Why I am not exclusively breastfeeding - confessions of a nutritionist mum
This blog has been quite hard for me to write and taken me a few drafts! I sincerely hope that it helps another mum out there feel at peace with their own choice of how they feed their baby.
My First Experience
This story really starts with my experience breastfeeding my first son (now aged 2). As a nutritionist and lecturer prior to having children I taught the importance of breast-feeding. I KNEW how important it was – but I had no idea just HOW HARD it could be.
I thought I was prepared. I read books, practiced with balloons in antenatal class, but in reality I had absolutely no clue. By the middle of the second night after my first son was born, I already had raw painful nipples. My milk did come in but every feed was painful and getting worse, especially on my left side.
I tried every cream on the market, every breast-feeding position, even my midwife struggled, we just could not get him to latch properly. I was feeding semi-ok on the right side so why could I not get the left side? I remember thinking “how can I be teaching the importance of breastfeeding and then use formula? I am a woman and have boobs - the very purpose of my being - and I could not use them?” I had to just ‘keep trying’.
Day by day my nipples got worse, cracked, raw and in the end I was bleeding with every feed. I was literally feeding my son blood and it would take me at least 10 goes to latch him each time. I would lock myself in the bedroom and scream in pain to do this and my poor husband would stand outside the door helpless. My life was a blur of painful long feeds. I was doing a bit of expressing…just to stretch out gaps between feeds, to try and let the left nipple heal….but this reduced my rest time even more, especially at night. As I could not heal my nipple I got sever mastitis. It was horrendous, I would wake several times in the night (aside from feeding!) drenched in sweat from my body fighting the infection. The worst part was the only way this would clear, was to keep breast feeding.
It was somewhere around when my son was 3 weeks old. On this particular night I had not slept. Somehow between feeds and expressing sleep never came. In the early morning I had to feed (again) but I was out. I was at rock bottom. I recall looking at my husband just not able to face yet another excruciating latch and very calmly, I placed our son on the couch and said “I cannot do this, I cannot feed him, I do not want to feed him”. My husband just looked at me (lord knows what he saw) took our son and rang my best friend, who raced over.
For me when I look back at THAT moment I shudder and feel sick with guilt. It was the detachment, the lack of bond between myself and my son. The fog of post-natal depression was knocking at my door. I was beyond exhausted and feeling like a complete failure, as a mum, as a woman, and a shadow of my former self.
My mastitis was so bad that I only narrowly missed having surgery to remove the lump in my breast. In desperation we called a private lactation consultant who manually drained my breast (yes it was excruciating).To avoid surgery, I had to keep breastfeeding and we had to manually drain my left breast after every feed for three days – bless my husband, he did this every feed even through the night – nothing brings you closer as a couple then milking your wife I can tell you! - but this is what pulled me through. My best friend would also sit with me during feeds just to help support me and some-how the pain was never as bad when she was there. If it was not for the help and love from my husband, my mother in law and best friend – post natal depression would have engulfed me.
Lack of Bonding
I never got the bond with feeding my son, I never enjoyed breastfeeding, even once I had mastered it. I returned to work part-time at 12 weeks. This was my choice and something which also helped save me from post-natal depression. However, we had another fight on our hands. Firstly our son had to take a bottle and I dutifully expressed my breast milk, which took a substantial physical toll on me as well. Eventually at 7 months my supply ran dry and it was my doctor who suggested that I needed to switch to formula. A decision which I struggled with, but ultimately had no choice. If I am completely honest there was a huge part of me that was secretly relieved my fight was over.
My Second Experience
Fast-track to the birth of my second son. I was already apprehensive about feeding, given my traumatic experience of my first. It seemed that things maybe different – he latched really well had a great long first feed. However, by the second night we were already back to non-stop painful feeding. But I was NOT going to go through what I did with our first son. Not even for one feed did I want to look at our son and see pain and not enjoy him. Yes I am a nutritionist. I know inside and out the benefits of breastfeeding but my son needs ME – his mum. Above all else he needs my love and I did not want to sacrifice that precious bond.
