Last week marked World Breast Feeding Week when the internet was awash with lots of social buzz designed to raise awareness and change the perception of breastfeeding. There was plenty of inspiration as incredible women shared their stories, not to mention the many ‘brelfies’ with celebrities, including Alyssa Milano, getting involved.
While I look on with admiration at all the amazing women out there who successfully breastfeed, my own experiences have left me feeling somewhat bitter about the whole thing.
Breastfeeding my first daughter, Isabelle, was a complete nightmare. It seemed that everyone I spoke to offered different advice: “Empty one breast then offer the other”; “10 mins on each breast”; “At least 15 mins on each breast”; “Feed on demand”; Don’t feed her all the time, she’s just comfort sucking.” I got more and more frazzled and my daughter just roared and roared non stop for the entire 8 weeks of our attempts. Apparently breastfeeding was very difficult for her as she had ‘posterior’ tongue tie. At the time, there was little medical information available on this condition and there were very mixed views; to snip or not to snip. I decided not to & packed it in. Isabelle made the switch to formula and bottles and was like a different child. I was a better mother.
Roll on to baby number 2, Amy, who arrived 15 weeks early at 25 weeks via emergency c section. Within minutes of being stitched up, I was wheeled into the recovery room where a nurse awaited to see if I was going to breastfeed. I had no idea what was going on but even in my complete and utter state of shock figured that ‘yes’ was probably the right answer! She proceeded to tug at my boobs and encouraged the first precious drops of liquid gold which were joyfully delivered by her to my 890g daughter who was being treated in the intensive care unit. I felt like a hero! In this case, breast most definitely was best.
And so began my love-hate relationship with the breast pump. While Amy was too small to breathe never mind feed, she could be fed expressed breast milk through an NG tube. As her mother, I had to take a back seat while the medical team became my daughter’s primary care givers and so pumping breast milk gave me a purpose; this was really the only thing I could do for her. Every night I would wake not to my beautiful crying baby but to an alarm and a pump. I persevered because I knew this was the best thing for my baby and also hoped that eventually I would breastfeed her. All the research seemed to suggest that premature babies who were breastfed had better outcomes.
When Amy finally learned to breathe on her own, we began oral feeds including breastfeeding. Each day, I tried to breastfeed Amy at every opportunity in the hospital. The feeling of intimacy was unreal for both of us. I wanted so badly for this to work.
But for Amy however, like a lot of preemies, the ability to suck, swallow and breathe, at the same time, didn’t come easy. It was all a massive challenge and she would have very dramatic episodes of breath holding when feeding. We kept trying; breastfeeding and topping up with a bottle (and sometimes an NG tube) but it was all too much for Amy.
As Amy’s wonderful medical team watched on, I wonder if some of them believed I should stop, but that would probably go ‘against the grain’. In Amy’s case, eventually breastfeeding was categorically ruled out when a feeding study concluded that her feeds had to be thickened due to a risk of aspiration which would have led to even bigger issues.
Already 16 weeks in hospital at this stage and very eager to get Amy home, I accepted this decision. I continued pumping for another while but subsequently decided to pack it in. It was all taking its toll with another small toddler at home together with the busy hospital routine. The medical team were supportive of this decision and assured me that with over four months of breast milk, Amy had got a good start. Despite their support, I still felt a bit guilty.
Reflecting on both of my breastfeeding experiences, this guilt still hangs over me somewhat. Although now that feeling is starting to dissipate and is being replaced with feelings of regret, especially thinking of my attempts with Amy. I wish I had the insight to see earlier that breastfeeding my 25 weeker was an unrealistic goal and was making the challenge of feeding an even bigger one, for both of us.
And so as I applaud those who are successful, I ask myself if I failed both my girls? I hope not, but I did make the very personal choice try to breastfeed. It didn’t work but surely that’s ok?