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My Breastfeeding Journey

After researching my earlier postabout breastfeeding, I thought I would write a post about my own experience.
S was born 5 weeks early, and didn’t have the suck/swallow instinct that full term babies have. That first night, a nurse came down to the post natal ward from NICU and put a feeding tube up her nose and started feeding her formula. I agreed to it because I had no idea what was going on and didn’t want my baby to starve. They had a timetable for how much formula they would give her, increasing over the days so that her stomach expanded. Meanwhile, I was given an electric pump to keep by my bed, shown how to use it, and told I absolutely must use it for 20 minutes on each boob, every time S was fed.
The first day I don’t think I even touched the pump; it was kind of scary, and I was kind of shell-shocked. A lovely nurse came down from NICU and told me I should strip S down to her nappy and put her under my shirt, on my chest, as much as possible as it would help her in all sorts of ways, and it would help to get my milk flowing. For the next few days, a nurse from NICU would come down every 3 hours to feed S formula via her nasal tube. At the same time I would hold her to my breast so that she associated my boobs with her tummy being full. Then I would spend the better part of an hour trying to pump with this industrial-strength pump. What nobody tells you is that if your milk hasn’t come in, using a pump for 20 minutes at a time, 8 times a day, really makes your nipples hurt. You have to do it though, to make your body wake up and realise it’s meant to be producing milk.
When S was 3 days old, she was jaundiced and so they took her up to NICU to spend some time under lights. Although it was horrible, and I cried and felt awful, it was probably one of the better things to happen to me in hospital. As I sat by her little fish tank feeling a bit lost but not wanting to leave her side, one of the nurses sent me to go for a little walk and get something to eat. When I came back the shift had changed over and the new nurse asked what I was planning to do. When I looked at her with a blank expression, she got a paper towel from the dispenser and wrote me what she referred to as “a magic tissue” – a timetable for when S would be fed over the next few days, and what I was to do. Then she sent me back to the ward, telling me to get some sleep, and that if I happened to be awake at any of the overnight feeding times to come up and sit with S, and otherwise she would see me in the morning. Over the next few days while S was in NICU, I sat in a chair next to her and at feed time we would try to get her feeding. And then she would go back into her little UV-lit fish bowl, and I would pump.
When they finally let S come back down to the ward to be with me, she was still being tube fed and I was still struggling with the pumping. I don’t think anyone mentioned to me that because I was so traumatised from giving birth 5 weeks early, it was probably delaying my milk coming in. As it was, that concept never occurred to me, and I spent a few days convinced I was clearly not meant to be a mother and had made a terrible mistake in bringing this poor child into the world.  I think my milk finally came in when she was just over a week old, and the relief I felt was not something I will ever be able to describe. She still had issues with latching, and staying awake long enough to drink enough milk though, so the tube feeding continued – but now that I was actually producing some milk, we could stop the formula and start putting my milk into the tube, which I felt a lot better about. The ward staff were very supportive, if a little hands-on with my boobs, and would come in and try to help me position S in the best way and hold her properly to ensure she latched on correctly. The NICU nurses continued to come down to the ward ever three hours to feed her via tube – each time they feed through a nasal tube they have to check first that the tube is going into the stomach and not the lungs. The good thing about a baby being fed through a tube is that they remove all the air from the belly with the syringe, so S never had any wind, and was rarely sick. One evening after shift change the night-shift nurse came down to help feed S. It was a lady we’d met a few times before, and who had been really good to me when S was in NICU. I went off to the fridge to fetch some milk to put into the tube, and when I came back and handed her a bottle of my milk rather than formula, she was genuinely thrilled. We soon switched S’s feeds over so that she fed from me, and then had a small “top-up” via tube to make sure she was getting enough and wouldn’t lose weight.
Shortly after that, S pulled her feeding tube out. It was the second time she’d done it, and as she was starting to get the hang of the breastfeeding, they suggested we leave the tube out, and top up her feeds with a cup instead. We tried that a few times; it was very messy, and she didn’t seem interested in the milk. We hoped this was because she was getting enough milk from me already. When, a couple of days later, she had put on 50g in one day, we decided she was definitely getting enough milk from me, and they finally let us come home. Because she was tiny, and had been jaundiced (which makes a baby very sleepy and they may not wake up for feeds), they let us leave with very strict instructions to never, ever let S go more than 3 hours between feeds.
With this in mind, I took S home, horribly paranoid that she would lose weight and they would take her back into hospital again. The morning before we left the hospital, a midwife asked how my nipples were, and I said they were sore – so she gave me some little packets of a thing called Jelonet. This is like a little mesh that you put over your nipple, and it’s meant to make it feel a little better. I was not overly impressed, but it did make a little difference and so I took what I was given.
