I've thought long and hard about writing this, as it's something very personal and something I really struggled with in my early weeks of motherhood. But what got me through it was opening up to a few close mummy friends of mine, who in turn opened up about their own similar struggles - struggles I never knew or imagined they had gone through. I realised I was not alone, and I realised I was not a bad mother. So if sharing my experience can help someone else who is going through the same situation that I did, then it will most certainly be worth it.
Throughout my pregnancy, I took two major things pretty much for granted: one was that I would be able to give birth naturally - which, thankfully, I did - and the other was that I would be able to exclusively breastfeed my baby. My intention - or assumption, even - had always been to breastfeed for at least a year; exclusively for the first 6 months, before introducing solids to his diet. I hadn't really given it a second thought that things may not go as I had planned.
After giving birth, I immediately had skin-to-skin with my baby, and gave him the colostrum I was producing. The midwives visited our room every few hours overnight to check on us, and confirmed each time that our latch was good. The doctor conducted a full physical assessment of the baby the next morning, certifying that there was no tongue tie, and we were then discharged.
Upon arriving home, my baby - having been quite placid up until that point - literally cried ALL night. He was feeding from my colostrum, but as anyone who has breastfed knows, it comes out in very tiny (yet nutrient-rich) droplets, so as a new mother you feel that you are not feeding your baby at all and he must be starving. I called the midwifery team from my hospital in the middle of the night, in despair. Immediately upon hearing his cries over the phone, the midwife identified it as a hunger cry. I kept feeding non-stop, in hope that he would get enough colostrum droplets to comfort him and fill his empty stomach. That was pretty much the story of the next few days; lots of crying (from both baby and me), and a never-ending 24hr latch.
My milk came in three days later, during which time he had already lost 350g of his birth weight. I thought things would get better at this point; my supply was plentiful, and his appetite was insatiable. He started gaining weight. But no one had prepared me for the pain. I had the Lansinoh cream, the soothing gel pads and everything, but they didn't touch it. The pain I felt was deeper; it wasn't a surface pain from latching, it was something from much further within. It felt like a muscle or ligament was being stretched to snapping point with every suck of milk my baby took. On top of that, I did also get blisters, bleeding, and of course whenever you breastfeed your baby in the first few weeks your uterus also starts contracting... so overall, it was physically draining.
Since birth - and even in the womb - my baby has always been very physically strong (mashallah mashallah). He was lifting and holding his head up from the moment he was born, and his leg kicks and arm pushes had quite considerable force behind them despite his small size. This physical strength also translated into his feeding. He was quite an aggressive latcher and drinker, which no doubt made the whole experience more uncomfortable for me. He may not have teeth yet, but just imagine a gummy terrier dog attacking your chest, and you will get a somewhat accurate representation of how our breastfeeding experience was...!
I saw midwives and lactation consultants, who all told me it will get better. I sought solace from my July 2017 birth group online, and they all told me the same thing. It gets easier. The pain will go after a few weeks. The pain should only last for a few minutes at the beginning of a feed. You are doing the best thing possible for your baby. You are providing unmatched levels of nourishing gold. Breast is best.
I've always had a high pain threshold, and even though it was reducing me to tears at every single (frequent, one-hour long) feed, and I even started developing mastitis, it wasn't the physical pain that troubled me the most.
Perhaps it was an unrealistic, romanticised view, but I had always imagined breastfeeding would be this beautiful, natural, maternal bonding experience. In all the breastfeeding propaganda the health service peddles, you only see images of radiant, glowing, smiling mothers beaming down gracefully at their contented, latched little baby. For me it was the complete opposite. I felt trapped. I dreaded the next time my baby would make rooting signs and need another feed. I spent the entirety of each feed sobbing. I didn't enjoy the first four weeks of motherhood at all.
It was my husband - who was away with his work and feeling helpless, bless him - who suggested I start bottle feeding instead. I was 100% opposed to the idea. I had been conditioned for as long as I could remember to believe that formula was the milk of the devil. Breast is best. Breast is best. Breast is best.
But as the days went on and the misery got deeper, I started to research about the possibility of mixed feeding. If you search about any of the formula companies online in the UK, you first have to read a landing page, which once again screams 'BREAST IS BEST' and forces you to click a button stating that you are aware of this fact and that you enter the formula website at your own risk. It's as if you're logging on to some explicit illegal site hidden in the depths of the deep, dark web. Way to make an already emotional, guilt-ridden new mother feel about herself... Might as well have Googled 'how to poison my baby'!!
After another visit from a midwife and a lactation consultant, who were - thankfully - very supportive and not at all pushy with the whole 'breast is best' mantra, I finally took the plunge and replaced one feed with formula. My baby lapped it up. He finished 90ml of warm Aptamil within minutes, whereas he had been latched to me for each feed for around an hour and a half. He was happy. I was happy. I replaced more breastfeeds with Aptamil. I started expressing and bottle feeding him with breastmilk, too. Mixed feeding was working for us. He gained more weight. I gained more confidence and independence.
Pumping and expressing is not easy, either. It's time-consuming, and it can seriously make you feel like a cow at a dairy farm. Again, I stuck with it for as long as I could, but as my baby's appetite continued to increase, he would become less and less satisfied with a bottle of expressed breast milk and would need a top-up of formula afterwards to complete his feed.
Fast-forward to now, and my son is 3.5 months old. He has more than trebled his birth weight and has jumped from the 3rd to the 89th centile for head circumference, and from the 33rd to the 88th centile for length. He happily guzzles away on his Aptamil from a Tommee Tippee bottle (or any bottle, actually - he's not fussy as long as he gets his fill!). I enjoy feeding him. I enjoy other people - my husband, my mother, my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law - being able to feed him, too. In fact, he's just started holding his own bottle recently and is now also feeding himself when the mood strikes.
Am I sad that breastfeeding didn't work out for us? Yes. Am I disappointed that it wasn't the beautiful bonding experience I anticipated it would be? Yes. Do I regret switching to mixed - and now completely - formula feeding? No, not at all.
My mental health was suffering. My golden newborn days with my son were tainted with pain, misery and guilt. I understand the emphasis on promoting breastfeeding positively, but I do think the stigma against formula feeding is a bit too much; the fact that formula companies cannot advertise, that their websites require disclaimer landing pages before you can access the information you want, and that the formula packaging is plastered with the 'BREAST IS BEST' slogan... it all just adds to a new mother's struggles and sense of guilt.
We are very fortunate in the developed world to have such a wonderful alternative as formula for when breastfeeding doesn't work out, with access to clean water and sterilised bottles to ensure we feed our babies in the safest way. Once they reach the playground at nursery school, nobody will know which child was breastfed and which was formula fed. The most important is just that: 'Fed'. We all want what's best for our little ones, and ultimately what I believe is best is a happy mother and a happy baby.