I was just thinking back to the first few months of breastfeeding my first daughter and how difficult it was. I remember it taking at least thirty minutes of latching and re-latching for her to feed successfully. I remember dreading the moment she would latch on and the searing pain it would cause. It makes me feel sick, even now, thinking about that pain. I remember feeling like an absolute failure that we didn’t even come close to resembling a mother and infant in a pre Raphaelite painting. I really thought it would come so easily and naturally but I struggled from the first time I tried.
I had tried and failed to ‘pop her on’ when she was delivered and as I clipped my brand new nursing bra back up I decided I would try again once all the midwives had left the room. As soon as they did, I made a second desperate attempt to get her to latch on. As I sat hunched over this miniature human being, a nurse breezed in to collect some paperwork and he saw that I was struggling. I will never forget how he immediately stopped what he was doing, sat beside me and adjusted us into a tummy to tummy position. He brought my left arm over in line with my baby’s back as I cradled her in my right arm. He was a real life angel and I felt so grateful that he stopped to show me. He explained how to get a good latch and so I tried again, several times. Each time she went on I would get a rush of excitement followed quickly by a wave of sadness when her latch broke. He assured me we would soon get it right and left me feeling a great deal more confident and relieved she was getting at least a few drops of colostrum.
Exhausted from four days of labour, I slept through the night and so did my baby. The last thing I can remember before I fell asleep was staring at her silhouette in the plastic bassinet in the gently lit maternity ward, she made everything wonderful. I remember feeling this incredible force that made it impossible for me to leave her side even when I had to go the bathroom. It was only when my husband arrived the next morning to take us home that he suggested we feed and change her. It sounds crazy now but it just hadn’t occurred to me to do those things during the night! She hadn’t made a sound! Little did I know then, that would be my last full nights sleep for a very long time!
The next few weeks my baby and I relentlessly worked on getting her latch right. Her mouth was so tiny, I would tickle her cheek and wait for her to open it and when it was at it’s widest quickly pull her towards me. Nearly every time her mouth would close just before she could get the right amount of breast tissue in. It really hurt when she hadn’t taken enough in her mouth and at times, out of sheer frustration I would end up trying to stuff extra in with my fingers!
I remember the awkwardness of breastfeeding in public for the first time and getting tangled in my pashmina in an attempt to protect my modesty. Although I wasn’t embarrassed, I was very aware there may have been members of the public who may have disapproved. There were a few times when we were out when she would suddenly de latch leaving me exposed or she would come off just as my let down started and milk would spray over her head onto the table in front of us.
Because our latch was never quite right I became sore very quickly. My lowest point came one day while I was in the shower, the stinging from the cuts was unbearable as the water jetted onto them. On my right side I had one really deep wound that was bleeding. I was also lumpy, swollen and feverish from mastitis. It was a gruesome sight. I was convinced the damage to my nipple was permanent and that my body was ruined, disfigured and I would never again enjoy it the way I did before I gave birth. It was the first and only time I seriously considered bottle feeding. Two very close family members had been pressuring me to bottle feed or at least mix feed from the moment I got out of hospital, they had no idea I was struggling, they were just adamant that it was better. Formula to them was seen as a luxury product and in their opinion breastmilk always needed supplementing. These were two views that my newly acquired maternal instincts were completely against. I really believed that my body could provide all the nutrition that my baby needed just as it had when she was in my womb. I just had to look at her and see that her eyes were bright, her skin looked healthy, she was gaining weight, happy and never cried from hunger. I think that was the main problem, I’d been to my health visitor about latching issues but all she did was smile and say “look at her, she is thriving!”. She was thriving but I was in agony and dreading every single feed. At that moment, in the shower, a drained, exhausted, hopeless mess, I decided I could no longer go on breastfeeding. It was too painful. I was defeated.
As I imagined the two of us bottle feeding, I remembered that I still had an emergency feeding bottle and single carton of formula that I’d packed in my hospital bag just incase I hadn’t been able to feed at all. Luckily at the moment I decided that I was ready to use it stubbornness got the better of me. It sounds extreme now but my exact next thought at the time was, “if I don’t feed my baby with the milk in my body she won’t survive. This milk belongs to her. I am willing to endure any amount of pain for my child”. From that moment, every time she latched on I took the pain, I was determined that she have what was rightfully hers. When the pain drew tears from my eyes, I turned all my focus onto my baby. I would close my eyes and deep breathe as she contently suckled drawing my blood as well as her milk. I would alternate different positions, the football hold and side by side, so that her soft tongue and not her hard top gum would rub against the wounds.
