I feel incredibly emotional as I sit down to write about my breastfeeding journey. It has been one hell of a rollercoaster ride and I’ve been wanting to write about my experience for a while, but I’ve been putting it off because it’s vulnerable, it makes me so emotional and I haven’t felt ready.
Well, the first week of August is Breastfeeding Awareness Week and now is a pretty good time to share. I want to share it because I want other Mom’s who may be struggling to know that they’re not alone. It is by far, the hardest thing I have EVER done. I’m pretty sure the term “Blood, Sweat and Tears” comes from the breastfeeding experience.
It’s a long post and if you make it all the way to the end – Thank You!
I really struggled to breastfeed with George and I’ve written about my anguish here: My Breastfeeding Experience.
In a nutshell, I just couldn’t get George to latch and gosh I tried. It broke me down, but I was determined to give him breastmilk since I had a little… and I expressed every 3-4 hours, around the clock for 7 months. I never had enough milk even for one feed. No milk went into the fridge, never mind the freezer. I expressed the little I had and gave that to George for the very next feed, with a top up of formula. When I think about the amount of time and work that took, I actually don’t know how I did it for that long, but I did. I feel proud about it, but I also felt a bit cheated. Breastfeeding was meant to be this natural thing, this beautiful experience that so many women talked about and I’d seen 100s of serene pictures of beautiful Mothers with their babies suckling, looking like a Pinterest perfect picture. I didn’t experience any of that.
When I was pregnant for the second time with Alexandros, I found myself really worried about breastfeeding. What would it be like second time around? Would it be a different experience? I had come to the decision that if it was exactly the same as with George, where I had little milk and he couldn’t breastfeed, I’d realistically not be able to do the same amount of time and work in pumping around the clock. It just wouldn’t be possible with a toddler and a newborn.
Out of everything, breastfeeding was my real hang up. Even though I’d done the best I could first time around, I still felt like a failure. I was concerned that this hang up was going to affect things second time around. I Googled all sorts of things to see if there was anything I could do to set myself up for a successful breastfeeding journey, while I was still pregnant. I even thought of buying one of those ridiculously priced feeding chairs, like that could magically make me breastfeed.
It was when my amazing friend, Chelsea sent me a voice note and it was exactly what I needed to hear. It was her warm voice, kindly and firmly saying: “Stop putting pressure on yourself with the breastfeeding. The breastfeeding is going to be fine. You don’t need a special chair, you don’t need a special pillow, you don’t need anything. You’ve got boobs and your breastfeeding is going to be fine! Stop thinking about it and just let it be! OK? Don’t put pressure on yourself.”
It was in that 20 second voice note, that I really did stop. I surrendered and came to peace that what would be, would be.
On the 27th November 2019, Alexandros was born at 10:22. He was born hungry and cried and cried until I put him on the boob, in the recovery room after my C-section. He latched straight away and I couldn’t believe it. It was already a completely different experience.
That’s the thing with breastfeeding. Everyone assumes that because it’s how we feed our babies, we should both automatically know what to do. Well, here’s the reality check. As a Mom, you have no idea what you’re doing and as your baby is hours and then days old, they too, have no idea what they’re doing. You are a team and you have to learn with each other. Over those few days in hospital, I tried to read his hunger cues, I tried to learn how to latch him and we both struggled. I got nipple damage and cracked nipples and it really really hurt.
The good news though, was that I actually had colostrum and milk, which meant I didn’t have to top up with formula! It was a great feeling, but while I wanted to focus on that victory, the pain of feeding was too overwhelming.
The best way I can describe how my nipples felt? Imagine someone stubbing a burning cigarette out onto your nipples every 2-3 hours.
The burn was intense and I’d cry with them throbbing, knowing that in 2 hours time, I’d have to feed all over again and have that pain sucked on, inducing more pain. Shudder.
