World Breastfeeding Week is not easy for mums like me
Let me start by saying PLEASE don’t get this twisted…
Breastfeeding is truly, truly wonderful.
Breastmilk is absolutely the best thing for babies.
This life-giving, nutrient-packed, miracle juice is like liquid gold.
If you were able to provide it for your baby and even continued to do so right into toddlerhood I genuinely applaud you.
Women should be given medals for breastfeeding in public, not dirty looks.
Breastfeeding should be encouraged, normalised and celebrated the world over.
I have no problem with breastfeeding or World Breastfeeding Week.
I only wish I could join the party.
But I got a bum deal.
This is something I’ve never shared publicly before. In fact I’m really secretive about it...
I have condition called Tubular Breast Syndrome.
What this means is my boobs never fully developed.
You know the little "buds" you get as a teenager? That's about as far as they go.
If you'd like to see what I mean, just Google it - there are loads of images and information online.
At the age of 22, I had augmentation surgery to fix the appearance of my breasts. But sadly you can never fix the function.
The lack of breast tissue I'd developed meant I’d probably never be able to properly breastfeed my babies.
The doctor told me that there was a small chance, but it was unlikely.
(In case you're wondering, having implants makes no difference to your ability to breastfeed - it's the natural tissue you've got that makes the difference).
This was something that saddened me from the moment I found out, but when I eventually got pregnant, a whole new pressure was added to the sadness…
The pressure to breastfeed.
All throughout my pregnancy, I was constantly reminded how important it was for me to breastfeed my baby.
At the midwife check ups, the preparation for parenting classes, in the leaflets I was given, even when I went to give birth at the hospital.
I felt like shouting: “I KNOW HOW IMPORTANT IT IS!"
"I DESPERATELY WANT TO DO IT BUT I PROBABLY WON’T BE ABLE TO!
"STOP REMINDING ME ABOUT WHAT I’M NOT GOING TO BE ABLE TO PROVIDE FOR MY BABY!!”
At the parenting classes, we were told our milk should "come in" in the weeks leading up to delivery, so as I approached my due date, I kept hopefully massaging my nipples, praying that a little milk might emerge.
But there was nothing.
I didn’t know which kit to buy - the breast pump, nursing bra and nipple pads or the formula, baby bottles and steriliser kit.
I ended up buying it all because I just didn’t know what was going to happen.
Eventually came the day that Lula Blue was born, and a small miracle occurred.
After Lula had been cleaned up, had a cuddle with Daddy and the obligatory photographs, she was brought over and placed on my chest, the midwife telling me to offer her my breast.
I started trying to explain the situation but she told me to squeeze my nipple.
A little liquid emerged!
A little creamy, thick, glorious colostrum came out of my nipple.
The midwife smiled at me and helped Lula to latch on.
Instinctively, she began to suck and I got to experience that overwhelmingly special bonding experience only us mothers can feel.
For that, I will be eternally grateful.
But for the next day in hospital, that’s pretty much where Lula stayed.
She was feeding endlessly, as much as 5 hours at a time, just drinking, drinking and drinking some more.
“She’s cluster feeding” said the midwives.
But I knew that wasn’t it.
She wasn’t getting full, that was the problem.
After I brought her home and this continued for the next day or two I began to get concerned.
On night two, I got up at about 12pm for a night feed and at 3am I was still there, still feeding.
Lula kept coming unlatched and fussing, still seemingly hungry despite three hours of feeding.
I knew she wasn’t getting enough.
At 3.30am I finally gave in and woke Darren up. Together, we stumbled about, attempting to keep our patience with each other as we read the instructions for the steriliser in dim light and through bleary eyes.
We set it up, sterilised some bottles and finally got a bottle of formula made up.
I gave it to Lula and her reaction said it all…
She guzzled down that bottle like she’d not eaten in days.
Afterwards she fell soundly asleep, milk-drunk and content.
I cried with relief, and with grief. My raised hopes had been dashed.
I didn’t stop breastfeeding Lula after that. I would just give her whatever I could then supplement it with formula to make sure she was eating enough.
She found the breastfeeding comforting and I loved to do it, so it became more of a relaxing, bonding activity than an actual feed.
I tried a breast pump but after an hour of "grrrrrrrp grrrrrrrrrrp grrrrrrrrrp" I'd produced about 1/4 of an ounce.
Now I understood why she'd been so hungry!!
I still wanted Lula to get breastmilk if possible though and after investigating donor banks, and realising I wasn't eligible for support, I discovered an amazing Facebook group called Human Milk 4 Human Babies, where mums who have too much supply offer up their excess freezer stashes to local mums who need it.
Over Lula’s first year I connected with five amazing mums who provided us with enough breastmilk to give Lula at least one bottle per day, sometimes two. I was overwhelmed at their generosity but they were just so happy to help.
Aside from that, Lula had formula. I chose Kendamil* as it’s organic, locally produced here in the UK, uses full fat milk (you’d be amazed how many brands skim it for some unknown reason!) and doesn’t contain palm oil. All key factors for me.
Flash-forward to today and Lula is a healthy, happy 22 month old girl, an excellent eater, strong and very energetic.
Weaning gave me the opportunity to reclaim control of her nutrition, finally doing things on our own terms again. Now Lula eats a varied, healthy diet, packed with all the nutrients she needs.
But the guilt of not breastfeeding my baby hasn’t left me.
Like any toddler starting nursery (especially post-lockdown) Lula’s picked up every bug going.
“Would she have had a stronger immune system if I’d been able to breastfeed?” I wonder.
Like lots of little girls she’s become obsessed with babies and after seeing photos of me feeding her when she was little, she’s become fascinated by the idea of getting milk from my breast.
Sometimes she’ll try to pull down my top and wants to take a drink.
“There’s nothing there now” I tell her. But I would dearly love to give her what she wants.
Then I open my Instagram and I’m bombarded with images of mums breastfeeding, posts informing me of all the health and bonding benefits, calls for breastfeeding in public to be encouraged and extended feeding of toddlers to be normalised.
And it hurts.
But of course that doesn’t mean it should be discouraged.
It just means we should take a moment to consider the mamas who wanted to, but could not.
Whether you had a medical condition like me that just meant you weren’t able.
Whether you suffered through cracked, bleeding nipples and unbearable pain and had to keep your patience when people told you it’s because you were doing it wrong.
Whether your baby just wouldn’t take to it, or you had to take a bottle break and then they wouldn’t go back…
I see you all.
And I want to tell you that you didn’t fail.
You didn’t let anyone down.
You’re not a lesser mother.
You did what you needed to do to make sure your baby was fed and that’s all that matters.
And for those who can breastfeed… that’s just awesome too.
Please, please, continue to celebrate your achievements and encourage others to do the same…
As long as they are able.
*Please note - this is NOT a PR post and I have no affiliation with Kendamil! The only reason I chose to name the brand I used is because I spent a great deal of time researching formulas before I settled on this one, so if you’re in the same position it may be helpful for you.