Recently I was in communication with a TV production company who were looking for women who were breastfeeding through pregnancy and who might be interested in taking part in a documentary called Extraordinary Pregnancies. I thought it could be a fun and interesting thing to be involved in. After speaking to the producer I decided it wasn't for me, but through my conversation with her I realised that I do in fact have quite an "extraordinary" story to tell, so thought I would share it (with my own editorial control) right here on my blog.
Before I thought about having children I assumed I would probably breastfeed for six months. I am not sure where I got that figure from, I must have somehow absorbed it from the media or family and was probably related to six months being the recommended age for weaning, my mum had breastfed me and my three siblings and I had seen her breastfeed my youngest sister when I was 8 and saw other family friends breastfeed their children so for me breastfeeding was normal and something everyone did.
When I fell pregnant we did the usual round of ante natal and NCT classes. The ante natal classes run by my local health visiting team didn't cover much to do with breastfeeding other than telling us that "breast is best" and giving us a leaflet. In the NCT classes I learnt about how to latch a baby and perhaps more importantly I learnt the impact that having various forms of pain relief and intervention can have on initiating breastfeeding. I decided at that point that I wanted a natural birth without pain relief.
When "B" day finally came I was adamant that I would not be having any pain relief, although my midwife still offered me a dose of pethadine when I was in the full throes of labor. I refused the offer as I had basically brainwashed myself into believing I would have a natural birth. I am so glad I did because I managed to push my baby out without pain relief; and I can confirm it was very painful. (I am not sure whether different people tolerate pain differently, I like to think not and that I am just a hard nut.) Although the birth wasn't completely without drama, he had a low heart rate and merconium in the waters and was a little slow to get breathing to begin with so had to have a bit of oxygen. I am sure he was a little shocked and worn our after being born.
After that wonderful moment of holding my baby in my arms (you can read about it here) it was time to start breastfeeding (I had made it clear in my birth plan that I wanted to). I almost feel like chuckling to myself when I think back to it, it seems to alien now, but essentially I held my tiny new baby in my arms while my midwife grabbed my breast and pushed my baby's head onto it. I was told to wait for the gape than get him on. He had a few little sucks which seemed to satisfy the midwife and then he fell asleep. That was pretty much all he did for the next 24 hours or so while I was in hospital.
I was supposed to be checked on every 4 hours for but one check was missed and I think it might have been my saving grace because that little baby of mine wasn't feeding. The last time I had seen the midwife he wasn't interested and she began to tell me I could hand express. So passionate was I that this baby would be breastfed that I interrupted her before I even knew what she was going to say saying "he isn't having any formula," and "I am not giving him a bottle". She assured me she wasn't suggesting that and instead showed me how to hand express onto a spoon, and noted that he was a little but dehydrated. I never actually did this and we both slept on and off for about 8 hours till the morning. Suddenly I realised "gosh I haven't been checked for 8 hours" and by that point, my boy was ready to start feeding.
I am thankful I had those 8 uninterrupted hours in which I am sure my little baby was just sleeping, and recovering from the shock of being born, until he was ready, in his own time to start feeding. I later found out that babies actually have a couple of days worth of fluids and nutrients stored in their bodies after they are born.
Once we were home all seemed to be going well. As a first time mum you don't know what's normal and what's not, but I pretty much assumed everything was normal. I like to think this reflects an optimism in my personality. He fed a lot, in the day and in the night, My nipples were a bit dry, but I left them untreated and they seemed to sort themselves out after a few days. Then I was knocked for six after about 2 weeks when I contracted mastitis in my left breast. I woke up one morning feeling freezing cold and shivery, then realised my breast as extremely painful to touch. I had heard of mastitis and though this must be what it was, I was devastated. I felt so ill, all I could do was cry. We phoned the doctor and I was immediately prescribed antibiotics which duly took and thankfully within about 8 hours I was feeling about a million times better. I realised that I had been pressing my breast so that my baby's nose wasn't pressing into it, and thought that this could be what caused the mastitis. I adjusted my positioning and attachment and I thankfully never had mastitis again.
I had ups and downs though-out the following year of breastfeeding, it sometimes seemed like he was feeding all the time and I visited a Breastfeeding Network drop-in clinic and spoke to a lovely lady about my concerns. She reassured me that everything was fine and perfectly normal. So I continued breastfeeding trouble free till Boris was about 9 months old, that was when the biting began.
He grew teeth and discovered he could do things with them, like make me squeal! I was bitten so badly one time that I had a bleeding hole in my nipple which then got infected. I didn't know what to do other than just keep feeding! Many times I thought we might be coming towards then end of our journey, but in spite of the pain of being bitten it still somehow seemed easier to just keep going with the breastfeeding. There were so many benefits. It was easy to settle him, easy to get him back to sleep, there was no sterilising or washing up to do, I didn't have to think about preparing a feed for him before leaving the house, it was free and of course I knew he was still getting the health benefits of my milk, the perfectly designed proteins, enzymes, antibodies, fats, it adjusted itself according to the heat and time of the day etc etc etc, so, I kept going. The biting passed, it was just a phase, but that wasn't the end of painful feeding.
