Part 19 - The Joy of Breastfeeding

During my pregnancy there was a local campaign to encourage more women to breastfeed. I didn’t need any encouragement as I was desperate to breastfeed.  But equally I didn’t want to be pressurized into a state of anxiety about whether I could actually breastfeed and E and I were very much of the opinion that we would wait and see what happened.

In my ideal world, as I have mentioned before, I would have birthed vaginally and peacefully at home and the baby would have immediately latched on to my breast and that would have been it, job done! Sadly, this was not the case, especially as I was not feeling very well immediately post-surgery and it wasn’t until I was back up on the ward that I was encouraged to try and get Elijah to latch on.

Easier said than done however and the first few attempts didn’t go well at all. The midwives took it in turns to try to help Elijah latch on and introduced me to a variety of feeding positions, including the rugby style one, which still flummoxes me today. I was aware that the pressure was rising but E and I had it in mind that when Elijah needed to feed he would feed.

Whether that was the reason he finally latched on I have no idea, but it coincided with my lovely male midwife helping me to establish breastfeeding. It was karma really, because there I’d been at the beginning of the day loathing the idea of a male midwife as I thought he would lack empathy and an awareness of how to help a pregnant and then post natal lady, but he was exactly the help I needed. I was breastfeeding!

It was amazing and yet equally strange that first time.  Here was my new-born son who was still so incredibly unfamiliar to me, and yet strangely familiar too, latching on to my left nipple, and suckling away. The sensation was much stronger than I had imagined and I had this sense of the enormity of the task at hand – I was my son’s sole source of nourishment, I had to make this work.

In the days that followed it was tough.  My nipples became really sore and it hurt when Elijah fed. I’d find myself wincing and thinking that surely this couldn’t be right, but apparently it was perfectly normal to feel like this. It was also very new to me and I was concerned about how I was holding him and whether he was feeding properly. 

When I returned home there was an enormous (external) pressure for him to put on weight. I’m not surprised so many women give up trying to breastfeed and go immediately to the bottle, because I was made to feel as if something was wrong with my milk, or that I wasn’t breastfeeding him properly. The visiting midwife told me that if he didn’t start putting on more weight he was either going to have to return to hospital or we would have to start supplementing with formula.

It was ridiculous.  There you are, a new mum trying to do your best, only to be told that your best isn’t good enough and perhaps you don’t have enough milk to feed your own baby.  Cue feeling disempowered all over again. So, then, in my infinite wisdom (not so wise as it happens) I tried to massage milk from my breast into my nipple, which resulted in me flooding Elijah and giving him excess wind.

It wasn’t until a lovely calming Irish midwife came around to the cottage and shared the magic words, ‘Nose to nipple, tum to mum’, that we truly ‘got’ the breastfeeding. Why had no one told me this earlier? Unbeknown to me at that time, I had been unintentionally squashing Elijah’s nose into my breast so that the poor thing couldn’t breathe, which didn’t make for a particularly restful feeding time!

Plus, I’d been switching breasts too quickly in a mission to make sure he got plenty of milk but had been giving him lots of hind milk. And of course with the breast massage and the squashed nose, it was hardly surprising he ended up with too much wind. I also hadn’t worked out at that stage that what I ate made a difference too, for example dairy made him very snuffly with mucus and soya made him particularly windy.

My Mum would talk about him being blue above his mouth and how this was an indication that he still had wind, but I just couldn’t see this.  My Auntie took this to another level because she could actually feel the wind while she was rubbing his back.  I can feel energy and auras and chakras, but I couldn’t feel the wind in Elijah’s body and felt that my Auntie must certainly have a gift.

Others had this gift too as they would visit and wind my baby for me in half the time it seemed to take me.   It was certainly not my skill and I was quite happy for anyone else to take control of this. This was the bit that I found most exhausting, simply because Elijah was so unsettled until he had been winded properly, and during the middle of the night this really challenged me.

Winding aside, this whole ‘babies not putting on weight’ thing is a common theme and I know that I am not alone with my experience. I’ve heard lots of stories of women being told in those first few days after birth that their milk is not good enough and that their babies are losing weight and may need to be topped with a bottle.   It’s crazy because babies lose weight after birth.  That’s a reality.

Given the time and encouragement, many women will go on to feed their babies perfectly adequately without the need for top ups. That’s not all women, I appreciate that some are simply not able to establish breastfeeding – to this day my Mum’s still sad that she was never able to breastfeed my brother and I beyond six weeks simply because no one told her she needed to drink lots of water (and not milk as she had been advised and which she can’t tolerate).