For the first few days, I was setting an alarm for every 3 hours to ensure I didn’t miss a feed. Any time we went even slightly over that 3 hour mark I would go into a panic, convinced I was a terrible mother and S would lose weight and then they’d take her away and I would have failed at motherhood. Night times were the worst – I would put her to sleep in her Moses basket and pass out myself, only to wake up half an hour later in a complete panic, thinking I’d slept through the next alarm, worried because I couldn’t remember putting S back into her basket and panicking because I must have fallen asleep and rolled over on her or dropped her or something. After a couple of days the midwife discharged us and the health visitor came round. She took one look at us and told me that since S was putting on weight fine, we could just leave her overnight and just feed her when she woke. Even though she was still waking every 3 hours or so, it was a massive relief to me that the health visitor thought we were doing ok! On that visit she also saw the way I was sitting to feed S and said, you’re going to be doing this several times a day for a long time… if you do it like that every time it’s going to hurt and you’ll get fed up. She showed me how to sit more comfortably, using every cushion we had available as well as a pillow off my bed (which has only just gone back upstairs), and I’ve not looked back since.
Meanwhile, my nipples were more and more painful. It got to the point that the times between feeds were spent largely dreading the next feed. Every time S latched on I would cry out in pain, and if she slipped or moved in any way whilst feeding it was agony. Quite often my crying out in pain was what caused her to move in shock. As soon as I was able to get out of the house, I went to Boots and bought some Lansinoh. It worked almost instantly, and for a week or so I carried it everywhere with me. In fact, I still have two half-empty tubes lurking around the house somewhere, and can definitely vouch for its magical healing abilities when you burn yourself on the oven because you’ve crossed the line into drunk-tiredness and should really not have been near anything hot.
One thing that didn’t help the nipples was the growth spurts – I had no idea such a thing really existed until they happened. There were a good few evenings where S would start to feed around 4pm, and between then and maybe 10 or 11pm I could put her down only to change her nappy or to quickly run to the toilet. This was a really testing time for me, being on my own in a poorly furnished flat, with nobody I could call to bring me something to eat or drink was a nightmare. I felt so alone and miserable, but luckily it didn’t last too long.
I am lucky in that I live fairly close to town; back when we were still sticking rigidly to the 3-hourly feeding schedule (even after the nights were relaxed a little) I would go out and then just rush home when it was feeding time. The first time I ever fed S in public I was with her father and we decided to be brave and get some lunch in town. We went into the Slug & Lettuce, which has a little section at the back which is usually empty, but when we got there a screen was pulled across. The manager came over and I said I’d been hoping to use the relative privacy to feed my baby. He said he had a party coming in and needed to set up, but that we could go and sit down there so long as we were gone by 5pm. He even helped carry the push chair down the steps for me, pulled the screen across behind us, and sent a female staff member to take our food order. It was still a bit daunting, but after that I had a little more confidence. The next time we went in there and S was due for a feed I was sitting there thinking that perhaps we could just eat quickly and head home, and then I peered over and noticed that the lady on the next table hadn’t just pulled a scarf around her because she was cold; she’d been feeding her baby for the last ten minutes and nobody had noticed. I have to say that since these two episodes, even if I’m visiting another town, I will generally try to seek out a Slug & Lettuce if I need to feed S.  I’ve fed her in other places, including sitting on a picnic blanket in a park one sunny day, and I’ve never had anyone say anything negative about it, but I do still feel a bit funny about it, and more often than not she is fed at home on the sofa.
S still feeds through the night. On a good night it may only be once, and then an early morning wake-up. On a bad night, when she’s not feeling so well for whatever reason, it can be 4 or 5 times. At first I would sit up, switch a lamp on and read a book while I fed her. Then I thought I’d just try feeding her lying down and see what happened. Now she sleeps in a grobag next to me in bed, and night feeds are really no big deal; I barely even wake up for them.
I have shared my story in the hope that other people can see how a situation that seemed quite hopeless and depressing to start with can be turned around and actually become a success story. By the time S was 6 weeks old her feeding was fully established and she was doing really well. I really think I was lucky to have stayed in the hospital for so long (even though it nearly finished me off mentally), to have so many people around with so much experience; whenever I tried to feed S, if she couldn’t latch on or kept falling asleep or we just weren’t getting on too well I could press a button and one of the ward staff would come and help me. The NICU nurses were truly amazing and helped in ways you couldn’t even imagine. I remember one day when we’d just been told yet again we couldn’t go home and I was in floods of tears when a lady came down from NICU for feeding time. I don’t remember everything that she said, but I know she made me feel so much better about my situation and helped me to learn to feed S laying down so that we could both get some rest together.
At first, when people would ask if I was still breastfeeding, and when I said yes they would say “oh well done!” I would think what are you on about, it’s not some major achievement; I’m just feeding my baby. While I was writing this week’s posts though, I went back and thought about my own experience, and also looked into other people’s experiences, and actually I do feel quite proud of myself, and proud of S. And we did it on our own; her father left when she was 3 weeks old, but even before then he wasn’t really around enough to make a difference. S will be 6 months old next week, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the way things are going. Breastfeeding has given me a massive sense of accomplishment that I don’t think I would have if she’d been formula fed, or if I’d changed her over to formula when things became difficult. I am so lucky not to have had to deal with things like mastitis or blocked milk ducts, or this may well be an entirely different story.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy this post: 10 Reasons Breastfeeding Is Better Than Formula

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Vicky is a mother, a blogger, a podcaster and a social media trainer. She writes about life as a single mother, parenting and lifestyle type things.

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