All the way through my pregnancy, I knew I wanted to breastfeed for all the obvious reasons really; the health benefits for baby and myself, the bond it develops with baby, the convenience of not making up bottles in the middle of the night, the list goes on. But I I never once put myself under pressure to see it through nor get my hopes up that it would work out. I have a condition called Fibroadenosis, also known as Fibrocystic breast disease. Its nowhere near as awful as it sounds and is actually very common. Monthly hormonal changes causes cysts and lumps in the breasts. It can be very painful, some people experience no pain at all and there is nothing really that can help it. I was diagnosed with it at 16 and the only advice really given was to take evening primrose oil to help ease the symptoms. I never really found a difference when I took it so didn’t bother in the end.
At the time, breastfeeding didn’t even enter my mind. I was 16, had no intentions of having kids for a very very, very long time so therefore it didn’t concern me. As soon as I got pregnant however and started to think about breastfeeding, I was suddenly worried this could cause problems. It was a big question on my mind at our 12 week scan/booking appointment. The midwife basically said it caused problems for some women and for others it was absolutely fine. The only thing I could do would be to wait and see how it goes. So from there, I hoped I could breastfeed, but didn’t put any pressure on myself. Fed is best after all, right?
I knew of some other reasons breastfeeding may not be successful. The pain, mastitis, low milk supply, to name but a few. But the problems I encountered, I was not expecting.
My little girl is 17 weeks old today and I am so happy to report that I am still breastfeeding. However, what a challenge it has been. When Heidi was born, we immediately did skin to skin. Baby was laid on my chest and to my absolute amazement, started to wiggle her way across me towards my breast. How do they know to do this?? It really is incredible. She tried to latch, she really did, but it just wasn’t happening. The midwife assured me it was common to have a little wobble at first, that we would keep trying and she would get it. Now I must say, we received fantastic support from the midwives in the hospital. I had 4 or 5 different women in with me over the 24 hour period between Heidis arrival and us going home. But none of them could get her to latch. I was determined not to get frustrated. Patience was key I figured. So in the meantime, I hand expressed and fed my teeny tiny baby colostrum from a syringe, every few hours. The next morning, the midwife who had delivered Heidi came back on duty and was determined to get her latched before we went home. Still no luck. She was trying, she just couldn’t do it. This was the first time a tongue tie was suggested. Her little mouth was so tiny and she wasn’t being very cooperative so it was impossible to get a good look under her tongue. “I’ll phone Barbara”, declared the midwife. She is a breastfeeding specialist at another hospital. So she came back a little while later to tell us that we were simply to keep trying but in the meantime, as Heidi was only 6lb, the specialist advised us to top up with formula so she wouldn’t lose too much weight. So we combined the syringe and formula that day and headed home.
The next morning, we had our first home visit from a midwife. She too tried to get Heidi latched, still no luck. This time I was told to get pumping! I had been under the impression that you shouldn’t pump for the first few weeks until a good breastfeeding routine is established. However, this midwife made a very good point in telling me that was impossible, how would I get a good supply going if I couldn’t physically breastfeed my baby! So I got pumping and wow, there was definitely no issues with my milk supply! So although it was a little disappointing that Heidi couldn’t latch, I was just glad that I could take her off the formula and feed her exclusively on breastmilk, even if it was from a bottle.
That whole first week we had a midwife out everyday to see how we were getting on with feeding and every one of them tried so hard to get Heidi latched. The support really was fantastic. We mentioned the possibility of a tongue tie to them all but no one could get a good look. The wee woman just wasn’t cooperating. One of the midwives passed my name and number to a breastfeeding support group and a lady got in touch with tips and advice, different holding positions to try etc but nothing was working. Luckily by the end of the first week, Heidi was only on 50-60mls every 3 hours and I was able to pump 100ml from each breast per sitting so I had a load of milk in the fridge and freezer to keep us going. Then when Heidi was 8 days old, the specialist from the hospital who had recommended topping up with formula, rang to see how we were getting on. When I explained everything she asked us to come over that afternoon to see her. So away we went, I was beginning to feel that this would be our last chance. Although I had plenty of milk, I was so exhausted and pumping all the time wasn’t easy. During the night, when we did get Heidi back to sleep, I would still have to stay up for a while to pump. It was starting to feel like I would never do anything else but sterilise bottles and pump! Luckily I have a very supportive husband who helped me as much as he possibly could.
