Breastfeeding – our story (crying, cabbage leaves and combination feeding)

breastfeeding post August 2017

Over the last few days my Instagram feed has been lighting up with the #worldbreastfeedingweek hashtag. I’ve wanted to share my experience of breastfeeding for ages now but have managed to put it off as work and family life ‘got in the way’.

I’m not always one for sharing something so personal in a public space, but when I was deep in the trenches of newborn feeding, I was desperate to know the experiences of others – to hear the honest truths about it. And if I couldn’t share our story during World Breastfeeding Week, then when? So, two and a bit years later, here goes…

Jennifer with Evie

As we are today, two and a bit years later.

Be warned, this is a long post, so if you just want the synopsis…over the next few hundred words, we’ll cover; a premature baby, lots of pumping, supplementing with formula, exclusive feeding, engorgement, tears, cabbage leaves, fenugreek, lactation cookies, tears again, combination feeding, and some more pumping before finally stopping completely three and a half months in.

My thoughts on breastfeeding while still pregnant

When I was pregnant with Evie, my attitude to feeding was: I’ll try it, I will do my very best to make it work, but I won’t beat myself up too badly if it doesn’t work out. Nice attitude and approach, in theory.

But I guesss what I hadn’t factored in was an early arrival and the sheer overwhelming experience of being a first-time mother.

At 31 weeks and 5 days, my waters started to go (PROM – pre-term rupture of membranes) and I found myself enjoying an extended stay in hospital. Having had a fairly uneventful pregnancy up until then, all of a sudden I wasn’t leaving hospital until the baby was born.

Thankfully, she hung on until 35 weeks and 2 days, and came out screaming at a healthy 5lb 5oz. Apart from a short stay in an incubator for a few hours after she was born, she was perfect and didn’t need any additional care.

During my little ‘holiday’ of just over 3 and a half weeks waiting for her to arrive, the hospital staff were brilliant. I was encouraged to attend breastfeeding classes where the mid-wives were amazing. As everything was pointing towards a premature baby, they went through all of that too – the value of breastmilk to tiny preemies in particular, the importance of pumping every three hours if the baby isn’t with you and feeding directly from you along with the practicals of using and cleaning a pump. They were never pushy, only encouraging and I can’t say enough good things about them.

My early experiences with feeding once she arrived

The plan was for a scheduled c-section at around 37 weeks, but determined to make an early arrival, our little miss came into the world on her own terms. No waiting for a scheduled section date for her, she decided she was coming with a bang on a sunny Saturday morning in May. One emergency (yet calm) section later, she was here and before we knew it, we were in recovery and she was having her first feed. She latched on like a little champ. It was all very calm and serene. In fairness, I was also pretty high on pain meds.

For the first few days, we fed, we introduced her to family and we stared at her in awe. I remember every time I’d wake up to see her there and just couldn’t believe it. But, let’s face it, there were also tears. Hormones, they’re not to be underestimated.

But feeding wasn’t going great, she was so little and struggled to stay awake to feed. My milk still hadn’t come in either. The midwives suggested supplementing with formula. I know not everyone agrees with this, but she needed to be fed, so I was absolutely fine with this. It would only be another day or so until my milk would be in and I could feed and pump to get supply up. In the meantime, we still breastfed and she got some of the ‘liquid gold’ that is colostrum.

Around day 3, my milk was starting to come in and we were ready to pump to encourage supply and to get some breastmilk into our little pea. The midwife in charge despatched my husband to the chemist beside the hospital, where he promptly returned with the milking machine (the medela symphony). At around €100 a month rental, hospital grade pumps are so worth it if you need help kick starting supply. However fits of giggles with c-section stitches as you hook yourself up for the first time are not recommended!

Things got a little easier from here on in. Pumping was a relief and didn’t hurt, unlike feeding my little cherub (who in fact was not so cherubic like at all, and really teeny tiny and bird-like). So we started a routine of feeding straight from the breast, topping up with breastmilk if available, swapping in formula where necessary and then me pumping again. Then I’d go sterilise the equipment to be ready for the next round. When you’re on a three-hour cycle and you’ve just had major abdominal surgery that is a c-section, it didn’t leave a whole lot of time for sleeping. But, that’s what we did and it worked for a while.