I would silent scream as he’d latch, so that I wouldn’t scare him or my toddler, who didn’t like it when I breastfed. He’d get upset and cry and I’d need Sox to distract him elsewhere, while I tried to feed this tiny newborn, tears streaming down my cheeks from the pain. I have tears in my eyes now, as I relive that – it was emotionally, physically and mentally draining (never mind the hormones playing havoc too.)
I eventually got hold of Lauren Ellis. She’s a Physiotherapist with special interest in lactating women/women’s health and general conditions. They say it takes a village and that you need supportive people in your corner and she was exactly that for me. In fact, if it wasn’t partly for Lauren’s encouragement and daily motivation, I would have given up.
She came around to my house that very day that I called and as she walked into my bedroom, I sobbed. I broke down into the real ugly cry. I couldn’t stop. I kept apologising through my tears and she just held me and told me: “Good. Cry! Get it all out. Crying will also make your milk flow, so cry!”
That made me laugh and then I was laughing and crying and I thought I might be losing it. Hormones are insane.
Lauren did laser on my nipples and for the next feed, it wasn’t as painful. It was such relief. I did laser a few times over and it really helped heal some of the cracks and toughen up my nipples. Besides the physical laser therapy she helped me with, it was the emotional support too. She would send me little motivational poems via Whatsapp and just check in on me and it really made the world of difference.
So while the laser helped, I was still struggling with the latch.
I called a Lactation Specialist, Lynn, who came to the house to help me with the latch. The problem with having a baby at the end of November and coming home beginning of December is that people are going away for the Christmas holidays. Lynn was going away the next day for 3 weeks and so she suggested another woman. I contacted her, but she was also going away and eventually I was put onto Pauleen Nelson (www.lactationworkswithpauleen.com) I’m a big believer that the right people come into your life at the right time.
Pauleen was phenomenal. When she arrived, I’d had a terrible, terrible feed and was dreading having to feed him again. I also burst into tears when she walked in (I have never cried as much as I did in the first 3 months.) She gave me a hug and we sat down to really chat about everything. She was with me for 2 hours and by the end of it we had figured out a better latch on each side… Alexi had what’s called a “Tonic Bite” and she believe it was caused from my panic of breastfeeding. Remember when I said that you’re a team with your baby and you learn with each other? Well, it’s also true about feeding off each others energy. Each time I’d need to feed, I’d be so tense in anticipation of the burning pain and I’d be so scared for his little searching mouth to clamp down, that he obviously felt the tension and as such, didn’t feel relaxed to open up his mouth nice and wide. Instead, he’d be tense too and his latch would be a “tonic bite.” I was told that the more I could relax, the better and as my nipples became more used to it, and the more efficient the baby became, the better it would be all round. Not easy to do, but necessary. I started saying Mantra’s like: “We have calm, wonderful breastfeeds.” ; “We’re a team, you and me so let’s be calm and feel the love.” I’d also hum to him to try and calm myself and him down too.
We also discovered that I had nipple thrush, which was causing the burning and not allowing my nipples to heal as quickly. I was put onto some creams and kept checking Alexi’s mouth for thrush, but he never ever had it.
After 2 weeks of using the creams, not much had changed and I was still sore. It sounds odd, but I was getting used to the pain, even though it was so excruciating.
You might be thinking: Gosh Bailey, you tried! Why didn’t you just quit?
Let me tell you that I have wanted to quit 6541 times, but I have persevered 6542 times.
I wasn’t ready to let go and it would have made me even more unhappy. I felt like a Pitbull that couldn’t let go. There were a few factors:
- I actually had enough milk (with some help of Eglanol), which meant I didn’t have to top up with formula.
- Alexi could actually suckle and latch, and while it wasn’t great, I knew I had to keep going.
- I was told that it would take 12 weeks for my nipples to adjust and not be so sore and for him to get more efficient at the breast. I just kept persevering to that goal.
- I really wanted to succeed at this and maybe it was due to the hang up I’d had around breastfeeding first time around, that I just couldn’t let go.
When Alexi was 5 weeks old, he was rushed to hospital – you can read about our ordeal here: Alexandros in Hospital, and I had to breastfeed him with all the tubes, which was quite difficult and I got more nipple damage.