Others find that they don’t have enough milk to satisfy the needs of their babies, or that they lose too much weight trying to sustain their milk supply due to the demands of the baby.  Others simply don’t have the energy, and others just don’t like it. There are a myriad of reasons and while I’ve always been very pro-breastfeeding I do appreciate that it’s not for everyone, it’s a personal thing.

For me, once breastfeeding was established, that was it.  I was well away and absolutely loved every minute of it.  I loved the fact that I could nourish my son from my own body.  There is this notion that the breasts constitute a chakra (energy centre) all of their own and so when you’re breastfeeding, you’re not only physically and emotionally nourishing your baby (especially with you holding him/her by your heart space) but you’re spiritually nourishing them too.

I also loved the fact that breastfeeding comforted and soothed Elijah.  As mothers we become experts on learning how to comfort and soothe our children. It’s what we do best. You’ve only to see how a child calls out for his Mum when he falls and calms immediately when she picks him up and talks to him in soft tones. Or how a baby calms immediately when he is brought to the breast, or rocked or ‘shhh-ed’. Well Elijah was certainly calmed by my breast.

This certainly had its advantages, not least in helping him to settle to sleep, but also when we travelled. It was just so easy to whip out my boob on the aeroplane for example, and not only calm him, but help to clear his ears as we changed altitude. He’d often sleep the whole journey.  He was comforted by the boob on boats too, and made travel in that first year so easy. In fact, it made everything easy because we didn’t need to faff around with bottles, or warming milk, and there it was, his source of nourishment within me.

Of course this did present its challenges. Elijah cluster fed for the first 16 weeks of his life.  This meant that he was fussy each evening unless he was attached to my breast. No one really understands the reason that babies cluster feed as it certainly didn’t help Elijah to sleep through the night. But for whatever reason he needed a constant supply of my milk during the evening from approximately 6.30pm to 10.30pm, when he’d finally fall asleep.

It was exhausting.  In the earlier days I had a really hard time accepting the fact that each evening I basically had to sit down and feed him. Prior to the birth I was used to teaching yoga each evening and being out and about, and now here I was, having little choice but to sit down and join E watching TV.  I’m not a massive fan of TV so I tired of this novelty very quickly and became frustrated that I couldn’t be doing something active instead.

When I did return to teaching yoga after six weeks, I initially taught for two evenings a week. This meant that E had a very testing time because all Elijah wanted during those two hours was my breast. I had learned to express by then but the bottle didn’t cut it for Elijah and I’d return home to a traumatised E and an unsettled baby. I’d take Elijah immediately to my breast and he’d calm down instantly while E would pour himself an extra large glass of wine!

These evenings certainly didn’t help our relationship at the time and I soon cut back to just the one class a week.  This I absolutely relished as I love teaching yoga, and it was a welcome break from the usual evening routine. It probably helped to keep me sane during this time even if it was testing for E. Needless to say we were both delighted when the cluster feeding finally came to an end and we could have some time out together during the evening.

Then of course there was the challenge of the night time feeding and nothing can prepare you for this. When you’re in the final stages of pregnancy and finding it difficult to sleep with the discomfort of your bump and the constant need for peeing, it’s easy to conclude that it’s preparing you for the night-time feeds.  But in reality night time feeding takes it to an entirely different level.

Initially it was a novelty and I had heard other women say that they spent that time watching TV and eating biscuits.  So I tried this.  As soon as Elijah awoke for a feed I would take him downstairs and breastfeed while drinking tea, eating biscuits and watching TV.  I quickly realised this approach was not for me and made me feel particularly yucky!

Instead I stayed in bed and fed him there under the light of a lamp, while E continued to sleep beside me. I was ok with this initially, but after a few weeks of being woken every two to three hours the sleep deprivation had truly kicked in and I started getting resentful that E was able to sleep while I had to keep waking. It wasn’t just the feeding of course, but also the winding and the nappy changing that took the time.

I kept a little notebook by my bed and jotted down the time I was woken for feeding and the time I was able to go back to sleep again.  The intention was to note how long Elijah was going between feeds, but really all it did was make me completely obsessed by the number of hours of sleep I was getting each night, which wasn’t very many. Sleep deprivation continues to be a major theme in my life, but more on that later.

