In the autumn I took part in a women’s therapy group, hosted by a local postnatal mental health support service. I had been struggling with anxiety, mainly on the theme of health worries, but surprisingly, every week that I went along I seemed to find myself talking mostly about breastfeeding.
I guess it’s been more of a source of stress than I had realised. Bear with me while I therapeutically blurt out the litany of complaints:
- Pain, in the beginning. I think nipples have to toughen up like guitar-playing fingers do.
- Several periods of oversupply. I never would have guessed that my little molehills would turn out to be such overachievers…! It’s an understatement to say I do not enjoy lactating – it’s so weird to have body parts that have always just been lumps of meat, come to life and start doing this bizarre thing and suddenly you find yourself dripping milk when you step out of the shower. I particularly hate seeing my breasts full of milk and can’t bear to touch them like that. I dread the engorgement that is likely needed for me to get off this breastfeeding train eventually.
- One bout of mastitis so far and constant fear of recurrence. Several episodes of blocked milk ducts.
- Very fast letdown which the baby struggled to cope with for the first few weeks or months.
- Having a baby who is so interested in the world around her that she cannot focus on feeding. Coupled with the fast letdown, this results in mess and embarrassment. The only saving grace is how little time on the breast she actually needs to get the milk into her – five minutes or less.
- Worrying about whether my baby is feeding enough. As well as the distraction, she has had spells of flat out refusing to feed. She’s only on about the 15th percentile in weight, although she is a bundle of bouncy energy. I think breastfeeding works best for the type of person who has a lot of faith in “nature” and is comfortable not to even notice how many times the baby feeds per day, trusting that everything is just working out. For a person like me who likes to take detailed, quantified notice of everything, it’s a recipe for stress.
- Having my nipple bitten. This happened one day when her first two teeth were new and razor sharp, and she actually drew blood. The shock! No-one ever tells you how much trust will eventually be required in putting your nipple into that little mouth… and how horrible it will feel that you can’t trust your baby not to hurt and injure you in this intimate place.
- I have lost a ton of weight, which alarms me. I would also like my cycle back as I worry all is not quite right. In short, I would like my body back; long after pregnancy is over I still feel it is colonised, not quite my own.
- Being solely responsible for feeding her, being unable to leave her with anyone for more than a few hours (and even then, having to pump – which by the way is also very weird and makes you feel rather like a dairy cow)… doing all the night feeds, every night… just feeling very tied down in a way that enlarges the gulf between my experience and that of baby’s dad.
All that, and yet somehow I have made it through eight months – and am still going.
I did introduce a bit of formula along with solid foods at around five months. We were going through a breastfeeding crisis – she was complaining and refusing every time I offered during the day, so that I had to sneak the boob upon her during naps, or else give her expressed milk from a bottle instead. I was beside myself with frustration and worry over my full and leaking breasts, whether she was getting enough, and somehow taking the rejection personally and feeling very upset. So I decided to start, one feed at a time, replacing breast with formula.
It didn’t quite work out like that. I replaced one feed out of the 11 or 12 she was having per day. I let one or two more feeds simply go since she was eating solids so well. It took about two months to feel that my milk supply had adjusted to accommodate this, so that stopped me replacing any more.
And at some point, the crisis passed and she seemed happier again to feed from me, happier than she’d been for a long time… and I found I wanted to continue. It felt as if we had tried to break up our symbiotic milk-exchange relationship, found it too heartbreaking, realised we wanted to make it work after all, and were both making a renewed effort.
Then on Christmas Day, she began refusing me again. She had had her last overnight feed at 6am and I couldn’t get her to feed again until 2:30pm. On Boxing Day, even her bedtime feed was a wrestling match with both of us in tears.
So in early January I had to conclude it was basically the end of daytime breastfeeding. I was due back at work soon anyway, so it wouldn’t have been able to go on very much longer. I’m now pumping once a day and the plan, believe it or not, is to continue doing this at work and bringing the milk home for the next day’s mid-morning bottle.
I didn’t know that brief happy phase would be quite so brief, and now I may never again breastfeed her sitting on the sofa with daylight streaming in – something that’s been such a huge part of my daily life for months, is just gone.
I still have the big bedtime feed, and the night feeds, lying cosily side by side in bed. Those have always been the best. And I guess there is something quite special in it, a closeness that only I get to experience with her.
In so many ways it would be much easier doing formula. There would be no more wondering whether she’s getting enough – I could measure it precisely. No more over-producing and spilling. No more constant fear of mastitis.
So why haven’t I stopped? Why can’t I bear to let it go; why does even the thought bring tears instantly to my eyes?
Incidentally I think she learned not to bite me from my reaction to that one incident – I startled her by crying out in pain. She’s a sensitive wee soul. Now whenever the teeth graze me she stops herself and watches me cautiously. I had been saying “no” firmly every time I felt them come near me, and at Christmas I was wailing with guilt at the thought that maybe I’d scared her off feeding altogether – although, as my partner said, who can really blame me for being scared of being bitten?
Why am I so attached to breastfeeding when she doesn’t seem to be? Perhaps the whole “breast is best” thing has got under my skin; a case of mummy guilt, wanting to continue giving her some passive immunity to common bugs, the least I can do for her while I’m not around all day. Health anxiety undoubtedly plays into that.
Or perhaps it’s just that breastfeeding has been an intense and significant part of our relationship so far. Perhaps I’m worried it’s the one thing that makes me “mummy”.
Probably it’s a mix of all these reasons. I’m not sure how much longer I will go on; I’m not setting any goals or deadlines. I wonder how I will feel in the future looking back on this time – will I wish I had just spared myself the stress? Or will I gain a clarity that I lack just now?