Writing about my breastfeeding experience to date has been on my mind for quite some time, but it’s only now that I feel well-equipped enough to talk about it. My baby daughter Rose is now four months old and we are still breastfeeding. I found breastfeeding to be extremely tough in the early weeks. It definitely wasn’t the experience I was expecting but it is something I am so glad to have persevered with. Every woman’s breastfeeding journey is different and in this blog post I’m going to talk about my own personal experiences of breastfeeding a newborn.
Before my little girl was born I knew I wanted to breastfeed. There was never an alternative in my mind. My Mum had breastfed both my brother and so I (wrongly) assumed most mothers breastfed. It wasn’t until I started going for my baby scans that I realised breastfeeding was not as commonplace as I thought. There were dozens of leaflets promoting ‘breast is best’ and ‘how to support your daughter breastfeeding’. For me, breastfeeding is one of the most natural things in the world. Your boobs fill with milk and so why would you want it to go to waste?
Preparing to breastfeed
When it came to the practicalities of breastfeeding I did some online research on getting the latch right. I read up on all the benefits of breastfeeding and it cemented even more in my head that I was determined to breastfeed. The obvious benefits are that breast milk is free (duh), it contains all the necessary nutrients for your baby, is always the right temperature and it helps reduce the likelihood of you and your baby getting certain types of diseases and infections. My reading also highlighted how breastfeeding rates in the UK are really low.
According to a Lancet study from 2016, only 34% of British children are breastfed until six months, compared to 49% in the US, 50% in Germany and 62% in Switzerland.
I made sure to buy some nursing bras and was kindly given some nursing tops by a friend. My mum-in-law bought me a manual breast pump and friends gave me their steriliser.
I was very open with my wish to breastfeed my baby. I wanted my family and friends and readers to know this was what I wanted. Soon I was inundated with mums telling me not to beat myself up if I couldn’t breastfeed. I was told that many of them were unable to breastfeed, either due to milk supply, soreness, or the baby not latching. I was also encouraged to join breastfeeding support groups. I admit, I found this all a little alarming. Wasn’t breastfeeding not only one of the most natural things in the world, but also one of the easiest things too? Oh how wrong I was…
Rose was born on her due date, 31 August 2016, and whilst perfectly healthy she was small at 5lbs 12.5oz. This however, did not stop her breastfeeding. She fed like a trouper from the beginning, opening her mouth and suckling like a pro. I was elated! However, like many newborns, she slept alot in those first few days. I received mixed advice about what to do with regards feeding. Should I wake her and feed, or leave her to sleep and then feed? Once I was discharged from the hospital and the midwife called the following day, Rose had dropped more weight than what was ideal. Therefore, I had to wake my sleepy baby to feed every three hours. And feed she did! Rose has never turned her nose up at the boob.
My milk came in three or four days after Rose was born. Now, instead of just colostrum (the first milk your breasts produce), my boobs were filling with lots of milk! This was exciting and I marvelled at the change. Now I could see milk around Rose’s mouth when she fed and when she came off the boob, my milk would often squirt out! My new best friends were breast pads, and I still use them four months on. Some women don’t leak during breastfeeding but unfortunately I’m not one of them.
On top of getting to grips with breastfeeding, a midwife noticed that Rose had a tongue tie after inspecting her at just a few days old.
The nhs describes tongue tie as “a problem affecting some babies with a tight piece of skin between the underside of their tongue and the floor of their mouth. It can sometimes affect the baby’s feeding, making it hard for them to attach properly to their mother’s breast.”
I’d heard of tongue tie just a few months earlier as my friend’s son had one which affected his latch. I thought Rose’s latch was fine but if getting her tongue tie fixed would help her be a more effective feeder then I figured it was worth doing. I was told there were no drawbacks to the procedure, it doesn’t hurt or harm the baby, and its free. The midwife referred me to the only dentist in Northern Ireland that fixes tongue ties and within the week we were waiting at the surgery to be seen. With one snip of the skin the procedure was over in the blink of an eye. There was not a peep from Rose and I fed her straight away. I can’t say I felt any difference in her latch but I just hoped in some way breastfeeding would improve for us, as I was beginning to suffer from some very sore nipples.
Feeding in public
In those early days, when I was at home with just Phill and the baby, I’d whip out the boob and feed on demand. The awkward part came when we had visitors and I felt like I had to be more discreet. I found nursing bras to be such a kerfuffle and trying not to have a nip slip seemed impossible! Often Rose would seem agitated feeding and I would get stressed out. But I didn’t want to excuse myself from company to feed. I wanted to promote breastfeeding and I didn’t want to miss out on all the chat! Newborns tend to feed for long periods, so if I excused myself to feed, my visitors probably wouldn’t have seen me and the baby for long!