While desperately reading and watching all I could about breastfeeding I came across Lansinoh cream, (I call it miracle cream) it healed wounds without forming a scab. My husband went out and bought me a tube immediately. It instantly made feeding so much more bearable.
I couldn’t write about my breastfeeding journey without mentioning my husband. His support was incredible at this time. While I was struggling with latching, I would sometimes see him out of the corner of my eye sitting on the edge of his seat, holding his breath for every attempt we made. He would wake up in the night, hearing us struggling and gently ask ‘is she on yet?’. He never pressured me to carry on breastfeeding and he never pushed for bottle feeding. He just held my hand, reassured me at all times and showed sympathy every time I would wince in pain as she nursed. His attitude was calm and this was vital in keeping me positive about the whole experience.
I was now slathering this heavenly Lansinoh cream on after every feed and as I became more comfortable I’m sure this had a direct impact on my baby. She seemed more relaxed at feeds and as she grew she became better and more efficient at nursing.
When she was three months old I suddenly realised that we were breastfeeding with ease, there was no pain and I was popping my baby on just the way I had imagined before I gave birth. We had done it! And strangely, I was actually enjoying it. I was hooked on the rush of oxytocin every time I fed her. It made me feel warm, happy, content and above all, madly in love. I could not get enough of her. It’s such a powerful hormone that it was one of the things I looked forward to when I came to breastfeeding my second daughter and it was vital in lifting me out of some low moments that I had. I could be feeling weepy and exhausted but as soon as I breastfed I would feel renewed, full of energy and filled with love. Anytime I found myself breastfeeding, I found myself misty eyed and tracing round their beautiful soft chubby cheeks with my fingertip.
My breastfeeding experience with my first baby was very different to the one I had with my second and the one I am now having with my third. I never coslept with my first baby when she was really young, so to feed her I physically had to sit up and take her out of her Moses basket. I really cherish those memories of quietly nursing her in the glow of a night light and feeling like we were the only two people left on the planet.
Fast forward three and a half years and I’m sat here feeding my third daughter. I’m watching how much she is enjoying her milk, she makes me laugh because when she’s sleepy, she shuts her eyes and raises her eyebrows and makes it look like such an effort to draw milk. I love the way she squidges my breast in time with her gulps. I love that when she wakes at night she wriggles towards me and nudges and roots at my chest. I love that the only feeding equipment I need is a muslin. I love the look of satisfaction on her face after she’s fed. I love the warm feeling of pure love that courses through my veins with the start of my let-down. I love that when she wakes up I can always nurse her back to sleep to buy a bit more time for me to rest. I love the natural healing qualities of breastmilk and how a few dabs cleared her skin rash and a few drops unblocked her stuffy nose. I love that when my breasts feel a bit full I know she’s probably due another feed. I love that it’s a comfort for when she had her injections. I love that my let down is set off by her crying or merely a passing thought of feeding her, such is the power of nature. I love that whoever is carrying her has no choice but to hand her back to me when she is hungry. Most of all, I love that breastfeeding is something just for us to share, it’s a special time where we become physically attached to each other just the way we were when she was in my womb.
My babies grew for so long inside my body that after the birth they suddenly seemed to belong and be shared by everyone, and rightly so but as wonderful as that was, it sometimes felt like one of my limbs was being passed around family and friends. Breastfeeding was vital in reconnecting again.
I would say that the moment my babies and I became separate people was not when the umbilical cord was cut, it was when we stopped breastfeeding. I remember deciding to do the last feed and feeling ready to let go. To my fascination they just seemed to know it was time, they never again pulled at my top for milk, they seemed ready for the next phase in their life.
I’d had no control if I was able to conceive or not, no control on how my body grew and changed, no control of when the baby would come out. So being allowed to decide when we stopped feeding was the first time I was I charge of what happened to my body. It was important that I was the one to decide when I was ready to ‘cut the cord’.
The only reason I decided to breastfeed in the first place was because it seemed like the natural option, I made the complete wrong assumption that only my baby would benefit. It was the biggest surprise to find that there were so many benefits for me as well.
Another lovely surprise we had was that we were able to do some work for a couple of companies. The one I did with my first daughter I was still quite nervous about her latch. When it came to shoot with my second daughter, she was roughly eight weeks old at the time, it was a breeze.
One thing I have learnt from looking at these pictures is that sometimes breastfeeding isn’t as easy as it looks. I never ever take it for granted. I have a very faint tiny scar on my right side, it always makes me smile and reminds me of the moment in the shower and how far I’ve come on this breastfeeding journey.