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Wednesday, 15 January 2014

when breast is not best

Before I gave birth to my son I envisioned myself as some sort of 'Earth Mother'. I would use cloth nappies made from lamb's wool, baby-wear at any given opportunity, steer free from additives and preservatives and use only fair trade organic produce. I imaged myself a cliche environmentalist type.

I was adamant I would breastfeed my baby. I was certain that my body would produce his feed, his nourishment, his only source of vitamins and antibodies and all the rest. We would lay skin to skin, him latched to my breast as he gazed into my eyes and I stroked his hair and told him how much I loved him. He would grow and flourish from my own body until he self-weaned and my expectations from society as a mother would be fulfilled.

When I had to buy the first box of a-r-t-i-f-i-c-i-a-l f-o-r-m-u-l-a I cried. My God, did I cry. My baby was screaming from hunger, his throat sounded raw, tears welled in his eyes. He would not settle for Daddy. He would not settle for Mummy. No cuddles or warm baths or clean nappies was going to change the fact that my poor little boy was hungry. Daddy loaded up the sterilizer and turned it on. He boiled the kettle and poured 30ml of water into a bottle, added 1 scoop of powder and shook the bottle. He put it in a jug of cold water and we waited for it to cool.

I cradled my wailing baby in my arms and I held him close to my chest. Silent tears laced my cheeks and chin, and they flowed a salty river off of my face and onto my baby's. My poor boy, I cried. I cried and cried and cried.

The bottle cooled and as I held the teat to my baby's lips he pulled it into his mouth with a hunger I never thought I'd have to recognise. He sucked and swallowed and he opened his eyes and looked up at me with an expression that said "thank you Mummy". Not so much as a drop of milk was missed, and he gulped down the contents of the bottle in what seemed like seconds.

A few hours ago we had been at the hospital. When we were there, I read the paperwork that the Nurse left on the bed. It read: Emergency Admission. We were told to give him formula 'top-ups', or else. We were discharged after a few hours on the agreement that we would go straight to the nearest supermarket and buy a tub of formula. We did just that.

William was born a perfect 7lb 3oz. Not many people seem to work in English money these days. 7lb 3oz = 3260g. By 7 days old he had lost 11.3% of his birth weight (-368g). The health teams allow up to a 10% weight loss, and now it was time for action. He had not dirtied a nappy in 6 days, his wet nappies were barely damp and he was a horrible shade of yellow that would not have looked out of place on The Simpsons. He was lethargic and torpid. He barely opened his eyes and didn't wake himself for feeds.

When he was awake, he was screaming. He was latched at my breast and suckling with such might that my breasts were sore and nipples cracked and bleeding. I was in pain, emotionally and physically. The midwife had been monitoring his weight for a few days and it was steadily dropping. It was obvious that William just wasn't getting enough milk to sustain him from my body. My breasts were not leaking, not engorged. They were pretty much empty. Everyone made a point of telling me to up my calories; I need to be on at least 2000 a day. I did that. Mentally it was exhausting but I managed to push my eating disorder aside each time I ate for the sake of trying to hurry up my milk supply. It didn't work.

My breasts were completely dry bar the 5ml I could express every 2-3 hours that we were feeding William with a syringe in between him suckling at my chest.

I went 3 days on about 2 hours of sleep. William lay across my chest, mouth around me, squirming out of frustration and hunger. I was exhausted. I didn't want to leave the house but I forced myself to, knowing that I would completely break down if I had to sit on the sofa with my husband telling me everything will be OK, that my milk supply would come in soon, with my son breaking my arms and heart as he desperately tried to feed.

Every morning before the Midwife arrived to weigh William I was an anxious mess, begging for the scales to show an increased or even a maintained weight. The day never came until we started William on formula feed.

I slept the soundest sleep for a few hours the first night that William was fed formula. It was bliss, and absolutely worth it. His teeny-tiny tummy was full and he was satisfied. He wasn't screaming, and I wasn't crying. It had hurt so much to see him hungry. It hurt more than the pain of having to feed my baby a mixture of powder and water, that is for sure.

No one is really sure why my milk took so long to come in. My blood was tested and my Prolactin levels came back 'okay', but I was put on Domperidone to try to increase my supply. I also started to take Fenugreek as recommended. We sat skin to skin. I had warm baths, positioned a hot wheat-bag on my breasts, practiced massages and warm compressions. William became used to a rubber teat that released milk with little effort on his part, and he stopped latching properly onto me. Instead he only suckled at the nipple which I let him do to try and stimulate my breasts into producing more milk. It took 2 weeks for my milk to come in, and even when it did there was definitely not enough to sustain William.

My husband bought me an electric pump, and I hand express now too. Every 2-3hrs, as recommended. I can't produce more than 4-6oz a day. I know that how much a women can express is not indicative of how much milk a baby can pull from a breast, but even the Midwife agreed that there's absolutely no way William would be getting enough from me, even now.

I was racked with guilt when I couldn't feed from breast. I felt like a failure. I failed as a mother.

I know now that I am not a failure.

My baby is happy, he is gaining weight, his jaundice has gone. As I type this, William is laying on my lap, sleeping settled and sound. He doesn't care how gets his milk; where it's from. He only cares that he gets something from somewhere.

I still let William suckle at my breast in between feeds. It's a comfort for him, and I love the way he looks up at me. I express what I can and feed it to him through a bottle, because something is better than nothing. Formula feed is not bad for him. It's not the best - apparently. But for us, it is. If we didn't feed his formula, he would be starved by now. He would be sick and in danger. Formula feed was a life-saver; probably literally.

I tried my hardest to breastfeed, but my body decided it couldn't and so it didn't.

When I look at my happy, healthy baby, I know that we made the right decision as recommended by the Midwife and Doctors and Nurses. I know that I did what I could and I am doing what I can to produce milk from my body for my son. Everything is OK.

Breast is not always best.

At 2am when the milk won't flow and your baby is screaming through his hunger pangs and you are bawling your eyes out, begging your damn body to just work for Christ's sake - breast is not best.

When your baby is losing weight, turning yellow, refusing to wake, limp and lifeless and on the verge of being hospitalized as a result of breasts that aren't working quite well enough - breast is not best.

I'm doing OK. William is doing OK. We are sleeping and eating and growing together. We are learning and thriving, and I am safe in the knowledge that if I have to feed my baby formula, so be it.


  1. Absolutely no shame or regret needed. Formula is hardly rat poison! It's nutritionally balanced and created to be as close to breastmilk as it can. You gave it a good bash by the sounds and sometimes for whatever reason it doesn't work out, very common. At the end of the day you need to feed William and you are doing exactly that. I often ponder whether, all other things being equal, two seven year olds side by side would be distinguishable by how they were fed as a baby. My thoughts, of course not!

  2. You did fabulous! You were able to make a difficult decision, but it was *definitely* for the best! That's what matters.
    William is absolutely precious...congratulations Momma!

  3. Out of interest, why aren't you cloth diapering anymore? I think you set out on this mom journey with too high expectations of yourself.

  4. No, I didn't set out with too high expectations. I am the 1% of women who cant breastfeed. I'm not cloth nappying because we packed them away prior to William being born before we knew our house move would fall through. William was born before we moved and it wasn't until William was 6 weeks old by which time I was busy with the house and couldn't deal with washing the nappies. Your opinion really doesn't bother me. I'm doing fab.