lose track of time at a hospital). And sure, that baby was not happy that night either.
So, on that second night baby Dinis was inconsolable and despite several attempts, at a certain point he just wouldn’t go on the breast. So I spent two hours trying to calm him down, trying to put him on the breast, doing skin to skin, trying to express some colostrum (unsuccessfully as again, I didn’t know how to and no one explained it to me). Nothing seemed to work.
Out of desperation I asked for some formula and wasn’t given any because I needed to “just keep trying”.
St. Thomas Hospital in London is trying to support breastfeeding and getting more mums to do it, but with staff shortages they don’t have enough people to support you properly, which can become very frustrating. Because the thing is, I didn’t want formula, but if my baby didn’t want to feed and was inconsolable for two hours straight, I just wanted him to eat! And after a lot of effort he finally got on the breast again and was able to eat and relax a bit more.
The third day and beyond
Then on the third day in the afternoon, Dinis decided again that he wasn’t going to breastfeed. He would open his mouth, shake his head, wouldn’t close it and wouldn’t even try at all. So we spent another two hours trying to convince him. And again, inconsolable he wouldn’t calm down in any way. My father (who isn’t that much of a sensitive man) had to leave the room as he couldn’t stand seeing his grandson cry like that. After much insistence they finally gave me some formula in a cup. Great. I gave him formula and once he was a bit more settled I tried to put him to the breast and he breastfed.
This happened a few more times and as he wasn’t breastfeeding properly, we ended up having to stay in hospital for 5 days. By the end of the week, they let me come home with a plan: finger feeding (in which I feed my baby formula through a little tube attached to my finger to keep training him to suck) and insist with the breast. Then go to my local Milk Spot (a midwife led group that get together once a week to help you with breastfeeding) to check progress and try to stop formula over time.
My dream of exclusively breastfeeding faded away. I was sad that it would probably not work. I had no choice but to give him some formula as exclusively breastfeeding wasn’t working for us.
Although, magically, we got home and he started breastfeeding every time. No fuss. No stress.
The only thing he (and I) wanted was to go home and relax.
Feeding him was also extremely painful since the very beginning. Sometimes it would go away mid-feed but sometimes it didn’t. I kept being told that the latch looked correct, and that the pain would go away. But it felt like he was biting in the beginning.
He would also sometimes take one hour and a half feeding (in which a lot of it was sleep) and he would feed all day long.
It was hurting too much. Every time he’d move during his naps, I would cringe at the thought of him waking up earlier than expected and having to feed him. I would try to put him on the boob and just before he latched I would pull him away as I wasn’t mentally ready for pain. I cried a few times of pain and frustration. To add to this, my back was killing me – with the stress, I started getting sharp pains on my shoulders and right in the middle of my back – so much so, that it hurt when breathing or laughing or coughing.
On the third week I reached my breaking point. He latched on, it was extremely painful and it wasn’t going away. The husband came back to bed one time to a hungry crying baby and a hurting crying wife. He had to comfort us both. After calming myself down, I refused to give him formula and tried again. It was painful still but most of it went away mid-feed. I don’t know why but I just didn’t want to give up on it.
In the morning I made some phone calls. I needed a solution urgently.
“I need help”
After some investigation, I called the London Lactation Consultants. The lady that picked up the phone must be a sort of receptionist that directed my request to her South London representatives to find out who had availability for me. I got a couple of text messages from two different ladies and a lovely lady called Sharon would be available to come to my home on Saturday.
It’s not a cheap service but I needed someone to help me and figure out the issue. Totally recommend it if you can afford it.
She stayed for an hour and half and after a proper examination, my baby had tongue tie. It turned out my suspicion was correct. At the hospital it wasn’t picked up because what I didn’t know is that there are three types of tongue tie, and Dinis had the hardest one to pick up – he could put his tongue out but he couldn’t, with his mouth open, touch the roof of his mouth. So he couldn’t pull the milk properly, which lead to inefficient eating. And he was probably biting to help him push the milk.
Otherwise, I was doing the right thing by breastfeeding him on demand, trying the various different positions and the latch was as good as it could be with his “condition”.
After getting it confirmed by a midwife at my local Milk Spot, he was finally referred to having his tongue tie cut. It’s a much quicker procedure and less painful than it sounds.