So, we got to the hospital to see the specialist. She watched what Heidi and I were doing. I was holding her right, positioning was good, baby was trying her best but could not grab on. She tried different positions, pinching my breast etc, nothing. “Lets try a nipple shield”. I wasn’t sure what to expect here. I had seen them, I had even bought them but I hadn’t got a clue how to work with them. She showed me how to simply turn it slightly inside out to create a suction, pop it on and let it go. Like a bottle teet for your nipple! And guess what…Heidi grabbed on and started to feed! I got very emotional. Ok, she wasn’t latched on directly to me, but this was the closest we had got and it felt wonderful to know I myself was feeding her. Not that there is anything wrong with a bottle, we wouldn’t have got through that first week without them. But I was so happy I persevered! I had considered a couple of times just giving up but something in the back of my mind just wouldn’t let me and I really think it was all the support I was getting. Not just from the midwives etc but also from family and friends and especially my husband.
Before we left the hospital, the specialist managed to get a look at Heidis tongue and she confirmed our suspicions. A tongue tie! Not a severe one, but enough to make her tongue movement quite restricted. She told us about a quick procedure that a local dentist could do to fix it which would then hopefully help her latch on. Although she did also say that she could eventually strengthen her tongue enough to not need it and although she couldn’t say for certain, didn’t think it was severe enough to cause any problems with speech later on. So the big question for us was, do we want to put her through that for possibly nothing?
We decided to see how she would get on over the next week, but in the meantime I was just so excited to get using the nipple shields! When the midwife came the next morning I was delighted to tell her it had been almost 24 hours since Heidi had fed from a bottle. All her feeds were going great, she had taken to the nipple shields brilliantly. As the week went on, I kept using the shields and then half way through the feed would discreetly slip it off to see if she could latch on properly. Still no luck. So we eventually decided to go ahead with the tongue tie procedure. It was an extremely quick referall, the midwife referred us one day, the next day we had a call from the dentists surgery, and the day after that, I was taking her in for her appointment. Gerard had to go back to work at this point so I was taking her in alone. I was so nervous. I had been told it didn’t hurt them but how could it not? The dentist is basically using a pair of scissors to snip under her tongue!
When we were called, we were greeted by a very friendly man who reassured me it wasn’t as horrific as it seemed and Heidi would be just fine. He had a good look and confirmed that yes she did definitely have a tongue tie and although it was a grade 3 (grade 4 is the mildest, grade 1 the worst), it was enough to cause restrictions with her tongue movement. So I had to sit in the dentist chair, hold Heidi and try to keep her arms down while a dental nurse held her head still. She was extremely upset by this which broke my heart. I then saw the dentist get closer with an instrument resembling scissors at which point I looked away and braced myself. The next thing I knew Heidi was quiet and the dentist said that was it over. It literally took a few seconds and that was it. She was more upset at getting held than getting the actual procedure! I was so relieved. We were shown into a quiet room and the dentist told me to try feeding her straight away to stem any bleeding and to not give the wound a chance to close over again. She still needed to use the shield but he assured me this was very common as she would now need to get used to this new freedom with her tongue.
We did notice over the next few days her tongue was a lot more mobile and she seemed aware of this as suddenly she was sticking it out all the time, something she couldn’t do before, but still. no. latch. I was still receiving the odd phone call from different midwives, health visitors etc to see how it was going, honestly the support was unreal, and after a few weeks of still using the shields, another specialist came out to see us at the house. She tried and tried but no luck at all and basically said she reckoned Heidi had just gotten so used to using a teet between the bottles at the beginning and the shields, that she wasn’t honestly sure if I would ever get her off them. All I could do would be to keep trying.
Heidi has had terrible reflux since she was only a couple of weeks old. After finally getting settled with using the shields, my patience was tested once again. After another sleepless night thanks to her reflux, I rang the doctors to ask for something, anything, that would help calm it down for her. The receptionist rang me back a while later to tell me the doctor had prescribed carobel. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, carobel is a cow & gate powder which thickens the milk, making it harder for them to bring it back up again. I was so tired I didn’t question it and picked up the prescription. So I got it home and realised, this was not breastfeeding friendly. The box advised breastfed babies could be spoon fed it as a paste. Have you ever tried spoon feeding a 2 month old? No way could I do this before every single feed. So I got back on the phone to the doctors and was advised if she wouldn’t take it that way, the only other option would be to pump and mix the carobel in the bottle. So we were back to pumping. Back to bottles. Only now it was ten times harder because Heidi was taking bigger feeds. So although she was sleeping better, I wasn’t because I was trying to pump between feeds to make sure there was enough milk for the next one and this was day and night! I couldn’t keep up. I used up the whole stash I had had in the freezer and couldn’t pump enough to keep up with a clusterfeeding baby! No one tells you in advance about the clusterfeeding do they?