I first breastfed out in public (if you can call the M&S cafe out in public) just a few weeks after Rose was born. I’d been told to look up breastfeeding friendly venues to see where I could comfortably feed in public. The idea that there is a list of breastfeeding friendly places didn’t sit well with me. Surely, anywhere I can eat, my baby should be able to eat? Thankfully, I’ve never had any negative experiences feeding in public. If anyone dared disrespect me whilst I was breastfeeding I would give them what for! I hate that some women are put off breastfeeding because they think it isn’t received well and that it would stop them getting out and about.
I personally find breastfeeding to be super handy. Yes in those early days it can be a pain to fix yourself ready for feeding but it definitely gets easier with time. I’ve used various breastfeeding covers – from scarves to muslin blankets – but I just found them more annoying than anything.
I expressed milk a few times in the early days so that Phill could feed her at night to give me a break. I was alarmed when Rose guzzled the milk in about sixty seconds flat! I couldn’t believe it. If I were feeding her she would be attached to the boob for about thirty minutes. Whilst Rose took to a bottle teat no problem she would often still be fussy so I still just ended up feeding her myself to settle her. The expressing of milk for a night-time feed didn’t last long.
I’ve expressed milk on a handful of occasions since she was born. I think I’ve only ever missed two consecutive feeds as I don’t like to be away from her for too long. I’ve used a hand pump and a mini electric pump, and to be honest, both take about the same length of time to express milk from. I personally find it can be time consuming to express and difficult to know if I have expressed enough for her, as obviously I have no idea the quantity she generally consumes in a day.
In all my breastfeeding research before the baby, not once did I come across the topic of cluster feeding. So when Rose seemed to want to feed constantly in the evenings just a week or so after she was born I was knocked for six. I was convinced something was wrong with her. Why was she so unsettled and crying all the time? After she would feed she would be content for a short time and then cry until I put her on the breast again. Constant feeding sessions happened from about 7pm to 1am.
The well-known parenting and breastfeeding blog Kelly-Mom states: “cluster feeding is when babies space feeding closer together at certain times of the day and go longer between feedings at other times. This is very common, and often occurs in the evenings.”
I posted about the constant feeding sessions to a breastfeeding support group on Facebook. It wasn’t long before a string of breastfeeding mummies replied and assured me this was perfectly normal – it was cluster feeding! I felt relieved that Rose was doing what was supposedly normal. But it didn’t take away from the fact that I was physically and emotionally spent from breastfeeding. Not only was Rose feeding a lot but she fed for really long periods (around 45 minutes) and it often took ages to get her wind up (sometimes thirty minutes). So often I was feeding for an hour at a time, only to start the process all over again in an hour or two. And then in the evenings, Rose was just feeding constantly.
Pain go away
As you can imagine, with constant feeding sessions, my nipples were very sore and they weren’t really getting the time to heal. Even showering was painful for me. I was worried Rose’s latch wasn’t right and that was contributing to my soreness. In particular my left hand-side was the most painful. It was sore when Rose latched on and often I would feel a nipping sensation as she sucked. As you can imagine, this put me in an awful mood and I would often dread the thoughts of feeding her. If this is what breastfeeding was going to be like, then I wasn’t sure I was cut out for it.
When I wasn’t breastfeeding I was online reading about breastfeeding and talking to Phill, my Mum or a midwife about my breastfeeding concerns. I was becoming a total bore but I so wanted breastfeeding to go well for me. Rose was doing great and gaining weight each week but I was not enjoying the experience at all. If only the pain would stop.
I tried breast shields (made of thin soft silicone) during feeding but found they didn’t stick well on my skin and would just end up annoying Rose and myself. So I just kept slathering on the lansinoh cream in the hope that eventually my cracked sore nipples would heal. I also tried different techniques to improve Rose’s latch, including different feeding positions. I’ll admit, I started to over-analyze everything, which wasn’t healthy.
Oversupply and fast letdown?
Luckily I’ve always had a good supply of milk, probably due to all the cluster feeding! But I was concerned I had an oversupply and fast let down (when the milk comes very fast once the baby attaches to the breast), especially on the side I was most sore. Rose would often gag and choke when feeding on that breast and I could see milk spurting out when she broke the latch. After some research, I suspected that Rose was clamping down on my nipple to stem the fast supply of milk and that was why I was so sore. But what could I do to help the situation?
