Prior to having my own children, I had always assumed that breastfeeding was either something that your boobs could do, or couldn't.
In 2014, I fell pregnant with my first daughter and I made the decision to "try" breastfeeding whilst pregnant. At 26 years old and one of the first of my friends to have a baby, the only stories I'd heard about breastfeeding were from the older women in my family.
My mum couldn't make milk.
My Nana couldn't make milk.
My maternal aunties couldn't make milk.
I thought naively that women fell into one of 2 camps:
-could make milk.
-couldn't make milk.
I tried breastfeeding my first daughter, but we were unsuccessful; my milk came in on day 5 and I'd assumed up until this point that I just happened to fall into the latter camp. By this point, she was drunk on large doses of formula and I couldn't keep up with her feeds. The last straw came when I'd managed to pump a whole 4oz of breastmilk, only for it to fall into the bath.
I cried over spilt milk.
Oh, God I cried.
And that was that.
When I fell pregnant with my second daughter, Sienna, I knew this time, I was going to educate myself as much as possible about breastfeeding because we WERE going to do this. My first daughter had endured terrible reflux and a dairy allergy which had been exasperating her asthma- I read that breastfeeding could help with all of this.
I was blessed with a wonderful, informative and supportive midwife the second time and I told her how badly I wanted to breastfeed. She arranged for me to see a midwife specialising in breastfeeding at the Royal Stoke Hospital during a visit for my Anti-D jab. My partner came with me and we both got to hold a knitted boob (which we found hilarious) and we learned how to collect colostrum in a small syringe as my due date approached.
Colostrum catching didn't work no matter how hard my partner Dave and I tried, I just couldn't hand express anything at all. So we packed up the little syringes in my hospital bag, hoping that it would somehow work once the baby was born.
Sienna was born 9 days early, just like her big sister and unlike her big sister, she latched on immediately. I'd learned about the wide open mouth, positioning and how often to put her to the breast during pregnancy. I shed tears of pure delight as she suckled away at my breast as the midwife tried to tease my placenta from my womb. However, out came the umbilical cord, with no placenta attached!
This meant a stressful and consequential interruption to our all important golden hour. I was losing blood quickly and they needed to get my placenta out. The midwife handed Sienna to Dave and I was wheeled down to theatre to have my placenta removed manually. After a rather stressful ordeal, I was met by my partner and baby Sienna around 1 hour, 30 minutes later.
Sienna needed to feed as I'd had gestational diabetes and the midwife was concerned for her blood sugars. We put her to my breast, but I think that with all the stress of the retained placenta, Sienna was struggling to get any colostrum. The midwife tried to hand express colostrum, but nothing came out. Judging by Sienna's frustration at my breast and the lack of colostrum on hand expressing, we assumed that she wasn't able to extract much, if any, perhaps due to the stress of the retained placenta. The midwife then opened Sienna's mouth and confirmed a very obvious tongue tie, which she said was probably not helping things.
I agreed to allow Sienna to be cup fed some formula. Watching her lap away at that milk from the midwife was actually amazing. I'd already researched what to do if Sienna couldn't feed straight away and cup feeding emulates the motion required for breastfeeding, this avoids any confusion that can arise from the introduction of a bottle. Confusion I'd already experienced with my first daughter.
I learned during my over night stay in hospital, that giving birth on a bank holiday weekend offers further challenges. The emergency number we had been given prior to me giving birth from the in-hospital breastfeeding team was of no use as nobody was working and staff numbers were extremely low on my ward.
Luckily for me, my friend had given birth to a daughter with tongue tie a few months earlier and she was on hand with messages of support. I continued putting Sienna to my breast to initiate my milk supply and managed to convince a midwife to bring me the hospital's industrial sized breast pump to help me get things going. By the next day, I was expressing drops of colostrum, but my nipples were red raw from Sienna's latch due to the tongue tie.
Before leaving the ward, the midwife who delivered Sienna informed me that she'd had to cupfeed her twin for 10 days due to his tongue tie, but that she had managed to keep her milk supply up during this time and was able to breastfeed him afterwards.
I decided I would do the same.
On day 3, my breastmilk came in by the bucketload, I had a fantastic supply and so I swapped between pumping and feeding Sienna at the breast despite the pain I was in. At points I was in so much pain that the formula came out again, but I wasn't going to give in.