After my 2 week treatment for Thrush, I was still in pain, so I went to see my GP. She diagnosed me with thrush (again) and dermatitis – I’d developed an allergy to one of the creams. It just felt cruel.
More thrush cream, with no results.
I saw Pauleen again and on looking at my nipples after a feed, my nipples had gone white and it took some time for them to go back to pink. She determined that since the thrush creams weren’t working, I could have something thats quite rare. It’s called Nipple Vasospasm:
Of course I Googled the shit out of it and I found myself having an Aha! moment. There was a tablet I could take to help, but a big side affect is that it really lowers blood pressure and I’m already on the low blood pressure spectrum, so my GP and I decided it just wasn’t an option for me. I couldn’t be fainting all over the place.
We also realised that I had what’s called D-MER (Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex.) It is a condition where women who are breastfeeding develop negative emotions that begin just before the milk ejection reflex and last less than a few minutes.
The minute I found out what the problem was, it made things better for me. Knowledge is power. Knowing that there were reasons for me feeling so incredibly down when I needed to breastfeed, or when the let down happened, made me feel that there wasn’t something terribly wrong with me. Especially because D-MER is a physiological response (not a psychological response) that appears to be tied to a sudden decrease in the brain chemical dopamine immediately before milk let-down. Missing puzzle pieces were starting to slot into place and it felt like a relief.
I knew there wasn’t much I could do, but I was told that drinking ice water would help (I don’t know why, but I tried it before each feed) and I heated my nipples with a hair dryer before each feed, which really helped. That was a game changer actually. Obviously I didn’t want to burn my nipples, or have the nipple too hot for the babies mouth, but the hair dryer helped in 3 ways:
- Dulled the nerve endings a little, so things weren’t too painful.
- Brought a rush of blood to the nipples, which helped in healing.
- Brought a let down of milk, which meant that Alexi didn’t need to suckle as hard giving my nipples a bit of a break.
This is the first time I’d ever pumped some milk, been able to put it in a milk freezer bag and pop it in the freezer for when I returned to work. It was such a happy moment because I’d never been able to do that before.
Well, today, I have officially been breastfeeding exclusively for 8 months and 10 days today and I want to cry – this time tears of joy, because we have made it this far.
I can happily say that D-MER stayed with me for about 4 months and then it went away. George got used to me breastfeeding Alexi pretty quickly (phew!) and is happy to tell random strangers that “Mommy feeds brother with her BOOBS!”
I still have the Vasospasm, but it’s not the horrendous burning feeling like I had in the beginning. I still feel a burn at the initial latch (which, I’m weirdly used to), but then it dissipates. My nipples really have “hardened up” and Alexi is super efficient now, with a great, wide and relaxed latch!
If I didn’t have the support of Lauren and her laser machine and words of encouragement, Pauleen with her incredible kindness and lactation knowledge, who really sat with me and listened to me and didn’t try a one-size-fits-all approach and my saint of a husband, who literally wiped away a swimming pool worth of tears, who sat with me at every feed trying to help me or distracted George, who’d bring me ice water, who’d encourage me with things like: “You’ve got this! I’m proud of you.” Well, I wouldn’t have made it this far.
I am still under the belief that FED IS BEST and there is no right way when it comes to feeding your baby. The “right way” is what feels right for you, your family and your baby, and no one can tell you what that is.
To the Mama’s who are struggling with Breastfeeding, I FEEL you! If you ever need to talk, please reach out to me and I’ll hopefully be able to motivate you or just listen and empathise.
If you read all the way to the end, thank you! This blog post took me hours to write because it was so emotional, but it was so cathartic to actually put it into words too.
Leah Hawker, who has the coffee table book Breastfeeding 101, took these photos of me feeding Alexi, in July and they are some of the most sentimental. They signify SO much to me – that I resiliently persevered, that I overcame the struggle and that I did what I thought was best for us. Thank you for capturing these for me…I will forever treasure them.