Most things I thought about life with children have been ‘updated’ since actually having them – what’s that saying, ‘I used to be an incredible parent, then I had kids’….yeah that. I’d always been around babies and younger children since my early teens thanks to much younger sisters and cousins. I knew the realities would be different but I really was clueless when it came to figuring out what to do with our first little bundle when she arrived in the world.
One thing in particular that caught me off guard was feeding. I knew there was a lot of narrative about ‘breast is best’ for both mum and baby, and assumed that particular method would be encouraged over the bottle. A couple of friends had babies just before me, both had given breastfeeding a go in the first instance and both had ended up moving to bottle feeding (for different reasons in each case). I visited both friends in the final days of my pregnancy and came away a bit unsure about the experience I was going to have with feeding, something I hadn’t put a great deal of detailed thought into. I suddenly went from a laid back Larry about feeding ‘we’ll figure it out, let’s get some bottles in case’ to ‘I’ve set up a pinterest board for bottle feeding and been on every parenting website going about making up formula feeds’. I think about it still now and wish I could go back, give myself a hug a reassure us both that we’d figure it all out pretty quickly with virtually no internet input.
The end of my labour was very quick, I’m talking half an hour from when we got to the hospital to full splash down. She was a bit purple, I was in shock and my husband was a whiter shade of pale. We were all wrapped in a bubble instantly. Almost immediately we began our feeding ‘journey’ (please, someone give me a better word one day to describe these things!). Polly wasn’t hungry – not a status that has continued – but neither the midwife or I were accepting of that. To begin with I was full of adrenalin and was happy to keep trying to get her to latch, but that quickly went away and I was shattered both mentally and physically. I wasn’t verbalising it to anybody but I did start to worry there was something wrong or that she’d got some sort of birth trauma because of coming out so quickly followed by me wondering if I’d actually got any milk / colostrum to come out anyway. I’d heard stories of women who had taken one look at their new child and their boobs started leaking – why wasn’t that happening for me? I was trying to shake it off when a different midwife entered the room, marched over to the bed, grabbed my boob and started squeezing it pretty fiercely without so much as buying me a drink first. There was very little chit chat and I could feel the anxiety rising in me, so whilst desperately trying not to cry I made what were probably some mega puppy dog eyes at my husband who quite firmly told this new midwife to stop and give me a break. She’s the only person that didn’t make me feel like the centre of the universe throughout my labour experience, and I hope over the years since someone has taken her to one side and helped her.
We got there eventually although the fondler took her time to inform me I wasn’t producing much so really needed to keep putting Polly on every hour…yeah, that was really going to happen when I’d had 18 hours of labour and currently felt like I’d been shredded to pieces from my tummy to my knees. We did get a couple of five minute feeds before we were discharged though so I went home feeling like I’d got this. Oh how life changes so quickly! Over the following five days she was weighed loads – I can’t remember how frequently now but from the second weighing they were on high alert because she’d lost 12% of her birth weight, and it kept going up from there. The last of those early days weigh-ins resulted in us being re-admitted to hospital. I was a mess. I felt like I’d failed, I didn’t want to be away from home, I didn’t want to be by myself with this newborn I was still learning about, I didn’t want hospital food (sorry NHS, you’re amazing but your food isn’t getting any stars anytime soon) but most of all I didn’t want my baby to be prodded and poked. The community midwife who sent us back in had been clear with what to expect – lots of tests on her to check everything from weight to blood glucose and oxygen levels as well as doing her heel prick. It wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I thought it was going to be. We were put straight into our own room to wait for a doctor – I think because she was so tiny and I was scaring the children on the paediatric ward with my sallow face.
We had a couple of nights in hospital – it consisted of me transforming into Daisy the cow with the hospital grade electric double breast pump on, getting through a vat of Lansinoh (no chapping thank you very much) and a smell of milton that whenever I get a whiff of it now I will always be transported to that time. The care was incredible though – in particular a midwife called Amy. She was on the night shift so she had the pleasure of coming to wake me (and Polly) every two to three hours so I could feed, she would then cup feed Polly with my previously expressed milk while I went back on the pump and then put all the equipment in to sterilise. And repeat. She put on just enough weight to get us home after two nights and three days – right from the beginning she’s shown me she’s the boss.
The following weeks were a rollercoaster – they were always going to be with a baby to figure out but the feeding didn’t make it any easier. She was so slow to put on weight and I had to get her weighed every week for the first 10 weeks – I think their guidelines have changed since though. Each time I was so nervous they were going to tell me I wasn’t good enough or doing it properly – they never did, the worst I got was that I needed to increase the number of times I was offering to her but that was all. She never has gone above the 9th percentile in that blinking red book but she’s from a short family so I can’t see her ever being too giant like anyway.
We combination fed Polly from four months and she flipped really nicely between bottle and boob. I didn’t know it at the time but I was pretty lucky that she did – feeding with my second, Lilly, didn’t come with much choice as she refused the bottle until eight months!
I’m a firm believer in the outlook that ‘fed is best’. We’re all in it together, not to judge each other on how we get sustenance into our off spring. For some there is a choice, for others there’s no such situation and you have to go with what that baby steers you towards. Breastfeeding is permanently given the label of being the most natural thing in the world – the goods might be, but the process isn’t. It’s a new skill for the mum and the baby which unfortunately you’re learning at the same time so one can’t show the other. There are places of support but there are also places of judgement – judgement if you decide to stop, judgement if you’re not doing it ‘properly’, judgement for feeding your baby in a public place. It’s not always the comforting environment you’re longing for when child rearing.
We’ll get there one day, being accepting and respectful of each others life choices. We can do it by being open minded and coming to terms with the fact that other people’s decisions on how to feed their baby are their’s alone. I write this not because I want a pat on the back for breastfeeding or to say that’s the best way to go – I want to put these words out there so that for those that want to breastfeed but have a rough time please know that you’re doing your best, it isn’t as easy as the posters would have you believe but you can get through it whatever is on the other side – bottle, boob or a cup!