K, my wonderful midwife visited on day 3 or 4 and somehow managed to get me referred on to the breastfeeding support team in Staffordshire the following day for Sienna to have her tongue tie cut. The relief afterwards was enormous and she fed so much better. However, my nipples were black with bruising from feeding with the tongue tie and they actually told me to feed with a nipple shield for a couple of weeks as my nipples needed to heal.
Following this, Sienna became more and more lethargic and disinterested in feeding and her yellowing skin was a give away. On testing, doctors said that we needed to be referred back into hospital until levels in her liver increased due to severe jaundice. They said that I needed to feed, feed, feed which was a battle with a sleepy baby, nipple shields and painfully bruised nipples. We decided to continue cup feeding her formula on the very odd occasion when she was too lazy to latch on until she became healthy. Luckily, our stay in hospital only lasted one night and she had barely received any of the light treatment needed as she had been persistently attached to my boobs throughout the night! It seemed that this sudden urge to persistently feed had managed to cure her jaundice.
We were away then and I became accustomed to all night cluster feeding and leaking fountain nipples. I remember around 10 days in to breastfeeding and suddenly feeling like I couldn't go on. I was exhausted and emotionally drained from the amount of challenges we had faced.
I called the breastfeeding helpline that the team had given me in Stafford begging them for help because I "couldn't carry on breastfeeding." After informing them of our journey, they told me I didn't have to carry on. Nobody HAD to. I was so upset I actually couldn't catch my breath as I sobbed to them. They advised me to not breastfeed for a few hours at least and for my partner to whip out the feeding cup again and either some expressed breastmilk or some formula and for me to have a long nap.
I did exactly as they said.
After an 8 hour sleep, I put Sienna to my breast and happily continued our breastfeeding journey.
After around 6 weeks, despite still using a nipple shield, I noticed that I was in pain during feeds again. A private midwife I'd met at a positive birthing group had passed on the number to a private lactation consultant should I experience further feeding difficulties. I called Clare and she came to my house to see us the following day. She talked to me about feeding positions for big boobs and made more sense to me than anyone had when she had me lie on my back as Sienna crawled up my body and fed naturally. I'd been so stressed about positioning and yet, this "natural" position required no effort whatsoever. She then looked at how Sienna was feeding and told me she suspected that the tongue tie had returned.
Within days, we visited the clinic of the breastfeeding team again and Sienna's second tongue tie was snipped. They also informed me that if it were to return again, they wouldn't be able to snip it, but somehow, I just knew that it wouldn't.
10 weeks in to our journey and Sienna found a sudden preference for feeding without the nipple shields, I relaxed about positioning and actually started to leave the house during the day time and I realised we were breastfeeding for the long haul. I invested in some nice feeding tops and dresses and felt absolutely amazing.
Those breastfeeding hormones put me on cloud 9. It was a good job really as something still wasn't right.
Sienna was in pain and crying all the time.
I knew what was wrong. I'd seen it in my first daughter. She had reflux and a dairy allergy. Doctors advised against me cutting dairy from my diet for weeks, but I finally decided to give it a go after trialling ranitidine and gaviscon with no improvements. Within a few weeks, Sienna relaxed and seemed much happier. I joined CMPA facebook groups for breastfeeding mums and along with both my daughters, I embraced a dairy-free lifestyle so that I could produce dairy-free breastmilk.
We've had blocked ducts along the way and border-line mastitis, thrush twice and experienced the stress of returning to work and sending her to nursery.
We've overcome it all and I am proud to say that Sienna is still breastfed at almost 21 months. After all our hard work, it feels disappointing to stop now and we both love it at the end of a long day.
The bond we have despite our challenges is just wonderful and I know that breastfeeding has embraced us and helped us connect so deeply as mother and daughter. Watching her give her dolls "boobies" and to see that same comfort and pure relaxation wash over her when she latches on as when she was a newborn shows me how important breastfeeding has been and continues to be for us. I am only devastated that some of these integral services that helped us in the beginning have been withdrawn. I ache for the mums that won't get the opportunity to breastfeed because I have been them and I know how it feels.
If there is one thing I've learned along this crazy journey it's that if you want to breastfeed, most of the time you get to choose your camp and most of the time, despite most challenges you still can.