Basically, Dinis was sleeping when we got there. When put on the doctor’s “table” (it was more like a raised bed), he woke up slightly by the fact that three nurses were stabilising him so he wouldn’t move. The doctor did it whilst I was signing the consent paper, the baby started to cry mainly by being startled with the whole thing, the nurse gave him back to my husband João, we got out of the room to another room so I could breastfeed him straight away, and when João passed him back to me he was back asleep and I had to wake him up! So, IF it hurts, it hurts as much as being pinched – and I’d say that being pinched hurts way more sometimes.
Now, this procedure helps 6 in 10 babies and mums. If not done there’s a possibility for speech or feeding struggles as well a bit later. Fortunately Dinis was one of the 6 in 10 babies and it helped me (and him) so much.
The first thing I noticed was his tongue movement. I could now see that he had a much bigger restriction prior to the procedure. He could now move his tongue in ways he didn’t before. He also started eating quicker and more efficiently. The pain started to fade away and within just a couple of days the pain went away completely.
Breastfeeding is now going extremely well comparing with the beginning. We have given him formula at some point to alleviate my pain or because it was easier in some way. But so far, it has been, I’d say, 98% breastfeeding.
The struggle now is with weight gain. He’s very slow to pick up weight since the beginning. But other things are coming into play with that.
It’s was also extremely hot in London since he was born and he sweats a lot, which didn’t help. To top it up, he had been struggling with sleeping during the day since week 3 (we started fixing this week – oh my what a struggle…) and he got a cold. I think that he is drinking more often during the day and mostly the more watery bit of the milk to take away his thirst. So he’s not drinking the “fatty” bit as much. That’s my theory.
I know some people might say it’s due to having not good milk, or not enough. Although I feel like I have enough and I don’t believe in bad/weak milk – supported by some investigation I made.
It’s these other factors that are playing into it. Otherwise he would not be happy all the time, he would not reach his milestones and he wouldn’t be the bubbly little boy he is. I don’t know about you but I’m cranky when I’m hungry.
So let’s take a day at a time and see until when is breastfeeding a positive experience for both of us.
Choosing what’s right for you
Despite being an advocate for breastfeeding, I understand the struggles and I don’t think everyone can do it. I mean, they could if there was no other choice, but the truth is there is another choice and there are other advantages (as well as disadvantages) to formula. And not wanting to do it is an option that everyone needs to respect. A happy mum equals a happy baby. So mum’s mental health is always first!
Breastfeeding is mentally exhausting. My body is not my own at the moment. I can’t really exercise or diet without fear of compromising my milk supply. Sometimes I’m so tired or it’s so hot that I don’t really want to have to hold him for another 20 min. This post on The New Mom School illustrate some of the feelings I’m dealing with right now.
So, if breastfeeding is what works for you, it’s what works for you. And if it isn’t, it isn’t.
I would just suggest to give it a proper try, not give up at the first hurdle and then move on if you still agree that it’s not for you. In the meantime, you have given at least some extra antibodies to your baby.
In my case, what keeps me going is that not breastfeeding is harder to deal with (mentally) than doing so. I just want to do it. Not doing it frustrates me and saddens me. I’m not sure why, but it does. So unless I see a decline in my baby’s health, or we both become quite unhappy about it, I’m going to keep doing it as exclusively as possible.
Some breastfeeding facts
If you’re considering whether you should do it or not, and should you yet not know this, here are some breastfeeding facts for you:
- Each of our milks is designed for each of our babies
- Our milk protects babies from infections and diseases (in the beginning of their lives and for when they’re adults)
- Breast-milk adapts to when the baby is ill in order to give him more defences and adapts to his needs over time
- It’s readily available and theoretically free (some help isn’t free and you might need to buy other props anyway – bras, breast pads, breast pumps, etc.)
- Breastfeeding mums have less incidence of breast and ovarian cancer osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease and obesity
- You burn calories when breastfeeding
- And then the usual bonding paradigm between the mum and the baby (although, if the experience is not going well, I think there’s a lot of “un-bonding” too)
It’s a tough journey. You doubt yourself a lot. But if you’re on it and if it’s working, no matter for how long you end up doing it (a day or five years), you’re doing great!
* If you want to know more and because I think it’s important to show my sources, have a look below (UK support):
- Breastfeeding Worldwide Study – The Lancet (by the way, you can sign up for free and read some of the articles for free)
- NHS Infant Feeding Survey
- NHS breastfeeding information – Breastfeeding: The first few days
- La Leche League