Returning to work at twelve weeks certainly challenged the feeding schedule as I had to ensure I had enough milk for my Mum to be able to feed Elijah for me. There was so much work to do in the office and while in the past I had been able to work longer hours than I was contracted to do, now I had to rush off at the contracted time to collect Elijah. I also had to make time to express milk and I was often so busy that I had to make a real effort to factor this in. 

Of course my breasts made it very clear to me that it was feeding time and I was certainly thrown into some degree of panic if I turned up at work having forgotten to put in my breast pads.  Yikes, leaky breasts! Initially expressing was challenging; I had invested in a double electric pump and I recall sitting at the kitchen table with one of my friends as I attempted to pump milk from my breasts. I felt like a milk cow and with my friend laughing at me it was perhaps hardly surprising that no milk came out!

My cousin suggested a hand held pump and that worked a treat.  It also made it easy for me to express at work as the only private space available to me was the toilets.  This wasn’t exactly ideal but there really was no other option, so I just accepted my reality and I quickly established a routine, making sure to store the milk in the fridge and take it home with me at the end of the day.

Expressing soon became second nature but it was another consideration in an already busy and exhausting day. I was increasingly frustrated at never really clearing my inbox and constantly chasing my tail. I was resentful of the fact I had to work and then rush straight to my parents to feed and collect Elijah. I then had to go home to the pile of washing and the cooking and all the other chores that come with running a household.

I lived off 70% dark chocolate those weeks. And tea.  And wine in the evening. I justified the chocolate on account of its iron content, and the fact I absolutely needed the caffeine and the sugar to get through the day.  The wine I justified because the sugar from it was the only thing to get me through the evening and take the edge off a little bit.  People say that you lose weight while you’re breastfeeding but with E that certainly wasn’t true, if anything I put on weight as I was constantly ravenous and still totally thrown by this new way of being.

Initially I had no qualms about breastfeeding in public but then we had an incident at six months that challenged this. E and I were in a neighbouring Island and out to dinner with my Reiki Master and her husband in their local Indian restaurant. Elijah still liked to feed most of the earlier evening and so I spent much of that meal feeding him.  I was wearing a floaty blouse, which made it easier – or so I thought – to breastfeed subtly in public.

Alas not.  There was a couple sitting at the table next to us, the wife and I sitting on the same bench that ran along the whole side of the restaurant. I was aware of their presence but I was so involved in our conversation that I didn’t pay them too much attention. As they stood up to leave, the woman came over to talk to us.  I was so used to people coming over and commenting on how beautiful Elijah was that I was confused by her words:

“It’s disgusting the way you’ve breastfed that baby”, she said
“Sorry?’ I asked with a confused look on my face, “sorry, what did you say?”
“I said it’s disgusting the way you’re breastfeeding that baby”, she repeated.
I was startled, “Sorry”, I heard myself saying because this certainly wasn’t what I was used to hearing and it took me a moment to clock that yes, she really did say those words, I hadn’t misheard her and I wasn’t imaging it. I never intended to upset someone else with my actions and so I was genuinely sorry, albeit totally confused.

By this point, E had stood up from his seat and was standing to the other side of the incensed, and drunken, lady.
“She’s just feeding the baby”, I heard E saying.
“I nursed all of my children, but I would never have been as indiscreet as you”, she said to me with disdain in her voice.

I was truly shocked. This had never happened previously, and while yes, Elijah had been fairly much on and off my breast the whole time we were in the restaurant, I had been doing my best to manage this.  Inevitably there’s always going to be a moment where you guide them on and off the nipple, and perhaps by six months I’d grown quite laid back about this, but heck, I was feeding my baby, it’s a nipple, what’s the big deal! Women sunbathe topless for heaven’s sake. It wasn’t like I was sitting there flaunting my breasts.

The lady was noticeably drunk and started challenging E, who was beginning to get a little wound up by this whole incident, which was something I’d never seen previously.  He was most certainly my knight in shining armour that evening. The lady’s husband had already left the restaurant and the restaurant staff quickly rushed over to see what was going on – I wasn’t used to all this drama! I told E to let it go, which he did, and the lady quickly left the restaurant.

It was one of those horrible incidents which happened very quickly but which has been ingrained on my memory ever since. I just couldn’t understand it and was mortified by it. The restaurant staff were incredibly friendly and apologetic, but of course it wasn’t their fault, and I was just confused by the whole experience.

I was shaken for the rest of the evening. Until that point I’d never questioned breastfeeding in public.  If Elijah needed feeding, I fed him, to me it felt like the most natural thing in the world.  But clearly others didn’t feel this way and it saddens me that this is the case. I was annoyed I never got to find out exactly what element of me feeding Elijah upset the lady the most, so that I’ve never been able to make sense of the episode.