When Boris was about a year old I fell pregnant again and feeding became extremely painful. So much so that I had to do labor breathing to get through the pain. Again many would ask why I didn't just stop. Part of the reason was that I discovered the World Health Recommendation for all babies was to be breastfed for two years and beyond so I became determined that I would reach that two year goal. It was painful, really really painful. I visited a La Leche League group to seek help but there wasn't anything they could suggest, it was simply that the pregnancy hormones in my body had made my nipples extremely sensitive, on top of this my milk supply had dramatically reduced so quite often Boris was simply dry nursing, but I took comfort in the fact that he was getting small amounts of milk and even that was of benefit to him. He almost stopped feeding at one point and I remember one evening when I was trying to feed him to sleep he pulled down my top and waved bye bye to my breast! But I guess the comfort sucking was enough for him to want to keep going.
It was during this time I read a book called The Politics of Breastfeeding by Gabrielle Palmer. For me this book was a total game changer and I decided I wanted to help other mum's who wanted to breastfeed to achieve their breastfeeding goals, so I trained as a Breastfeeding helper with the Breastfeeding Network and began helping at a local baby weigh in clinic, talking to mums and helping them to overcome the problems they were having. One unusual side effect of my training was that I learnt of all the potential problems that mothers can encounter when trying to initiate breastfeeding and I became terrified of not being able to feed my second baby. It was probably because of the hormones, because I was now equipped with what I needed to know to help myself if any problems arose. However this didn't help stop me losing sleep wondering if this baby would be born with a tongue tie, or if I might have to have a c section or if for some reason I would be taken away from my baby after he was born. Thankfully these fears were never realised.
Eventually my colostrum came in and Boris had a renewed interest in breastfeeding, then
my second baby was born and after a couple of days my milk came in. For a few days Boris was in seventh heaven, even drinking so much milk that he made himself sick! Initiating breastfeeding with my second baby, Biscuit, couldn't have been more different to the medicalised experience I had with Boris. I will never forget the gorgeous moment that tiny newborn baby, its head resting on my breast, began rooting and searching for my nipple and with almost no help found his way, and latched himself on for the first time. It felt miraculous! He knew exactly what to do.
But feeding two babies came with it's own challenges.
I can honestly say that those first few months trying to breastfeed a newborn baby and a very vocal and demanding toddler were the hardest months of my life. I was never able to master the art of feeding two babies at the same time, it was always painful, I could never get into a position that was comfortable and, I hate to say this but, it felt weird. I literally couldn't stand the sensation of having two babies suckling at the same time, it made me want to rip off my skin and run away. Evenings were the hardest when my newborn would be cluster feeding and my older child would be wanting to be breastfed to sleep, my poor husband felt helpless and I spent many dark evenings alone in tears trying to figure out how to satisfy the needs of these two little humans who depended on me so much.
Like with everything else, the hard bit was a phase which eventually passed, we got into a pattern and rhythm with feeding, I decided to night wean Boris as I was struggling with getting up in the night to feed two infants which was hard, on him and me, but was what I needed to do at the time to survive, and I fed him less during the day too, until eventually it was just morning and evening, then just morning.
Fast forward another two years and I am pregnant again and somehow still breastfeeding my two children. Boris just has a bit of milk in the morning and Biscuit feeds to sleep, maybe once or twice in the night and in the morning. I know people might be asking why on earth I do it, and in all honestly it's mostly because I get to sleep just a little bit longer in the morning if I give them a bit of milk! They like it and I get to have a bit more sleep, it's win win! I also can't deny the health benefits, of course my children get the odd cough and cold, but we are yet to have to administer any antibiotics to either of them. Again the feeding is painful, and feeding has reduced, and don't ask me what will happen when the next baby arrives, because I don't know, I am just going with the flow and trying not to worry too much about it. I will undoubtedly do what I have always done which is following the route of least resistance and just muddling through. Whatever is easiest, gives me the least amount of grief and the most amount of sleep will be what I will probably do.
I never planned to be feeding a nearly-four-year-old, and never for once imagined that I might tandem feed this nearly-four-year-old and a two year old through pregnancy, it just sort of happened.
Some people might say that I have been lucky to have such as easy breastfeeding journey, and in some ways I agree. I was lucky for example that neither of my children were born with a tongue tie. I was lucky that I didn't need to have any interventions at the birth. (although I do believe this was in part due to what I learnt and taught myself about achieving a natural birth and my sheer bloody mindedness of refusing any pain relief.) I was lucky that I didn't have any issues with underdeveloped breast tissue and lucky that I was brought up in an environment where breasts were seen as something that feeds a baby rather than sexual objects and I am eternally thankful and humbly grateful for this. I know too many women who weren't "lucky" in these ways. However I strongly believe that simply saying I achieved my breastfeeding goals because I was lucky undermines the hard work, dedication and commitment that I had to put in. In those first years I never spent a day away from my babies, never a night out, or a weekend off. Those two lives were solely dependent on my being there for them, no one else. But I have to say in all honesty that it's been my privilege and (mostly) my joy, I have memories I will treasure forever and I am so looking forward feeding this next baby in a few months time for as long as we want.