Five days after she was born, we were home and continued on like this. Our alarm was set every 2 and a half hours at night to do this routine. As Evie was premature, for the first while we had to wake her to feed her to make sure she was getting the nutrients she needed. For the first two and a half weeks or so, this routine was fine, tough but fine. Paul was still on leave from work so we could tackle it all together. Things got a little tougher though when Paul went back to work and Evie started to stretch out her sleeps a little at night yet I was still having to set the alarm to pump. The almost super-human adrenaline that had kept us going during the early days had disappeared and exhaustion was setting in.

All of the advice I got was ‘keep going, keep going, pump more, she’s latching well’, but it was so painful and my resolve was starting to fade. As awful as it sounds, I started to dread feeding time coming around. The pain I felt when she latched on was excruciating and the huge rush of anger that came with the letdown (hormones are mad) were a lot to take. Her stamina for feeding from me wasn’t really improving either. She generally fell asleep mid-feed. The poor child was tickled with I don’t know how many damp cotton wool pads to keep her awake while feeding.

Once Paul had gone back to work and I was ‘on my own’ with her the whole routine of feed, top-up, pump, sterilise became beyond exhausting. In reality I wasn’t really on my own, my mam was an amazing help, but she did have a job to go to and her own life to lead so there were hours and days where it was just me and Evie looking/crying at each other. I also felt that I ‘should’ be able to handle it all on my own.

We had good days and bad days, but we continued on.

Making the decision to combination feed

For 5 and a half weeks, Evie got breastmilk almost exclusively with the exception of the early formula top-up days, but there was a breaking point where I just couldn’t keep up the routine anymore. I was exhausted, yes, but that wasn’t it, I was in pain. I kept getting engorged, really badly to the point where I could barely move my arms let alone hold a baby. On top of the feeding cycle, there was now often a new element that involved cold (to reduce inflammation) and hot (to stimulate milk) compresses with the odd cabbage leaf on the boobs thrown in. By the way the cabbage leaf remedy really does help – don’t knock it til you’ve tried it. The best cure for engorgement though was getting the baby to feed, which was excruciatly painful but did help. When it was really bad, pumping, even with a hospital grade pump produced not a drop. It was not a whole lot of fun.

So what was the breaking point? 

About 5 and a half weeks in, I got really badly engorged again. As Evie slept on me and I sat on the couch in awful pain, trying to pump and producing nothing, I rang one of my closest friends. That call changed everything. There was no direct advice of ‘just stop if it’s so hard’ or ‘keep going, it will get better’, we just talked and it all came tumbling out. The upshot of the call was that I realised that I wasn’t really enjoying my daughter as the routine of feeding had become so all-consuming. So I made the decision to ease up on breastfeeding. I would exclusively pump (using the medela swing now, the rental had gone back), but also stop setting alarms throughout the night to do so. I had thought of stopping breastfeeding many times, but would never give myself permission to. I really wrestled with the thoughts of my daughter not receiving the benefits of breastmilk. Everyone around me, especially my husband was very supportive, but the decision had to come from me. The reality of this decision meant a move to combination feeding as my supply would naturally dwindle over time due to the baby not feeding directly and me not pumping every three hours, including throughout the night.

The drop in my supply was gradual but little by little, more formula was introduced. By the time Evie was three and a half months, my supply had dropped so low that I would pump to only get a few mls of milk. I tried in vain for a few days to increase supply but finally I had to accept that it was the end of the road for breastfeeding (or the feeding of breastmilk through a bottle) for us. It was really hard and I felt terribly guilty – why is so much guilt attached to breastfeeding? But my baby was healthy and I was so much happier. Truthfully, I also felt relieved.

I worry that if I hadn’t made the decision to ease up on the feed, top-up, pump, sterilise cycle when I did, that I would have slipped into quite a dark and gloomy place. Our daughter needed a mother who could be there for her emotionally as well as physically and the change in feeding from all breast milk to eventual formula-only feeding was what was right for our family at the time.

Would I do things differently?

Of course, but hindsight’s a wonderful thing isn’t it? There is always the niggling thought in the back of my mind that I should have tried harder. But I did try hard. I tried every suggestion thrown my way. The rational part of my brain knows that there was no quick ‘throwing in of the towel’, but that’s doubt for you.

In a few months time, we’ll have a new little addition to our family. I hope that I have learned a lot from my first experience but time will tell. One thing that’s for sure is that if feeding troubles brew again, I’ll call in a good lactation consultant earlier…

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