Enough is enough: when breast is not best
by Lea Cazzaniga
As a new mum, the information available on feeding is consistently a push towards the benefits of breastfeeding. No argument there: what a mother’s body produces is the natural, best food.
However, there are many reasons why a mother may not produce enough or no milk at all, or may choose not to breastfeed. I was amongst this crowd with both of my babies and I would like to share my experience in the hope that it may help other Mums who may be going through the same experience.
When the unexpected happens
With baby #1 coming into the world four weeks early, just within the range of prem and shy of being low birth weight by a mere 90 grams (in cheese terms, a sandwich-worth!), feeding was crucial. The excitement of the birth was soon dampened by a rising temperature in my little girl. I was put to work to try and nurse her, which I tried. I tried and I tried, with her opening her tiny mouth, chewing my nipples for less than a minute and falling asleep.
The call was made that I should get colostrum out by hand-expressing. Promptly, I let two different lactation consultants and a couple of nurses bruise my breasts in the hope that they could do for my girl what she and I seemed to be unable to do. Drop by drop, the often-called liquid gold came out, pinkish with blood. A 1ml tiny syringe was used to feed her, and feed by feed, we got through a day or two.
However, her temperature crept up again as her need for feeding and our mutual inability grew: I would put her on the breast only for her to fall asleep, weighing a tiny 2.2kg by now. It was then that one nurse suggested introducing a bottle to get fluids to the level she needed to fight the temperature. She was the only one in a team of a few who even mentioned the “bad” word and was shut down quickly by her colleagues.
A hard decision
My priority was to ensure my baby got what she needed so, fighting my own pride and prejudices, my husband and I made the decision to ask the hospital for newborn formula.
What followed was agonising. I can’t remember how many nurses came into our room to have a look at the baby, tell me I should persevere in my efforts to breastfeed – implying I wasn’t trying hard enough. The “Exclusive breastfeeding” sign that had been until then hanging from the handle of my hospital room was removed and my husband had to sign three, yes three, different forms giving consent for formula to be brought to our room, where it was left to us to prepare and feed our baby. This, together with the countless little comments at my decision started knocking my confidence back.
Finally at home
After five days in hospital, having seen lactation consultants and all the nurses on the ward, we left. I remember the panic at the thought of not knowing what this new chapter would bring but also the elation at leaving that time behind.
Formula feeding was going ok, with me still trying to nurse our daughter and also, by now, expressing milk every two to three hours. We even rented a hospital-grade double pump. That’s how committed I was to breastfeeding or, if not possible, to bottle feed expressed milk.
On day three of being home, my husband and I were delighted that our wee girl was sleeping up to five hours at night, a record by newborn standards. Later that day, when my midwife came to check on us, she told us to rush to Starship as our baby was suffering from jaundice. While a low to moderate level is expected in newborns, our daughter was nearing serious levels, caused by nothing other than dehydration due to low feeding.
And back to hell again
Upon admission, the first thing I heard was “Are you breastfeeding exclusively? That is key in little babies.” Bam! Another blow to my confidence.
The baby recovered after a couple of days under UV lights and more expressed milk and formula feeding but by now the physical exhaustion and mental pressure I encountered at every step was getting to me.
It all takes a toll
Back at home, my cyclical routine of half hour expressing, 45-minute feeding, burping, cleaning pump parts and bottles and sterilising, only to start again, got too much. I started suffering from suspected postnatal depression, which my midwives dismissed as baby blues.
I kept spiralling down, with now Plunket suggesting I was putting my girl’s life at risk by bottle feeding. Most of the mums in my coffee group, who are beautiful women and fantastic mums were breastfeeding successfully, complaining of aches and wake-ups, but breastfeeding, and the only one who wasn’t was very confident in her own decision to bottle feed.
After about 6 weeks of crying myself to sleep almost every night, I went to see my elderly male GP. He examined my small but thriving baby, took one look at me and hugged me, and told me just what I needed to hear: “Enough is enough.” It took six weeks of agony and one act of kindness. One person who really listened and saw me. One person who had the right words.
I felt the weight lift, both literally and physically and from that point on I bottle-fed my daughter exclusively. A new chapter was opening, a new learning curve, but one I could shape out myself. It took longer than necessary to find the right formula for her to transition to fully formula-feeding as there was almost no information available on the benefits or otherwise of the different brands and types (other than each manufacturer’s advertising) but we got there.
While I was still hurt by the icy, half-closed looks I saw when I got a bottle out at a café and sad when I saw all my beautiful friends breastfeeding their babies, I knew that I’d really given it my best shot and breast was not best for us.
We need to change how we talk about baby feeding. The war between breast and bottle is tired, tiring and leads to no good. Fed, fed, fed! THAT is the only important part of the newborn stage, feeding scenario. Information on the choices and support to all new mums, regardless of their choice and looking into their different realities is the only way to ensure babies continue to thrive and mums don’t lose their minds in the process.
If you’re a new mum struggling with breastfeeding, I understand you. And I hope you hear the right words for you.