Anyways, long story short, after a few days I rang the doctor back and asked to see him. The breastfeeding figures in Northern Ireland are so low he had just assumed I was formula feeding and that was why carobel had been prescribed. So i had gone through a nightmare few days for nothing! Omeprazole was prescribed, I could get back to breastfeeding and Heidis reflux settled down not too long after.
I was discussing all of this with my sister one day and how I would love to get rid of the shields when she said something no one else had said before. She didn’t know why I was fussing so much about not using them. If she had known about them herself, she probably wouldn’t have stopped breastfeeding in the first place. It was the first time I was stuck for words on the topic. She told me how the pain for her had been unbareable, how she had dreaded every feed, cried during every feed and in the end, mastitis had been the final straw and that was when she felt she couldn’t carry on. I suddenly realised, I had never experienced any of the pain, any of the discomfort that you hear so much about when it comes to breastfeeding. The bleeding nipples, the sore cracked skin, I have 3 tubes of nipple cream upstairs I have never had to use! Yes, I will admit, the shields can be annoying, especially when Heidi decides to mess around and pull it off when its full of milk and I have a soggy bra until I get home again! Yes, they are fiddly to use in public, especially when I’m trying to hold her, keep myself discreet and pop the shield on all at the same time. But I do wonder, is this the reason I have been able to feed pain free for so long?
It has helped me actually realise that theres no need to stress about it anymore. Yes ok, it may not be ideal, it may not be for everyone, it might be fiddly and awkward but you know what? Heidi is happy, well fed, I’m happy that shes exclusively breastfed and I am so happy that we have made it this far! 17 weeks is more than I ever thought I would achieve, especially when it just seemed so impossible at the beginning. I thought the Fibroadenosis would have caused me lots of problems but it hasn’t! If anything, I haven’t had any trouble with it at all, breastfeeding seems to have helped to calm it down. It also makes me wonder why nipple shields aren’t advised more when people are struggling? Even just to use them for a few days as a relief until your skin has a chance to heal. A friend of my sisters was also baffled when she heard I was using them. She had never heard of them and also said she probably wouldn’t have stopped if she had.
The only time I have really felt like giving up, was when Heidi went through clusterfeeding phases. I had never heard of this before. We had an antenatal class on breastfeeding, but knowing what I know now, they actually told us very little at that class. Almost all breastfeeding mums I have spoke to didn’t hear about clusterfeeding beforehand. There were days I thought I would never leave the house again. Times I thought I would never get off the sofa again. Moments when I thought I couldn’t fill my baby! Why wouldn’t she stop eating? I can’t do this!! I would stop enjoying breastfeeding completely. I would complain about it, someone would say, ‘don’t make yourself miserable, switch to formula, happy mum happy baby!’ And I admit, a couple of times it did enter my mind and I instantly felt guilty for it. Not because I disapprove of formula feeding. I don’t at all. I think I felt guilty just thinking about everything we had overcome! I had tried so hard to breastfeed, so many people had taken time to help us, I had pumped and pumped and pumped and tried so hard to succeed with latching etc. No way was I going to give up now!! I am so glad that I didn’t.
Anyone struggling with clusterfeeding please hear me when I say IT WILL END! It feels like it never will, but all of a sudden it does. My husband was extremely supportive. Heidi would clusterfeed between 5pm-11pm for days at a time and Gerard was there at my beck and call to make me tea, bring me food, chocolate, the tv remote, my phone, whatever I needed! And now, my beautiful daughter feeds every 3-4 hours for 20mins/half an hour tops. Her longest feed is at night before bed which can be anywhere up to an hour! All of a sudden I can leave the house again, I can feed her in public without worrying that we are going to be there forever.
Looking back at our journey over the past 4 months, I feel like we have conquered Everest! I realise now that I have serious determination and must be as stubborn as they come because if someone had told me how difficult that was all going to be, I may not have tried at all! I am so lucky to have gotten such amazing support from all the health professionals, friends and family. I know that isn’t the case for everyone which is such a shame! We are constantly told ‘breast is best’ and yet some areas have no support whatsoever. I am so happy that I stuck with it because there is nothing more magical to me than cuddling up with my little one and half through her feed, she pauses to look up at me with the biggest, sweetest smile on her beautiful little face. I still don’t put pressure on myself to continue however. I had initially set myself a goal of making it to 3 weeks, then 6 weeks, then Christmas. Then I said I would love to make it to 6 months and if I make it that far I might aim for a whole year! But anything could change at any time so I am just taking it one day at a time.
After all, FED IS BEST.