Unfortunately, I became less comfortable feeding in public after this, especially as Elijah grew older.  If we were in a restaurant I would take him off to the toilets to feed him, which was silly really, because who wants to eat their dinner in the toilets, poor Elijah! Or I’d faff around with scarves and muslins to hide it.

Still, fairy undaunted, my love affair with breastfeeding continued and I was therefore incredibly distraught when at ten months Elijah went on a nursing strike. I was up in Edinburgh at the time visiting one of my best friends. It was bedtime and I was feeding Elijah when he bit down hard on my nipple, causing it to bleed, and I yelped! And that was that.

It was the strangest thing because that night he didn’t wake for a feed, which had never happened previously and I awoke in anticipation wondering if he was ok. The next morning, I considered that perhaps he’d finally learned to sleep through, but alas not, he refused to take my breast. I google searched and was introduced to the concept of a nursing strike.

Later that day flying back to Guernsey, he still refused to feed and screamed his way back on the plane instead. It was frustrating and incredibly upsetting because ordinarily he’d be comforted by breastfeeding. Back home he still refused the breast. By now my breasts were engorged and I was incredibly emotional and teary. I wasn’t ready to stop feeding. It just felt far too sudden.

That evening I approached the local Facebook breastfeeding group and was grateful for the advice. Someone suggested that Elijah may have an ear infection or some other condition that was putting him off feeding so I took him to the doctor the next morning.  The doctor thoroughly checked him over but couldn’t find anything wrong with him and concluded that he’d simply decided that he didn’t want to breastfeed anymore. There was a part of me that wasn’t prepared to accept this and I set out to do what I could to encourage him back to the breast again. 

By then I had researched ‘nursing strike’ at length and I decided to put into practice my findings and the advice of other mothers who had experienced a similar thing. Thus I did as much skin to skin as possible, laying naked with Elijah in the bath and in the bed.  I woke during the night and brought him in his sleepy state to my breast to try and trick him into feeding again, and I tried not to be discouraged when he turned his head away from my nipple. I drew him to my breast again in the morning, determined not to give up and later on and off throughout the day.  I kept expressing milk during this time to maintain my flow and ease the pressure in my breasts.

Finally, during the fifth night, after days of tears, skin to skin and expressing, he took to my breast again.  It was very early in the morning and I was so delighted and excited that I woke E to share my good news with him.  It was such a relief and I couldn’t have been happier; my son wanted to breastfeed again! I loved the intimacy of it, and the connection it created and it made me appreciate the beauty of breastfeeding in a way I had perhaps taken for granted previously.

E didn’t really understand and would have been happy if E had stopped feeding. He was desperately uncomfortable with the idea of me breastfeeding E until the two years I intended, and my Dad also had a similar opinion on the matter. But I was determined as I felt there were many benefits to be gained. Admittedly the accompanying sleep deprivation was challenging but I knew it was beneficial for strengthening his immune system and providing him with a natural immunity, plus of course the emotional, mental and spiritual benefits too.

I resisted the pressure I was experiencing from E and other people’s negativity because deep down I knew it was the right decision for Elijah and me.  It helped that my best Mummy friend was also breastfeeding her son and in fact continued to do so as she became pregnant with her second son. Both of us would talk at length about the need to wean at some stage, more so because we were both exhausted by the night time feeding, but the trouble was neither of us really knew how to do this.

As it happened her son weaned himself.  Apparently when you’re pregnant the taste of your milk can change and her son didn’t like it.  In so doing, she proved our theory that the breastfeeding was causing the excess night waking because her son started sleeping much better. Elijah on the other hand was still, eighteen months in, waking every two to three hours. It was getting super draining.

I was in some quandary.  I had a sense that I wanted to breastfeed for two years, but I was feeling the pressure from E and other family members, and I was aware that we had three frozen embryos in Southampton.  However, by then Elijah was talking and was calling breastfeeding “Nunnas” and he demanded it after any period of separation and I just loved the intimacy it created between us and I didn’t want to stop this. 

But I was tiring and fast approaching my 40th birthday. I had it in mind that after I’d celebrated my birthday, if we were going to try to have another baby, then we needed to get on with it.  Only that I still wasn’t quite sure how I was going to stop breastfeeding and wean Elijah, at least in a gentle way, as you are not meant to do IVF if you are breastfeeding. So I did the one thing I knew I could do – I handed it over to the angels and prayed for a solution.