I was still prepared to fight as best as I could. So with the support of our birthing center we started expressing on my left side while feeding on the right. I knew though that this is also not an easy choice. Expressing is NOT like it is advertised in glossy magazines. Happy, glowing mums with smiling content babies and magical pumps. What you do not see is the exhaustion of expressing. Time oh what is time? When you have the choice to sleep, shower, eat…. having to pump instead takes its toll.
Expressing is also stressful – what happens when you express and your child wakes up or is still hungry? Is the milk ok, how long has it been in the fridge for? Has some been defrosted?. Add this stress to a screaming hungry baby and your own wits frayed with sleep deprivation it is a lethal combination. With my first son I was too afraid to top up with formula and so this stress was part of every day life. But this time around I was more accepting to using formula. It is not the root of all evil. I knew that expressing while establishing feeding may result in my supply may not always be there. If using a bit of formula means my hungry new born child is feed - so be it.
The plan has been to breast feed on my right, express on my left and top up with formula when I was completely out. To make things manageable I made little goals. My first goal was for my son to have colostrum. I made that. Then it was to get to 2 weeks, then 4 weeks, now at 8 weeks I am actually very proud. I did not even think I would get to day three. My next (and final) goal is 12 weeks but already that may change, I am finding the physical and mental exhaustion of expressing is taking its toll and my milk supply is starting to drop and drop fast. I am fighting a losing battle with it and needing to use formula for most of my feeds. I have over pumped and stored milk in the freezer in the event that this would happen so that my son could at least get one breast-feed a day for as long as possible after my own supply stops.
It does amaze me that in 2015 there is such a social stigma around bottle feeding and formula. When we were at the birthing centre, my husband was feeding our son (about four days old) a bottle of my expressed milk while I slept. Sleep is like a drug to a mum with a new born baby and you do almost anything to get it. Another mum walked past my husband and said “oh he’s already on the bottle, that is far too young!”. She had no idea of our situation, circumstances or the fact it was actually my expressed milk. I am glad I was not there to hear this at the time.
Through my work and research I see children consume all manners of unhealthy, highly processed and toxic foods. Where is the judgement now? Where is the ‘vegetables are best’ signs above the lollipop stands?? Where is the legal disclaimer to sign when you give your child Coca-Cola? (You have to sign a waiver in hospital to give your child formula). Good nutrition is a life-long habit, why is there such emphasis on the first few months and then effort and to promote and encourage good nutrition is just forgotten about?
The Best Choice
I am the first to say breast feeding is the best nutritional choice for your baby. There is compelling research to support this. However, a mother’s choice to breast feed is often not as simple as this. There may be a multitude of factors at play just like in my case. I have chosen to put my son’s needs for love, and bonding first. I have also chosen the needs of my first son, who needs a mother there for him too – if I am to be spending HOURS trying to painfully feed my new-born how are his needs meet? Am I to deprive both my children of the mum they need, when there is another option? I will let you be the judge of that .…but what-ever judgement is put on me, trust me I have tortured myself about it even more.
Will I ever feel ok about using formula? No. Do I wish things could be different? Of course. This is not simply because I am a nutritionist, rather I am a mother and a mother who does want to provide the VERY best for her sons. But this is my very best and do you know what... my son is HAPPY, HEALTHY AND THRIVING, I am HAPPY and my family is HAPPY – and for me this is the most important of all.
xx Dr Julie
P.S Since first publishing this blog I was interviewed live on national television - you can view this interview here. I also have a great electronic (eBook) Breastfeeding Guide.
It is important and necessary I add a disclaimer here. I am sharing my experiences as a mother. I am not advocating either for or against formula. If you have any questions or concerns about breast feeding or formula feeding please check with your LMC or GP first.