Oversupply was more favourable to under-supply, which I’d heard some mums complain of. At least I knew there was plenty of milk there for Rose – she just needed to learn to cope with the fast flow of milk. I tried different feeding positions to help with this – mainly the rugby ball hold and feeding Rose in bed lying down. The latter position seemed to help and to this day I still lie down to feed Rose in the morning and last thing at night.
Breastfeeding support group
The biggest saving grace for me was a local Breastfeeding Support Group I went to when Rose was just three weeks old. My midwife had suggested I go along and it was just a few minutes down the road from me so was supper handy. When I arrived there was a big group of mummies all with their babies, drinking tea and having biscuits. I liked the group already. Everyone was so welcoming and it wasn’t long before I was bending the ear of a few of the mum’s, sharing my concerns about latching and cluster feeding. They assured me it wouldn’t last forever and that it often takes six weeks to establish breastfeeding and be pain free. I hoped they were right.
“Breastfeeding helps cultivate relationships with other moms. Women are supposed to be sitting together, nursing and taking care of babies.” says Heather Kelly, an international board-certified lactation consultant in New York City and a member of the Bravado Breastfeeding Information Council’s advisory board.
Every week I attended the group and every week I got more confident with feeding and determined to continue with it. I got to weigh Rose at the group and when I seen that she was gaining between 5-8oz a week (the expected newborn weight gain) I knew I was doing something right. One week she gained a whopping 11oz…thanks cluster feeding!
I also loved to see the other mums with older babies feed with such ease. I looked up to them and they truly inspired me to keep going. Some of them had endured really difficult breastfeeding issues like mastitis (a condition which causes a woman’s breast tissue to become painful and inflamed) and undersupply; whilst others had no problems whatsoever. I found it really interesting hearing everyone’s stories. Now I understood why breastfeeding support groups exist!
One of the benefits of breastfeeding is that it burns calories and can help you loose your baby weight. Whilst I was fortunate enough not to have put on an excessive amount of weight during pregnancy, I did have a bigger belly than before baby…obviously. Within days of breastfeeding I could see my tummy reduce in size and my waist become smaller. Apparently breastfeeding can burn between 300-500 calories a day, so no wonder I lost weight in the first few weeks, as I was pretty much breastfeeding all the time!
Studies have shown that most healthy breastfeeding women maintain an abundant milk supply while taking in 1800-2200 (or more) calories per day. Consuming less than 1500-1800 calories per day (most women should stay at the high end of this range) may put your milk supply at risk.
Breastfeeding definitely makes you hungrier (and thirstier) than ever so it’s important to keep your energy up. It’s definitely not the time to be on any sort of diet! I like that I’ve been able to loose a few pounds without trying, and that I can indulge my sweet tooth more often than usual!
The 6 Week Milestone
Many breastfeeding sources cite six weeks as the time it takes to properly establish breastfeeding and thankfully this was the case for me. The pain was almost gone and it was now much more pleasurable to feed. I could also see the beginnings of a routine emerge as Rose would generally feed every three hours. I was smiling more, and grimacing less. Horrah!
Some lucky women never experience pain breastfeeding but most do. It’s a new skill to master for both you and your baby so it makes sense that there will be ups and downs. Having a baby suckle on you day and night can take a lot of getting used to and understandably it can take a toll on your nipples.
One thing I was keen to establish early on was a routine for feeding and sleeping. Now I realise how silly this was. A newborn is an unpredictable little human. They are new to the world and quite disconcerted with being out of the womb. Many don’t know day from night. Most of them seek comfort from the breast and feeding.
Rather than a routine I just kept on top of feeding, sleeping and nappy changes through the ‘My Medela’ app. In the early weeks the visiting midwife likes to know how often your baby feeds for and if they have plenty of wet and dirty nappies, so having an app to record everything meant I didn’t have to use my forgetful baby brain.
Learning to breastfeed successfully is one of my proudest achievements. It was hard work in the beginning but I am so glad I persevered as it got better. Knowing that I am Rose’s only food source and she is a content baby and gaining lots of weight makes me feel so proud. Breast milk is totally free and when Rose is hungry I can offer her food straight away. The human body really is a wonderful thing.
I believe that breastfeeding is the most beautiful, natural act a mother and her baby can experience.
Breastfeeding into infancy
I have no plans to give up breastfeeding yet and I’m still exclusively breastfeeding Rose. I will wean Rose at six months whilst continuing to breastfeed. I want to take her lead, and if she continues to be happy to feed off me then I will continue to give her my milk! I’ve worked hard to get us to this point and I don’t see us stopping breastfeeding anytime soon.